A Lesson from the Aleutians – The Brilliance of Vernacular Design and Construction

The book Steller’s Island is the account of a Russian ship exploring the coast of Alaska in 1741. The ship carried the first scientist to ever visit that part of the world, Georg Steller. In addition to performing an amazing study of the flora and fauna of the area, he also learned from the indigenous people ways of living that saved the life of the team several times. Among his observations include detailed account of the kayaks, or iqyan, that the Aleutians used.

Drawing of Steller's Sea Cow.

Image via Wikipedia

The kayaks were fundamental to the survival and well-being of the local people; fat from marine mammals was crucial to their survival. Without dependable access to the sea they could not have flourished. Over time they learned how to construct their kayaks in a way that emulated the sea lions as closely as possible.

They were about the length of a large Steller sea lion bull, and sea lions skin were used as the outer membrane of the kayak. The frame inside the skin cover was almost literally a skeleton, and the connective tissue that held the skeleton together was sinew from sea lions and other marine mammals…The iqyan were sleek and supple in the water, like sea lions. The flex of the elastic frame and the skin cover allowed the kayak to absorb and transmit the force of Aleutian storm waves through the entire length of the boat, protecting it from breaking up in seas that would destroy a rigid boat….”

This is a fascinating observation of the human ability to adapt, emulate, learn and improve to survive in nearly any environment. Through development and experiments across generations, the Aleutians developed nearly perfect sea craft for their particular need and environment. According to evolutionary theory those who have traits and adaptations that allow them to survive in a given environment will allow them to pass of there genes to future generations, while those who cannot adapt will be selected against and eventually die out. These kayaks had traits that were positively selected for because they worked. Similarly, those who elected to use and continue to improve those kayaks had an advantage in the environment and had higher reproductive success.

In our modern world we have insulated ourselves from many of the selective forces that our ancestors faced. Developments like mass production and industrial farming have eliminated much of the need for us to adapt to our particular environment. These developments as well as large infrastructural projects have made resources ubiquitous across the landscape. We no longer have the responsibility or necessity to adapt our architecture and our lifestyles to our environment. In many ways this has helped us over a hurdle in the game of evolution, and supported unprecedented rates of economic and population growth. But something is lost.

We build, and we build a lot. But many projects are bland and run-of-the-mill. They may be functional and economical, and serve their purpose for the occupant, but offer nothing else. They lack the ingenuity and environmental and cultural connections of the Aleutian kayaks. They lack the ability to delight. Perhaps this is why we can be so powerfully struck today by exemplary and rare projects. We can immediately tell that they were designed not with numbers and bottom lines in mind, but designed for the people who would use it, and delight in it, year after year.

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