The Vernacular

In any discussion on architecture we will hear a lot of use of the word “vernacular”. What exactly is the vernacular, what does it mean? It’s the name given to the type of building, in any country, that reflects local traditions and which has developed based on local needs and available materials.

Supposedly planning authorities go to great lengths to safeguard vernacular architecture. I’ve never seen any evidence of this alleged official crusade, have you?

I was in the Basque country for a few days a couple of weeks back. If you fancy a crash course on vernacular architecture and its propagation and protection you should get yourself a seat on the next flight to Biarritz, hire a car and drive twenty minutes south west to St. Jean de Luz and environs.

There seems to be no muddled thinking over there as to what constitutes vernacular architecture in the first place. You know they probably have it written down somewhere. Maybe they commissioned a bunch of experts to produce a report a number of years ago and they actually use that report, they refer to it and implement its findings and recommendations on a daily basis. Maybe they have a consistent framework by which they measure planning applications and it either qualifies or it doesn’t. Imagine.

I am being flippant of course but the lack of consistency in the observance or even the recognition of what qualifies as vernacular architecture here can be a source of some frustration.

Every generic bungalow built across the island since 1965 evidently had no problem getting over the vernacular hurdle. This has more to do with their low rise nature than anything pertaining to available materials and reflections of local traditions.

The planner is a curious animal who, when going for a nice drive in the country, would prefer to have swathes of dreadful concrete roof tiles in his eye line above a hedge rather than the second storey façade of a tasty revival farmhouse.

The evolution of the bungalow into the dormer bungalow bears this out. We’re getting more square footage, we have a stairs and we’re putting the second floor in the roof. The planner is still happy, the homeowner is happy but the poor custodian of vernacular architecture is crying into his clam chowder at the sight of all those dormer windows and projecting eaves.

Vernacular me arse he cries above the din of his heritage flailing its way through the shredder down at the Planning Department.

We accept that the vernacular is constantly evolving and differs from one region to the next. How can we then justify planning permission being consistently granted for a bungalow with no appreciable difference in style, character, form or composition all the way from Wexford to Donegal over a forty-year period?

We also accept that in this country with our impoverished and colonial past, nailing down the vernacular is not an exact science. But this should help planners in terms of discretion and leeway not frustrate them to the point of throwing their hats at the thing altogether.

We all have an idea in our heads as to what typical Irish architecture looks like, but it’s not always accurate. Is the Irish vernacular the stone-cut thatched cottage? The terraced town house? The square farmhouse? It could be all those things. And a lot more besides. We think we know it when we see it and we certainly know what it’s not when we see it.

The current incarnation of the bungalow has been with us for fifty years. It’s the new vernacular by default. I’m not saying it’s right but it could be time to accept that the horse has forever bolted on this one and learn to love our inner bungalow. Ah bliss.

leitrim mimetic house

If low rise is what they want, then low rise is what they’ll get. The photo above is of Mimetic House in Leitrim designed by Dominic Stevens.

Cheers Dominic, that’s the rural housing debate officially put to bed as far as I’m concerned. Nighty night.

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