The Vernacular Architecture of Southeast Asia

Melaka, Malaysia

Modern urban environments can feel quite similar from country to country, only until we explore more deeply the communities and cultures that make up the city. Vernacular areas can define a city in a way that a monument or museum cannot. In the vernacular spaces, community and culture persist and help us understand what makes a city unique.

Defining Vernacular Architecture

“Vernacular architecture is an architectural style that is designed based on local needs, availability of construction materials and reflecting local traditions. At least originally, vernacular architecture did not use formally-schooled architects, but relied on the design skills and tradition of local builders” Source Wikipedia
Additional Reading: Vernacular Architecture and the 21st Century

Architecture Kuala Lumpur
Architecture Kuala Lumpur

Going Deeper: Exploring Vernacular Architecture In Asia

I have been living in and traveling around Southeast Asia (SEA) for 1 year. When I came to Asia, I had zero understanding of vernacular architecture and only basic knowledge of SEA. I wrongly assumed that people grouped together in informal settlements such as Chinatown, Indian Town, Muslim Quarters and European Quarters preferred to surround themselves with others of a similar culture. What I have come to understand is that groups of people with a similar culture form sectors in a city to earn a living and to preserve their ethnic, religious and cultural traditions.

Vernacular Areas our Family Visited this Past Year

  • Blair Road in Singapore
  • Kampong Baru, Kuala Lumpur
  • A restored Malaysian house in Kuala Lumpur
  • Georgetown, Malaysia
  • Melaka, Malaysia
  • The Jettys in Brunei
  • Rajasthan, India
  • Kerala, India
  • Cochin, India
  • Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai

In the past year, I have gained understanding of various communities around me and find myself drawn to the spaces that typify vernacular architecture. The idea of shop houses as a social unit as well as an economic unit fascinates me, imaging what it would be like working and living in the same building day after day.

Architecture Penang Malaysia
Architecture Penang Malaysia

What Are Our Kids Learning?

Our children convey a deeper understanding, greater empathy and deeper connection to the cities we visit in Southeast Asia because of our discussions about formal and informal settlements and the people that dwell and work in these communities.We have seen settlements in Malaysia, India and Sri Lanka whose populations likely face land tenure or ownership issues. Happily, there are cities 1 that are finding solutions to bring city services, stability and improved housing situations to those living in informal settlements. 2  

Our Discussions

What it would be like to live in a home that might be taken from your family by the time you returned home from school?

What would it be like to be kid living in an informal settlement that lacked proper water for drinking, showers and toilets?

Vernacular Areas to Visit on our Travels


  • Kenya (Kibera)


  • Maling Road, Melbourne


Favela, Brazil


  • Angkor Wat


  • Diaolou buildings in Kaiping
  • Macau (St. Anthony’s Church; Ruins of St. Paul’s,
  • Hong Kong (Stanley; Kau Wah Keng Old Village; Central Mid Levels Escalator and Walkway System)
  • Shanghai
  • China Academy of Art (Xiangshan Campus, Ningbo Museum, Zhuantang Town, Hangzhou City (Wang Shu, Amateur Architects)
  • Tulou, Fujian (Heritage)
  • Chaozhou (Heritage)
  • Guangzhou
  • Kwong Yuen Estate, Hong Kong
  • Wan Chai, Hong Kong
  • Guiyang
  • Fire Dragon Festival (Tradition)
  • Miao Village, Guizhou
  • Lunar New Year Celebration (Tradition)
  • William Tang’s House
  • New Territories, Hong Kong
  • Ancient City of Pingyao, Shanxi
  • Lou Lim Ieoc garden, Macau
  • Laochengxiang (老城廂) and Longchang Apartment (隆昌公寓) in shanghai


  • Udaipur
  • Rajasthan (Jodhpur) Visited
  • Kerala Visited 

    Kerala India - Chinese Fishing Nets
    Kerala India – Chinese Fishing Nets
  • Cochin Visited
  • Dharavi, Mumbai
  • Dhobi Ghat, Mumbai  Visited
  • Jaisalmer
  • Khajuraho
  • Ahmedabad
  • Delhi  Visited
  • Hyderabad
  • Raxaul
  • Belapur, New Bombay (Incremental Housing)
  • National Crafts Museum, New Delhi designed by Charles Correa
  • Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur
  • Kanchanjunga Apts in Mumbai
  • Pushkar
  • Madhya Pradesh
  • Kanchipurim
  • Varanasi


  • Java – Soko Guru, a pavilion model with four principal columns
  • Sumatra
  • Tana Toraja


  • Tokyo (Edo-Tokyo Open Air Architectural Museum; Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse)
  • Areas: Marunouchi, Shibuya, Shinjuku, Ueno
  • Houses on smaller streets
  • Yonogo
  • Kyoto
  • Kobe (Chinatown)
  • Takayama
  • Matsue
  • Mie
  • Inuyama Castle
  • Nikko Toshogu
  • Fukuoka
  • Aso Shrine (Heritage)
  • Tulle, Fujian
  • Nara
  • Tenjin Festival, Osaka, Japan (As it relates to Traditions)
  • Gokayama
  • Shirakawa-go
  • Shitamatchi Museum


  • Seoul
  • Inchelon



  • Melaka  (Visited)
  • Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur  Visited
  • Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur  Visited
  • Penang / Georgetown, Clan Jetty Visited

    Architecture Penang Malaysia
    Architecture Penang Malaysia
  • Cameron Highlands



  • Yangon
  • Shan State


  • Bhaktapur
  • Kathmandu Valley
  • Bardia
  • Patan


  • Rawalpindi


  • Manila
  • Banaue (Heritage)
  • Bangaan Village


  • Koon Seng Road
  • Blair Road Visited


  • Taipai


  • Bangkok (Chinatown)
  • Phuket Visited


  • Istanbul

United States

  • Santa Fe, New Mexico (Adobe Houses: Santa Fake)
  • Avis Ranch, Montana


  • Ho Chi Minh Visited
  • Hoi An
  • Hanoi
Saigon, Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh)
Saigon, Vietnam (Ho Chi Minh)


Many thanks to Professor David P. Y. Lung, Registered Architect, Professor of Architecture, and Lady Edith Kotewall Professor in the Built Environment; Professor Howard Davis, Patricia Fels, Architect / Conservationist, Dr. Ruffina Thilakaratne, Ph.D. Architecture University of Hong Kong

  1. Transformation of Slum and Squatter Settlements: A Way of Sustainable Living in Context of 21st Century Cities
  2. Squatter Settlements at CoolGeogroaphy

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