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Julia Watson: What Can We Learn From Indigenous Design Developed Over Generations?

Feb 5, 2021
Originally published on February 15, 2021 7:57 pm

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode It Takes Time

For generations, Indigenous people have used slow but sophisticated technology to build elaborate structures. Architect Julia Watson says their designs can guide our response to the climate crisis.

About Julia Watson

Julia Watson is an architect and the author of Lo-TEK, Design by Radical Indigenism, a book about using Indigenous technologies to design a sustainable future. She is a lecturer at Columbia University's School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, and she has previously taught at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design as well as the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's School of Architecture.

Her design portfolio includes the Rockefeller Center Summer Gardens, Bali's first UNESCO World Heritage site, and the Gateway to the City of El Segundo at Los Angeles International Airport.

Watson received her master's in Landscape Architecture from Harvard University, and her bachelor's in Architecture from The University of Queensland.

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On the show today, things that take time, including designs that need decades to be built, like in one of the wettest places on Earth.

JULIA WATSON: It's treacherous terrain. It's very moist. Anything that you build rots.

ZOMORODI: This is architect Julia Watson, and she's talking about the jungles of Meghalaya in northern India, where the Khasi people live. This is a place that gets nearly 500 inches of rain a year.

WATSON: And because of the such high rainfall and because of the monsoon, they're incredibly fast-flowing rivers. And they just take out bridges whereby you couldn't actually travel from village to village because of the high water levels. And so what the Khasi did to, you know, figure out how to walk and transport through this region as they grew their bridges from trees.


WATSON: So they'd intentionally plant trees along these river corridors, wait for these beautiful ficus trees to grow and then take their root systems that hang down from the huge branches. And they would train them to grow across the river corridors and then plant them into the other side. And, eventually, they grow a huge bridge that's alive.

ZOMORODI: Over the last thousand years, the Khasis have developed an intricate technique to build these living root bridges.

WATSON: They're just these beautiful, elegant, sort of truss-systemed (ph) bridges. They're, you know, very sophisticated in their design. There's, like, a scaffolding system. Then there's a wrapping system of roots. And then there's railings, and they hang down from these trees and just sort of arc across these river corridors hanging in midair across the water. And they enable people to actually walk through this landscape in the monsoon.

ZOMORODI: And it's not like they get built in a year or two, like a typical bridge, right? These take...


ZOMORODI: ...What? - decades?

WATSON: So people are planning where these trees are growing generations before. And once they reach a large enough height, then they start this process of the weaving and the scaffolding and the training across the actual river. And then it's up to everybody to take care and maintain how that growth happens until about 50 years. And then you can start to walk across them.

ZOMORODI: I mean, the thought of having the foresight to build a bridge like this - how would you know - it might not even work in your lifetime. Did you sense that they think of time differently than you do when they think of a project?

WATSON: Yeah. I mean, this type of generational thinking - it's kind of just embedded and part of how you relate to the forest. There's understandings that you're not working for the individual. And you sort of identify with community, and you are part of your environment.


WATSON: You know, we have certain climatic extremes. And, you know, we call them challenges or crises that we see ourselves faced with. And we have this idea that there's one way to build, and there's one way to think of technology and progress. And high-tech is going to solve everything. But that's something that I'm questioning.

ZOMORODI: And Julia's doing that by researching low-tech technologies - Indigenous designs developed hundreds, even thousands of years ago to respond to crisis and to strengthen over time. Here's Julia Watson on the TED stage.


WATSON: I'm an architect, and I've been trained to seek solutions in permanence - concrete, steel, glass - these are all used to build a fortress against nature. But my search for ancient systems and Indigenous technologies has been different. It's been inspired by an idea that we can seed creativity in crisis. All across the globe, I've seen cultures who have been living with floods for thousands of years by evolving these ancient technologies that allow them to work with the water. In the southern wetlands of Iraq, a unique, water-based civilization lives. For 6,000 years, the Ma'dan have floated villages on man-made islands that are constructed from a single species of reed that grows around them on islands that stay afloat for over 25 years. And the qasab reed is integral to every aspect of life.


WATSON: It is food for water buffalo, flour for humans and building material for these biodegradable, buoyant islands and their cathedral-like houses that they construct in as little as three days.

They use the qasab reed to make columns, to make rafters. They weave it into walls. They weave it into roof systems. And then they make it into a twine, which allows them to construct the houses without using any nails. And so everything about this community is really so closely linked to the qasab reed. And so this is amazingly innovative and undocumented in terms of how we can think about mobile, flood-resilient island architecture.

ZOMORODI: The photos that you include of their homes - they are ethereal in some way. They almost - like, the light coming through the reeds...


ZOMORODI: ...Like stained glass. But they look quite fragile. I guess I'm trying to understand how this technology has lasted for thousands - 6,000 years, and yet it seems like it's a short-term structure.

WATSON: Yeah, but I think that's part of, like, why it's so resilient because in that environment, there's an understanding that things are not going to last for hundreds of years. The technology will last, but the actual individual-built component is not going to last. And part of the definition of being resilient is being adaptable. So there's this whole intelligence about, well, if there is a crisis, if there is a flood, we can deconstruct it. We can put it somewhere else.


WATSON: And so it's actually built into the technology that there's an incredible robustness in its potential to adapt very quickly to changing conditions. And that's something that we have to learn as well.

ZOMORODI: When we come back, more from architect Julia Watson on what we can learn from these ancient designs. On the show today, It Takes Time. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.

It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, it takes time. And we were just hearing architect Julia Watson on ancient design systems - ones developed over thousands of years - and what they can teach us about how we build things now.


WATSON: Although global attention is focused on the pandemic, cities are still sinking, and sea levels are still rising. And high-tech solutions are definitely going to help us solve some of these problems. But in our rush towards the future, we tend to forget about the past. We have thousands of years of ancient knowledge that we just need to listen to and allow it to expand our thinking about designing symbiotically with nature. And by listening, we'll only become wiser and ready for those 21st century challenges that we know will endanger our people and our planet. And I've seen it.

ZOMORODI: So what do you say to that high-tech person who's like, well, these are beautiful examples, but they take a long time to come to fruition? We don't have that kind of time when it comes to climate change. We need to use fast, new technologies.

WATSON: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, there's, like, three answers to that. I'm saying, OK, you've had the run for a really long time.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

WATSON: Allow some other ideas to be brought to the table. But you know, your question is a question that comes up a lot. Part of the work of low tech is to question, you know, is there just one way to think about the built environment? Is that the most sustainable way that we think about the built environment? And is the way we think about sustainability actually going to get us anywhere? - because we're not pushing the envelope in terms of the types of technologies that are symbiotic with natural systems. They're Band-Aids. There are other ways of thinking about the built environment that are productive, that are adaptable, that deal with crises, but deal with them intelligently and don't just try and shut them out.

And you know, I think the next phase of where I'm headed as a designer and a practitioner is to figure out, how do we work with Indigenous communities to share knowledge and how do we really reframe - what is the growth of our cities into the future?

ZOMORODI: I really take your point that we can't just look at what's been developed in the past decade or so, but we have to look at innovation from an extremely long-term perspective.


ZOMORODI: And it almost makes me think that what you're talking about, sure, it's low tech, but it's also slow tech.

WATSON: Yeah. I mean, it's interesting what you're saying. And there's this concept of deep time that a lot of this technology comes from. And it's - deep time is when you're talking about thousands of years. And so this knowledge is based upon thousands of years of thinking and understanding and adapting. And it's also circular time because it works with seasons. And it repeats, and it builds upon itself. And it strengthens as it builds on itself and repeats and changes based upon new impacts. And the benefits - while they might be slow, they have this incredible multiplier effect.

So low tech really takes the opinion that we're going to be here, and we're going to be here for a long time. So let's move in the cycles that we have moved in of deep time from the past and bring that deep time into our future thinking.

ZOMORODI: That's Julia Watson. She's an architect, designer and the author of "Lo-TEK. Design By Radical Indigenism." To see photos of the designs that Julia talked about, check out our feed on Twitter and Facebook. We are @TEDRadioHour. And you can see Julia's full talk at TED.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.