Vernacular Architecture

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Caribou_MAH_lgVernacular architecture is a term used to categorise methods of construction which use locally available resources and traditions to address local needs and circumstances. Vernacular architecture tends to evolve over time to reflect the environmental, cultural and historical context in which it exists. It has often been dismissed as crude and unrefined, but also has proponents who highlight its importance in current design.

It can be contrasted against polite architecture which is characterised by stylistic elements of design intentionally incorporated for aesthetic purposes which go beyond a building's functional requirements.[1]

kivaThe building knowledge in vernacular architecture is often transported by local traditions and is thus based largely - but not only - upon knowledge achieved by trial and error and handed down through the generations, in contrast to the geometrical and physical calculations that underlie architecture planned by architects. This of course does not prevent architects from using vernacular architecture in their designs or from being firmly based in the vernacular architecture of their regions. For the similarities to "traditional architecture" see below.

Vernacular and the architect

Architecture designed by professional architects is usually not considered to be vernacular. Indeed, it can be argued that the very process of consciously designing a building makes it not vernacular. Paul Oliver, in his book Dwellings, states: "...it is contended that ''popular architecture'' designed by professional architects or commercial builders for popular use, does not come within the compass of the vernacular."[11] Oliver also offers the following simple definition of vernacular architecture: "the architecture of the people, and by the people, but not for the people."[12]

Frank Lloyd Wright described vernacular architecture as "Folk building growing in response to actual needs, fitted into environment by people who knew no better than to fit them with native feeling".[13] suggesting that it is a primitive form of design, lacking intelligent thought, but he also stated that it was "for us better worth study than all the highly self-conscious academic attempts at the beautiful throughout Europe".

Many modern architects have studied vernacular buildings and claimed to draw inspiration from them, including aspects of the vernacular in their designs. In 1946, the Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy was appointed to design the town of New Gourna near Luxor. Having studied traditional Nubian settlements and technologies, he incorporated the traditional mud brick vaults of the Nubian settlements in his designs. The experiment failed, due to a variety of social and economic reasons, but is the first recorded attempt by an architect to address the social and environmental requirements of building users by adopting the methods and forms of the vernacular.[14]

In 1964 the exhibition Architecture Without Architects was put on at the Museum of Modern Art, New York by Bernard Rudofsky. Accompanied by a book of the same title, including black and white photography of vernacular buildings around the world, the exhibition was extremely popular. It was Rudofsky who first made use of the term vernacular in an architectural context, and brought the concept into the eye of the public and of mainstream architecture: "For want of a generic label we shall call it vernacular, anonymous, spontaneous, indigenous, rural, as the case may be."[15]

Since the emergence of the term in the 1970s, vernacular considerations have played an increasing part in architectural designs, although individual architects had widely varying opinions of the merits of the vernacular.

Modern proponents of the use of the vernacular in architectural design include Charles Correa, a well known Indian architect, and Balkrishna Doshi, also Indian, who established the Vastu-Shilpa Foundation in Ahmedabad to research the vernacular architecture of the region. The Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck was also a proponent of vernacular architecture.[16] Architects whose work exemplifies the modern take on vernacular architecture would be Samuel Mockbee, Christopher Alexander and Paolo Soleri.

Oliver claims that:

As yet there is no clearly defined and specialized discipline for the study of dwellings or the larger compass of vernacular architecture. If such a discipline were to emerge it would probably be one that combines some of the elements of both architecture and anthropology with aspects of history and geography.

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