Why should we conserve relatively intact Domains of Vernacular Architecture for Future Generations?

Paper  presented at the 11th Conference
Alps Adria, October 11/12 2001, on Vernacular Architecture
  at Gozd Martuljek, Slovenia

by Nold Egenter
Arch. ETH-Z, Architectural Anthropologist

For the 11th time the Architectural Department of the University of Ljubljana organised its 'Alps Adria Conference' on 'Vernacular Architecture' in the beautiful mountainous region of the Triglav National Park in the Northwest of Slovenija. The country is rich in traditional sources of its agrarian regions. However, many of these rural domains are under strong pressure for change with imported elements of large scale mobility and industrialisation. This pressure can be felt at this conference. Most of its members are involved in some public disputes over factual problems related to vernacular architecture or vernacular landscapes of the country. Ideas, concepts and theories are not merely 'art for arts sake' here, but are a matter of deep concern. Consequently the main topic had a summaric character. The subtitle of the conference was: Results of [the previous] Ten Conferences. Several contributions dealt directly with corresponding themes, like 'The Decline and Re-establishment of Vernacular Architecture - An Analysis (P. Fister), or, 'A Survey of Topics Discussed at Alps-Adria Internaional Conferences' (T. Novljan), or, 'The changing Values and Technologies of a Home' (P. Marolt) to name just a few. A large part was devoted to dry stone masonry and drystone shelters, mainly in the Mediterranean region, authors and auditors often indicating a rather historistic attitude implying that these constructions represented 'primitive' buildings of a very high age. Many were quite surprised when they heard that the anthropological view of architecture assumes buildings of much higher age. In its primary tectonic form, that is, as a manually constructed stable fibrous artifact, architecture can be attributed to an age of 22 million years. More about this assumption can be found in the present site (see contents in 'Research Series Online'). This time-depth is also basic for the present paper.
The texts  and illustrations related to this and the former conferences can be seen in the Internet:


There is a strange paradox around the phenomenon of vernacular architecture. Wherever it has been preserved relatively intact for whatever reasons, it creates some sort of attraction mainly in the touristic sector and, in fact, may prove to be very profitable (Zermatt, Switzerland). On the other hand it is considered as an anachronism and is consequently esthetically as well as economically devalued and exposed to processes destroying the necessary formal units by the intrusion of modern architecture and its rationalistic forms. What is vernacular architecture? What are its values? Why should we find means to preserve it for future generations?

In this framework the paper will first critically question the conventional definitions of vernacular architecture (European folklore studies, Encyclopedia of Vernacular Architecture of the World, etc.) and show that the modern rationalistic or functional retroprojections do not do justice to the complexity and historical value of vernacular architecture.

Finally, in a positive approach the paper will develop the notion of  "Structural Design". Using art (Kaspar David Friedrich), architectural high style (Romanic, Gothic, Classicism etc.) and vernacular architecture (European, Japanese etc.) it will be shown that in all these examples there are very ancient immanent or hidden structural principles which are not only of a fundamental aesthetic value, but which had impacts on man's worldview throughout the world. With modernism, introducing the rational basics of the machine and the space concepts of the universe into the daily human domains, the concept of 'Structural Design' got lost.

This may be the great importance of vernacular architecture: its survival as a historic source, as a cognitive and scientific contrapost against global homogeneisation and mechanisation of our vital environment.

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