Classical Vernacular Traditional

August 25, 2019

Do the words “classical,” “traditional,” and “vernacular” have specific meanings or are they catch-alls for designating postmodernist fantasies of style while lending postmodernist projects an aura of depth far greater than style or fashion can ever achieve by itself?

Classical architecture is the architecture of the classical civilizations of antiquity as defined during the 17th and 18th centuries, largely by British and French neoclassical architects. The classical civilizations are those centered on the Mediterranean basin before the end of the Western Roman Empire: Rome, Greece, Egypt, the Mesopotamian empires, and perhaps those of the Etruscans, Persians, and Hittites. So what do architects of today mean when they say “classical architecture?” Are they designing temples to Athena or ziggurats? Are they deploying classical construction techniques in stonemasonry or seasonal labor? Are they expressing fidelity to the classical orders? And what if they are designing not temples to Athena but rather banks using the orders? Is that classical or is it just eclecticism?

Another thing to note is that the term “classical architecture” generally only is deployed to refer to Greek and Roman precedent; it is the ancient world cleansed of animal sacrifice, Bacchanalian frenzy, and salted fields. Divorced from the life of the ancient world, the orders are deployed more as style than parametric system.

Vernacular architecture seems to me to have something to do with regional building methods, determined in some way by non-architects based on the materials and climate at hand. Vernacular architecture, much like vernacular language, has perhaps a connection to class and to education; it is not globalized but rather specific. American vernacular housing types include the saltbox, dogtrot, shotgun. There are vernaculars in suburban housing as well, but to discover these it is necessary to look beyond style to the actual organization of rooms and massing: colonial and Cape Cod and shingle and Mission revival are styles; McMansion and Levittown are vernaculars. For example, the “townhome” (not the same as a townhouse!) is an example of a vernacular typology of Northern Virginia, often clothed in the ersatz colonial style of Pulte and others but not necessarily.

Sometimes people attempt to pass off styles as vernacular building types, a process parallel to some practices in advertising where the brand is more important than the product. Styles are very good for theming an environment for marketing purposes; vernacular typologies are just the things that have worked out in a certain location so far.

Traditional architecture is an altogether more slippery category—traditional for whom? This is perhaps the word that eclectic postmodernism can feel most comfortable using, as it is the hardest to pin down. Even so, it still generally refers to buildings clothed in a “traditional” style but which deploys modern methods of construction and a floor-plan determined by modern instruments like the pro forma and fire code.

It’s a real muddle…

What’s more muddled is how these terms tend to coalesce various political currents around themselves; held aloft by architectural penitents like a saint’s statue. “Classical” is valued by self-proclaimed modernists, seekers after a rational purity in form. In the eternal sink drain of history, order and disorder reassert themselves over and over again. “Vernacular,” once a path forward for non-specific resistance is now still deployed for its progressive political seeming but ends up enabling the theme-parkification of non-Western or simply provincial areas and the editing of multiple vernaculars into a single national or regional style. “Traditional” is now the ally of far-right and xenophobic Twitter accounts, particularly in the British context. Neo-Trad architecture is not Classical—rather, it is derived from the Neoclassical (or the Gothic). If someone earnestly professes to like “traditional” architecture, you can ask “Traditional for whom?” or you can run in the other direction.


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