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What is Vernacular Architecture?

"Ethnoarch Presents" features articles on the topic of traditional, vernacular and ethnic architectures.
What is Vernacular Architecture?
Image corresponding to this article
An early 1900s vernacular landscape in Papua New Guinea.
Broadly defined, vernacular architecture is an area of architectural theory that studies the structures made by empirical builders without the intervention of professional architects. There exist many areas of non-professional architectural practice, from primitive shelter in distant communities to urban adaptations of building types that are imported from one country to another (fig. 1). Because of that, vernacular architecture is a very open, comprehensive concept. It is in fact used as a shortcut and a synonymous for several different practices, and theoretical stands on those practices. These include primitive or aboriginal architecture; indigenous architecture; ancestral or traditional architecture; folk, popular, or rural architecture; ethnic architecture or ethno-architecture; informal architecture; the so-called "anonymous architecture" or "architecture without architects;" and even “non-pedigree” architecture.

Notice how most of these practices and/or ideas make the vernacular seem exclusive to the realm of the exotic and the distant. Yet, in light of the truth, this type of architecture not only is the most widespread way to build, but indeed most of us were likely raised in vernacular homes, given that at least 90 percent of the world’s architecture is vernacular. In this estimate several sources coincide, among them the Centre for Vernacular Architecture Studies (established by famed folklorist Paul Oliver), which says that only ten percent of the world's building stock has been designed by architects.[1] Another source, environmental behaviorist Amos Rapoport, cites an even more conservative five percent estimate made in 1964 by Konstantinos Doxiadis.[2]

Fig. 1. Kouta'uya, a chief and a vernacular builder.
Fig. 2. An American vernacular: Victorian architecture.
Fig. 3. English vernacular: Gothic revival.
Fig. 4. The poetic vernacular.
Fig. 5. A popular stereotype.
Fig. 6. Energy efficiency in vernacular types.

Being such a widespread way to build, the denomination vernacular thus does not apply exclusively to the architecture from the past or from non-western or rural societies. There is, in fact, a major field of study called "American vernacular," which documents and classifies the rural, suburban and urban dwellings of the United States (fig. 2). Also in the United Kingdom there is a longstanding tradition of vernacular architecture theory, which started in the early 1800s, in the context of a search for a national architectural language. In that search pointed-arch, Gothic architecture was proposed as the vernacular architecture of England in preference to Romanesque architecture, which was not vernacular because it was of Norman origin (i.e. it had been developed outside of the country, in continental Europe) (fig. 3).[3]

The History of the Concept

That there existed theories about vernacular architecture already in the 1800s means that, as a concept, vernacular architecture is not as new as it might sound. In fact, although the interest in the vernacular has just grown in relatively recent times, it has been latent for a long while. The idea of vernacularism in relation to building was hinted at in the English language since the 1600s, whereas the term "vernacular architecture" has been explicitly in use since as early as 1818.

During the 1800s, the vernacular was a subject of exploration from different disciplines, and with different biases. First, and as it was already mentioned, it was a critical element in the search of national architectural languages. Second, vernacular buildings in the Southern hemisphere were seen as objects of curiosity: In European magazines and books, travelers narrated stories about the exotic places they visited, and these stories often included descriptions of the typical buildings of each place (fig. 4). Third, the vernacular was used as an element to advance the colonial agenda: Some social scientists by the end of the 19th century tried to prove that indigenous vernacular buildings were actually the material evidence of the intellectual inferiority of their builders (fig. 5).

Architects became interested in bringing the vernacular to the theory of high architecture by the first quarter of the twentieth century. The praise of the vernacular by Adolf Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier is well known. However, the decisive moment for the insertion of the vernacular in high design theory was Architecture Without Architects, a 1964, very influential exhibition of commented photographs of vernacular structures at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The exhibition was organized by Bernard Rudofsky and had the ultimate goal of elevating vernacular buildings worldwide to the category of beaux-arts.

However, by the end of the 1960s, and with works such as Paul Oliver's Shelter and Society (1969) and Amos Rapoport's House Form and Culture (1969) studies began to emphasize less the beauty of the vernacular types and more the environmental, technological, and social contexts in which they were built. In 1976, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) formed a special committee to promote international co-operation in identifying, studying and protecting vernacular architecture. The growing interest in the vernacular reached a milestone in 1997, with the publication (under the leadership of the already mentioned British folklorist Paul Oliver and after ten years of editing work) of the most important reference work edited so far on the topic, the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, which has entries by more than 750 specialists, writing from more than 80 countries.[4]

Oliver's encyclopedia has become an important framework for the discussion on vernacular architecture. Having now an important portion of the vernacular building landscape documented in an easy-to-use reference work as the Encyclopedia is, many scholars have in recent years changed their research focus, from pure documentation of vernacular types, to focusing instead on the analysis of broad issues affecting the theory and practice of vernacular architecture. Some of the most important among the issues explored are identity, ethnicity, heritage and tourism, the end and reinvention of traditions, power and dominance, and sustainability. A first step in this critical direction was Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition, edited by Nezar AlSayyad and Paul Bourdier and published in 1989. This book was the outcome[5] of the first meeting of a now very influential conference, that of IASTE,[6] which has since then met every two years in heritage-rich places around the world.

Vernacular Architecture Today

Despite having a long history that dates back to almost two centuries, only over the past decade vernacular architecture studies have become established into mainstream architectural discourse. In fact, between 2000 and 2010 literally hundreds of architectural books and journal articles that touch on the topic have been published in the English language only.

Why has this happened? The most important reason is the cultural and economic globalization phenomenon, manifested in at least three ways: global communication technologies, the global environmental crisis, and global politics. Each of these phenomena has decisively increased the general interest in the world's vernacular architectures.

- Global Communication Technologies

Regarding the first of these three phenomena, a more globally interconnected world thanks to communication technologies (especially the World Wide Web, the cell phone and the combination between the two), as well as cheaper transportation (compared to half a century ago) has raised the interest from new generations of architects and other professionals in the building of other peoples, in countries other than their own. Granted, there has been great interest in these architectures since at least the 1960s, but there is now faster, easier and more extensive access to information on traditional communities everywhere.

Fig. 7. Learning with vernacular builders.
Fig. 8. An Upper Amazon Maloca.
Fig. 9. Traditional structure in urban settlement.
Fig. 10. A re-engineered vernacular.
Fig. 11. A popular building type...
Fig. 12. ... And its problems.

- Global Environmental Crisis

The second factor that motivates contemporary interest in the vernacular is the environmental crisis, including issues of resource depletion, global warming, and energy crises. The wake up call for architects came in the 1990s, when they realized that the building industry (construction and operation) consumes a major part of the energy produced in the world, while at the same time contributing in a major way to the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Having become aware that they are among the key actors behind the environmental crisis, architectural designers are now exploring ways to improve their interventions through "green" design. In their exploration, they list vernacular techniques, materials and forms among the most viable alternatives to address the serious environmental problems in connection to the industry (fig. 6). The argument is that for hundreds of years common builders managed to build using only a small percentage of the available energy resources, without negatively affecting the surrounding environment, and generally speaking in a sustainable manner. Because of that, the argument continues, these builders' practices should inform the conventional architectural practices that are highly accountable for today’s environmental crisis.

However, the environmental advantages of vernacular architecture have been highly idealized. Whether or not it is true that in a distant past most rural vernacular buildings did offer such advantages, this is not the case today. Global economic, environmental and political change are deeply impacting and changing traditional building practices all around the world (fig. 7). In fact, many vernacular architecture types that were (and keep being) celebrated in books are not built anymore due to environmental, economic, political, social and cultural change. Resource depletion, as well as economic and political change have made it very difficult and unaffordable for traditional communities to build classical vernacular structures such the majestic rainforest malocas (fig. 8). But also, traditional communities in the developing world have been rapidly changing at a social and cultural level, becoming for instance less community-oriented and more individualistic. Therefore, in some cases the traditional structures have become also functionally obsolete, since more modern structures just do better in solving the contemporary problems that traditional communities now face.

- Global Politics

The environmental issue connects to the third factor that motivates interest in the vernacular today, which is that of geo-political concerns. This is a critical issue that unfortunately vernacular architectural theory has barely touched upon. As some social scientists have noted,[7] since the late 1980s the nature of international conflict has changed, from wars between sovereign states to interstate ethnic conflict between a predominant group and a resisting subordinate one, the conflict often indirectly involving other states. Such has been the case of the Yugoslav Wars, the Rwanda Genocide and the Darfur War, just to mention a few recent ethnically driven conflicts.

These well known conflicts demonstrate the critical role that ethnic identity plays today in global geopolitics. And vernacular architecture has become extremely relevant because it happens to be a valuable tool in ethnopolitics. This happens at all levels of ethnopolitical activity, from something as simple as populism politics, when an office candidate invokes the vernacular to connect with electors (as in "when I was little I was raised in a humble country house, so now as a politician I understand how is it like to be poor"), to more elaborate uses of the vernacular, for example in the context of rights claims and development practice.

Regarding rights claims, it is very common to see today that in changing indigenous communities—for example urban ones living in regular "modern" houses—the community manages to still keep a model of a traditional building, even if they normally do not build that type of structure anymore, and even if they do not use the model (i.e., it stays empty, only as a display object). Keeping a model of the traditional building helps these changing communities to support certain rights claims (political, land, educational, funding…), on the basis that they still maintain their cultural identity (fig. 9).

As for development practice, vernacular architecture is key in ethnically sensitive government development programs. Through ethnosensitive programs, governments address the specific necessities of very-low income ethnic minorities, by producing housing and public infrastructure that uses the communities' traditional architectural elements (materials, technologies, forms), yet modernizing, re-engineering these structures as modern vernaculars or neo-vernaculars (fig. 10). These modern vernaculars are considered to be socially and environmentally more efficient than the conventional, purely Le Corbusian, modern buildings in simple shapes and built with concrete and asbestos roofs (figs. 11, 12). Through this ethnically sensitive approach, local building traditions are given new life, and with that, and ideally, local social, cultural and economic practices are also renewed. This idea (which is not free of problems) made Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy famous in the 1940s, and has lately experienced a revival in the form of "culturally appropriate building," a sensitive approach to development now championed by governments and multi-lateral organizations including the United Nations.

In the midst of great technological, environmental and political change over the past decades, the vernacular has become highly relevant, either as a motive of intellectual curiosity, as a technological example, or as a politically strategic element. Given that architecture is inevitably connected to technological developments, environmental issues and political change, vernacular architecture has thus become a central concept in architectural theory and practice today.

[1]Centre for Vernacular Architecture Studies, International Studies in Vernacular Architecture, brochure (Oxford: Oxford Brookes University, n.d.).

[2] Amos Rapoport, House Form and Culture (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1969), page 2.

[3] This is the argument in Robert Knight's A Cursory Disquisition on the Conventual Church of Tewkesbury and Its Antiquities (London: Bensley and Sons, 1818).

[4] Paul Oliver, ed., Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), page xxviii.

[5] AlSayyad and Bourdier 1989, 2.

[6] International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments.

[7] See for example the work by Rodolfo Stavenhagen, "Ethnodevelopment, a Neglected Dimension in Developmental Thinking," in Development Studies: Critique and Renewal, edited by Raymond Apthorpe and András Kráhl (Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1986).

Published: May 29, 2006 . Category: General Info


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