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The Deep Truth of a Sheltering Roof

The roof plays a primal role in our lives. The most primitive buildings are nothing but a roof. If the roof is hidden, if its presence cannot be felt around the building, or if it cannot be used, then people will lack a fundamental sense of shelter. - Christopher Alexander
Traditional farmhouse from Løten, Norway.

So, the question is, why not? Why does this taboo exist? What is this funny business about having to prove you are a modem architect and having to do something other than a pitched roof? The simplest explanation is that you have to do these others to prove your membership in the fraternity of modern architecture. You have to do something more far out, otherwise people will think you are a simpleton. But I do not think that is the whole story. I think the more crucial explanation -- very strongly related to what I was talking about last night -- is that the pitched roof contains a very, very primitive power of feeling. Not a low pitched, tract house roof, but a beautifully shaped, fully pitched roof. That kind of roof has a very primitive essence as a shape, which reaches into a very vulnerable part of you. But the version that is okay among the architectural fraternity is the one which does not have the feeling: the weird angle, the butterfly, the asymmetrically steep shed, etc. -- all the shapes which look interesting but which lack feeling altogether. The roof issue is a simple example. But I do believe the history of architecture in the last few decades has been one of specifically and repeatedly trying to avoid any primitive feeling whatsoever. Why this has taken place, I don't know. Christopher Alexander
This is a modernists taboo, after 100 years of modernism they still suffer from a severe phobia for pitched roofs. Could any fancy-full ego-form make these houses resemble more with the surrounding mountainous landscape? The picture is from Evanger, Norway.


Today too many within the "green movement", even within the permaculture movement, have been bitten by the monsters of modernity. To be "creative" means in this worldview to contradict what feels natural, the simplest of all, the pitched roof. Here we are by the deep truth of a sheltering roof, it's the simplest thing to do in the whole universe, and thus it's the most natural thing to do. Nature never makes anything out of creativity, just out of simplicity, and this is why nature can be so complex. A natural system that did not should collapse!

Try to imagine this old Norwegian forest farmhouse with a butterfly roof. It drives you crazy, doesn't it?

In early times the city itself was intended as an image of the universe – its form guarantee of the connection between the heavens and the earth, a picture of a whole and coherent way of life. Christopher Alexander
For Christopher Alexander this is wholeness. For Peter Eisenman it is a fake.

What we have not been able to get at yet is that it is possible to project a totally different cosmology that deals with the feelings of the self. Alternative views of the world might suggest that it is not wholeness that will evoke our truest feelings and that it is precisely the wholeness of the anthropocentric world that it might be the presence of absence, that is, the nonwhole, the fragment which might produce a condition that would more closely approximate our innate feelings today. Peter Eisenman
Peter Eisenman is a nihilist. In a nihilistic world there is no wholeness, it's just the self. The 20th century became "The Century of the Self". The success of consumerism was fulfilled when the industry, through advanced psychological techniques, made everyone to feel "unique". There were no more any other "wholeness" than the self, where the world is a nonwhole expressed through each persons ego. When all peoples needs were fulfilled, the only way to continue growth was from turning the economics and our society from needs to desires, and the strongest tool to use was human desire for uniqueness, the self.

After community was broken and fragmented through the modernists separation and segregation ideals, the only thing left was individuality, and humans were easily manipulated to feel "unique" through the products offered them by the industry. Modernist architects made an unholy alliance with industry to preach uniqueness through their architecture, to boost consumerism. Students of architecture are still drilled to keep this wheel rolling.

But not only community fell apart in the last century, even the perception of God did. From Freud and the psychoanalysis God was understood as a mother's substitute, and was experienced as suppressed sexual feelings. Thus, to free the self, the idea of God had to be abandoned.

Alexander's understanding of God is very different, he sees God as an evolved expression of wholeness.
A world in which there is something to believe in – not a religious thing – but a believable vision of God as the unity behind all things which guides us and impels us to act in certain ways. God not conceived of as a construct of any organized religion, but as a fact of nature and its wholeness. Christopher Alexander
With the collapse of community and God there were nothing left than the self, and thus everything will unavoidably become an expression of the ego, as there is no higher expression left in the world than the self, the ego. And this way the whole was destroyed.

Peter Eisenman won the 20th century, not Alexander, and this is no wonder as both God and community had lost their value when Alexander entered the stage. For Eisenman there is no reality, a nonwhole, while for Alexander reality is wholeness, like God. All that the starchitects buildings say is; Look at me, look at me! While Alexander's buildings say there is no me, as I'm part of the whole, and the whole is parts which only purpose is to create strong wholes. All expressed in Alexander's theory of centers.
Traditional religious texts are founded upon morality stories that help humanity to see beyond the limitations of human beings existing as animals or purely subjective beings. But none of this is ever incorporated into architectural teaching today — which still turns to the same peculiar handful of (Western) philosophers, relying upon them to justify “architecture for architecture’s sake”. Judging by how inhuman its forms are, the driving ideology is purely nihilistic, even as it serves global capital.  
The separation between nihilism and humanism is total and uncompromising, however. We have to choose very carefully which philosophers, and which texts to offer students for their reading assignments. A school cannot abrogate its responsibility by teaching architecture as a set of self-serving beliefs.

In the twentieth century, architecture became a mass movement under the influence of leading architects who exploited specific philosophical texts to support their ideals and to promote themselves. Architecture detached itself from any higher order in human existence, turning away from both nature and from the sacred. It was the first time in human history that humans began to intentionally create unnatural structures that are uncomfortable to inhabit and to experience. - Nikos A. Salingaros & Kenneth G. Masden II
Further architecture up until our time was a generative process, fundamentally different from the mechanical process practiced today. This is the process of nature, and if we again want to become part of nature, and what more can we aspire for, we need to return to this process.
For example the temporal priority issue is very different from current practice. If someone has built something, then the person who comes later must legally pay attention to what is there and respond to it. This process is akin to weaving, that is, the next act always responds to the previous act and completes it. Compared to current law, in most US cities, that provides each person the same rights, regardless of the temporal sequence. Thus each project, and each lot, becomes an isolated island, with no significant relation to the whole, and is unable, for the same reason, to intensify the context in which it is located. A fundamental principle that was explicit in traditional generative processes is that a new construction shall not do harm to its surroundings. This is in reverse to the current approach of zoning law that is followed in most US cities, which implicitly accepts that each case is different, by applying strict geometrical regulations blindly. Another important practice in traditional generative processes is negotiating decisions that may cause harm to the surroundings and the means to avoid them. - Besim S. Hakim
I beg everyone planning for a pocket neighborhoodecovillage or village town, to make it an expression of Alexander's wholeness and not Eisenman's ego. The sheltering roof is a natural part of this wholeness. Please read the legendary 1982 debate between Christopher Alexander and Peter Eisenman to get a better understanding of these two diametrical different worldviews, you find it here.
In other words, the order I was sketching out last night is ultimately, fundamentally an order produced by centers or wholes which are reinforcing each other and creating each other. Now, if all of that is so, then the pitched roof would simply come about as a consequence of all that -- not as an antecedent. It would turn out that, in circumstances where one is putting a roof on a building, in the absence of other very strong forces that are forcing you to do something different, that is the most natural and simple roof to do. And, therefore, that kind of order would tend to reappear -- of course, in a completely different, modern technological style -- simply because that is the nature of order, not because of a romantic harkening back to past years. You probably understand this. Christopher Alexander
If you could asked the traditional farmer why he put on this kind of a "boring" pitched roof on his house, he would just had looked silly at you. And of course, you were silly, utterly silly.


No contemporary architect would admit this is a beautiful house. Maybe "cozy", meaning it's a kind of kitsch for ignorant people.


I live in the boreal region, and here the warmth and embracing of a sheltering roof is of extraordinary importance to endure the dark, cold winters. Like a grouse sheltering her chickens under her warm wings. Just the sight of a sheltering roof makes me feel warm inside. No other roof can do that!

The sheltering roof is to be found all over the world of all times, it's universal and inherent to human biophilia. Here from an old Japanese village. Photo: Yosemite

A pair of wings of a grouse is like a sheltering roof. I hope you can both see and feel the similarity? It's like the embracing of a woman, the sensitivity of a poem.
What constitutes the charm to the eye of the old-fashioned country barn but it's immense roof - a slope of grey shingle exposed to the weather like the side of a hill, and by its amplitude suggesting a bounty that warms the heart. Many of the old farmhouses, too, were modeled on the same generous scale, and at a distance little was visible but their great sloping roofs. They covered their inmates as a hen covered her brood, and are touching pictures of the domestic spirit in its simpler forms. - John Burroughs, Signs and Seasons, New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1914, p. 252

This article started with a quota from A Pattern Language, it's now time to go back to this book of wisdom to find out more about what it has to say about our topic. Pattern 117, Sheltering Roof (the original text includes illustrations and wonderful pictures):
This sheltering function cannot be created by a pitched roof, or large roof, which is merely added to the top of an existing structure. The roof itself only shelters if it contains, embraces, covers, surrounds the process of living. This means very simply, that the roof must not only be large and visible, but must also include living quarters within its volume, not only underneath it. - A Pattern Language, page 570
We believe that this connection between the geometry of roofs, and their capacity to provide psychological shelter, can be put on empirical grounds: first, there is a kind of evidence which shows that both children and adults naturally incline toward the sheltering roofs, almost as if they had archetypal properties. - A Pattern Language, page 571
The space under or on the roof must be useful space that people come in contact with daily. The whole feeling of shelter comes from the fact that the roof surrounds people at the same time that it covers them. 
Seen from afar, the roof of the building must be made to form a massive part of the building. When you see the building, you see the roof. This is perhaps the most dramatic feature of a strong, sheltering roof. - A Pattern Language, page 572
And a sheltering roof must be placed so that one can touch it - touch it from outside. If it is pitched or vaulted, some part of the roof must come down low to the ground, just in place where there is a path, so that it becomes a natural thing to touch the roof edge as you pass it. - A Pattern Language, page 572-573
Slope the roof or make a vault of it, make its entire surface visible, and bring the eaves of the roof down low, as low as 6'0" or 6'6" at places like the entrance, where people pause. Build the top story of each wing right into the roof, so that the roof does not only cover it, but actually surrounds it. - A Pattern Language, page 573
Painting by Camille Flers, 1848. Photo: Philippe Alès

Another Japanese house with a thick thatched roof, embracing and warming its inhabitants. These houses are as much a part of nature as the mountains glimpsed in the background. This because of their simplicity, it's completely ego-free, like nature is. Photo: Yosemite

Some permaculturists are eager to cover every roof in the world with hard, smooth and shiny solar cell panels. I will advice to think twice! Without respecting our sensory system and its need for natural materials and geometry, a society in balance with nature cannot be achieved.
Architecture connects to the human consciousness via the smallest details, whether those buildings are in a traditional, or a Modernist style. The psychological need for detail at the smallest perceivable scale is illustrated by the widespread use of natural surfaces such as polished wood and stone, whenever it is economically feasible. Such surfaces provide an emotional connection to details well below 1 mm in size. The eye actually perceives the natural structures that characterize real wood or marble, even though they are at the limit of visual perception. One is not easily fooled by Formica even at a distance. 
It is possible to highlight the connection between an observer and the microscopic structure of materials, which is obtained via the scaling hierarchy. From the human scale on down, there exists an infinite hierarchy of decreasing scales connecting us to the basic components of matter. This downward scaling links man to the microcosm, and is just as important as the more obvious connection to the larger scales. We establish a strong connection to materials that have a clear hierarchical microstructure, but not to featureless materials that are either amorphous, transparent, or highly reflective. 
Materials lacking in natural qualities often result in unresponsive surfaces. That is in part due to the ways they are employed. Modern materials, which as a rule have no ordered microstructure, can establish an emotional connection only through the scaling hierarchy. One needs to differentiate surfaces and to articulate subdivisions much more than with natural materials. That might involve combining matte with shiny materials, and re-introducing detail and color. We do not advocate copying natural materials, but rather finding expressive means to utilize each material's own intrinsic capabilities. - Nikos A. Salingaros
Clay stone roof tiles with lichen, a material that ages with dignity.

Norwegian wooden roof tiles.

A slate roof covering.

No human made materials can replace the biophilic effect of natural materials. As the roof is such a fundamental part of a house and our lives, we should be careful not to damage this effect, as this can easily be damaging for our own well-being. 

Photo: Jebulon

The most primitive buildings are nothing but a roof. If the roof is hidden, if its presence cannot be felt around the building, or if it cannot be used, then people will lack a fundamental sense of shelter. - Pattern 117, Sheltering Roof. Photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim

This article is published at The Permaculture Research Institute of Australia on May 28, 2012.


  1. The thatched roofs of the countryside look like fish scales up near. The traditional way of building roofs are evident in these photos. Come to think of it, modern society has moved on with different roof designs which are very unique and avant garde.

  2. Thank you Oyvind for publishing in English - Our conversation on the EB led me to believe you were an Australian - As an Australian, I know first hand the usefulness of the roof, for water collection, and as a heat collector. We're trying to sell our house, we built it 6 years ago - We collect our rainwater on the big silver shed which is stored in tanks, and gravity fed down the slope to the house. The upstairs area we reserve for guests as they need the warmer environment the pitch roof traps, as our family lives in the subtropics. Once we sell we aim to move closer to family and near the coast so I can harvest ocean water for use in a seaponics arrangement - using ocean water as a nutrient solution in an otherwise hydroponic garden... The idea is that the ocean has all the elements plants can use, and in the ratios they need them.

    Cheers, John

  3. "I recently had a work exchange experience where I worked with a Kayabuki (traditional style thatched roof) master in Japan. He works for a small town in Miyama that is a world heritage site. Kayabuki isn't just a roof. Its a lifestyle. The house lives in rhythm with the seasons and with its occupants. The materials are entirely natural. It was an incredible experience learning about them, and helping build one!" - Lisa Scanlon said this to my essay elsewhere, her site is here:

    Thanks to you others commenting here! Good luck with your new project John, it seems very interesting and is important pioneering!


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