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Outrage: the vernacular can lead to a toxic, reactionary culture

Architecture is praised for being vernacular, but merit may come from standing out, not fitting in

High res – charles holland

High res – charles holland

Source: Charles Holland

Borrowing from history and using local references does not have to result in timid attempts at the ‘vernacular’. In the case of the French Alpine ski resort of Avoriaz, the strange and compelling new forms transcend normative categoriesof new and old, modern and traditional

Some words cling to architecture like barnacles, impossible to prise off. They get repeated over and over again, their use becoming ubiquitous and their meaning unchallenged. Sometimes this becomes so pervasive, one has to cry out ‘enough, please make it stop!’. Vernacular is one of those words.

But what could possibly be wrong with the vernacular? Surely architects should refer to local building traditions as the context for their designs? Shouldn’t buildings – in the painfully familiar terms of planning statements the country over – be ‘in keeping’?

Literally, ‘vernacular’ refers to local dialect, an inflection of language often specific to a place. It is unlearned and improper in the sense that it is not always concerned with received meanings. To ‘use the vernacular’ is to borrow examples of crude or slang speech. Imported into architecture, the term describes a local tradition of building, one produced for functional rather than aesthetic reasons. It is a form of building that has invariably developed without the input of architects or designers, but its use has now expanded to mean any building that makes reference to supposedly traditional elements.

We are familiar with this kind of language. Pitched roofs and dormer windows are routinely described as vernacular. New houses produced in large numbers via global supply chains will claim to be influenced by the local vernacular. Building types that have no ancient ancestry, such as supermarkets and petrol stations, will grow vernacular appendages.

This is not an argument against the borrowing of older forms of architecture. Quite the opposite: I love buildings that learn from history, even unwittingly strange and surreal ones like high-tech bus stops with thatched roofs. It is the naturalisation, the claim that one thing is more authentic than the other, that is problematic. The use of the term ‘vernacular’ is intended to convey a sense of ‘realness’ but, ultimately, only serves to reveal its own underlying artificiality. Vernacular architecture is an oxymoron. By its nature, it cannot be appropriated without becoming something else. One could say that architecture is the conscious appropriation of building into culture. As soon as we go near the vernacular, we kill it. But in so doing, we make something else.

The appeal of the vernacular partly lies in a rejection of modernity and the universalising tendencies of global culture. In his influential book of 1964, Architecture without Architects, Bernard Rudofsky wrote: ‘Vernacular architecture does not go through fashion cycles. It is nearly immutable, indeed unimprovable, since it serves its purpose to perfection’. Rudofsky’s book valorised vernacular architecture precisely because it was not designed by architects, gaining both an immediacy and a kind of purity.

This also chimed with a rejection of Modernism’s tabula rasa approach to urbanism – its belief that cities could be replanned from scratch. Slowly, the utopianism of starting again was replaced with a reverence for what was already there. At some point though, we overcompensated. Our current obsession with buildings ‘fitting in’ is all pervasive and plays to a number of strong emotions, most obviously connecting to a fear of the new and a desire for things not to change. When Theresa May denounced international culture for creating ‘citizens of nowhere’, she encapsulated this desire to hang on to forms of local identity, however deluded. Clinging to the certainties of identity offered by the vernacular is sentimental at best, but can also, as in politics, lead to a toxic, reactionary culture.

Sometimes it is better for a building to not fit in, not only because the context might be poor or the surrounding buildings second rate, but because difference is important and some buildings are more important than others. Historically, variations in style are far more normal than our current obsession with formal consistency. We might live in the first historical period to consider every other historical period more important than our own. Part of the pleasure of a historic high street is the variety of buildings of different periods, scales, materials and styles. Architectural forms look forwards as well as back, and history is as valid a source of inspiration as any other – but buildings should not refer always and only to their context.

What is meant by context anyway? Local culture has dispersed into an infinite number of constellations – places where we find commonality and meaning – impossible to restrict to a single, physical place. Digital culture does profound things to the idea of the vernacular, disseminating it across an infinite surface so we occupy multiple places at once.

Some might see the challenge posed by the climate crisis as another excuse to return to the supposedly sensible traditions of vernacular architecture. But we should grasp all the answers available to us and cast our net as wide as possible. It is important to look back at traditional buildings, but we should not run away from the importance of the new. Actually we have no choice: whatever we do it won’t have anything to do with vernacular.

This piece is featured in the AR November issue on the Foreign + Emerging Architecture – click here to purchase your copy today