Architecture for All: The Photography of Paul Oliver

Paul OliverLong Gallery, Pitt Rivers Museum

16 May 2015 – 17 January 2016

This exhibition is the first to showcase the photography of Paul Oliver, the pioneer of vernacular architecture studies.

What do we mean by ‘architecture’, and what does the term cover when we use it? Does it refer only to buildings designed by architects, or does it extend to all buildings? What explains the enormous diversity of architectural traditions around the world? And how can today’s architects learn from and respond to this diversity of architectural form, material, space and decoration?

These are some of the questions that concerned Paul Oliver throughout a career that spanned more than five decades. The author and editor of a range of influential publications including Shelter and Society, Dwellings: The House Across the World and the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World Oliver called for an inclusive and cross-cultural approach to architecture; one that acknowledges theintricate relationship between architecture, society and culture, and that recognises all buildings, not just those of specific cultures or those made by architects, as cultural expressions worthy of admiration, study and conservation. ‘Architecture’, he wrote, ‘is not the prerogative of a few nor the privilege of an elite; it is for all, and by all’.

tuareg skin tent

Throughout his career, Oliver was as prolific a photographer as he was a writer. During his travels that took him to more than 70 countries in all continents, he took over 22,500 photographs that together capture the ingenuity, richness and diversity of the architectural traditions of the world. An amateur photographer driven by a strong personal interest in and curiosity about other peoples and cultures, Oliver documented building materials, technologies, forms, details and decorations, as well as the people that made, used and lived among them. Altogether the photographs constitute an unparalleled record of the world’s architecture during the second half of the twentieth century.

doorway, watif, saudi arabiaThe selection of photographs in this exhibition aims to capture the inclusive and cross-cultural understanding of architecture propagated by Oliver. They include images of landscapes, buildings and architectural details from cultures around the world: monumental as well as ordinary; traditional as well as modern; everyday as well as unique. Taken from the early 1960s up to 2008, they showcase the variety of ways in which all cultures around the world continue to express their needs, beliefs, values and aspirations in architectural form. They remind us of the extraordinary richness, beauty and tenacity of the architectural heritage of the world and raise questions about how we should respond to and may learn from it.


Exhibition curated by: Molly Franta, Timea Kovats, Maria Lopez Gonzalez, Seyedehparisa Hosseini Badakhshani, Anuja Mayadeo, Manalee Nanavati, Rosa Teira Paz, Connor Vellinga, Marcel Vellinga

Video by: Maria Lopez Gonzalez

Supported by: School of Architecture, Oxford Brookes University