New Traditional Architecture 3: On Vernacular Architecture

In one posting on the New Traditional Architecture Facebook page is illustrated the ‘Villa Tällberg’, completed in 2019 in the Swedish vernacular manner. It is by a Swedish architectural firm Byggnadswerk, led by Tommy Janssen, who does some rather beautiful buildings in this manner.[1] This particular building is painted in ‘Falu red’, a red paint made from mining sludge associated with the copper-mining city of Falun in Sweden (Fig. 1). Janssen also has an Instagram site where he posts pictures of old Swedish buildings that can be called vernacular, such as farmhouses, but also others employing similar constructional techniques that are clearly architect designed bourgeois houses.[2]

Fig. 1. Villa Tällberg, Sweden. 2019 (Byggnadsverk architects)

The New Traditional Architecture post states that: ‘Sweden has like all countries a rich legacy of vernacular and classical architecture ….’[3] Without labouring over what is a brief Facebook comment, I nevertheless find interesting the assumption that  ‘all countries’ have ‘vernacular’ and ‘classical’ architecture.

Both of these terms are highly freighted. ‘Vernacular’ has the resonances of the concept of ‘folk/volk’ as it was develop in the eighteenth century; that is, the ’natural’ expression of the nature of an ethnic group, one that emerged during the deep past of that group. It is a term that originated with reference to language, as in a Merriam-Webster definition: ‘using a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language’.

‘Classical’ is, of course, the concept most central to western art theory, and Gombrich usefully argued that all western art terms (like Gothic and Baroque) were formulated in opposition to the classical, but each were ‘unclassical’ in different ways. The usage in this post, however, has a resonance that owes much to English architectural historians and philosophers of the late twentieth century, especially David Watkin and Roger Scruton, who reasserted the claims of classicism to be a universal architecture. This claim had general acceptance from the Renaissance to the eighteenth century, but was undermined by the partisans of the Gothic and demolished by the cultural relativism of nineteenth-century historicism. The claim of architectural universalism was appropriated by Modernism in the twentieth century, and in polemical opposition to this but Watkin and Scruton attempted to reattach it to Classicism. In this they are followed by many adherents of New Traditional Architecture, which often subsume all of what they consider to be good architecture under the term ‘classical’.

From an Australian perspective these terms are particularly problematic. It could be argued that the almost obsessive preoccupation with things Aboriginal in contemporary progressive culture is an attempt to recover an Australian cultural vernacular, a ‘folk’ culture, even though such a project must necessarily fail, given that aboriginality, like the ‘volk’, is defined racially, and most Australians are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants. And it must necessarily fail in terms of architecture, since architecture was not central to Aboriginal culture. So for a vernacular architecture Australians fall back on what was built by early settlers and which can be construed as ‘a dialect native to a region’ that is not ‘literary, cultured, or foreign’, namely timber woolsheds, to which may be added cast-iron lace verandas in the cities. Or possibly one might identify as ‘the Australian vernacular’ what was the standard mode of construction of ordinary nineteenth century buildings, which involves wooden stumps and corrugated iron roofs, gables, sash windows, and  weatherboards, what I will call the ‘weatherboard and corrugated iron style’.

The more aspirational urban architecture of the nineteenth century, found in parliament buildings, post offices, town halls, and to some extent terrace houses was ‘classical’, but few in Australia would accept that the style of these buildings has a claim to architectural universality. Indeed, they are as often as not seen as the embodiment of Britishness, and as something un-Australian, Eurocentric, and tarnished by colonialism. At the time they were built and for long afterwards they may have been thought to have spoken a literary or cultured language, but not a foreign one, since Australians were British. Consequently the architecture that has the best claim to be considered an ‘Australian vernacular’ style is Federation architecture, which was created at the point when Australian nationalism was created, and which, helpfully, is not very classical: it is one of Gombrich’s ‘unclassical’ styles, more concerned with invention than correctness, and rooted in the English attempt to return to their own vernacular, the Arts and Crafts movement.

Yet a century and more on from Federation, Federation architecture has become a period style, relegated to a past in which contemporary Australia is uninterested (they are unprotected and steadily being demolished).  Arguably, what can be considered ‘vernacular’ architecture today are the buildings that constitute the vast and ever increasing acreage of suburban housing estates (Fig. 2). These have been for decades been built either in a bland, brown, hip-roofed manner, devoid of any architectural inflection, the successor to the weatherboard and corrugated iron style, or in a kind of boxy modernism, with abrupt shifts of materials on the exterior. The former are difficult to admire in the way the fans of New Traditional architecture admire European vernaculars, while the latter are difficult to hate as dreary Modernism, since they are not devoid of architectural interest.

Fig. 2. Housing estate, sunbury, victoria. (Google maps.)

This is not for stylistic reasons, but sociological ones. The social problems of such suburban developments swamp any concern with style. In looking at them one does not debate beauty or the lack of it, but recoils at the smallness of the allotments relative to the footprint of the houses, the tiny back yards, and the sheer repetitive monotony of it all. An even more one is prompted to consider issues of population growth, mass immigration designed to depress wages, social isolation, and cultural mores.

Looked at from another direction, one could argue that in Australia there is no vernacular at all. Byggnadswerk can create beautiful buildings in the Swedish vernacular, especially because that vernacular had already been worked up in the nineteenth century into a more artful, bourgeois style. Once again, the parallels with the Federation style are significant.

These buildings are of interest in their own right, and prompt a positive aesthetic response. But were one to be erected down the road here in Australia it would be considered merely a curiosity. I know this for a fact. A New Traditional building immediately prompts the question: why? A Modernist one (to embrace that simplified dichotomy) does not: it is just a building. Why build a Swedish building here, is the inevitable question? It has been argued that Modernism, in its 1930s formulation, was a Central European style exported to other countries, buts its ideology, as I have been asserting, successfully claimed universality. The New Traditional Architecture movement is dependent on restoring local architectural traditions, not introducing ones from other countries. This is why classicism is so important for it: you can build ‘classically’ anywhere in Europe, not because classicism is indeed universal, but because classicism is a Europe-wide vernacular in its own right.

So in an Australian context, where the local vernacular tradition is so dire, one could theoretically embrace classicism, since this was also a colonial ‘vernacular’ in Australia (and, of course, the USA). Yet what matters with the contemporary adoption of a regional vernacular is the opportunities that vernacular offers for new invention. Unfortunately, the weatherboard and corrugated iron style is extremely basic, and offers little in the way of architectural excitement. Victorian public buildings in Australia, and especially Victoria, are, quite frankly, suffocating. They demonstrate so little in the way of creative originality that they depress invention rather than inspire it. Federation architecture is another matter, which brings us back to where we were before, but I will not go there, but instead continue with the idea of using these Swedish ‘vernacular’ buildings, and other such inspiring buildings found elsewhere, as models.

In abandoning the search for an ‘authentic’, ethnically based local vernacular, in favour of foreign vernaculars as models, we face the problem faced by nineteenth century historicism; namely, that there is too much inspiring architecture out there, and we want to draw on it all. In the nineteenth century this led to free-style eclecticism, but today it might be more productive to adopt the modernist (and arts-and-crafts) strategy of privileging construction. But not to make construction an end in itself, but to  adopt a process that starts with materials rather than image, is eclectic in forms and details, and ends up having an image that is original.

Such a building might sit more comfortably in the local built landscape. Yet how did we arrive at this being desirable? This, surely, is as much a Eurocentric import as the forms of our Swedish vernacular buildings. Contemporary Australian architecture never aspires to sit well with the landscape of buildings in which it is situated, although it often claims to sit well in the natural landscape. Robin Boyd in his 1950s polemic on Australian urbanism, The Australian Ugliness, condemned Australian suburbia as it then was, and as Victorian country towns still mostly are (though not for much longer) because it lacked the unity imposed upon old European villages (Mykonos, say) by a lack of options imposed by circumstance, or that might be possible in new developments if the hero-architect was given a free hand to impose his creative genius. (This would eventually happen, with the sophisticated planning regimes of Poundbury, Seaside, or Dinner Plain.)

Boyd was referring to streetscapes where buildings of different styles and periods stood side-by-side without formal unity or conscious design. This was the consequence of the Australian practice of property developers selling off land as vacant allotments that were then built on as circumstances allowed, with allotments often unbuilt upon for decades. But perhaps in an age when ‘diversity’ has become the most hallowed moral concept, Australians might get to enjoy a Swedish barn in Falu red next door.


[1] https://byggnadsverk.se/

[2] Instagram: byggnadsverk.se.

[3]https://www.facebook.com/photo/?fbid=10164397998910010&set=oa.1522779977935854 (Michael Diamant.) ‘I think it was Roger Scruton that said something like “an unspoiled landscape is not without buildings, but without modernist ones”. This is of course very true as the old villages and manors dotting our cultural landscapes makes the view even more pleasant. This new large villa near the lake Siljan in Dalarna, Sweden, may not move the world of new classical architecture, but it is important nationally. Sweden has like all countries a rich legacy of vernacular and classical architecture but since the 1960s there has been lots of destruction with ever increasing uglification. Showing people that you can build new high quality vernacular or classical is therefor of utter importance. Because money is never the problem, knowledge and culture always is. For now that is a feather in the hat to the owner that had the courage to ask for something different.’

This entry was posted in All Posts, Architecture, Arts and Crafts Movement, Baroque architecture, Comment, Construction, Country Houses, Design, Fabriques, New Traditional architecture, Town and Village, Uncategorized, Villas and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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