Excerpted from Vernacular Architecture and Regional Design
by Kingston Wm Heath
Tradition is the illusion of permanence. (Woody Allen in the movie Deconstructing Harry.)
Often, in architecture circles today, discussions about regional identity turn quickly to terms and phrases like authenticity, a sense of place, or genius loci. Somehow, it is assumed that an authentic landscape is a fixed entity, a fragment of the past that has endured the ravages of nature and human action. As such, these salvaged settings can become the seat of memories, capable of providing inner richness to later generations through their evocative presence. Implicit, too, is the notion that not only has the historical site survived untouched, but the original concepts that shaped it have survived as well. Hence, by preserving such iconic forms and features, the meanings that such works originally held can be bequeathed, intact, to later generations. Seemingly suspended in time, such works trigger our historical imagination and serve as referents for heritage tourism; provide evocative imagery for contemporary design; and once decoded for formal strategies and design vocabulary, may be reconstituted elsewhere as a means of manufacturing imagined heritage.
Place, however, is more than a geographically definable entity accentuated by historical and visual landmarks; and heritage is not the aesthetic replication of a selected past. On an emotional level, place is a mental construct different for each of us, and, in the case of childhood dwelling places, tied from youth to personal experience. Obviously, there are some recurring points of congruence that tie long-time inhabitants of a locale to a place in a collective way. This collective heritage is often the product of shared work and recreational patterns, common ethnic and economic bonds, shared social and spiritual values, actual or invented historical identities, and even broadly shared experiences of human struggle and natural disaster. These regionally situated commonalities, in turn, produce shared mental attitudes, sensibilities, and associations.
Of course, no culture is monolithic, and such a construct as presented above assumes constancy. For example: (1) is it possible for long-standing regional elements to maintain their vibrancy amidst an influx of new cultural influences? (2) Are such regional characteristics equally authentic to new arrivals that bring different priorities and preferences with them from elsewhere? (3) As these old and new traditions interface in built form, is this new vernacular just as authentic? (4) And might we see such hybridized forms resulting from such encounters between local and outside forces offering a different dimension of regional identity?
…It is certainly appropriate to continue to document and preserve the forms and features connecting a place to its official past. But, since historic preservation and regional design are also concerned with cultural identity as a determinant of Place, shouldn’t we be concerned, as well, with how buildings and their adjacencies are transformed over time in response to changing regional criteria? If we are to understand the nature of a locale, the record of ongoing change is as relevant as episodic moments of isolated achievement. Change informs us about who we are as eloquently as our past deeds and accomplishments reflect who we were.
Perhaps, as Nezar Al Sayyad suggests, we should try to understand tradition in light of a changing world, and begin to move away from an enduring or fixed concept of cultural heritage. ‘Instead.’ Al Sayyad argues, ‘we should embrace multiple and transformative states of identity—an immediate present that is a constantly moving target.’