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Vernacular Architecture

Walter C. Kidney
December, 2001

“Vernacular,” granted, is an awkward term: four-syllabled, academic, viewing the subject from outside and above. But is may be the best word we have. In an Old World context, we would speak of “folk architecture.” To build in te vernacular is to respond to an objectively-stated building program in a direct, practical way, using building systems and materials ready to hand. It is not intended to be high-style architecture, and involves no major distortions or expenditures for artistic effect. Yet it can contain refinements of proportion, detailing, and finish, and can bear ornament.

If the builder of such a place is unschooled in architecture as a fine art, instinct or luck may still lead him to create a building enjoyable to the inhabitant and the passer-by, and special as a place, as an element of its neighborhood. Furthermore, architects have supplied design formulas to adopt and adapt: Palladio comes to mind at once, supplying bases for organizing a fa├žade.

A strong vernacular is a blessing to a community: one that can cope with the cupcake-box proportions of a modern warehouse or factory, or the storage-locker multiplicity of an apartment house, or the mere habit of aluminum siding. Masterpieces are always welcome, but a good street or a beautiful urban hillside depends on many quiet good works, an adherence to a high standard of mediocrity.

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