“Vernaculararchitecture” is essentially a fancy term for “traditional buildings notdesigned by architects”. A more sophisticated definition might be “architecturethat uses locally available resources and traditions to address local needs andcircumstances.” Since anything developed as “new” always rests on the shouldersof something that came before, it’s not surprising that the Modern movement wasinfluenced by certain architectural traditions of the deep and not so deeppast. I’ve often wondered if the Modern movement was in part inspired by theearthy edges of southwestern adobes and the ethereal white blockiness ofseaside hovels in the Aegean sea. As it turns out, it was!
Althoughhe denied it (“Resemblances are mistaken for influences.”), Frank Lloyd Wrightwas clearly influenced by traditional Japanese architecture. He saw theHo-o-den, the Japanese building at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Hewas an avid collector of Japanese prints (his design depictions were clearlyinfluenced by these prints). And he most likely read Edward Morse’s book“Japanese Homes and Their Surroundings” published in 1886.
Wrightwas likely inspired by the horizontality of Japanese architecture as well asthe large eaves and open spaces, elements that appear in his Prairie andUsonian phases. While in Japan overseeing the construction of the ImperialHotel, he experienced the Korean tradition of heating a room through pipes inthe floor, something he would employ later in his Usonian homes.
Photos of the Ho-o-den at the 1893 Columbian Exhibition
Wright,as well as many of the Modern masters, were either directly or indirectlyinfluenced by the Arts and Crafts (also called the Craftsman) movement, amovement characterized by simple forms, local and natural materials, andhand-made (vernacular) craftsmanship intended to rebel against the machine-ageand over-indulgent Victorians. Started in England about 1860, Many Craftsmanhouses included built-ins and furniture meant to compliment the architecture,traits picked up by the Modernists.
Indirectly,Wright, through the publication of his Wasmuth Portfolio in Germany in 1910,introduced his Japanese influences to the germinating Modern movement inEurope. However, vernacular architecture also played a more direct role in thedevelopment of Europe’s modernism. While prospecting for marble, Adolf Loos, heof “Ornament and Crime”, happened upon the architecture of the Cyclades Islandsin the Aegean Sea (Skyros in particular). Cycladic architecture is cubic andblindingly white (sound familiar?). These buildings are blocky and flat-roofedto resist strong winds and white to reflect the hot sun. And herds of theseblocky white buildings huddling against the mountainside is nothing short ofbreathtaking. It’s easy to understand how buildings on these little islandsgreatly influenced Loos’s architecture.
Scenes of Skyros. Catch your breath!
Interestingly,about the same time, Mediterranean architecture from a different shore andcontinent was being planted into the early Modern movement in Californiathrough the work of Irving Gill and Frank Mead. Gill worked for Adler &Sullivan in Chicago the same time Frank Lloyd Wright did before moving to SanDiego (Louis Sullivan advised employees to “look toward the silent walls ofAfrica”). In 1900, Gill worked to stabilize the ruins of the Mission San Diegode Alcala and became impressed with its straightforward simplicity, economy inthe use of materials, and emphasis on utility, elements he began to include inhis own work. In 1907, he teamed up with Frank Mead to design what manyconsider to be the first Modern homes in California (or, at the very least, thefirst protoModern homes). Mead, as part of a commission to photograph Bedouinsin Northern Africa, documented the vernacular architecture of northern Africaand the Mediterranean, something that clearly influenced the simple whitestructures the two designed during their brief one year collaboration.
Mission San Diego de Alcala.
RudolphSchindler, a student of Loos, traveled the western United States in 1915including Taos, New Mexico, writing that he had found "the first buildings in America which have a real feeling for the ground which carries them". Schindler was smitten by the native puebloarchitecture and even designed an adobe-inspired house while he was there. In a letter to Richard Neutra, he wrote “When I speak of American architecture I must say at once that there is none. . .The only buildings which testify to the deep feeling for soil on which they stand are the sun-baked adobe buildings of the ﬁrst immigrants and their successors — Spanish and Mexican — in the south-western part of the country.”
Later in the trip, Schindler traveled to California where he saw (and photographed)several of Gill and Mead’s houses. He later worked for Frank Lloyd Wright beforeheading out on his own in 1921. His first project out on in his own post-Wrightwas his own house, influenced, in part, by the New Mexican pueblos. The ElPueblo Ribera Court Apartments in San Diego are also influenced by pueblos andsometimes described as Pueblo Revivalism.
Schindler knew how to ride a horse (photo'd in the Land of Enchantment).
Taos Pueblo (photo by Schindler).
The country home Schindler designed (unbuilt).
Similarto Loos, Le Corbusier was also influenced by the architecture of the AegeanSea, but he was also influenced by vernacular architecture of a more recentvintage and purpose. As illustrated in his 1923 book “Towards an Architecture”,he was smitten with grain elevators! At first this might seem ludicrous, butgrain elevators tend to be geometric, unadorned, and purely driven by purpose.The photos of grain elevators in Corbusier’s book came from an articlepublished in 1917 by none other than Gropius, another fan of Midwestern grainelevators.
These grain silos are totally hot.
And finally, Wright, whether he liked it or not, waslater influenced by Loos, Corbusier, Gropius, and even Schindler. Thedevelopment of Modern architecture was a beautiful hot mess of crosspollination with each architect observing, learning, assimilating, adapting,and processing as they each developed their own style. All of it, as it turnsout, has Organic roots, re-employing what was learned long ago by ancientbuilders and adapting lessons to modern living, a process that continuestoday.