Vernacular, Classical, and Other

Cadiz, Spain: Copyright Getty Images: Ken Welsh

Cadiz, Spain: Copyright Getty Images: Ken Welsh

According to numerous sources there is a basic life-giving “geometry.” Michael Mehaffy and Nikos Salingaros—following Christopher Alexander—have demonstrated that the brain craves them. Although they would never put it so baldly, they divide the realm of design into the life-giving and the rest: primarily minimalism and avant-garde. If we accept this mental map, how can we map the “living” side—at least within architecture and urbanism?

We humans all have an innate affinity for that living “geometry,” and while traditional architecture/urbanism doesn’t completely monopolize it, it might risk an artistic anti-trust violation. Tradition results from the thousands of years we’ve spent honing those design qualities, so it’s no wonder. Those qualities structure choices according to different modes. Douglas Duany, with Andres Duany, has posited a “Vernacular Mind.” It is unguarded and adaptive, which makes it distinct from the mind of a Classicist who may be more concerned with correctness and refinement. The Vernacular is certainly, as Michael Mehaffy says, self-organizing, and the Classical is, too, albeit by following esteemed models more explicitly.

Classical to Vernacular Compendium, Copyright Leon Krier. Courtesy Howard Blackson

Classical to Vernacular Compendium, Copyright Leon Krier. Courtesy Howard Blackson


Leon Krier and Stephen Mouzon both suggest a Classical-Vernacular continuum. Stephen Mouzon posits a horizontal choice between the organic and the refined—or anywhere in-between.

Leon Krier has a more elaborate map. HisArchitectural Tuning of Settlements notes that there is usually a mix. The urban form itself can be Classical, Vernacular, or both. The urban background buildings can be Classical, Vernacular, or both, and the important civic buildings can be Classical or Vernacular.

In today’s United States, there is very little we could call “vernacular,” although Stephen Mouzon and many others are trying to change that. Certainly, there is the common architecture of motels, drive-ins and subdivisions, but there is a difference between the common and the vernacular practice. While we might think that common constitutes “vernacular,” it is not a product of the “Vernacular Mind.” The Vernacular mind is considerate, and cares about social opprobrium. Although they are now underrepresented, there have been vernaculars in the US. Despite scholarship showing that they can be almost autochthonous, they required architectural pattern books to spread. (Gary Brewer of Robert A. M. Stern Architects stresses this point.) Today, Vernaculars, if they resurge, will use them.

There is not much, or enough, new of the Classical in the US to reignite literacy in it among most people. Yet, in the above scroll “The Good City” is more Vernacular than Classical. A little Classical elaboration and refinement can go a long way, if it is surrounded by enough ordinary urban fabric to provide it with diminished echoes and thereby amplify its impact—as in Rome, or at the State Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. As Leon Krier demonstrates, even a good Classical building needs a supporting context. Scott Merril’s Ft. Pierce Federal Courthouse is not as lucky as his Chapel at Seaside, Florida.

As Andres Duany has noted, Classical details, particularly columns and entablatures, can be used to concentrate semantic meaning, so simple overall forms can act as a foil. At the scale of urbanism, Classical buildings themselves concentrate meaning and attention, so the rest of the fabric can act as a foil.

Bedrock, Foundation, Pinacle

Perhaps, then, the “living patterns” and geometries are like bedrock. Nothing living can be built at all without them. Above it, the Vernacular might be a foundation on which the rest is built. Ordinary buildings are often relatively unrefined, but still have dignity and warmth. Traditionally, each step up in civic importance takes on more refinement, and of course there are fewer buildings at each step. As Dino Marcantonio notes, the Classical is not just more correct and elaborate, but more iconographically emblematic of everything below it. When seen from the top, monumental Classical pinnacle, the Vernacular seems as if it is a simpler imitation. When seen from the bottom, the Classical seems as if it is a more elaborate version.

The chief advantage of this way of thinking about the living “geometries” is that it gives us nuance. There is no clean line. The basic living stuff, the bedrock, slowly builds up to the most basic shared cultural Vernaculars. Then this is refined gradually, story by story, to the Classical at the very top.