Papanek on Architecture and the Vernacular

In addition to lists and principles for design, there are these two lovely chapters on architecture in Victor Papanek’s Green Imperative. This book also reminds me how much I love a good epigraph, and that I should use them for everything I write.

Sensing a Dwelling

Think with the whole body.

We are born indoors, live, love, bring up our families, worship, work, grow old, sicken and die indoors. Architecture mirrors every aspect of our lives–social, economical, spiritual.
–Eugene Raskin

I think all of my favourite architects talk about the ways architecture affects every sense, and unsurprisingly Papanek argues that we need to pay attention to mood and an environment that supports and develops our sensory abilities.

We need to pay attention to the dimension of light, he mentions Taliesin West by Frank Lloyd Wright – and the light that comes through its canvas sails is indeed quite wonderful.

We need to pay attention to footfalls — to the quality of the surfaces under our feet. Like these:

p 83

How lovely, right?

We need to pay attention to the fabric – pay attention to all that we feel and can touch with our fingers or on our skin. The sense of smell that evokes so much, above all memory. Our responses to space, like that of cathedrals, or the feeling of a spiral staircase. Sounds and rhythms, the use of echoes and accoustics. Organic geomtery, the shape of a room and how that shapes how energy moves around it. These examples:

AD Classics: Lotus Temple / Fariborz Sahba | ArchDaily
Lotus Temple / Fariborz Sahba
Thorncrown Chapel - Encyclopedia of Arkansas
Thorncrown Chapel, Eureka Springs –

Papanek writes:

By entering spaces that were designed with a conscious recognition of some of these principles, one can experience what a human-scale, divinely proportioned building feels like, and speculate about a world in which such dwellings would be the norm rather than the exception. The villages in Egypt designed by Hassan Fathy and employing Nubian vault-makers, Christopher Day’s buildings, most of Keith Critchlow’s work, are marvellous examples of architecture that awakens our innermost mythic responses. The temples and houses of worship by Pietro Belluschi in Oregon and Washington, Herb Greene’s early houses in Nebraska, and especially the dwellings and chapels by Fay Jones in Arkansas, Texas and Mississippi – all these reflect more than the adroit orchestration of space. (99)

And then he looks at the tens of thousands of years where human beings have built their own homes, knowing how to adjust and adapt their own home, fix what was wrong, expand as and when needed.

But in today’s world the economics and forms of architecture have been transformed — the point is how far removed from the process of building and design the occupant of the home now is. I am finding this chart so useful for my own thinking about the many processes and people involved in the construction of a single building:


The impact of this?

Since the entire business of building has been taken over by specialists and experts, we can expect neither health, beauty nor fitness of purpose. Building technology, and with it most architecture, is concentrated on square-foot costings, profit and the quickest return for the balance sheet – the bottom line’.

Yet architecture can only flourish if the dwellings built are in harmony with the people who live in them, with nature and culture. If the design profession chose the motto of the British Medical Association, ‘First, do no harm!’ as its credo, it would signify a giant step forward for users and towards the sustainability of the built environment. (104)

How do we recentre the home dweller and community/ culture/ nature where that home sits? The big question, and hard to see as financialisation of real estate expands inexorably in global markets.

The Biotechnology of Communities

I hate a lot that Aristotle said, imagine an eye roll at his continuing authority, yet I still do like the below:

Aristotle said that men form communities not for justice, peace, defence or traffic, but for the sake of the good life. This good life has always meant the satisfaction of man’s four basic social desires: conviviality, religion, artistic and intellectual growth, politics. (105)

I’d add care for each other and the world to this list. But I do think we need a recentring of effort around what is important, and this is a good starting point. Cars are not on this list, and I don’t think this point can be made enough — community and sense of place is consistently decimated where traffic has become the highest priority, and this has happened almost everywhere.

What most planners have overlooked in their rush to eliminate all obstacles to traffic, is that they are removing the community itself. The function of a community is to act as a goal not as a passage point, an end not a means, a stop not flow, a place to arrive not for driving through. This is why nearly all good cities exist where traffic was bound to stop: at the base of mountains or at their top; on the bend of rivers, the shores of lakes or oceans… (107)

Again, how de we recentre what matters, and undo this damage?

The Lessons of Vernacular Architecture

The fial chapter is on vernacular architecture, which I am a little obsessed with. Perhaps because nothing was so wonderful as ‘helping’ my parents build an adobe house when a child and living in that house. Seriously, nothing was that wonderful.

He talks a lot about what doesn’t make vernacular architecture. But that is nothing like as interesting as what makes vernacular architecture, and I quite love the idea that it is the process not the product that he argues is definitive.

It may be helpful to start from a process-oriented rather than a product-based viewpoint. Vernacular architecture is based on a knowledge of traditional practices and techniques; it is usually self-built (perhaps with help from family, clan or builders in the tribe), and reveals a high regard for craftsmanship and quality. Vernacular structures tend to be easy to learn and understand. They are made of predominantly local materials. They are ecologically apt, that is they fit in well with local climate, flora, fauna and ways of life. Vernacular buildings are never self-conscious; they recede into the environment rather than serving as self-proclaiming design statements. They are human in scale; frequently the process of building is more important than or equally important as the end product. This combination of good ecological fit, human scale, craftsmanship and striving for quality, together with a strong concern for decoration, ornamentation and embellishment, leads to a sensuous frugality that results in true elegance. (118)

So again an emphasis on humility, interconnection, adaptability, ecology. And then Papanek continues to think through these things, and to look at vernacular architecture as being shaped by multiple forces/causations. To summarise, I shall leave you with this beautiful thing:


I miss my dad so much, he would have loved this and loved to talk through it with me.

Again and always, Papanek’s work is stretching to understand the complexity of things, the ecology of things, how they are tangled and intertwined and interconnected. Such a relational approach is so vital to any hope for the future.

Papanek, Victor (1995) The Green Imperative: Ecology and Ethics in Design and Architecture. London: Thames & Hudson.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.