“Vernacular” In Practice: Questions for Architects

Publication Date
November 1, 2018

Practitioners around the world are grappling with the role of vernacular architecture in their work, confronting the building traditions of foreign countries in addition to those of their own. We approached some firms with a few simple questions. Below are the answers we received.

What does “vernacular” architecture mean to you?

Lara Briz + Patricia Báscones, Social Practice Architecture (SoPA):
Vernacular architecture is what architecture is in its essence. It is the answer to the necessity of having a place to shelter, for which in each case you have a certain number of constraints, such as available materials, weather, or cultural traditions. All these give as a result a construction that is adapted to the place where it is built and that satisfies the necessities and expectations of the people who will occupy it. For us, any other architecture that does not accomplish this is the one that should have a suffix such as fetish or any other similar adjective. Therefore vernacular architecture is a practical source that can never be arbitrary or replicated without questioning and adapting to the new site conditions.

Michael Daane Bolier:
The beauty of not being architecture.

Jurriaan van Stigt (LEVS Architecten):
Basically the approach of LEVS Architecten always starts with where we design and build. Not only, of course, the style but the real elements like anthropology, cultural habits, material use, climate etc. that define for example the way houses are built, streets are made, or the way we deal with private and public space and the in-between space. That doesn’t mean that we go back to the past and make historical architecture but we try to analyze the meaning of these elements and connect them with this era. There is nothing bad about looking back into history but we build for the future and for that reason, for instance, sustainability has also an important impact on our work and approach as for example new possibilities in building methods.

Is it a practical source or a stylistic fetish, neither, or both?

LEVS:
It is clearly a source but has never the meaning of a style. Architecture is about the connection it can make between people, their background and culture, etc. and a new interpretation.

Bolier:
Neither, it is something that can only be approached on a conceptual level.

Does it play a role in your work as a designer? If so, in what way?

SoPA:
Vernacular architecture has a key role in our work. When developing a project, we always seek to get inspired by the local identity of the place, the existing resources and craftsmanship, and the site conditions. The new building must be an element of appropriation and participation of the community, a place where the users can express their necessities and whose benefits must eventually return to them. We try to combine European contemporary methods of architecture, which we have gained during our studies and professional experience, with traditional local buildings techniques. We adapt each to the other, both the modern and the traditional, to create something innovative and suited to its specific location.

Bolier:
Yes, sometimes it does, with our project in Sri Lanka for instance. In Sri Lanka, vernacular architecture is the dominant architectural style. An architecture born out of an exciting cultural period when – in part coerced by scarcity of self-reliance policies of the 70s – an avant garde group of artists and architects rediscovered local building traditions that offered an alternative to the dominant tropical modernism of the 50s. But as things go, this vernacular architecture became commodified only to represent the country as a “tropical paradise.” Vernacular architecture as an ersatz authenticity to be consumed by tourists.

This understanding of Sri Lankan architectural culture informed our approach. Rethinking what it meant to build in a country that is suffering from the violence of third world capitalism. Thus, for us vernacular in this context was not the temple but the shed, not the sinhala roof tile but corrugated roof sheet, architecture not as a pristine image but as the result of scarcity and unskilled labor.

Would you consider yourself a “critical regionalist”? Does the term require redefinition?

LEVS:
I think the definition of Kenneth Frampton comes most close to our work and approach but the writings of Alexander Tzonis and Lianne Lefevre are also an inspiring source for us.

SoPA:
In terms of sustainability and value of cultural background and heritage, we may consider ourselves as defenders of a critical regionalism, since it is meaningful and ecologically worthwhile to consider the specifics of the site and the region. Beyond the consideration of basic surrounding conditions (climate, light, topography, etc.) – generally taken into account by all architects – and specific historical and geographical tradition (construction techniques, arts, crafts, etc.), “critical regionalism” should be redefined to not only promote the global-local combination, but also to take awareness of the specific time and the specific people involved and addressed to. By this means “critical regionalism” may provide the chance for contemporary – yet based in tradition – proposals that are framed in a specific place and time, with all the past and present socio-cultural connotations (migration, cultural exchange, socio-digital transformation, etc). Without falling into an exaltation of identity (so potentially hazardous in diverse political and social fields nowadays) “critical regionalism” should be steadily attending to update what “local” actually means.

Bolier:
We hope to be critical and universalist. For instance our project for the UNESCO world heritage site Kinderdijk – hopefully completed next year – engages its context by transcending the local and traditional by constructing a narrative of the universal, of modernity.

Do you think there is such a thing as a “digital vernacular” today?

SoPA:
Technological development raises new questions and provides new opportunities worldwide, also as far as architecture is concerned. The fact of having new technological and digital tools can enable new ways of doing and may support a progress in certain processes, techniques, or crafts. Some examples of “digital architecture” (referring here for instance to curvilinear, fluid, extravagant formal outcomes) are often whimsical results of computer programming, far away from a sensitive answer to the function, the place, or the user. Nevertheless “digital vernacular” is possible and advantageous in the sense that digital tools can support and facilitate the design and construction of an architecture guided by vernacular principles. “Digital” may offer new chances to improve vernacular based architecture.

Bolier:

No idea. Hope not.

LEVS:

From 1984, I have been working with computers and our office was and is in the Netherlands a frontrunner in using the computer as a tool to make our projects better. We never used it as “a fun instrument” to show off or to make buildings like Zaha Hadid, UNStudio, etc., just for the fact that we can make blurry architecture that in my opinion is maybe impressive but doesn’t deliver a contribution to what is really needed. Of course we use the latest BIM technology, Grasshopper, Safira etc. for making smarter designs, but always based on our belief that it should make buildings that are contributing to the most simple questions like reducing energy, livable cities, humanism, etc. So I have no idea how digital and vernacular have a connection. Maybe it is Blade Runner, Star Wars, or other ideas that we as human beings all of a sudden wake up and become happy in this kind of clean or desolate cities, as if pollution and noise took over, or desert-like areas with shining glossy buildings that look like untouchable cars.

Publication Date
November 1, 2018
Volume
4
Number
06
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