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One might be forgiven for thinking that the concept of ‘vernacular’ architecture is straightforward. First, it suggests a contemporary approach to building that uses local materials and crafts, as well as the indigenous architecture of tribal peoples, such as piledwellings over tropical waters, mud houses in the desert, or animal-hide teepees on the savannah. These buildings can be distinguished easily from other types of buildings that use industrialised construction techniques and materials, such as concrete, sheet glass, plastics and steel. Second, it might suggest an alternative and more wholesome set of values towards life, the environment and aesthetics, than that represented by the out-of-town retail park or the inner-city office tower. Why bother with the word ‘vernacular’, though, let alone ‘indigenous’ or the more problematic ‘primitive’, when ‘traditional’ works well enough? Nothing could be simpler.
Simon Richards is a lecturer in the Department of History of Art and Film at the University of Leicester, specialising in modern and contemporary architecture theory. His books are Le Corbusier and the Concept of Self (Yale University Press, 2003) and Architect Knows Best (Ashgate, summer 2012).