Vernacular architecture refers to a method of traditional construction techniques or styles that are greatly influenced by geography, tradition, culture, and climate that are specific to a particular region or community. It reflects the knowledge and ingenuity of a community by solving their architectural needs using locally available resources and traditional construction methods.
Vernacular Architecture was first mentioned in 19th-century England as a critical response to the industrialization process. Backed up by John Ruskin’s theories, the Arts and Crafts movement discovered that the vernacular way of construction is an action tailored towards returning to craftsmanship that will be aligned with the nature of materials and preservation of traditional methods of construction. The concept of vernacular architecture further gained recognition in the early 20th century through the works of architectural historian and critic Bernard Rudofsky. In his popular book “Architecture Without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture” published in 1964, Rudofsky observed the anonymous, traditional building styles available in different regions around the world.
Since then, the term “vernacular architecture” has been widely recognized as a term to describe the traditional, local building techniques and styles that are deeply rooted in a specific community and culture. It has become an important aspect of the architectural debate, emphasizing the significance of indigenous knowledge, sustainability, and cultural identity in the built environment. One of the important features of vernacular architecture is the active participation of anonymous people in the design and construction of the buildings.
Folklore refers to the traditional beliefs, customs, and stories of a community, passed from generation to generation by word of mouth. It includes a multifaceted range of cultural expressions, which includes; oral traditions, myths, legends, folktales, and religious practices. It also serves as a means of transferring cultural values, knowledge, and, most importantly, identity.
According to Nobel, 1991, he said; these buildings, usually called folk or vernacular structures, reflect the attitudes, traditions, and culture of the ethnic group to which their builders belong. Furthermore, these structures often provide a distinctive signature defining particular areas of the cultural landscape. (Noble:1991:1)
There are various ways in which Folklore and traditional building techniques are closely related. It includes the following;
Both folklore and vernacular constructions play an important role in the formation and conservation of cultural identity. Vernacular Architecture shows a community’s values, beliefs, and way of life, while folklore includes the collective wisdom, experience, and narrative of the same community. Many times, the buildings constructed using vernacular techniques and styles reflect the community’s sense of identity as well as its cultural heritage.
Myths and Symbols
Folklore often includes myths, stories, and symbols that are deeply rooted in the cultural fabric. These mythological features will be seen in the architectural design, ornamentation, and symbolism. Some architectural features, and patterns, are inspired by mythological creatures, deities, or important cultural symbols, thereby creating a visual representation of local folklore.
Traditionally, folklore usually contains important knowledge and practices that are related to the relationship between humans and the natural environment. This knowledge is replicated in vernacular architecture that is determined by the local climate, geography, and resources. Folklore-based practices related to sustainable construction, the use of natural resources, or considerations for weather and climate are often embedded in the community’s architectural techniques and style.
Oral Traditions and Storytelling
Folklore is usually passed down from one generation to another through oral traditions, which include acts of storytelling, songs, and chants. These narratives accentuate cultural history and moral values. Vernacular Architecture can function as a canvas for those stories becoming an important representation of the community’s history and traditions. Buildings can be related to legendary figures or remarkable events, promoting a sense of continuity and connection to the folklore.
The main attributes that characterize Vernacular architecture and examples of places where vernacular architecture was incorporated into buildings and structures are mentioned below.
Vernacular architecture mostly makes use of materials that are locally available in the immediate environment. These are materials that are not factory produced but rather found around the local community. It includes wood, stone, clay, thatch, or other natural resources that are readily available and, of course, plenty. Ait Ben Haddou is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is located along the former caravan route between the Sahara and Marrakech. It is constructed with traditional mud-brick techniques, featuring closely packed buildings that blend perfectly with the surrounding landscape. Also, the old Inca city of Machu Picchu in Peru displays some spectacular examples of vernacular architecture. The stone buildings were carefully constructed using local materials and traditional building techniques, so they could withstand earthquakes and other forces of nature. Another notable example is the Ancient Fenghuang in Hunan Province, China. The town is well preserved with traditional wooden houses, bridges, and parks. The architecture displays the style of the Ming and Qing dynasties, blending with the natural surroundings to create a beautiful and prominent setting.
Climate and Environmental Responsiveness
Vernacular structure is designed as a response to local climate and environmental problems. Buildings are built with functions that offer comfort and protection, along with orientation to maximize natural light, ventilation, thermal insulation, and strategies to control and reduce extreme climate conditions. This approach ensures that buildings provide comfort, safety, and efficiency proportional to specific climatic conditions and natural environments. Vernacular architecture encompasses passive design techniques that use natural materials to control heat, light, and ventilation in buildings. This reduces the mechanical system requirements and reduces energy consumption. For example, the wind-catching towers in traditional Iranian architecture, the thick adobe walls in traditional southwest American Pueblo, Rural areas of Rajasthan, India, and the traditional homes in Maldives.
Cultural and Contextual Adaptation
The cultural and social context of a particular community or region is reflected in the Vernacular architecture. It includes the values, traditions, customs, and lifestyle of the people who live in the area. This may be seen in the layout, spatial organization, ornamental display, and symbolic concepts used within the buildings. Vernacular architecture is often a distinctive architectural style that is closely associated with the cultural identity of local communities. The materials, decoration, and spatial composition of the buildings reflect local artistic traditions, historical influences, and social values. Traditional courtyard houses in the Middle East and North Africa, such as riads in Morocco or Havelis in India, are portrayed with intricate geometric patterns, decorative tile, and secluded internal courtyards, and this reflects cultural notions of privacy, family structure, and communal life. Also are the traditional Maori meeting houses (whare whakairo) in New Zealand.
Local Construction Techniques
The techniques and craftsmanship employed in vernacular architecture have been developed, redeveloped, and refined through time. These techniques are passed down from one generation to another through oral teachings and practical experience, and they regularly utilize precise joinery, masonry, or building methods that are specific to the region. The traditional stave churches in Norway were constructed with timber framing techniques, using timber harvested locally from nearby forests. The intricate wooden joinery found in Japanese architecture, such as mortise and tenon joints, sliding panel systems (shoji), and interlocking beam connections (daiku), illustrates the precision and craftsmanship of the traditional Japanese carpenter. The formwork of Kasbahs in Morocco is made of rammed earth called pisé de terre with layers of earth mixed with straw or other reinforcing materials. Traditional Balinese houses in Indonesia have thatched roofs made of alang-alang grass, which provides excellent insulation and is easily available locally. The Taos Pueblo in New Mexico, USA, is built with thick adobe walls and flat structures to withstand the earthquakes that frequently occur in the area.
Sustainability and Resource Efficiency
Vernacular architecture emphasizes sustainability and resource performance. It minimizes the use of non-renewable resources and encourages the principle of recycling, reusing, and reducing. Local materials, passive design strategies, and low-energy construction techniques contribute to the ecological sustainability of vernacular buildings. It also reduces the need for transportation and the environmental impact that is associated with long-distance sourcing of materials.
Dry stone construction techniques are found in places with abundant stones, such as rural Ireland or Machu Picchu in Peru, where dry stone walls do not require mortar, reducing waste and facilitating maintenance and reuse. Sustainable construction techniques depend on time and reduce the need for frequent maintenance or replacement, such as timber-framed wooden houses in Scandinavian countries such as Norway or Sweden. Courtyard designs in many cultures, such as traditional courtyard houses in Morocco, China, or India, provide shade, allows natural ventilation, and creates a microclimate that eliminates the need for cooling systems.
The interplay between vernacular architecture and folklore highlights the fundamental relationship between the built environment and cultural heritage. The integration of traditional building styles and beliefs not only creates a sense of place and identity but also fosters development, community integration, and the preservation of cultural heritage for future generations.
Natural homes (2013). Vernacular architecture across the world. [online]. Available at: http://naturalhomes.org/vernacular.htm [Accessed date: 7 July, 2023].
Pardo, J. (2023). Challenges and Current Research Trends for Vernacular Architecture in a Global World: A Literature Review. Buildings. Volume 13 (162). Pp. 1-16. Available at https://doi.org/10.3390/buildings13010162
Rudofsky, B. (1964). Architecture without Architects. An Introduction to Nonpedigreed Architecture; The Museum of Modern Art: New York, NY, USA.
Salman, M. (2018). Sustainability and vernacular architecture: Rethinking what identity is. In Urban and Architectural Heritage Conservation within Sustainability; Hmood, K., Ed.; IntechOpen: London, UK.