by Howard Wight Marshall
Vernacular architecture is traditional architecture. It gives a visible face and functional core to local patterns, ethnic and regional character. In our efforts to read this character through the everyday buildings around us, we look for recurring meaningful patterns. Traditions in vernacular architecture may last for generations, but they do change over time as social, economic and technological conditions change. To follow these changeable patterns, researchers have sorted vernacular buildings into sets of types, based on form, which demonstrate their evolution across time and space.
For researchers, “type” differs from “style” in vernacular architecture. A building’s type – floor plan, placement of chimney or stove, height – is stable over time. Distinct patterns of vernacular buildings can be traced to earlier times and places, and we are sometimes able to detect the probable origin for types of buildings we had previously thought to be simply “American.” Vernacular types are regional or local and tend to change slowly. Style changes more frequently and reflects national taste seen in the mass media. While style is of course grounded in the customary ideas of earlier generations, it refers to elements of decoration and ornamentation which often originate from the nation’s most creative contemporary artists and architects. To put it another way, traditional builders work within tradition, while academic designers attempt new versions that go far beyond and may even seem to mock a community’s shared tradition. Buildings can be placed in categories of fashions and styles by studying qualities of decoration and radical difference. In vernacular architecture, style typically has less to do with a building’s function or use of interior space than does its type.
Vernacular architecture often has local or regional patterns based on familiar traditions in design, construction, decoration and use. It often (but rarely exclusively) employs local building materials. Most stores, roads, houses, bridges, barns, warehouses, and so on take their form from the needs of everyday life, work, and commerce in the region or community where they were built. But people choose building styles and types for reasons. They may want a building with a popular style to make an impression on the neighborhood, to express well-being and success, or to reflect the fashion of the day; this is high-style and popular architecture.
Traditional buildings also may display flashes of the style and ornaments of the age, such as Georgian, Greek Revival, Gothic, Mission Revival or Colonial Revival. These broadly popular styles reflect national changes in taste. Stylistic ornament is characteristically applied as a sort of mask or Sunday clothes, put on the exterior of an otherwise humble building. The special architectural style that dresses up a vernacular building is a vital element in the building’s social and cultural identity.
Downtown areas or “Main Streets” often provide examples of how ornamental styles are used in vernacular architecture. Many older downtown buildings strongly reflect local patterns: typically, Main Street was built and rebuilt by generations of pioneers and then business owners who worked to establish a secure, prominent position for their community’s economy. Unfortunately, new developments or reconstructions of downtown buildings usually imitate styles from other parts of the United States (witness the Willamsburg, Virginia, “colonial” revival style). These projects have denied and erased the local traditions of cultural regions like the Boonslick, Little Dixie, the Rhineland and the Bootheel. Familiar threads of local personality are cut, and future generations will be sorry that the fragile narrative of authentic local history was lost.
Too often, a town thinks it has to provide a new mall for the new Wal-Mart instead of asking the corporation to rehabilitate a vacant but serviceable downtown warehouse, store or factory. The mall is a magnificent marketplace, but with its franchises and international logos, it has virtually no local historical context or community personality. Yes, the mall is itself a landmark, but one that symbolizes interchangeable international commerce.
Symbols are important. In rural and small-town Missouri, old ideas are very much with us. For example, we have inherited a deep-seated concept that Greek- and Roman-looking classical columns lend dignity and a sense of success and power to the front of a farm house or the entry on a brand-new suburban bank. Americans love grand columns and classical pediments, from the massive limestone on the county courthouse to flat vinyl nailed as a decorative motif on the porch of a ranch-style house.
Symbolic features can become so rooted in building patterns that they live on after their original purpose disappears. Take for example the large fireplace in the new suburban house. Its original cooking and heating functions gone, the fireplace continues to be built because a hearth has symbolic values for millions of people – and offers the correct place for the ritual hanging of Christmas stockings and the placing of family photos.