• Credit: Gabriel Arboleda

Gabriel Arboleda, a Ph.D. candidate in architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, jokes that he can't walk anywhere. So obsessive is his interest in vernacular architecture, he always carries a camera and stops to snap photos constantly. “My wife hates it,” he says with a laugh.

Arboleda plans to upload about 20,000 of his photos to Ethnoarchitecture.com, a searchable database of indigenous and vernacular architecture he launched in December (although a more basic version of the site, in Spanish and English, has existed since 2004). The site is the first internet database of its kind, he says, with information on nearly 7,300 different linguistic groups (from Brazil's Anambé to Nigeria's Zeem), 228 countries and their ethnic composition, and vernacular building types around the world.

Arboleda is using wiki technology to enable full user participation, so that after registering for free, users will be able to create their own entries and upload photos. However, he makes it clear that on Ethnoarchitecture.com—unlike Wikipedia—all user-generated content will be reviewed before it is published, “to guarantee it's credible.”

The term “ethnoarchitecture” is unusual, yet Arboleda says it comes closer to his philosophy than any other. “‘Ethnoarchitecture' is a contraction of two terms: ‘ethnography' and ‘architecture,'” he explains. “It means an ethnographic approach to architecture, an approach that assumes the point of view of the other, rather than our own.” In its visual presentation, the site expresses Arboleda's belief that indigenous communities are always evolving and cannot be encased in amber, despite historical attempts to do so. The 1950s-style script used on the home page and the tagline “Architecture in Technicolor” are ironic, Hollywoodesque reminders, he says, that indigenous cultures are “overexoticized” by the Western media.

  • Credit: Gabriel Arboleda

A native of Colombia, Arboleda was deeply influenced by his sustainable-development work over several years with the Secoya people of the Ecuadorian Amazon. In the late 1990s, after oil companies moved into the region, he saw the Secoya abandon their traditional palm-built houses for metal-roofed ones. But they aren't victims, he insists. “The Secoya didn't change because of the oil,” he says. “The Secoya changed because everybody in this world changes.”

Despite the rapid evolution or disappearance of some vernacular building types, Arboleda claims that Ethnoarchitecture.com is intended more for raising awareness than for documentation. “The first thing is to tell people: This [architecture] exists,” he says. Evidently, they're listening: The site has been getting about 5,000 visits a day, by Arboleda's estimate, and several users—mainly architects and students—have approached him about adding their own material.

Arboleda hopes that interest continues to grow. “I have a whole life to keep adding information,” he says half-seriously. “I created my retirement project before I even started working.”