The Vernacular in Architecture

This past Friday I was asked by Geoff Gjertson of the UL School of Architecture to join him and a number of architects on a panel for the Center for Louisiana Studies’ Vernacular Inventions program. Here are the notes I wrote, not all of which were read outloud:

Let me begin by noting that folklorists understand tradition as the creation of the future out of the past. That is, individuals who think, as it were traditionally, rely upon their knowledge of what has been in order to make what must be … well, be.

Plucking what has been out of the gossamer of experience in which what is now is also entangled is pretty tricky, and one of the great joys of being a folklorist is watching people do it and trying to understand how it works. Tradition, by definition, is always tested against the present moment, against trends that sweep across a community, through a culture.

So, then, what we have before us are two qualities of things, let’s call them traditional and trendy. Traditional is the deep well of what has been and trendy is the wide plain of what is now. There is always the chance that what has been is no longer needed, and it will fade into memory and, from there, if we are lucky, into the historical record. (One of the goals of folklorists is to expand the historical record, to expand the well of human memory.) And there is also the equal chance that what is now will fit so well with tradition, that it will become lodged there and become part of what has been.

That is the nature of tradition: it moves forward, always fattening itself on the trendy, slimming itself of things it no longer needs. More vibrant traditions are better at keeping things around for as long as they can, in case they are needed, and anemic traditions forget too quickly, leaving their practitioners bereft of possible responses to a changing world.

The vernacular can be understood as the dynamic between tradition and trend, between what has been and what is, and, sometimes, what must be.

Folklorists use vernacular as a way to get disciplines more driven by trends to think about tradition, to think about people and their need for a past, their lives in the present, and their dreams for a future.

For folklorists, then, vernacular architecture is a way to get architectural historians to pay attention to all the buildings that people actually live in that are not the stuff of Architectural Digest. Which is to say the vast majority of the planet’s population, 75% of whom, at last count, qualify as peasants — that is, subsistence farmers and the villagers (priests, smiths, and others) with whom their lives are intertwined.

That is, vernacular architecture, like other vernaculars, is a kind of working compromise between folklorists and architectural historians. If folk, was, perhaps, too narrow a term, then popular was too broad, too ephemeral, too fleeting. It is, as such compromises go, a much better arrangement than the one that has developed in the gap between folk art and popular art, sometimes called outsider art, which allows into the realm of those fully grounded within a collection of traditions that interlard any community the clinically insane: I have been to exhibits where Clementine Hunter’s paintings were next to some seriously disturbed individuals. It’s not fun.

Not traditional nor trendy, not folk nor popular, vernacular is the working vocabulary of a community of practitioners within a given form. Some things are, as we say, “in the vernacular.” Which is another way of saying that they have become part of a language, either as part of the way things are put together, the way syntax structures the words in the sentence, or the things that are put together, the words themselves.

I am delighted to be on a panel with working architects, each of which hopes to contribute to an emergent vernacular that moves the traditional architecture of this region toward an ideal, or set of ideals, that is their concern, their fascination. Certainly each of them draws upon regional architectural vernaculars in different ways. Gleaning the traditional in the new is relatively easy, getting the new into tradition … that’s the hard part.