Houses are People: The Dorothy Pelzer Photograph Collection

Dorothy West Pelzer was an architect and ethnographer with a deep interest in Southeast Asia. Born in 1915, [1] she obtained her Master’s degree in Architecture in the 1950s before joining the International Voluntary Service (IVS), where she was posted to Vientiane and throughout Laos from 1962 to 1963. After leaving IVS, she stayed in Southeast Asia to continue her research.

Between 1962 and 1970, as part of her goal to document ethnographic information and cultures of Southeast Asia, Dorothy Pelzer travelled extensively throughout the region, often under difficult conditions, eventually visiting nine Southeast Asian countries: Brunei, Burma, Cambodia, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In the course of her field research, she assembled an astounding 31,000 black & white photographs and 7,000 colour slides. Her intention was to collect her materials into a book titled Houses Are People to demonstrate the intimate relationship between a house and the community that created it.

Origins of the collection

Pelzer had planned to present her proposal for Houses are People in 1970. Unfortunately, she fell ill with cancer in 1971 and she passed away in 1972 without a draft. Among her last papers, she had asked her friend, Lim Chong Keat, a Malaysian architect and researcher, to continue her research due to his training and similar interests. His team went through the envelopes which contained many of her notes. They would proceed to collate, inventorize and house the collection, placing them in proper storage systems. The collection was initially catalogued under his expertise, and her collection became the foundation of the Southeast Asian Cultural Research Programme (SEACURP) at ISEAS in 1981.  Datuk Lim would also eventually became Project Director of SEACURP, now known as the Southeast Asian Cultural Collection (SEACC).

Disappearing traditional elements in architecture

Pelzer’s photographs catalogued the slow disappearance of traditional house forms in Southeast Asia due to age and encroaching modernity. Some of the aspects she noted included modern materials being chosen in place of traditional building materials, the decay and replacement traditional house-forms in modernisation efforts and the loss of traditional ways of life.

In her writings and correspondences, she had shown distress towards prevailing attitudes of most Southeast Asians, particularly with respect to how eager architects and planners were to adopt building designs from the West to the point that they ignored and did not document local traditional architectural elements. [2] As the region felt the impact of rapid modernisation and urbanisation, Pelzer saw modern buildings replace traditional houses, as the cost of rebuilding traditional houses far exceeded that building with modern methods. [3]

House forms and livelihood in pictures

An excellent photographer with a good eye and empathy for people, one of her many documentations was her work on Tongkonan, traditional ancestral houses belonging to the Torajans in Palawa, Indonesia. Her photos of the Tongkonan showcased the Longa, a striking architectural feature of extremely tall overhanging roofs, closely resembling buffalo horns. Only Toraja nobles had been allowed to build Tongkonan [4]. She noted that while such houses had a grand and impressive appearance, the living space within the house was limited as the inhabitants spent most of their time outside.

Image 1: A view of tongkonan (ancestral house) in Palawa, Toraja, Indonesia, 1965. DP102_38.
Image 2: A view of the facade of a tongkonan in Palawa, Toraja, Indonesia, 1965. DP102_31.

As seen in Image 3 below, the motifs carved in the interior of the house were impressive, utilising traditional Toraja motifs of pa’tedong (buffalo) to represent prosperity and ritual sacrifice.

Image 3: Focus on wood carving designs on the facade of a tongkonan, 1965. DP104_30.

Pelzer also photographed Mbaru Niang, roundhouses with conical roofs found in Manggarai, Flores, Indonesia. These houses had religious and cosmological significance with designs that reflected the Manggarai people’s cultural identity. The roundhouses had three or five stories which symbolised the various hierarchies and levels of society and government.

Compared to the Tongkonans, Mbaru Niang contained a large internal living space and could accommodate 200 people. The size and capacity of the house symbolized the key belief of the Manggarai of societal unity and family. The internal panels of the house often had carvings resembling rice plants and crowns worn by the nobles during important rituals.

Image 4: A view of a mbaru niang (round conical-shaped house), Pongkor, Manggarai, Flores, Indonesia, 1965. DP106_24.
Image 5: Close-up of a carved panel in the mbaru niang, Todo, Manggarai, Flores, Indonesia, 1965. DP106_13.

Besides houses, Pelzer also documented how the Manggarai had a distinctive method of apportioning their rice field for growing and harvesting. Their round fields, called Lingko, were divided into sections like a pie and assigned to each clan.

Image 6: A close-up of a lingko (round field), Tjantjar, Manggarai, Flores, Indonesia, 1965. DP106_09.

Historic buildings can be renovated and used for modern purposes whilst maintaining their original character, thus enabling one to learn about their history and appreciate their heritage. However, this is often not viable due to factors such as cost and the fact that new forms of architecture generally have more functionality, which is very important to an ever-growing population. As a result, historic structures are frequently entirely replaced. Photo collections such as this one therefore serve to retain the memory of such historical architectures and buildings when they are eventually lost.

Further Readings


[1] This section on Dorothy Pelzer’s life and origins of the collection is drawn from the book Southeast Asian Cultural Heritage: Images of Traditional Communities (Singapore: Programme on the Cultural Heritage of Southeast Asia Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 1986) compiled by Ong Choo Suat.
[2] Ibid, p. 16.
[3] Will Davis, “Loneliness, Disappearance and the Veneer of Protection,” Platform, 24 August,
[4] Kathleen M. Adams, Identity, Heritage, and Memorialization: The Toraja Tongkonan of Indonesia (London: Bloomsbury Publishers, 2015).

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