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The Power of Lo-TEK: A Design Movement to Rebuild Understanding of Indigenous Philosophy and Vernacular Architecture

A Mythology of Technology: Stemming from the Greek mythos, meaning “story of the people,” mythology has guided mankind for millennia. Three hundred years ago, intellectuals of the European Enlightenment constructed a mythology of technology. Influenced by a confluence of humanism, colonialism, and racism, the mythology ignored local wisdom and indigenous innovation, deeming it primitive. Guiding this was a perception of technology that feasted on the felling of forests and the extraction of resources. The mythology that powered the Age of Industrialization distanced itself from natural systems, favoring fuel by fire.

Today, the legacy of this mythology haunts us. Progress at the expense of the planet birthed the epoch of the Anthropocene—our current geological period characterized by the undeniable impact of humans upon the environment at a global scale. Charles Darwin, the scholar and naturalist who is seen as the father of evolutionary theory, said “extinction happens slowly,” yet 60% of the world’s biodiversity has vanished in the past 40 years. Coming to terms with an uncertain future, and confronted by climate events that cannot be predicted, species extinctions that cannot be arrested, and ecosystem failures that cannot be stopped, humanity is tasked with developing solutions to protect the wilderness that remains and learning how to transform the civilizations we construct. While we are drowning in an Age of Information, we are starving for wisdom.


Columns of bundled reeds are prestressed by insertion into the island at opposing angles, then bent and tied into arches. Photo by Stephen Foote.


Built entirely of qasab reed without mortar or nails, reed islands and houses can last up to 25 years. Image created by Julia Watson and Berke Yazicioglu.

Ancient Wisdom

Only a sliver of the technologies that existed at the time of the Enlightenment were valued and shepherded through to the present. Meanwhile, an alternative mythology of technology has been with us since well before the Enlightenment. It is unacknowledged, at the far ends of the Earth, with its contributors deemed “primitive” for centuries. While “modern” societies were trying to conquer Nature in the name of progress, these indigenous cultures were working with it.

Indigenous technologies are not lost or forgotten; they are only hidden by the shadow of progress in the remotest places on earth. Even as society values and preserves the architectural artifacts of dead cultures, like the 4,000-year-old pyramids of Giza, the living are displaced, like the 6,000-year-old floating-island technology of the Ma’dan in the southern wetlands of Iraq. Extending the grounds of typical design, Lo-TEK is a movement that investigates lesser-known local technologies (Lo), traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), indigenous cultural practices, and mythologies passed down as songs or stories. In contrast to the homogeneity of the modern world, indigeneity is reframed as an evolutionary extension of life in symbiosis with nature.

Conveyed through mythology and explaining the complexity of the natural world, TEK is translated into a western scientific framework and described as four interrelated levels by the Knowledge-Practice-Belief Complex. Image created by Julia Watson and Berke Yazicioglu.

Continuing the conversation on vernacular architecture as popularized in Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture Without Architects exhibition at MoMA in 1967, Lo-TEK explores the intersection of design and radical indigenism. Coined by Princeton professor and citizen of the Cherokee Nation Eva Marie Garoutte, “radical indigenism” argues for a rebuilding of knowledge and explores indigenous philosophies capable of generating new dialogues. The concept of radical indigenism takes its name from the Latin derivation of the word “radical”: radix, meaning “root.” Design by radical indigenism imagines a movement that rebuilds an understanding of indigenous philosophies in relation to design, to generate sustainable and climate resilient infrastructures. This Lo-TEK movement fills a void at the intersection of innovation, architecture, urbanism, conservation, and indigenism. Once hybridized and scaled, these indigenous technologies could offer a new path to exponentially shrink the ecological footprint of humankind and mitigate the forecast collapse. While the action of individuals is important, it is action at the scale of infrastructures, designed with a mythology that connects individuals to an ecosystem, that can catalyze a global shift.

“The Architecture Without Architects” exhibition curated by Bernard Rudofsky, November 11, 1964 through February 7, 1965, Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Rolf Petersen.

Lo-TEK

Lo-TEK is a movement that orients us toward a different mythology of technology, one that evolves humanism with radical indigenism. In the book of the same name, this mythology is told in a compendium of over a hundred indigenous innovations from four ecosystems across the globe: mountains, forests, deserts, and wetlands. A nexus of peoples, places, and practices is explored at the material, module, structural, and system scale from such diverse places as Peru, the Philippines, Tanzania, Kenya, Iran, Iraq, India, and Indonesia.


Aerial view of Rendille village huts and anok corrals in Kenya. Photo courtesy of Martin Harvey/Alamy stock photo.
In an arid plain at the feet of Macedonia’s Mogila mountains, a migrating convoy is flanked by women, children, and donkeys. Photo by Gwenn Dubourthoumieu.

Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism catalogues sustainable, adaptable, and resilient technologies that are borne out of necessity. These indigenous infrastructures expand the definition of contemporary technology. They are local, inexpensive, handmade, and easily constructed soft systems, embedded with traditional ecological knowledge, practices, and beliefs. Lo-TEK counters the idea that indigenous innovation is primitive and exists apart from technology. An emergent term, calling to mind the common phrase “low-tech,” Lo-TEK rethreads the fabric of innovation, rewrites the mythology of technology, and reconceives the primitive as innovative.

It redefines a misconception of indigenous innovation as being original, authentic, complex, and culturally momentous. Often predating the Industrial Revolution, Lo-TEK indigenous innovation can be mistaken as low-tech; however, it is sophisticated and designed to work with complex ecosystems. Innovations are arranged to amplify mutually beneficial interactions between multiple species, which is defined in this book as species symbiosis. These Lo-TEK systems are embedded in culture and climate and can range in size from single river crossings in India to entire watershed reconstructions in Bali. Lo-TEK is inherently sustainable, being both an everyday response for human survival and an extraordinary response to environmental extremes: famine, flood, frost, drought, disease. Lo-TEK is a movement that prompts us to retrace our steps and reconsider the root of technological innovation. Through an anthropological and architectural lens, this catalogue recovers the systems and the knowledge that will allow us to reimagine our co-evolution. Rather than primitive, as Corbusier would say, this knowledge is primal and known to us all.

A New Mythology on Technology

The field of design is at a pivotal moment, expanding to confront complex problems that require robust and adaptive responses. With environmental and societal collapse imminent in the coming decades, design at the intersection of anthropology, ecology, and innovation is the most pressing discussion of our time. A new mythology that acknowledges Lo-TEK is critical to advancing the co-existence of man with nature.

In this era of the Anthropocene, humankind will need to redefine the mythology of technology to include indigenous innovation. The indigenous cultures of the world need to be recognized as innovative rather than primitive and have their knowledge embedded in the thinking of our future. Harvard professor Edward O. Wilson predicts that during this next hundred years, the protection of biodiversity will be our highest priority. However, species extinction alone won’t be the 21st century’s greatest loss. The same forces that drive species extinction endanger the indigenous technologies that may hold a key to humanity’s survival. As indigenous communities are among those most impacted by climate change, precipitated by many activities in the name of progress, their knowledge is in fact an essential part of the solution.

Constructing A New Mythology

In the age of the Anthropocene, humanity’s impact on the planet is undeniable. Whether by destruction or by conservation, all ecological systems are impacted by human action. We are at a crossroads where we can either continue a narrow view of technology, informed by our distance from nature, or we can acknowledge that this is just one way, and not the only way, for humans to live. Designers today understand the urgency of reducing humanity’s negative environmental impact, yet perpetuate the same mythology that relies on exploiting nature. We cast nature both as a menacing force now retaliating against us, and as a forlorn figure surrendering to our saving by way of savvy technological innovation. By building hard infrastructures and favoring high-tech homogenous design, we are ignoring millennia-old knowledge of how to live with nature in symbiosis.


Khasi tribe / tribal woman with bamboo conical head basket standing on a ‘living root bridge’ ladder – an ancient bridge / ladder / walkway created down the side of a steep cliff face made from the living roots of the banyan tree and stones , Warthumbalong , East Khasi Hills , Meghalaya , North East States , India. Photo courtesy of Timothy Allen / Axiom.


Called a Living or Root bridge (Ficus elastica), this was constructed by the Khasi Tribe in Meghalaya, India. Photo by Pete Oxford.
Meghalaya is a state in northeastern India. The name means “the abode of clouds” in Sanskrit, translating to “above the clouds.” Photo by Rajesh Dutta.

Climate change has shown us that our survival is not dependent upon superiority, but upon symbiosis. A new mythology of technology in the era of the Anthropocene can replace the pending threat that nature will destroy us with the optimism that a collaboration with nature can save us. In the shift toward designing resilient cities, Lo-TEK and indigenous technologies are critical in the conversation for designers addressing climate change, as they are living examples that embody resilience thinking. We need to expand our definition of sustainable technology to encompass the Lo-TEK movement, and, in this effort, alter the course of collapse. Acknowledging the mistakes of modernity, we can shift our position of authority over nature to one of collaboration with nature. This will involve incorporating the nuances of indigenous innovation. Considering drastic sea level rise, recurrent storm events, and other unpredictable impacts from climate change, static infrastructures have proved to be limited as a response to dynamic change. Without implementing soft systems that use biodiversity as a building block, these infrastructures remain inherently unsustainable. We must begin telling an emergent, yet ancient, mythology of technology, one in which progress is found not simply in our fascination with the future.

A New Ground For Human Nature

Our global survival is dependent on our thinking shifting from “survival of the fittest” to “survival of the most symbiotic” as a critical first step. As designers, we need to remember that we are a part of nature. Indigenous communities, which adopted this thinking thousands of years ago, now hold a global bank of eco-intelligence and indigenous innovation that is unequivocally invaluable—but only if we invest in retaining it. In the foreseeable future, the extinction of these technologies will stand alongside the extinction of species as one of the great losses of the 21st century.

Ironically, many contemporary green technologies, such as green roofs and floating wetlands, have been around for thousands of years, “rediscovered” only when they can be packaged as something new. The vision for the Lo-TEK movement is similar. By gathering a compendium of indigenous design and innovation, a framework for adaptation and innovation is posed. Lo-TEK retells an ancient mythology—that humankind can, and must, live symbiotically with nature—and provokes an emergent movement of design. One that intentionally hybridizes the innovations of indigenous peoples across the globe to radicalize the progress of humanism with the spirit of indigenism, rerooting our very relationship with nature from superior to symbiotic.

Featured image: A young fisherman walks under the root bridge at Mawlynnong village. In the relentless damp of Meghalaya’s jungles in northeast India, the Khasi people have used the trainable roots of rubber trees to grow bridges over rivers for centuries. Photo by Amos Chapple. Lo-TEK: Design by Radical Indigenism,published by Taschen, will be released in October 2019.

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