The History of the Concept
That there existed theories about vernacular architecture already in the 1800s means that, as a concept, vernacular architecture is not as new as it might sound. In fact, although the interest in the vernacular has just grown in relatively recent times, it has been latent for a long while. The idea of vernacularism in relation to building was hinted at in the English language since the 1600s, whereas the term "vernacular architecture" has been explicitly in use since as early as 1818.
During the 1800s, the vernacular was a subject of exploration from different disciplines, and with different biases. First, and as it was already mentioned, it was a critical element in the search of national architectural languages. Second, vernacular buildings in the Southern hemisphere were seen as objects of curiosity: In European magazines and books, travelers narrated stories about the exotic places they visited, and these stories often included descriptions of the typical buildings of each place (fig. 4 ). Third, the vernacular was used as an element to advance the colonial agenda: Some social scientists by the end of the 19 th century tried to prove that indigenous vernacular buildings were actually the material evidence of the intellectual inferiority of their builders (fig. 5 ).
Architects became interested in bringing the vernacular to the theory of high architecture by the first quarter of the twentieth century. The praise of the vernacular by Adolf Loos, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Le Corbusier is well known. However, the decisive moment for the insertion of the vernacular in high design theory was Architecture Without Architects . a 1964, very influential exhibition of commented photographs of vernacular structures at the New York Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). The exhibition was organized by Bernard Rudofsky and had the ultimate goal of elevating vernacular buildings worldwide to the category of beaux-arts.
However, by the end of the 1960s, and with works such as Paul Oliver's Shelter and Society (1969) and Amos Rapoport's House Form and Culture (1969) studies began to emphasize less the beauty of the vernacular types and more the environmental, technological, and social contexts in which they were built. In 1976, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) formed a special committee to promote international co-operation in identifying, studying and protecting vernacular architecture. The growing interest in the vernacular reached a milestone in 1997, with the publication (under the leadership of
the already mentioned British folklorist Paul Oliver and after ten years of editing work) of the most important reference work edited so far on the topic, the Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World. which has entries by more than 750 specialists, writing from more than 80 countries.
Oliver's encyclopedia has become an important framework for the discussion on vernacular architecture. Having now an important portion of the vernacular building landscape documented in an easy-to-use reference work as the Encyclopedia is, many scholars have in recent years changed their research focus, from pure documentation of vernacular types, to focusing instead on the analysis of broad issues affecting the theory and practice of vernacular architecture. Some of the most important among the issues explored are identity, ethnicity, heritage and tourism, the end and reinvention of traditions, power and dominance, and sustainability. A first step in this critical direction was Dwellings, Settlements and Tradition. edited by Nezar AlSayyad and Paul Bourdier and published in 1989. This book was the outcome of the first meeting of a now very influential conference, that of IASTE, which has since then met every two years in heritage-rich places around the world.
Vernacular Architecture Today
Despite having a long history that dates back to almost two centuries, only over the past decade vernacular architecture studies have become established into mainstream architectural discourse. In fact, between 2000 and 2010 literally hundreds of architectural books and journal articles that touch on the topic have been published in the English language only.
Why has this happened? The most important reason is the cultural and economic globalization phenomenon, manifested in at least three ways: global communication technologies, the global environmental crisis, and global politics. Each of these phenomena has decisively increased the general interest in the world's vernacular architectures.
- Global Communication Technologies
Regarding the first of these three phenomena, a more globally interconnected world thanks to communication technologies (especially the World Wide Web, the cell phone and the combination between the two), as well as cheaper transportation (compared to half a century ago) has raised the interest from new generations of architects and other professionals in the building of other peoples, in countries other than their own. Granted, there has been great interest in these architectures since at least the 1960s, but there is now faster, easier and more extensive access to information on traditional communities everywhere.