Sir Simon’s Arcade
Some provocative (& I think pertinent) thoughts on referencing modern architecture to the past, in an article entitled “Keep your references to yourself” by Owen Hatherley in Building Design on 16 July 2010:
There are a few words it would be good to see banned altogether from architectural discourse. “Regeneration” maybe, “offer” as a noun definitely, so many others – but among the most consistently pernicious are “vernacular” and “reference”. That’s as in “this supermarket harmonises with the local vernacular, through its pitched roofs and red brick”, or as in “the red terracotta on the facade of this stunning luxury development is a reference to the factory that once stood on the site”. You can add your own equivalents.
“Reference” is everywhere today, but “vernacular” is due a revival, popular as it is with the assorted nimbys and localists favoured by the new government. The phrase has its roots in linguistics. In language, vernacular means something specific – everyday language. It does too in architectural historiography, where it refers to pre-industrial, pre-mass communication methods of building – in the words of one of its proponents, Ronald Brunskill, “vernacular” means “a building designed by an amateur without any training in design; the individual will have been guided by a series of conventions built up in his locality, paying little attention to what may be fashionable. The function of the building would be the dominant factor,
aesthetic considerations…being quite minimal.”
It’s fair to say that very little built after the industrial revolution fits these parameters, with the possible recent exception of the distribution complexes on the edges of motorways. Vernacular must be fundamentally unselfconscious, which disqualifies all but the most naive of architects. If there are interesting outgrowths of this non-idea, they are in the wildly ambitious structures of non-architects, from the Palais Idéal to the Sutyagin Skyscraper, not the woeful underachievement of professionals.
When we talk about “the vernacular” we mean building something that looks a lot like the things around it, if usually a bit smaller. Meaningless as it may be, the results include the insistence on brick cladding or local stone in sundry regen projects. It often merges with something more recent – the cult of the local reference, usually as a way of appeasing the ghosts of industry. This can be seen in subtle forms – Caruso St John negotiated the gap between kitsch and strangeness with aplomb in the concrete lace patterns at Nottingham Contemporary – but it quickly became farce with Bond Bryan’s Sheffield Hallam University buildings, clad in cutlery patterns.
The reason for these shallow references is the need to pretend that we aren’t homogenising our cities. There are, of course, more sophisticated ways of building with the genius loci in mind: think of, say, Sheffield’s post-war planning, where the city’s extraordinary topography became the focus of the architecture; or there’s the way the medieval street plan results in a weird and exciting skyline in the City of London and a bland, beaux arts one at the tabula rasa of Canary Wharf. The local need not be subsumed in order to create unique architecture, but it shouldn’t be patronised either.
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