Symbiosis 4 – Back to the heritage

Roots Of The Symbiotic Architecture
Ksenija Bulatović, Ksenija Bunjak, Saša Naumović

We live in the time of constant changes that are shaping all aspects of our existence, defining its boundaries. Changes and the civilization progress have followed human history from the very beginning. Industrial revolution and the era of technological development brought along rapid changes, providing new insights regarding the understanding of time and space. Spatial aspect is related to the idea of place or locus, and by that to the term local. Locus and localis construct general changes, but are in the same time defined by those changes.

In his book “Place – a Short Introduction”, Tim Cresswell brought the interpretation of Yi-Fu Tuan who supported the idea that an unidentified space could become a place once we recognize it, identify it and appoint certain values to it. Place always has a local character, while space represents a more global term which defines the place and is defined by it in the same time. If we see space as a fluid, as something that allows and provokes movement, that places could be understood as pauses. Pauses in the movement define the place (Cresswell, 2009), yet we cannot consider it a static phenomenon.

Today, places are stages of everyday life, neutral and invisible at first. Still, their neutrality is only an illusion. Places affect the quality of life. They are not static nor represent a motionless polygon of social relations. Place is not “an architectural model, Geographic Information System (GIS) map, census tract, Google Earth image, nor cyberspace” (Sutton, 2011: 1). It is rather a dynamic process that maintains social structures, “embodies cultural norms, identities, and memories; expresses ecological values; and plays a role in creating and sustaining people’s sense of self” (Sutton, 2011: 1). Therefore, place is changeable and is defined by the individual or group experiences. On one hand, it marks a specific point in space (geographical coordinates, etc.). On the other hand, place can also be explained by the local identity – it is defined by the people and their relations, by physical structures, natural characteristics, etc. A place will exist only when we connect our emotions, memories and experiences to it.

If we change our dynamic, needs or emotions or if we create new memories, we’ll as well change the notion of the place. Known physical structures are static and they hardly follow the ongoing changes.

At the previous STRAND conferences, authors have presented the idea of Symbiotic architecture as a response to the constant changes, both local and global. As pointed before, Symbiotic architecture stands for the co-life of three elements: man, house and environment. Here home goes through the whole life cycle – it is born, it lives and, eventually, it dies. After a man ends his existence, symbiotic house returns to its origins – nature. Symbiotic architecture restores and strengthens the relationships between man and home, man and nature, man and society. The main characteristic of the Symbiotic house is the protection, a transformable response to human needs, natural and social context (Bulatovic, Bunjak, 2013). It is adaptable to every change of place (whether physical change or a change in our perception of the place), the moderation of dynamics or switch of users’ needs. Symbiotic architecture by itself doesn’t create a place – it represents a changeable unity with it.

Today, the interest for the traditional local identities is increasingly present in different discourses. Globalization, as one of the products of contemporary society, according to Anthony Giddens is a consequence of modernity and is related to the reinforcement of social relations that connect distant localities. Local activities are influenced by the wider events and vice versa. Robertson also asserts that the cosmopolitan would not exist without local (Robertson, 1994). Therefore, globalization can be understood as a reason for the revival of local cultural identities (Giddens, 2002).

Even though the traditional architecture does not have a transformable and adaptable form, it was in its time created according to the local environment and knew how to respond to certain changes (e.g. adaptation to the seasonal climate changes). We still haven’t developed technologies to support Symbiotic architecture leaving it, for now, on the level of ideology. In order to better understand possibilities within the Symbiotic architecture and strengthen it in the theory, authors believe that looking into the traditional rural architecture heritage is essential.


Architecture and the term local have always been closely related. Architecture can be seen as a way of creating a place or as one of the elements that we use to recognize, identify and determine specific surrounding. It can provoke memories, emotions and experiences that form a relation between an individual and a place. In the same time, architecture is a product of that place, a reflection of intermediate environment and cultural milieu. Architecture, especially traditional architecture, represents a man’s response to his own needs and given context. Term traditional local architecture implies that something is familiar and recognizable. It had been created under the influence of unique characteristics that define its location or place – physical characteristics, climate, economy, social conditions, culture, historical circumstances, customs, religion, etc. Once created, that kind of architecture becomes a part of the environment continuing to build a place and its local identity.

It is not rare for the local architectural identity to become widely known and accepted. We can refer to it as a general, collective knowledge. Following this idea, a man would always relate the form of igloo or pyramid to the specific place and its characteristics (climate, physical, cultural etc.) even if he had never experienced it personally. We call it a “global experience” based on the local characteristics.

As the authors pointed out in the previous research, architecture histories prevailingly studied the monuments dealing, firstly, with the characteristics such as different, new or rare. Ideas that had provoked the changes and had moved the limits of esthetical norms have a significant place in important books of history. Yet, it is common knowledge that the built environment was never a product of monumental architecture, but rather a result of traditional and vernacular architecture.

As a construct of human reality defined by time and space and based on both material and spiritual human needs, architecture has a significant component of utilitarianism. Regardless to its basic (primary) or acquired (secondary) purpose, architecture is in its roots pragmatic (Bunjak et al., 2011). It represents human needs and habits and stands for a specific axiological pyramid of social relations in a certain époque. Past and present architecture reflects social systems and cultural values of its time (Arnold, 2002). Architecture work is, or at least can be seen as both work of art and historical artefact, and has, therefore, its place in both esthetical and narrative sphere of human history. As a work of art, architecture artefact allows esthetical evaluation. As a historical artefact, work of architecture is expression of its époque allowing analysis for further research of human history, cultural norms etc. (Bunjak et al., 2011). This aspect can be directly recognized in the traditional architecture.

It is common knowledge that through the history traditional architecture followed the requirements of the local environment and was created in accordance with them. Discussing traditional architecture, Rapoport emphasizes the difference between the grand design tradition and the folk tradition (Rapoport, 1969). Unlike the grand design tradition where the form often indicated the importance of the patron, folk tradition and its form reflected a specific culture, human needs and values. Folk tradition represented the “ideal” environment seen through the architecture of buildings and settlements and achieved without architects (Rapoport, 1969). Folk tradition distinguishes primitive and vernacular architecture. Primitive building practice is related to the actions of societies defined as primitive by anthropologists according to their technological, economical and social development aspects. Vernacular architecture is harder to define. One of the ways is through the process of its designing and building. Vernacular architecture brought along the first building tradesmen and the limited number of house types that varied according to the local factors. Society was familiar with the design types and building methods and actively participated in the “design” process. Rapoport defined this act as “preindustrial vernacular” (Rapoport, 1969). From the perspective of current discourses, accumulated social experience and knowledge about natural processes, local conditions, building techniques and methods, make vernacular traditional architecture an important base for defining environmentally responsible contemporary architecture design.

Traditional architecture is, firstly, related to the natural environment. Rural areas are the places where we can still feel the connection with the spatial context. Natural conditions such as relief, climate, terrain configuration etc. guided the builders. Nature provided building materials that determined construction types, and along with other, previously stated, elements determined possible forms. From the viewpoint of present values, traditional architecture is considered to be both sustainable and ecological. It pointed out the needs of rural population and became a reflection of the primary activities and the way of living. The main aim of traditional architecture was to provide its users the easiest way for fulfilling the basic individual and collective needs. Socio-historical and cultural factors such as prevailing social system, cultural interconnections, wars etc. left their marks as well. Architect Branislav Kojic provided an example regarding the change in the family structure. The switch from the large family collective with the 10-20 members to the single family with 5-7 members in Serbia, brought along the changes in the form and structure of the house (Којић, 1973).

Traditional architecture sheds the light to a certain moment in history, to its residents, their habits, needs and activities, economical status, customs, religion, social relations etc. Understood like this, traditional architecture becomes more then architecture – it becomes a specific cultural fact and an important part of heritage. It is a testimony of an époque providing us with the knowledge yet to be apprehended and accepted.

Therefore, in the search for the inspirations and historical explanations of the Symbiotic architecture, the authors have undertaken a large research of the traditional rural architecture practice, focusing their research ground to the territory of Serbia.


The author Ksenija Bunjak along with the architect Mladen Pesic have started the project “Serbian Village Atlas” with the main purpose of identifying similarities and differences between rural areas in Serbia, their local uniqueness, strengths and weaknesses and providing informational database for future researches on various subjects regarding villages and rural areas in Serbia.

The introductory part of the Atlas is dedicated to the methodological analysis and village evaluation and is presented in the form of tables called village passports. Village passport was created after a long theoretical research work in the area of ruralism followed by the intensive field work – conducting surveys and interviews and observing the current situation in the villages of Serbia and EU. The passport has six parts: general information, information regarding physical geography, typological characteristics, information regarding economical geography, demographical characteristics and housing types. It also contains village description, map and photos and a specific SWOT analysis (Bunjak et al., 2013).

This methodology was used as a starting point for the research of traditional rural housing that the authors of the paper conducted.


As a result of the work on the “Serbian Village Atlas” project and the research of traditional rural architecture and its heritage, the authors have published the book regarding a specific case study “Žitorađa Municipality: Old Rural Houses and their Typology”. It is the first book from the edition “Traditional Rural Architectural Heritage”.

Prior to the writing, the significant field work and theoretical research had been conducted. The first part of the book discusses ruralism in Serbia and provides information regarding both wider and local contexts of the Žitorađa Municipality, located in the south-east Serbia. The second part focuses on the rural heritage – traditional houses and their specific typology. Field work showed that the houses considered as heritage belong to two periods – houses built from 1815 to 1920 and the houses built from 1921 to 1945. Based on the collected data, traditional rural houses were divided into seven types according to the housing forms and period of construction: houses built between 1815 and 1920 with added porch; houses built between 1921 and 1945 with added porch; houses built between 1815 and 1920 with added porch and reconstructed between 1921 and 1945; compact, one storey houses built between 1815 and 1920; compact, one storey houses built between 1921 and 1945; compact, two storey houses built between 1815 and 1920; compact, one storey houses built between 1815 and 1920 with stone roof.

As joint characteristic of all types, careful following of the contexts, local conditions and dwellers’ needs can be considered as the most important. Houses reflect natural, economical, social, historical and other requirements and were adapted to the specific needs of its inhabitants.


We have pointed the reasons and the importance of researching traditional rural architecture within the Symbiosis project. Between traditional and Symbiotic architecture a number of parallels can be drawn. The basic similarities can be found in the relation that house, or better, home has with its surroundings. Traditional and Symbiotic house share the same reasons for their occurrence, follow the same or, at least, similar principles and stand for the same values. They’ve both emerged from the basic human need for protection from the external influences and are directly or indirectly focused on ecological, environmental, social and economical aspects of the surroundings.

Besides providing a shelter for its users, Symbiotic house stands for the transformable response to any change in the out- and indoor environments. It adapts easily and doesn’t have a form in the conventional understanding of the term. On the other hand, traditional rural houses also had an adequate response to the changes in the near surroundings. For example, traditional rural houses were built in a way that they seasonally change their behavior according to the climate influences (they will passively heat during the winters and cool during the summers). The difference here is in the dynamics and frequencies of change. Symbiotic house would change immediately according to the impulses from nature and inhabitants. Traditional rural house needs time to undergo the changes and can, therefore, be seen as “frozen” object in time and space unlike the constantly dynamic Symbiotic house.

As mentioned earlier, Symbiotic house has its lifecycle. It is born with the man, it lives and eventually, it dies when a man ends his existence in this house. Here we have noticed similarities with the traditional rural architecture as well. Following the needs traditional house is “born” – build for a man. It lives and it’s being changed by its inhabitant. Once a man ends his existence, traditional house will also “die”. Abandoned rural areas and houses no longer in use support this interpretation.

Rural community has a specific collective thought. Every person, of course, has its own individuality, but is also influenced by the traditions and customs of its family, village, region, etc. The rural areas are also more homogenized then the urban ones. This might be the most important difference between traditional and Symbiotic architecture. While traditional can be more homogenized and is led more by the collective opinion, Symbiotic house responds to the personal needs pointing out different individualities.

Still, we can conclude that traditional rural architecture represents important roots for any research of architecture and forms a valuable information basis for the further research of Symbiotic architecture.


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