What Is Vernacular Architecture?

Nick Ladd – ARCH 420 – September 30, 2003

To me, the purest definition of vernacular architecture is simple…it is architecture without architects. It is the pure response to a particular person’s or society’s building needs. It fulfills these needs because it is crafted by the individual and society it is in. In addition the building methods are tested through trial-and-error by the society of which they are built until their building methods near perfection (over time) and are tailored to the climatic, aesthetic, functional, and sociological needs of their given society. Because the person constructing the structure tends to be the person who will be using it, the architecture will be perfectly tailored to that individual’s particular wants and needs. One of the most important things that we can learn by looking at vernacular architecture is the seemingly simple (almost low-tech) methods of which we can create a building that is perfectly adapted to the building’s users and the building’s locale. At face value these methods seem trivial yet are in fact quite complex and extremely effective because they have been tested over time and have evolved to fit a society’s needs. We can learn from this and it can help prevent some of the devastating things architects do, namely sacrificing a building’s function, comfort, or ecological friendliness in the pursuit of some aesthetic quality or even worse, an architect’s egotistical pursuits. I believe in general, that architects have good intentions but fall short because many of the basic principles that are taken into account in all forms of vernacular architecture are often neglected by modern day architects. Vernacular architecture is perfect because it is derived through the application of local materials and building techniques to create buildings that function as what they are meant to function as. Because the building’s design and construction is intimately inner twined with the person who will be using the structure, the final product functions exactly as intended. These building maximize the local knowledge of how buildings can be effectively designed as well as how to effectively use local materials and resources.

I believe that many of the traditions of the church are being questioned and thrown away in favor of “progress”. This sense of tradition is immensely important because it bestows upon us a sense of history and genesis. This is diluting our largest source of tradition. Religion has managed to survive in a relatively pure form since the beginning of man (or at least the history of man as dictated by written record. we have always strived to seek new knowledge and technology. But then again. Because of this. People no longer rely on spiritual faith. It can be argued that one of the strongest traditions is that of religion. it gives a sense of belonging and ancestral heritage. This has progressively obliterated many of the traditions that explained unknown phenomenon by demystifying them through the use of modern science and knowledge. but lean on empirical facts and evidence. There is an ever present need for us to somehow better our lives and to justify “progress” with the self-righteous notion that we’re improving the lives of future generations. largely from religious organizations). isn’t it man’s tradition to be constantly questioning and altering our given traditions in the name of progress? . in a time of purer religious freedom (at least in the U.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 10/9/03 Tradition Many of the traditions that have existed or continue to exist were formed out of the necessity to explain unknown events.S.). This has not happened by accident. Now. This can be clearly seen when comparing the relative reliance on religious belief when looking at highly industrialized societies and less technologically advanced societies. While this is generally seen as positive by the intellectual society (justified by more self-righteous notions) it is at the same time denying future generations a sense of tradition. The strength of the church up until fairly recent times has strictly imposed religious traditions on their people. During not-so-long-ago times the church carefully kept their traditions pure and fought anything that was contrary to their traditions (just look at what happened to Galileo). Many of the phenomenons that people have always relied on the church to explain have been explained by science. It is man’s nature to never be satisfied by his surroundings and the current status quo. In addition.

just because architects have these choices available. There was a symbiotic relationship between the use of local materials which could easily be obtained. this one not being based on geographic location but on a building’s budget. In a modern era. When using new materials we enter a grey area where the consequences of our actions are not necessarily know. The local craftsman knew how to turn these raw materials into buildings and knew the structural limitations of what they were building with. Today.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 10/15/03 An Excess of Material Choice For the most part. In addition. Vernacular architects were limited to the use of materials that were available and could be physically obtained locally. In addition. architects have the same limitation. There is a parallel that can be drawn between the vernacular architects of the past and modern day architects. the use of none local materials contribute to the depletion of far away resources and a loss of embodied energy that is thrown out in the process of transferring the materials to the building site. we are no longer limited to using only local materials to construct our homes. Materials are often misused. vernacular architecture has always been dependent on the availability of local building materials to construct homes. and local craftsman that knew how to skillfully use local materials to build architecture. This is breaking the once symbiotic relationship we had between materials and builders (whether they are architects or contractors) and killed the tradition of the builders being masters of the materials they use. they could effectively predict how these materials would weather and how to optimally build with these materials. Sometimes materials do not function as we thought they would and buildings weather prematurely requiring excessive upkeep. This offers an interesting question. should we choose to use non-local materials just because we can? . There is an influx of largely untested materials constantly being introduced to the building industry.

Throughout history ‘architects’. I find it somewhat ironic that in a modern era where vernacular architecture is practically extinct we now find value in studying it. To some extent the vernacular may have been covered by cultural anthropologists but it has largely not fallen within an architect’s studies. We feel that we can get a better grasp on exactly what something is without having to worry about it changing over its life cycle. It plays on the fact that in some sense we don’t like to study things until they are dead. Only now that we’ve finally taken the time to do in-depth studies are we realizing that there is a tremendous amount we can learn from this kind of architecture. with everything else that was worth studying simply being a derivative of this architecture.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 10/22/03 The Vernacular Trend Vernacular studies have largely been ignored in the past by architectural scholars. Our studied history has primarily been that of Western Europe. It is nice to know that I will be learning about this information before the knowledge is lost and some new architectural trend catches everyone’s attention. have an air of arrogance that prevents them from believing that this type of architecture is up to their caliper and therefore worth studying. The fact that a school of architecture is now devoting a class to vernacular architecture is one of the things I believe Cal Poly is actually doing correctly. Vernacular architecture is a huge and complex field that was in a constant state of flux and studying the corpse was much easier than studying the living creature. . in the non-vernacular sense.

Within the cultural and resource constraints of vernacular architecture we have developed a means to provide this. warmth. There is a key link between vernacular architecture and humanist principles of architecture. social. . By combining our cultural needs (aesthetics. knowledge. One of the basic human needs is shelter. We have always felt a need for a home to provide shelter. the vernacular home provided the correct balance between social and private life.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 10/28/03 Humanist Values and Needs in the Vernacular Along with resources. like the works of Anatolian textiles. traditional) with humanistic needs (shelter. food) the vernacular was born. A selective balance was born to satisfy both sets of needs without compromising either. and tradition. By utilizing an individual item such as a textile for several different uses they were able to efficiently use the limited materials they had available. warmth. whatever it may have been as determined by the culture where it existed. they also provided the deeply humanistic need to project oneself on their given environment. most often reflected in the home. human needs have served as a key determinant of vernacular architecture. This created a wonderful balance of various uses that was quite common in the vernacular world. and security. providing warmth. Not only were these pieces functional in the sense of defining space. people of a vernacular era where able to project a piece of themselves into the place where they lived. Through the use of vernacular elements. The vernacular house is a direct product of this. culture. and providing comfort. In addition.

S. These new suburbs created what we now call sprawl and has led to the permanent destruction of farm land. a result of the commuter lifestyle that went along with these suburbs. a loss watershed. cheap energy.S. and to deal with the movement of people from the county side to the city. (and most of Western Europe) the mechanization of traditionally labor intensive hand done jobs resulted in an exodus from the country side to the factory and high density life style of the cities. GI Bills. and energy waste. the U. This. There is a strong fight against this and things may eventually get moving towards a more city oriented lifestyle. We are now starting to look at this suburban leap frog development within academia and striving to go back to a more urban model featuring higher residential densities and the possibility of living close to your place of work within our cities. high density apartment blocks were built to deal with overcrowding issues caused by this rapid influx. A parallel can be drawn between the United States during the industrial revolution and the Turkish growth in a post World War 2 era. . in conjunction with a great number of immigrants resulted in the high density cities found on the east coast. This is the model that Turkey looked to in a post World War 2 world (and even before that) as a way of ‘Westernizing’ and ‘Modernizing’ their cities. During the industrial revolution in the U. Spurred by cheap land. Within the academic world this is being encouraged and taught while in the “real world” it is still not the norm as the majority of people in the U. and aided be new technologies that enabled larger buildings to be feasible.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 11/6/03 The Cyclic Nature of Urban Growth Turkey and the United States are not that different in the way we’ve grown. At the same time that this was going on in Turkey. and the desire to live the “American Dream” with its unattached single family home. with the means to purchase homes grew up in a suburban era where city life was looked down upon and the individual detached home was a status symbol and something to strive for.S. It is ironic that when we look at it academically we see that it took 50 years of suburban growth and sprawl to get back to the original model we had before World War 2. was experiencing a different kind of growth. In order to cope with this influx of people. plenty of yard space. and a white picket fence new suburbs started springing up outside of cities.

. improving on it and bringing in their culture’s maxims and traditions to keep their heritage alive.S. It is important to know where you are coming from but. by keeping their high density city lifestyle but. at the same time not to be imprisoned by it and allow yourself and your culture to evolve in contemporary times.Hopefully Turkey can look at what we’ve done over the past 50 years and spare themselves the same mistakes we’ve made in the U.

it is superficial to look at it only from this perspective. The yard and yard shrine help to lessen and mediate the constant struggle between individualism and communalism. because they tend to be new immigrants to the U. the yard shrine strives to lessen the gap between these seemingly contradictory worlds. This is not based on the fact that the people are usually of Mexican descent but.S. the . and what you are worth (both spiritually and fiscally). In the concurrence with the yard. The shrine must be looked at from a wider view. The shrine allows you to bring deeply personal believes from the private world and communicate them with the public world. At the same time the yard shrine keeps traditions alive and allows people not to forget where and from what culture they have came. what your beliefs are. It is a transition zone and demarcation point between these two worlds that everyone is a part of. All of what I have mentioned is very important to all people but is especially obvious when examples are given from the Southwestern U. even though they sometimes conflict with each other. it fulfills the need to be ‘part’ of society while imposing a small piece of yourself on it. While this is a component of the greater whole. They are a metric for the outside world to look at in order to determine what your spiritual and fiscal values are by looking at your monetary means and personal beliefs. In conjunction with the yard. especially when taking in the context of the yard it sits and the socio-cultural climate they exist.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 11/12/03 Yard and Yard Shrine: Deeper Than Religion At first glance the yard shrine appears to be just another part of the ritual related with Catholicism. By placing a yard shrine in the transition land of the yard you are communicating all of these private attributes to the outside world in an unobtrusive and tactful manner. It is human nature to try and communicate to the greater whole who you are.S. ensuring that you become a component of society without getting lost in it. especially when located in a deeply Latino context. New immigrants of any nationality face the challenge of somehow assimilating and becoming part of the community to which they have immigrated. Lastly. Part of the process of becoming part of the community is communicating who you are to that community in order for them to accept you. The yard serves as a connection between the public world of the street and the private world of the home.

individual yard shrine gives a sense of individuality that is so easy to lose in the generalizations that get applied to massive influxes of immigrants. .

In many parts of the world high density apartment/condo living is the norm and it tends to work better. For the most part though. The American dream involves the single detached house with a white picket fence and a large yard. American perception is at the root of many of the housing problems we have. Whether this was good or bad is up for debate. it was not free of problems. This is what has been driven into our minds as a goal to be achieved since we were small children. This excluded them from the idealized American lifestyle and thus put them in a position to be looked down upon. and kill farmland. In addition. The catalog home helped to close this gap. Once the land in that particular tract is full of low density sprawl developers move on to the next tract of land further outside the city core and destroy it with their mindless sprawl. safe. it is not the best solution to housing. the catalog home was positive and helped create a new generation or home owners who would have not been able to normally afford this. New homes were made available to those whose financial means would not of typically allowed them to purchase a new home. The catalog home was unique because more variety and choice was offered than you typically receive in a standard housing tract. picking your home out of a catalog tended to weaken one’s sense of individuality. Owning a home is a primarily American value that was not available to many Americans because of their financial limits. The fact that they still tended to be low density single family homes helped contribute to the problem of sprawl. It helps create affordable. Catalog houses looked and felt like normal houses and made this style of living available to a larger section of society. Where renting and apartment/condo living is common in most places of the world within all financial levels. the American ‘dream home’ is produced by the thousands in large leapfrog tract developments that destroy virgin land. it is primarily something of the lower class in America.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 11/19/03 Affordability and Choice The catalog home offered a unique balance of affordability and choice. Now more than ever. eliminate watershed. People could now be part of the American lifestyle within their existing financial means. high quality housing without the negative aspects of the typical American ‘dream home’. . However. They were highly affordable and tended to be made of quality material.

they are just getting by day to day living their lives and taking pleasures in the small things in life that they have control over. It is an amazing thing how powerful choice can be. exclusive world of architects where our job somehow became telling people what they wanted and not actually giving them what they needed and wanted. As an architecture student I would like to believe that it does matter. This is where architects have failed. This killed user participation and choice. We are focused on solving short term problems while the solutions we give create much worse long term problems.Nick Ladd ARCH 420 12/04/03 Does Architecture Matter? Who really cares about architecture? Sitting here in a laundromat doing my laundry and writing in my sketchbook I find it difficult to believe that the people around me really think architecture matters. not only for the upper class that we tend to serve but also to the average everyday person. is very shortsighted. It should be the goal of every architect to allow user choice because once you achieve this. letting them deal with and solve the problems we create only to have them create more problems for the next generation. This is what the goal of every project we take on should be yet. our architecture. the types of things that positive memories are made of. . The study of vernacular architecture is not about learning how to replicate the structures and methods of a different place and a different time. People don’t care about this. This is the legacy we leave our future. We can give these to the user and. and our own egotistical illusions of glory. your client will be happy. I believe that as architects we are put into a position and situation where we can make a difference and make architecture significant. At some point this was lost in the egotistical. Vernacular architecture managed to solve the need for a built environment while at the same time provide choice to the person occupying the building through active participation. like many other policies and attitudes in America. The most powerful thing an architect can do is make someone happy. So how can we use architecture to make people happy? This is a question that the study of vernacular architecture can give some suggestions to. it can easily get lost in the concerns over budget. turning a profit. It need not be something huge. It is the little choices that matter the most. In addition. It is about learning how we can better the interaction between the architect and the person occupying that building.

Unfortunately architecture often drives negative change. understand them. The lessons to be learned by vernacular architecture are sitting in front of us. . It magically makes that piece of architecture theirs. it makes them happy.while they may not have a huge impact on the architecture. We now need to be able to look and them. and use them to make a better architecture. This didn’t typically happen in vernacular architecture and this is why vernacular communities did not have many of the problems our society faces today. I think that it is easy to recognize that architecture can become a catalyst for change. Helping a select few at the cost of many if often the norm. it will have an infinitely larger impact on how the user perceives the architecture.

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