How Buildings Learn: Defining Vernacular

Well, once again we’ve reached the end of a week, and I have tons more book to cover. But I’m just going to pick out a few bits from Stewart Brand’s chapter called “Vernacular: How Buildings Learn From Each Other.” As I’ve said before, you might want to head over to GoogleVideo and watch the 6-part BBC series from 1997, also called How Buildings Learn. The tv series doesn’t necessarily follow the same chapter divisions as the book, which is why I haven’t just put a link for each chapter in each post this week.

In this chapter, all sorts of vernacularist architectural historians who helped found the Vernacular Architecture Forum in 1980 show up: Henry Glassie (for whom the VAF’s Glassie Award is named), Dell Upton (of “Fluidity in Architecture” fame), Thomas Hubka, Orlando Ridout, the list goes on. Needless to say, Brand really really likes vernacular architecture and the people who study vernacular architecture. The reason he likes it is that vernacular, more than High Road architecture in general, and of course, much more than almost all Modernist architecture (in Brand’s view) is built to be adaptable and change as needed.

Brand recognizes an important distinction between the style of a building (i.e., the ornament applied to it to make it fashionable and one-up the Joneses) and the form of the building. Many of us are familiar with the basic styles: Federal, Greek Revival, Victorian/Queen Anne, Craftsman, Tudor. But less familiar are the even more basic building forms that are generally defined by the floorplanof the building: center-hall house (in Mississippi, we call these Planters Cottages and they are incredibly common), side-hall house (all over the place on the East Coast but hardly any in MS), shotguns, double-entry church. The form names are more wordy than most of the styles because they have to be descriptive. Architectural historians love to sub-divide these basic forms into sub-forms: Planters Cottage with full gallery (porch), Planters Cottage with portico, etc. Because of this emphasis on floor plans, vernacularists also love to measure buildings and produce neat, often still hand-drawn floorplans. The diffusion of the forms over a region indicates where a population was coming from and moving to, and usually when you find a weird building form or method of construction in a certain place, you can be pretty sure that building was built by someone “not from around here.”

But the real question is, how many sub-forms can you fit on the head of a pin?

When you move into the 20th century, and the culture became much more industrialized and transient, vernacularists start looking at “popular” architecture such as mail-order houses, bungalows, fast-food chains, and all sorts of other buildings that are mainly interesting because of the history they tell.

Ok, it’s Friday, I’ll stop talking and let Stewart Brand finish out our week:

What gets passed from building to building via builders and users is informal and casual and astute. At least it is when the surrounding culture is coherent enough to embrace generations of experience.

‘Vernacular’ is a term borrowed since the 1850s by architectural historians from linguists, who used it to mean ‘the native language of a region.’ Chris Alexander adopts a similar usage when he declares that a ‘pattern language’ is the medium of humane building design. ‘Vernacular’ means ‘vulgar’ sometimes and ‘the bearer of folk wisdom’ sometimes. It means ‘common’ in all three senses of the word–‘widespread,’ ‘ordinary,’ and ‘beneath notice.’

In terms of architecture, vernacular buildings are seen as the opposite of whatever is ‘academic,’ high-style,’ ‘polite.’ Vernacular is everything not designed by professional architects–in other words, most of the world’s buildings, ranging in assigned value from now-precious Cotswold stone cottages and treasured old Cape Cods to the despised hordes of factory-built mobile homes. In the eyes of tastemakers, old vernacular is lovely. New vernacular (including everything we might call Low Road) is unlovely.

There is a magazine called Progressive Architecture but none called Conservative Architecture. If there were such a magazine (a good idea, in my view) it would be largely about vernacular architecture, which is profoundly cautious and imitative, so immersed in its culture and its region that it looks interesting only to outsiders.
. . . .
Vernacular building traditions have the attention span to incorporate generational knowledge about long-term problems such as maintaining and growing a building over time. High-style architecture likes to solve old problems in new ways, which is a formula for disaster, according to Dell Upton at the University of California. Vernacular builders, he says, are content to accept well-provenold solutions to old problems. Then they can concentrate all their design ingenuity strictly on new problems, if any. When the standard local roof design works pretty well, and materials and skills are readily available for later repair, why would you mess with that?

Vernacular buildings evolve. As generations of new buildings imitate the best of mature buildings, they increase in sophistication while retaining simplicity. They become finely attuned to the local weather and local society. A much-quoted dictum of Henry Glassie’s states that ‘a search for pattern in folk material yields regions, where a search for pattern in popular material yields periods.’ Roof lines and room layout are regional. Paint color and trim vary with fashions in style. The heart of vernacular design is about form, not style. Style is time’s fool. Form is time’s student.
. . . .
The difference between style and form is the difference between a statement and a language. An architectural statement is limited to a few stylistic words and depends on originality for its impact, whereas a vernacular form unleashes the power of a whole, tested grammar. Builders of would-be popular buildings do better when they learn from folklore than when they ape the elite. As for the elite: what might be accomplished with their abundant intelligence and creativity if architects really studied the process and history of vernacular designs and applied that lore in innovative work? We might get buildings that could be as original as needed, but still would feel profoundly familiar and right, and would invite change.

It would be a relief after all those smugly decorous buildings that ‘refer to’ stylistic details of one vernacular tradition or another and miss the integrated lore (see also Tom Wolfe’s similar thoughts on Postmodernism). Of all buildings they are the most maddeningly perverse. They look like they should work, and don’t.


This post is the 5th of a week-long series. Want to read the rest?

1. Book Quotes: How Buildings Learn

2. How Buildings Learn: From High Road to Unreal Estate

3. How Buildings Learn: Preservationists Are Soooo Cool

4. How Buildings Learn: Preservation, Part 2

6. How Buildings Learn: Some Closing Thoughts

Categories: Books, Historic Preservation, Preservation People/Events, Vernacular Architecture

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