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As safe as houses

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New Vernacular Architecture By Vicky Richardson. Laurence King, 2001, 240pp. £39.99

This is a coffee table book but with a difference. In the first chapter it becomes apparent that the author is putting forward an articulate, and somewhat barbed, thesis. Although it could have been developed more fully, it poses some very interesting questions. Not least of all is the tension between the thesis - that the re-emergence of the vernacular 'style' amounts to an architectural ambivalence about progress - and a positive portrayal of the core content.

Richardson begins by telling us that many architects who were asked to take part in the book thought that 'vernacular architecture' was a contradiction in terms; it being the 'unconscious work of craftsmen accumulated over generations'. For the purposes of maintaining linguistic clarity, Richardson has defined it as a paradoxical rejection of a style - a reflection of an 'analogous inspiration'drawn from the 'characteristics of local buildings, their scale in particular, (their) use of materials, the landscape, the local culture or even no more than the idea of continuity with the past'.

Some of the buildings address the vernacular by simple materials and construction methods, some are parodies of a romantic or folkloric version of the past, while others are not-so-obvious examples which need analysis for the vernacular element to emerge.

But it is quite fascinating in the process.

After a romp through the Arts and Crafts movement, the Prairie School and Modernism, Richardson concludes that 'when the 20th century is remembered for its failed social experiments, it is not surprising that some architects are ambivalent about their role and prefer to adopt the 'unconscious' of the vernacular'.

Richardson has to work hard to legitimise the inclusion of a number of buildings under the rubric of the vernacular (like Antoine Predock's Arizona Science Centre), though just about pulls it off. But her recognition that changing historical context affects the basis of a 'vernacular' is important, in two senses. Firstly, established materials and craftsmanship have moved on since William Morris' day, and hence the 'local materials' palette is more 'modern'. Secondly, the cautious mood of our times is more pervasive than ever before and has bred a defensive regression into the 'safety' of parochialism.

Fortunately, some of the schemes on offer look lovely. Their raison d'être, on the other hand, seems to be almost cowardly.

Those are my words; Richardson couldn't possibly comment.

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