Monday, May 28, 2012


I've been thinking a lot about place lately, not site, but place making.  I've recently  returned from a trip to Las Vegas and southern Utah.  (This was my first trip to Las Vegas and I disliked it more than I expected.  I had hoped it would be so kitschy that I could find some humor in it, but it takes itself too seriously to be funny.  It's just bad architecture.)  Almost every town we went through could have been "anywhere U.S.A.".  Why is this? 

I suspect it's because the U.S. does not have a strong vernacular (folk) tradition of architecture.  A friend strongly disagreed with me when I stated this, citing the Victorians of San Francisco and brownstones of New York as examples of American vernacular.  But while I do think these are examples of local building traditions, I don't think they can be held up as examples of vernacular architecture.  Vernacular architecture springs from site; from local climate, building materials and modes of living that have developed over centuries.  In Switzerland, they build houses with steeply slanted roofs due to the heavy snowfall and use local materials such as abundant wood and stone to create a very distinctive look.  In Iceland, where wood was a rare commodity prior to trade and the winters are long and fierce, they used to build partially submerged sod houses.

Icelandic Sod House Partially Submerged in Ground

Greece House Built of Local Stone and White-washed to Minimize Heat Gain

The Victorians of San Francisco are not built in response to the site (other than the use of wood).  The style is a foreign import.  Granted, San Franciscans have made the style their own, but to me, it is not vernacular architecture.  I think if we were to look for a vernacular American tradition we'd have to look to native Americans who did not build extensive permanent settlements, other than the pueblos of the south west.

So throughout America (and I include Canada too), we build sprawling, suburban communities that are divorced from place.  San Jose looks the same as St. George, Utah.  They are both filled with boxy, windowless strip malls and houses that are a mish-mash of architectural styles.  The average American, I believe in an attempt to find a sense of permanence and tradition where none exists, gravitates to new housing that imitates older European architectural styles.  How do we create a sense of place that isn't a rehash of old tired styles?  Advocates of Critical Regionalism would encourage us to use local vernacular architecture as a starting point, but if no vernacular architecture exists, how does one begin? Is it simply by responding sensitively to the site, the climate and context?  Or should we simply forge ahead and develop a uniquely American style divorced from historicism?