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Dynamic Vernacular—An Introduction

Mark Crinson

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  • 1 See for instance Paul Oliver, Dwellings – The Vernacular House World Wide, London and New York, NY (...)

1The concept of the vernacular is ubiquitous, obdurate and slippery. While many scholars still work as if its meaning is self-evident and unproblematic, others suggest the term is inadequate because it includes too many phenomena, and some that we should abandon it because of this slipperiness and just agree to adopt the term “traditional architecture” or some other nomenclature instead.1 There is no simple way around all this and certainly no limiting definition, imposed by dictionary diktat, is possible or desirable; we work with history, not as its police. Moreover, whether we like it or not, summoning up the vernacular still has the ability to bind together ethnic, geographic and temporal categories, while seeming to make a materially-grounded claim on identity. So the term still has some life in it even if its critical energies have seemed long atrophied. How might it be possible, then, to think of the vernacular as a more dynamic category, dynamic in its ability to surprise and unsettle (if considered intensely), and dynamic in its relation to other architecture (if understood in an expanded way)? Before we come to these, though, a little about those inevitable themes whenever we speak of the vernacular—power, nature, and the modern.

  • 2 Christer Bruun, “Greek or Latin? The owner’s choice of names for vernae in Rome,” in Michele Georg (...)
  • 3 It is ubiquitous across many European languages, where vernaculaire, vernacolo, vernáculo, and ver (...)
  • 4 Dell Upton, “The VAF at 25,” op. cit. (note 1), p. 7–13; Anthony D. King, “Internationalism, Imper (...)

2Read carefully, the dictionary actually opens up vernacular rather than delimiting it. The word’s etymological roots are in vernaculus, Latin for domestic or indigenous, which in turn derives from verna meaning a household or home-born slave. The Romans favoured vernae more than other kinds of slaves; they were the other literally domesticated.2 In the vernacular’s very origin, therefore, Latin as the language of power defined a subject position only possible within that power.3 Similarly, to identify vernacular architecture is a performative act; it exists because we talk about it, because of our nomination of its objects, our creation of its discursive spaces. And in its naming a symmetrical structure of opposites is created—high and low, raw and cooked, crafted and industrial, designed and customary—while at the same time these are made unbalanced by the disparity of status between them, the subordination of one to the other. These frameworks for the vernacular have continued as much in recent postcolonial-inspired architectural history as in vernacular studies,4 where it seems to me that, despite the use of concepts like “appropriation,” “synchronous assemblages,” or “biopower,” we get no deeper into the nature of the symmetric but unbalanced relationships that are generated by the nomination of the vernacular.

  • 5 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Pr (...)
  • 6 Stuart Barnett, “Introduction,” in Stuart Barnett (ed.), Hegel After Derrida, London and New York, (...)

3Discourses about the vernacular can be performative, then, because there seem to be no reciprocating or contesting discourses. The vernacular itself, in this logic, cannot speak: identifying the vernacular renders makers mute and objects plunder. Many must have been struck by the parallel here with Hegel’s idea of a master-slave dialectic, of a recognition that is both primordial and linked to the action of history, specifically modern slavery and the expansion of capital,5 a relation profoundly insufficient and partial because only one side of it “can achieve self-consciousness through the submission of the other.”6

4If to be modern required something other that affirmed the modern’s difference from the past, then the idea of the vernacular has always been oddly positioned as both marginal and essential; evidence of the past and even of some continuity yet not part of history at all, in fact more like our sense of nature. This is captured and at the same time undermined by Claude Lévi-Strauss in his description of a Bororo village in Brazil:

  • 7 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955) translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, L (...)

“The houses were majestic in size in spite of their fragility, and were the result of the utilization of materials and techniques which we in the West are acquainted with in small-scale forms: they were not so much built as knotted together, plaited, woven, embroidered and mellowed by use; instead of crushing the occupants under an indifferent mass of stones, they adapted to their presence and their movements; they were the opposite of our houses in that they remained always subordinate to man. The village… was a monumental adornment retaining something of the living bowers and foliage whose natural gracefulness the builders had skillfully reconciled with the rigorous demands of their plan.”7

  • 8 Ibid, p. 216.
  • 9 Ibid, p. 219–23.

5The performative action here is in that phrase “they were the opposite of,” which positions the Bororo village on the nature side of a nature-culture opposition. But at the same moment this is made self-reflexive by the author’s foregrounded presence. He tells us that his vision is affected by mental and physical tiredness, an “organizing giddiness”; it is even a little unclear whether he is really talking about the Bororo or about a village on the Burmese border. And as he settles he notices that things are not quite as the near-delirious vision suggested. The dwellings may be traditional in their size but they “betrayed” some neo-Brazilian features in their rectangular shapes and double-pitched roofs.8 More importantly, the disposition of the dwellings begins to reveal a complicated system of social and religious beliefs, including a geometry of unresolved contradictions, built-in balances yet also asymmetrical social groupings.9 The hut-nature link is illusory; the village is more like an institutional machine.

  • 10 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious – Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act, London: Methuen, (...)

6As well as nature, the modern—in this case modernism—saw itself as a way of negotiating modernity, indeed of humanizing or even resisting the worst effects of modernization. Thus, while pre-modernist architecture tended to conceive of the vernacular as separate if coexisting with it, modernism claimed an inherent connection, an identification, with this thing perceived as weak and marginal. Modernist abstraction was an attempt to express and even to reconcile changes in daily life, and in adopting the vernacular modernists took a similarly idealized version of life abstracted from any actual people. There was often a false moral imperative here, as if vernacular objects were vulnerable relics or even material forms of absolute difference from modernity. So, if we adopt Fredric Jameson’s idea that modernism was some kind of “utopian compensation for everything lost in the process of the development of capitalism,”10 then modernists were bound to conceptualize the vernacular as their ally.

  • 11 Le Corbusier, Sur les 4 Routes [First published in 1941], Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1970, p. 151–4.

7We see these linked impulses of compensation and identification again and again. Think of Le Corbusier’s collections of Balkan, Turkish and Berber ceramics as well as his famous 1941 flight over the northern Sahara and his praise for the adobe dwellings and interior gardens of the M’zab that he saw from his plane.11 It was as if an architecture of abstraction could reduce and negate the history (of architecture) and representation (of nature) to be found in previous architecture and, accordingly, as if modernism might itself become a new vernacular, a modern vernacular. To do this it had to learn from other vernaculars—it had to associate with them or, using that hugely loaded term from the title of the notorious Museum of Modern Art Primitivism exhibition in the 1980s, it had to find “affinity”; “affinity of the tribal and the modern,” as the exhibition’s subtitle put it. This affinity—and here we need only replace “tribal” with “vernacular”—might best be understood as an apotropaic device by which much of modernism, and much of the management of its past, could disavow not just the differences that make cultural form meaningful but the relations of economic or military dominance that structure colonial encounter.

  • 12 For “chronopolitics” see Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, N (...)
  • 13 Simon Richards, “‘Vernacular’ accommodations,” op. cit. (note 1), p. 37. The M’zab had a further a (...)

8A “chronopolitics” is thus already apparent in this relation between colonial modernism and the vernacular, each term made to reinforce the other in their position within international or “public Time.”12 Those flights of Le Corbusier and his romantic view of what he could see on the ground below were not only part of his flirtation with the Vichy rhetoric of native soil, they were also part of a longer French colonial ideology, asserting that the essential nature of the area was bound up with a deep and unchanging life rather than immediate, and no doubt transient, acts of ungrateful rebellion.13

  • 14 On this see Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, London: Verso, 2013, es (...)

9It is these issues of power, nature and the modern that make naming the vernacular a particularly awkward, problematic, and coercively selective performance in the contexts of empire and its aftermath. While certain kinds of vernacular were encouraged and preserved as part of an alternative to indigenous forms of anti-colonial modernity, other kinds were treated as hopelessly dysfunctional, unassimilable to the colonial modern. Everywhere, though, the vernacular belonged to the peoples who had been colonized, who were ethnically different from their colonial masters and who seemed not to aspire to modernity; those who lived on the land but did not determine its future. They were the vernae in the colonial house. Wherever it emerges, therefore, Europe or the colonies, a discourse about the vernacular is a call to allay or to soften or to momentarily forget the effects of modernization. It is a call that usually avoids a deeper political reality; that capital caters for difference, it licenses the apparent existence of hetero-temporalities, providing they do not block its own logic of reproduction.14

The micro level—intensity

10One way of dynamizing this relation might be not so much to mark the performative act of nomination, but to intensify the encounter so that its assumptions come under a different form of scrutiny. This, I think, is what is at stake in James Agee’s writings about the material life conditions of the 1930s American depression. Written about architecture but not from any architectural disciplinary perspective, thoroughly invested in its subject yet not of it, this is Agee’s description of the houses of tenant farmers (share croppers) in the American South of the depression era:

  • 15 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [First published in 1939] London: Panthe (...)

“Each texture in the wood, like those of bone, is distinct in the eye as a razor: each nail-head is distinct: each seam and split; and each slight warping; each random knot and knothole: and in each board, as lovely a music as a contour map and unique as a thumb-print, its grain, which was its living strength, and these wild creeks cut stiff across by saws; and moving nearer, the close-laid arcs and shadows, even of those tearing wheels: and this, more poor and plain than bone, more naked and noble than sternest Doric, more rich and more variant than watered silk, is the fabric and the stature of a house.”15

  • 16 Ibid.

11Though exulting in the precise material qualities of his subject, Agee is acutely aware of the bareness and cruelty of its poverty (the “cheapest available pine lumber” is “[stretched] as a skin of one thickness alone against the earth and air”) and of the house’s shortcomings as shelter.16 This is not a vernacular of left-behind craftsmen happy in their skilled sovereignty over their objects; it is not an alternative, something ripe for revival, the talismanic opposite of the modern. With its nail-heads and its marks made by mechanical saws, it is a form of demotic modernity, closely touched and shaped by bodies and minds. It is a product of its time, marked by accident and differentiated by intent.

  • 17 Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis – Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art [Initially published as Aist (...)
  • 18 Ibid, p. 254.

12Even vernacular specialists among architectural historians would balk at Agee’s descriptions, at what he understands as the apathy and the half-skilled nature of the builders, and at the political philosophy he spins from the appearance of these houses. Nevertheless, I can’t help feel that there is still something to learn from this patient gaze, its way of exemplifying the importance of detail and of exploding “journalistic logic,”17 and its attempt to find words that can admit to as well as measure up to the complexity of motivations, challenges and—yes—pleasures involved in this encounter. That there is an aesthetic, and that this is contradictory and conflicted, random and unforeseeable,18 is the point.

  • 19 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let us Now, op. cit. (note 15), p. 130.

“Most naïve, most massive symmetry and simpleness. Enough lines, enough off-true, that this symmetry is strongly yet most subtly sprained against its centers, into something more powerful than either full symmetry or deliberate breaking and balancing of “monotonies” can hope to be. A look of being earnestly hand-made, as a child’s drawing, a thing created out of need, love, patience, and strained skill in the innocence of a race. Nowhere one ounce or inch spent with ornament, not one trace of relief or of disguise: a matchless monotony, and in it a matchless variety.”19

  • 20 Ibid, p. 182.
  • 21 Ibid.

13Despite his use of the now-rejected terms of his time, Agee knows the moral problems of his position: the authorities’ spy, the botanizing flaneur, the transient do-gooding. And he knows that this language of beauty is not likely discernible to “those who own and create it.”20 In his privilege of perception the only defense is not “non-perception, or apologetic perception,”21 but to inform words with the honesty of his look, and vice versa, over time so that the vernacular becomes dynamic. Beauty and abomination are held in an awkward dialogue.

The macro level—expansion

14Another way of making our understanding of vernacular dynamic is to think of it in an expanded way. This is not about adding more kinds of architectural objects, but instead re-conceiving the vernacular as a discursive terrain in which different kinds of claim on the concept are connected, and exploring what this adds to our understanding of the built environment as a field of practices—sometimes parallel, sometimes interlinked, sometimes conflicted—within the totality of the production of space. What this might mean can be indicated by a small modern church and its relation to the larger world of buildings and the contestation of space in postwar colonial Kenya.

  • 22 Udo Kultermann, New Architecture in Africa, London: Thames & Hudson, 1963, p. 24.

15The Kilifi church (1958) is in a small coastal town north of Mombasa and was designed by the British architect Richard Hughes. This and other churches by Hughes have been described as “fortress-like constructions with walls of natural stone which show a heavy, mechanically massive character.”22 The rubble stone may be local but the invocation of vernacular is much more generic, more Mediterranean (via Le Corbusier’s Ronchamp chapel) if anything, rather than African or even specifically Kenyan. A historian of modernism might even, through the association with Ronchamp, think of forms of atonement, of setting at one or reconciling. So far, then, this is a typical example of wishful modernist affiliation.

Kilifi Church, Kenya (1958). Architect: Richard Hughes.

Kilifi Church, Kenya (1958). Architect: Richard Hughes.

Source: image provided by Richard Hughes.

16But if this is a familiar link between modernism and vernacular it was produced in a context where ascriptions of the modern and the traditional were more often coercive and contested. It was designed while the country was convulsed by anti-colonial revolt and the brutally excessive reactions of the colonial authorities to the so-called Mau Mau rebellion in the Central Highlands. These reactions included the forcible movement of many thousands of Gĩkũyũ into new villages, a spatial tactic justified by colonial ethnopsychiatry but given a form of naturalization by the use of the word “village,” by the building of huts based on traditional Gĩkũyũ dwellings, and by colonial associations with British ideas of village communities. At the same time, in Kenya’s capital Nairobi, new government buildings were designed using ornament derived from Islamic sources (Kenya’s coastal areas were inhabited by Muslims largely not involved in the anti-colonial rebellions). For some time, also, white colonial settlers in the so-called “White Highlands” had been building farms using rustic idioms ultimately derived from the southern English shires (and pursuing such English rural customs as foxhunting, with all its accoutrements). Finally, one of the forms taken by Gĩkũyũ resistance to colonial land appropriation was to reclaim the meaning and the history of their land, including its buildings; to de-vernacularise it, as it were, from colonial anthropology (this is best seen in Jomo Kenyatta’s Facing Mount Kenya of 1938). Coexistent with the Kilifi church, then, were at least four other forms of architecture or discourse that were related to the idea of the vernacular, each deploying it to make a claim on the linkages between identity, authority and the land. And these claims are found all the way from the highest and most public form of state architecture to the settlements produced by villagization.

17These temporally and spatially coterminous forms of vernacular suggest an expanded model, a set of architectures and situations that inter-relate unevenly in a highly differentiated discourse across the production of space. Different positions on the vernacular can be understood as dialectically interconnected, most especially when they are polarized or contradictory, even when they are silent on the word itself. Kenya may be an exceptional case because of the sheer intensity with which, in a moment of colonial crisis, the built environment is treated as both symptom and cure, charging ordinary and high architecture with reciprocal significance. Although this intensity can be found elsewhere, the expanded vernacular need not be thought of as a way of understanding what happens to the built environment only during colonial crisis. The expanded vernacular is about the insights we get when high architecture is not so much displaced as made relative, made to share a position just as much with the objects of traditional vernacular studies as with any other architectural object; it is about a dynamic of use and appropriation which gets us far from the supposedly slow and natural change usually identified with the vernacular. In an expanded sense, the naming of the vernacular is still the subordination of ordinary life—the house slave—but it is also the recognition of how this is involved with a larger entanglement and conflict of forces. The vernacular’s multiple resonances as trace and symbol, as appropriation of nature, as residual form, as mode of living, as relation to land, and as nexus of craft and body, can now be understood critically, as held together in a skein of cohabiting practices and built forms. And by not treating the vernacular as merely what is remaindered, an expanded understanding of the vernacular helps to re-conceptualize and reconnect the various parts of that dispersed and uneven phenomenon, the ordering of colonial space.

18If these models—expanded and intensified—for understanding vernacular can only be sketched here, then what follows in this themed issue are four articles that offer more considered ways of re-animating our sense of the vernacular. Each of the articles in this themed issue sets out on the thorny tracks left by vernacularizing practices and discourses or by their close equivalents. They trace parallel categories that were more mobile than the vernacular-high dichotomy (Christopher Cowell), they argue that the modern might be located in the vernacular rather than in high architectural forms (Yael Allweil), they investigate how the vernacular has been a locus of active resistance (Ayala Levin), and they re-consider the claim that the vernacular necessarily embodies the traditional and the authentic (Amanda Achmadi). Over more than 200 years, across geographically diverse locations, and within colonial cultures of very different stamp, they show us that the vernacular still has great critical life when we focus on its historical and ideological formulation.

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Note de fin

1 See for instance Paul Oliver, Dwellings – The Vernacular House World Wide, London and New York, NY: Phaidon, 2005; and Peter Guillery, “Introduction – Vernacular Studies and British Architectural History,” in Peter Guillery (ed.), Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular, London and New York, NY: Routledge, 2011, p. 1–10. On the inadequacy of the term see Dell Upton, “The VAF at 25: What Now?,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 13, no. 2, 2006–7, p. 10; and Dell Upton, “The Power of Things: Recent Studies in American Vernacular Architecture,” American Quarterly, vol. 35, no. 3, 1983, p. 262. On dropping the term see Simon Richards, “‘Vernacular’ accommodations: wordplay in contemporary-traditional architecture theory,” Architectural Research Quarterly, vol. 16, no. 1, March 2012, p. 37–48. For a useful survey of the meanings of the term and the problems of seeing it as “other” see Robert Brown and Daniel Maudlin, “Concepts of Vernacular Architecture,” in C. Greig Crysler, Stephen Cairns, and Hilde Heynen (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Architectural Theory, Sage: London, 2012, p. 340–55.

2 Christer Bruun, “Greek or Latin? The owner’s choice of names for vernae in Rome,” in Michele George (ed.), Roman Slavery and Roman Material Culture, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013, p. 25–6.

3 It is ubiquitous across many European languages, where vernaculaire, vernacolo, vernáculo, and vernikulare all carry forward Latin associations between the house (or the domestic) and subordination.

4 Dell Upton, “The VAF at 25,” op. cit. (note 1), p. 7–13; Anthony D. King, “Internationalism, Imperialism, Postcolonialism, Globalization: Frameworks for Vernacular Architecture,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, vol. 13, no. 2, 2006–2007, p. 64–75. King recognizes that “the gap between what we call vernacular and high style architecture constantly gets breached” (p. 70) but offers no means of reconsidering the relation between the categories. Upton states “we are now more inclined to detect a complex web of interconnected patterns of significance and use,” but finds no place in that web for high architecture; despite his honesty about the “relentlessly cheerful” accounts in vernacular studies, and about their silence on “the truly ordinary or about the seamier aspects of our buildings or builders,” he offers no alternative.

5 Susan Buck-Morss, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History, Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009, especially p. 48–75.

6 Stuart Barnett, “Introduction,” in Stuart Barnett (ed.), Hegel After Derrida, London and New York, NY: Routledge, 1998, p. 23.

7 Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques (1955) translated by John Weightman and Doreen Weightman, London: Penguin, 2011, p. 215.

8 Ibid, p. 216.

9 Ibid, p. 219–23.

10 Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious – Narrative as Socially Symbolic Act, London: Methuen, 1981, p. 236.

11 Le Corbusier, Sur les 4 Routes [First published in 1941], Paris: Éditions Denoël, 1970, p. 151–4.

12 For “chronopolitics” see Johannes Fabian, Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object, New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1983, p. 144–52.

13 Simon Richards, “‘Vernacular’ accommodations,” op. cit. (note 1), p. 37. The M’zab had a further association for the French. Its inhabitants, the M’zabites, were a byword among French settlers in Algeria for a sparse, ascetic and spiritual life: see Albert Camus, The First Man [Initially published as Le Premier Homme, Paris: Gallimard, 1994. Trans. David Hapgood], London: Penguin, 1995, p. 91.

14 On this see Vivek Chibber, Postcolonial Theory and the Specter of Capital, London: Verso, 2013, especially p. 238–9.

15 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men [First published in 1939] London: Panther, 1969, p. 129.

16 Ibid.

17 Jacques Rancière, Aisthesis – Scenes from the Aesthetic Regime of Art [Initially published as Aisthesis : scènes du régime esthétique de l’art, Paris: Galilée, 2011 (La Philosophie en effet). Trans. Zakir Paul], London and New York, NY: Verso, 2013, p. 249.

18 Ibid, p. 254.

19 James Agee and Walker Evans, Let us Now, op. cit. (note 15), p. 130.

20 Ibid, p. 182.

21 Ibid.

22 Udo Kultermann, New Architecture in Africa, London: Thames & Hudson, 1963, p. 24.

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Titre Kilifi Church, Kenya (1958). Architect: Richard Hughes.
Crédits Source: image provided by Richard Hughes.
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Mark Crinson, « Dynamic Vernacular—An Introduction », ABE Journal [En ligne], 9-10 | 2016, mis en ligne le 28 décembre 2016, consulté le 23 août 2017. URL : http://abe.revues.org/3002

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Mark Crinson

Professor of Architectural History, Birkbeck College, London, United Kingdom

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