Vernacular Architecture

My passion for structures has its roots and primary fascination in the world’s houses, and the people who built and lived in them.  (Scuppers, the Sailor Dog, was first.) Of the people, by the people, for the people.

The unusual term for the overwhelming majority of people’s homes applied by the architectural elite, “Vernacular,”  is out of place, borrowed from linguistics.  Vernacular conventionally means domestic, native, indigenous, but not really.  It really means verna cular or “small homes of the slaves.”  We can forgive the “polite” architect, however, because he rarely is an English major who studies Latin.  “Vernacular” architecture should be something any architect yearns for and greatly respects, rather than contributing to the notion of We, the People, being the chattel of a lesser grade.

Definitions for “vernacular” in architectural literature usually fail because they generally ignore the most vital aspects of what makes people’s houses such engineering marvels: comfort, experience, environment, occupation, climate, family size, culture, and history in practice head the list.

The vernacular (here, I mean the true vernacular of language) is well illustrated by the telephone.  It rings, and we need to convey an audible acknowledgement that we recognize there is no visual feed to give the caller notice we are ready to converse.  We therefore indicate our readiness to engage in the first words of conversation, and assure that we are paying attention, by saying, “hello.” It didn’t originate at MIT or Cambridge.  It works universally.  It is the vernacular of the hoidy-toidy as well as the lowly commoner.

So the design of our homes is not an architectural achievement of some higher class, but the vernacular language of the people, revised, standardized, and often bastardized by architect and engineer.  Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, or Le Corbusier, immediately comes to mind.  Snob, genius, and idiot.  Great technical ideas, lovely views of architecture as true art, but a hideous example of contempt for mankind.  To be fair, he never tried to do this, but people with six names and titles tend to be that way.

Just a machine?

A house is a machine for living in,” he famously said, though he never reconciled that with, “You know, it is life that is right and the architect who is wrong.”  He simultaneously venerated history and tried replace it with his ideas.  That, in a nutshell, is the expression of arrogance and authoritarianism.

An architect should be the mechanic for the people’s vision — not its source. The biggest problem is that “great architects” have stolen our bits of individual history, collected genius, personality, joy and inspiration, and given us tract homes.

The “vernacular” of architecture should mean “what has developed from thousands of years of development, refinement, joy, preference, and personal taste and character.”  The architect of the people — all of us — needs to be from us.  To be great,  the architect simply says, “hello.”

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