Learning from vernacular

When, in 1964, Bernard Rudofsky finally opened the exhibition Architecture without Architects: A Short Introduction to Non-Pedigreed Architecture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, he caused quite a stir. The catalogue started a new chapter in modern architecture based on photos and commentary of vernacular construction (that is, knowledge passed on from generation to generation). He took a bucolic position, of admiration for vernacular patterns, but without sufficient attention to the essence of this architecture, its causes and identity. A bit earlier, in 1957, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, an American critic of German origin, had attempted such a reflection but her book had never received such reverberation. In Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture she explored the relationship between rural architecture and the environment, indicating solutions from which one can learn to better design in a specific climate, based on local materials and respecting identity. This text should be considered pioneering in the context of environmental protection and architecture. In the introduction to the second chapter, Climate and Place, she begins by showing the dichotomy of the approaches to Earth of the pioneers who arrived in New England and the indigenous people. The pioneers used to ask: What can my land do for me? Reflecting on the profit that land property could bring them. The robber attitude is confronted with the question of the indigenous people who ask the question: What can I do for my land? This chapter explains the relation between architecture and climate on the example of windows, and how they were shaped by indigenous people.

Moholy-Nagy shows architecture in harmony with the environment, using natural materials, trying to build at least sustainable relations with the environment for the sake of the common good.

Patio with a water fountain in hot and arid climate improves Indoor Air Quality and enhances ventilation.

In Portugal, under a decree issued by Antonio Salazar, a longtime dictator, the young generation of modernizing architects set off in the 1950s on a journey in search of ‘the Portuguese national architecture prototype’. They knew from the very beginning that there was no such thing, but that there were regional archetypes of architecture. The very detailed study showed the diversity and richness of spatial solutions, material construction, the relationship between soil, crops, vegetation and building materials, architectural form and climate, becoming the basis for the success of contemporary Portuguese architecture. The most important projects and architects (Souto de Moura, Távora, Siza, de Amaral) are rooted in regional architecture. Sometimes too literally, copying solutions, sometimes learning. Their approach has not yet received a comprehensive analysis that would verify its real impact on humans and the environment. The question arises: when do comfort and safety bring unnecessary luxuries that negatively affect the environment.

Renovation of a barn for a house in Alentejo uses a typical solution from the region. The porch with vine gives shadow in the hot summers and in the winter (leafless) allows the Sun to heat the interior and exterior walls.

So, how to follow? Should we copy? Definitely not. Architecture is a mirror of society, its thoughts, ways of life, and social relations. After all, none of us, no matter if we live in the countryside or in the city, no matter if in Portugal or Cambodia, lives in the same way as several decades ago. We cannot go back literally to the architectural patterns of the past. It was Lewis Mumford who wrote about it decades ago in The South in Architecture:

If someone tries to recreate that (historical) architecture today, every element of it will be evidence of forgery (…) after all, we cannot copy the life of (others) from the past.

Nevertheless, careless attempts to copy lead to the creation of architectural pastiches or decorative facades for example. The chance becomes a farce, and it is also not very funny. What’s more, to make it more difficult in rural construction, we can expect traps. The native architecture, created in a certain location, was subject to a complementary tendency: evolution and diffusionism. And it does not always respond to local conditions. These two phenomena, described by Claude Lévi-Strauss in Structural Anthropology, show how a certain pattern (like chimney type and height) of culture evolves and at the same time borrows from its neighbours or allies. And it also reminds us that there is no “pure” pattern that was created without contact with others. Such a process was described in the ’90 by Susanne Roaf based on the windcatchers of Yazd in Iran. The measurements showed that their various shapes and forms, widespread in the Middle East were created to ensure thermal comfort, based on changes in temperature and humidity in different climatic conditions. However, some of the patterns (shapes, sizes, heights, etc) travelled with the inhabitants or invaders, disregarding the climate and its correct operation — it was, for example, an element of identity or fashion. Moreover, such a pattern might have a negative effect. Therefore, when using vernacular patterns, one should look at them critically and check whether they are really responding to the climate. This can be done with the help of on-site measurements, tests or computer simulations, which show whether a given solution actually improves ventilation in the building or provides better lighting. Knowledge on this subject is just emerging and we in Dosta Tec are working on that too.

The application of vernacular solutions by imitating good practices, forms of space organization, massing(shape and type of roof, proportions), and passive solutions can be effective tools in the fight against global overheating. We can imagine, for example, a 5-storey residential building in Porto with a steep roof and large arcades that protect residents sitting on the mezzanine from rain, or a large patio that allows for better ventilation on hot days. However, for any such solution to actually work, it must be tested, not only from the point of view of energy efficiency or ventilation but other elements that testify to the efficiency of the building in a given context. Perhaps it is worth returning to the idea of ​​critical regionalism?

Adrian Krężlik

co-founder of Dosta Tec

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