Fluid Vernacular

Fluid Vernacular

By Lizzie Yarina & Lomiata Niuatui


Tuvalu’s architectural vernacular draws on the nation’s fluid context of low-lying coral islands. Rising a maximum of four metres from the surface of the equatorial Pacific Ocean, Tuvalu is one of the world’s smallest and most isolated nations. The archipelago of nine coral atolls has been inhabited by seafaring Pacific Islanders for over 2000 years––islanders who came and went depending on the fickle climates and geographies of these low-lying formations. This essay explores the fluid vernaculars developed by Tuvaluan atoll-dwellers in response to these unstable contexts by drawing on the research of Lomiata Niuatui, an indigenous practicing architect and builder in Tuvalu. Under colonial and post-colonial regimes, traditional dwelling models have been quashed, to problematic effect. As Tuvalu stares down an uncertain future of rising seas, how might these flexible, traditionally derived models allow the ongoing inhabitation of unstable atolls?


Coral atolls are living geographies that grow from the debris of surrounding coral reefs, accumulating over time. Atolls emerge from the fringing reef of subsiding volcanoes, which accounts for their ring-like composition. Atop these delicate formations, which evolve based on currents, storms, and sea level, resources are scarce and habitation is vulnerable to the whims of the sea. Cyclones can easily cause sea swells that inundate entire settlements, as was seen when nearly half of Tuvalu’s residents experienced during Cyclone Pam in 2015, a storm system that passed nearly 500 km away from the archipelago. Atolls are highly vulnerable to climate change and sea level rise, but the issue is more complex than the “sinking islands” narrative that media sound-bites suggest. Rather, atolls can (and throughout history have) grown upwards in response to sea level rise, as the coral reefs that compose them grow upwards towards the sun’s rays. At the same time, this process makes the islands increasingly unstable as new coral sediment is deposited and the islands grow. Furthermore, risks of ocean acidification and coral bleaching could kill off coral reefs, halting this process altogether.

In response to these mobile geographies, the atoll-dwellers of Micronesia and Polynesia developed fluid tactics of architecture and settlement that allow them to mobilize and adapt to changing contexts. As Oceanic researcher John Connell notes:

In historic times atoll dwellers were extremely mobile and far from insular; men and women moved readily between islands in search of new land, disease-free sites, wives, trade goods, and so on. In this way some islands were populated, depopulated, and later repopulated. Mobility itself was responsible for demographic survival; without mobility, adaptation and change were impossible. [1]

The colonial framing of Tuvalu (and other Oceanic states) as a “nation” belies this fluid history of tribes ping-ponging around atolls, across archipelagos, and throughout the vast reaches of the Pacific Ocean. Tuvalu’s settlement mythologies illustrate this sense of always-moving; one origin story tells of the great Telematua who leaves Samoa to discover the atolls of Funafuti and Vaitupu in Tuvalu before setting off again towards unknown (is)lands. To this day the Tuvaluan diaspora remains mobile, in spite of modern geopolitical limitations placed on the impotent Tuvaluan passport; 20% of Tuvaluans live in New Zealand alone, and seafaring incomes and other remittances remain a primary economy. [2]



Traditional Tuvaluan architecture and settlements are characterized by transformability and mobility that allow for their inhabitants to physically and socially adapt to the fragile atoll ecosystems they inhabit. The traditional Tuvaluan house is a post and beam construction with a thatched roof and coral-rock foundation, ranging in size from 2.5 m x 5 m to 5 m x 10 m. Supporting posts are created from the trunk of the coconut or the pandanus, and secondary ribs are created using the pandanus branch. Structural work was typically done by men, while women managed the thatching. Thatch is typically made from pandanus leaves folded over the spine of a coconut leaf, stitched together with coconut leaf mid-ribs, and tied to battens (vertically placed) with strings fashioned from dried coconut husk fibres (kolokol).  Thicker coconut fibre twines (gafa) are used to lash together posts and beams. Steep roof slopes allow for rain to be shed easily, helping to prevent thatch from rotting or molding. All vernacular structures, excepting chicken houses, are built without walls to allow for maximum ventilation; in older styles of houses the eaves reached near to the ground to keep out rain. In newer house styles with higher eaves, blinds woven from coconut palms (pola) keep out wind and rain. These operable facade systems, in the manner of the modern louver framed window, allow for buildings to adapt to changing weather conditions. [3] Variations in this general system occur by both use and island. The roofs of traditional houses are also demountable; historically, when a storm arrived, the roof could be removed and placed to the leeward side of the house for the duration of the event. Demounting roofs in times of storms is a function of the traditional social structure where the extended family and the whole village are obligated to assist due to the social mechanism of reciprocity. In contrast, the present ubiquitous corrugated iron roofs easily blow away during cyclones, and become dangerous projectiles in the process.

Furniture was minimal within buildings. Sleeping houses (fale moe) were typically equipped with mats (pakau or papa) for sitting and sleeping, and baskets hung from the rafters were used to store food. In this way, each structure was also transformable: the deployment of different objects on the floor surface allowed for the space to be programmatically transformed.

Master builders (tufuga fai fale) created special, and even new, building typologies. The fale poutasi, a house structure unique to the atoll of Niutao, was supported by a single post at the centre, which allowed for the structure to rotate. Built for significant persons such as the eldest son or daughter, they were rotated by two men in order to allow for maximum cross-ventilation on hot days, adapting the structure to temperature and wind direction. [4]

Prior to European influence there were no villages on the Tuvaluan islands, but rather small hamlets based on family clans.  These consisted of communal houses, a lifted kitchen hut or pa’apa, a store house, and a canoe house. These structures were organized around an open space, the malae. Throughout the course of the day, people moved between structures for different activities: from the sleep shelter, to the kitchen hut, to an eating platform, out into the bush, to the storehouse, etc. Not only were these hamlets loose aggregations that encouraged movement, but the settlements themselves were also mobile. As an early English visitor, Charles Hedley, wrote:

At times, to allow the coconuts to grow up and to give the fishing grounds a rest, the permanent village is temporarily abandoned, and the whole tribe move to another locality. Several duplicate villages are built about the lagoon, perfect sometimes even to the chapel and courthouse, wherein each family owns a residence, and to which they periodically move to enjoy a change of air and scene. [5]

This flexible settlement model was facilitated by collective ownership models, which allowed buildings and landscape resources to be shared amongst clan members. It also provided the opportunity to limit overuse of scarce resources through intentional mobility. Original hamlets were surrounded by the “bush,” where coconuts, pandanus, and bananas were cultivated and collected. Hamlets were connected by informal footpaths.  Beyond, the ocean and lagoon serve as an extension of living space, used for bathing, recreation, and fishing. Settlements were sited based on access to fishing grounds in areas protected from reef waves and wind. This was typically the western side of the island, protected from the easterly winds. While this meant that the location was not optimally suited for cooling breezes, the open building structure and shading breadfruit trees prevented some of the environmental issues faced by today’s westernized building types in Tuvalu.



Early Samoan pastors encouraged a shift into a village structure, which allowed them to keep a closer watch over the inhabitants. Colonial officers further supported these village formations for ease of policing, provisioning of British law, and encouraging European social norms.  As settlements densified into villages with European influences, the malae remained, as did references to traditional social hierarchies (discussed above). Village centres were organized around this open space, with the homes of the aliki (chiefs) and their extended family located at the corners. In between lived the men and women of the village, with the falekaupule, or building for the village government, on one side. As the influence of Europeans expanded, many villages were constructed in a gridiron pattern; this is best exemplified by Vaitupu, which has the largest population second to Funafuti (the nation's capital) but has not experienced Funafuti’s rapid and disruptive population influx. As Samoan pastors replaced traditional hamlets with gridded villages, they also encouraged the destruction of existing buildings and rebuilding of structures in a Samoan style with raised platforms and sometimes a rounded gable end. Today, each atoll consists of one, or occasionally two, settlements. The exception is the capital atoll; technically Funafuti is composed of 4 separate villages, which have merged into a single linear settlement the length of its islet. A separate, rural settlement remains on an islet across the atoll's lagoon.

Increasingly fixed settlement models have proved problematic for atoll dwellers. As collective ownership was replaced with private land tenure, shared models of resource management evaporated, leaving Funafuti in particular strained with degrading resources. As atolls themselves are mobile geographies, coastal property owners have found that their properties have over time dissolved into the sea, while others see their beachfront growing.

Over time, Samoan-European housing typologies were replaced with English versions as the archipelago was colonized under the British Protectorate in 1896. When traditional housing was destroyed, as during the US Marine operation during WWII, it was replaced, in this case by colonizers in 1942, with low quality ‘Western’ models; typically cheap clapboard homes with tin roofs. [6] The capital settlement in Funafuti was completely bombed out during the war, and the unsuitability of this cheap replacement housing stock was revealed during Cyclone Bebe a few decades later when 90% of these structures were completely destroyed by the storm. Had Funafuti been constructed in traditional structures with demountable roofs, the damages of Bebe would likely have been less catastrophic

Today, the transition to “modern” or “western” houses is highly visible, particularly on Funafuti. These are wood frame or CMU structures of one or two stories. The most minimal are single-room buildings with thorough cross-ventilation, and the largest and most luxurious are multi-bedroom air-conditioned constructions that might not be out of place in globalized suburbia. Many Tuvaluans find modern housing stifling, and the displeasure with ‘western’ houses can be traced back to the inflexibility of the structures; these buildings are not built for their environment, and do not adapt or transform. [7]

Modern housing models do have their advantages, including the use of the tin roof for rainwater collection, and the ease of purchasing and constructing with imported materials.  Traditional methods, in spite of their benefits, take significant time and labour, though it’s worth noting that at this time there are few paying jobs available, even in the capital. When housing is provided through international aid, NGOs or bilateral aid organizations send tin and plywood, not coconut posts and pandanus thatch (nor the labour necessary for these traditional constructions). However, western-style structures have terrible thermal performance, collecting solar energy throughout the day and radiating it out into the already stifling night. Ventilation is typically not designed for and tends to be poor, so the only way to maintain a comfortable temperature is through air conditioning. New buildings lack the environmental adaptability of vernacular Tuvaluan predecessors.

While many Tuvaluans note that they prefer to inhabit traditional architecture, they have become tied to the supposed “efficiency” of these modern models. And perhaps even more importantly, these atoll-dwellers have come to associate ‘western’ architecture with social status. So while they blast expensive air-conditioning into overheated tin-roofed boxes, Tuvaluans yearn for the open-air breezes of the past.

In both models construction happens on a semi-informal basis. Historically there were master builders, and presently there are a handful of construction companies, but in general the individual participates in the construction of their home. As the master builder (along with many other traditional practices) has faded as a societal role, there is now little traditional design expertise in the housing construction industry that would help reconcile the benefits and problems of these two styles of building; the Tuvaluan vernacular and modern, western architecture. Building construction models are in serious need of reconsideration, as many Tuvaluans acknowledge.

Today’s Tuvalu remains a mobile culture, but instead of being bound by navigational ability, mobility is restricted by territorial boundaries and immigration requirements. Although atoll-dwellers now are able to participate in a global economy (the majority of Tuvaluans have wi-fi access), as noted migration theorist Russell King writes: “on the whole people are less free to migrate now than they were 100 years ago.” [8] While migration was historically seen as an extension of the present, a substitution of a better version of the same landscape, for modern Tuvaluans migration is a form of progress. Migration is a determination of status, of access to employment and education, and an engagement of the outside world. This desire is also evidenced by internal migration. Tuvaluans are flocking from subsistence-oriented outer islands to the capital of Funafuti in search of jobs and progress—a migration that is resulting in massive overcrowding and unemployment. Funafuti’s population has grown from less than 1,000 people before independence to more than 6,000 today.



Tuvalu has become an international symbol of the risks associated with climate change. At only a few metres above sea level, Tuvalu is extremely vulnerable to rising tides and storm surges. While in the past Tuvaluans would likely have simply adapted their architectures or relocated their settlements, now their unstable future framework runs up against the hard political boundaries and fixed property rights of the contemporary nation state. Western systems of determinism and subdivided space have entrapped Tuvaluans on a sinking ship. Now tied to, and self-identified with, a specific landmass which is inherently unstable, (with or without the risks of climate change), Tuvaluans struggle with the binary discourses of migration and mitigation. Westernized worldviews clash with the traditions and geography of Tuvalu.

This problematic imposition of stable “high ground” systems of fixed architecture and rigid planning on fluid geographies parallels the difficulties of imposing modern geopolitical systems on unstable island geographies. Just as fixed properties, housing, and settlements are unable to adapt to environmental conditions made increasingly uncertain by climate change, the definition of Tuvalu as a nation-state in a modern framework similarly paralyzes Tuvaluans as their archipelago takes on growing risk of inundation. The Tuvaluan passport locks this historically mobile population to uncertain islands, while contemporary geopolitics makes out-migration increasingly difficult.

Tuvaluan architecture and settlements are in dire need of new flexible models that combine mobile vernacular lessons with contemporary tools, materials, and information. “Modernization” and “development” in Oceania has focused on isomorphic processes, attempting to transplant continental lessons to these fluid geographies. Alternative modernities could appropriate open-air structures, flexible architectures, and collective models with new technologies that allow for fast-paced construction and maintenance. Furthermore, the reassertion of inherently Tuvaluan spatial practices could provide a global model for mobile architecture and settlements if and when evacuation and resettlement becomes necessary around the globe as a result of climate change.

In recent centuries, “development” has occurred as a one-way process. By advocating for spatial models that draw on site-specific vernaculars, Tuvaluan spatial practices can take on new global significance in an era of climate volatility. The inhabitation of uncertain littorals and the need for continuous migration is likely to become a global necessity as we find that fixed architectures and urbanisms are unsuited to shifting climactic regimes. The inherent mobility of Tuvaluan practices is increasingly relevant at a time when an estimated one person per second is displaced by environmental risks. [9] Tuvaluan conceptions of mobile inhabitation—flexible architecture, mobile settlements, shared ownerships—can provide new precedents for how to cope with uncertainty in our changing climates.

By learning from the fluid Tuvaluan vernacular, continental inhabitants can too develop strategies for inhabiting flux.


(1) John Connell, "Population, migration, and problems of atoll development in the South Pacific," Pacific Studies 9, no. 2 (1986): 41.

(2). Tuvalu Central Statistics Divi-sion. Tuvalu Statistics, http://www.spc.int/prism/tuvalu/

(3) Lomiata Niuatui, “Fakai mo Fale a Tuvalu: The Villages and Buildings of Tuvalu” (Bachelors of   Architecture Thesis, Papua New Guinea University of Technology, 1990).

(4) Gerd Koch, The Material Culture of Tuvalu (Berlin: Museum fur Volkerkunde Berline, 1961).

(5) Charles Hedley, “General account of the Atoll of Funafuti. I. General account,” Australian Museum Memoir 3, no. 2 (December 1896) : 1–72.

(6) Peter McQuarrie, Strategic Atolls: Tuvalu and the Second World War (Christchurch, New Zealand: Macmillan Brown Center for Pacific Studies, University of Canterbury, 1993).

(7) Elizabeth Yarina, "Post-Island Futures: Seeding Territory for Tuvalu's Fluid Atolls” (Masters of Architecture and Masters in City Planning Thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2016).

(8) Russell King, Theories and typologies of migration: an overview and a primer (Malmö: Malmö Universtity, Malmö Institute for Studies of Immigration, Diversity and Welfare (MIM), 2013).

(9) IDMC, Global Estimates. People displaced by disasters (Genève: Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, 2013).

Lizzie Yarina recently completed a Joint Masters of Architecture and Masters of City Planning at MIT with her thesis entitled “POST-ISLAND FUTURES: Seeding Territory for Tuvalu’s Fluid Atolls.” She is a design researcher in the MIT Urban Risk Lab, and is currently an MIT-SUTD teaching and research fellow in Singapore. Lizzie will begin a Fulbright research fellowship in 2017 at the University of Victoria Wellington regarding the spatial implications of climate change migration on New Zealand cities.

Lomita Niuatui is a 1990 Bachelor of Architecture graduate of the Papua New Guinea University of Technology.  He currently manages an architecture and construction firm in Tuvalu and is enrolled in the Master of Science in Sustainable Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London.