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
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
source, environmental behaviorist Amos Rapoport, cites an even
more conservative five percent estimate made in 1964 by Konstantinos Doxiadis.
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).
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.
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 of the first meeting of a now very influential conference, that of IASTE, which has since then met every two years in heritage-rich places around the
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, 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
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.