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Why We Need ‘Vernacular Architecture’ In a Post-Covid World

More than ever, people want to live in buildings that reside in real, particular places.

Courtesy of Duo Dickinson

As the Great Philosopher, Mike Tyson said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

The COVID-19 pandemic will deeply impact the world of aesthetics. For the first time since League of Nations was founded, a future of universal aesthetics may cease to be the academically sanctioned Architectural Canon. As Markus Breitschmid defines it, in his article “In Defense of the Validity of the ‘Canon’ in Architecture,” the Canon in Architecture is a way to divorce architecture from the rest of the world:

“The ’Canon in Architecture’ buttresses the autonomy of architecture in two ways. For one thing, it structures our thinking about architecture per se. Secondly, it enables us to contemplate architecture autonomously (’architecture through architecture’)”.

This “Canon in Architecture” is increasingly tone-deaf as each of us are forced, right now in sequestration, to see our world from our own individual places, rather than “the autonomy of architecture.” Each of us has always had our own vernacular, our own aesthetic language, now our culture may be rediscovering that in our isolation. This realization counters a century of “Canon.”

Before the end of World War I, the world had coexisting architectural vernaculars, such as The Prairie School of America, The Amsterdam School of the Netherlands, Gothic Revival of England, and the Arts and Crafts Movement centered in the materials and craftsmanship of scores of individual cultures. In addition, there was a nascent idea of a “Modernist” vision of architecture in central Europe.

With the full realization of the Industrial Revolution, things changed by 1920. A Brave New “One World” imperative fostered expressions attempting an Architectural Esperanto throughout the world and, “The International Style” soon became Canon. In 1927, Le Corbusier famously wrote in his book “Towards a New Architecture” that “Our world is strewn with the detritus of dead epochs”. For the last 100 years, this effort at universality morphed into “Modernism”. Defining a universal language of building is just part of what some aspire to build. That perspective is neither “Right” nor “Wrong,” but the exclusivity of the last century’s Canon is inevitably incomplete as it shortchanges our latent diversity.

The world is having its collective nose rubbed in each locus: that idiosyncrasy will change: the way all of us see the world, and that perception is not controlled by any Canon. Each of us is being force-fed our idiosyncrasies while everyone sequesters in situ.

I submit to you several architects from all over the United States, their words, and their projects.


The default “Style” of Modernism has become its own vernacular: it might not be architectural Esperanto, but there are few, if any, other valid competing aesthetics being recognized in mainstream education or professional recognition. This may change. The way we see the world changes what we build. What we build changes architecture.

Rhode Island, Estes Twombly Architects, © Warren Jagger

“Originally part of a 300 year old farm, the five acre site located in Jamestown consisted of open pastures bordered by stone walls. Some of the original buildings still exist and one of them, an old tractor shed, was a strong visual precedent for the new design. The vocabulary for the old buildings and the new house are similar and the interiors are a continuation of the clean, simple exteriors.” —Estes Twombly Architects

In the accepted architectural Canon of this last century, the word “vernacular” has been a negative pejorative that according to that Canon manifestly eschewed innovation and suppressed creativity, and excused mediocrity of thinking. The essential perspective of our present Canon is that vernacular realities are seen to trivialize a higher human spirit. But that was before COVID-19. Right now, being International is to be endangered, transit is dangerous, open borders spread infection, and density has risk. What was our highest value, our common humanity, may have become a baseline liability.

New Mexico © Antoine Predock

“The Eurocentrist bias, now aided and abetted by Globalization, that has been a part of American architecture since the earliest stylistic eclecticism is still there in different guises. But working in New Mexico, you simply have to deal with wind direction the movement of the sun – and the iconic landscapes in a Built architecture. We have so much throughout America to draw from.” —Antoine Predock

How does architecture respond? I think we may at the dawn of remembering the vernacular aesthetics in each place, person and time. This is not about “traditional” precedents, and this is not about “style”. There is meaning in indigenous materials, our environments, even geometries, as well as the context of our time and our communities. We may be rediscovering that.

Architects may find themselves rethinking how they see the world, and it may not be the whole world view without time or place, but rather a view with their place in it, and why we all love these places. A new definition of what connects us, moves us, and focuses us, might be refocused from the universal to the realities of context: climatic, geographic, material, and historic.

The cliché archetypical architect cultivated over this last century defined their own criteria for success and meaning. If you write your own rules for success, you will always succeed. This silo-ing of expression of architecture to its own world, apart from any other, is easier to understand, critique, teach and promote. The world beyond the silo of celebrity and product joy offers innovations and expressions found in perception rather than rationalization. Right now, in COVID-19, perception is becoming exquisitely localvore, and based in each person.

If you try to rationalize art, or distinguish it from our humanity, it begs the reality that its joy is essential and personal. If you try to control building to a universal standard as defined by designers, then anything can be defined as beautiful, because the designer is the beholder and judge – not a greater culture, let alone the idiosyncrasy of the user. The freight train of the Canon’s inevitable universality may have hit a speed bump.

Perhaps the imposed quarantine to avoid COVID-19 in common necessity will indict universal expectations. This period may force us to deal with who each of us actually are, instead of who we want to be. Makers of things want to do more than to satisfy the minimums, so architects may find inspiration in idiosyncrasy. Makers spend their lives defining the crack between the prosaic and the sublime, combusting those parallel worlds into the meaning of creation to express more than the minimum.

Mexico. Photograph courtesy of House + House Architects

“Indigenous architecture taught us the beauty of light, convection and natural materials. Built from local materials without power tools, this home celebrates the hands that built it, with exquisite craftsmanship evident in every detail.” —House + House

Without the lilt of vision, or an aesthetic, any attempt at beauty becomes artless commentary—as dry as a history book or a tweet. It is only when we have one foot in who we are and value and the other in what we see, feel, and know that art reflects our lives, especially when our lives are now fully bathed in our intimacies.

Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Clay Chapman

“Architecture plays the singular role of an active, archival touchstone, tangibly connecting us to the past. Nothing unites us with our ancestors so practically.” —Clay Chapman

Over the last century, it has become an expectation that architects design for other architects, and the rest of us benefit from their genius. It naturally resulted that those who made and celebrated buildings lauded and taught those who defined the problems they were solving. Like models strutting through a fashion show, no questions are asked, and only one vision of beauty was offered. The buildings that are generated from a designer’s black box are not enough when you live in a world where thought and place and perception have been made central in everyone’s lives over months of isolation.

Oklahoma. Photo courtesy of Clay Chapman

“We are sociable creatures who need personal space. Kitchens and room-sized porches overlook a shared commons buffered with layers of privacy.” —Ross Chapin

In our COVID-19 time apart we all want more than survival, or even love, we want meaning and beauty. Rather than aspire to the universal and abstract, in a post-plague world we may be seeing the beauty in our own values.

The universal intellectualization of fine arts architecture may shift to another universal world – the human response of joy in experience, memory and meaning. This may be a natural result. When we hear a bird’s chirp, see it’s feathers, they are to us astonishingly gorgeous and the bird is oblivious to them beyond their use. That does not make me arrogant or the bird ignorant but architects may grow to see that every baby we encounter has a beauty that is deeper than anything we can make. Architecture should aspire to be of our lives, rather than reflect how we want our lives to be.

Texas © William Abranowicz

“A recent project has its forms derived from local precedent built in the 1860’s. A team from our office was sent to help limewash one of the forts with Texas Parks & Wildlife to learn the traditional method of limewashing limestone. All materials other than the limestone were to be from the site, or could have been resourced from the site; oak timbers, wood shake roof shingles and even cedar and cypress used as columns harvested from the ranch.” —Michael Imber

Humans want to make that beauty. No other being wants to make beauty, they just are.  Maybe an unconspired aesthetic, one of response and idiosyncrasy, will begin to compete with a Canon that has become it’s own vernacular.

Connecticut © Mick Hales Photography

“This new chapel uses the “Why” of history to create its form from a 50 year old place in an exquisite setting taking the form of its original chapel, its sign, its cross and lifting them upon the arms of architecture. It is now three times larger and follows its legacy and landscape.” —Duo Dickinson

Duo Dickinson has been an architect for more than 30 years. The author of eight books, he is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, writes on design and culture for the Hartford Courant,and is on the faculty at the Building Beauty Program at Sant’Anna Institute in Sorrento, Italy.

This article was originally published at ArchDaily.

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