Course Syllabus

vernacular.quotes _2020.PDF



Columbia University

GSAPP, Architecture

A4866, Spring 2020

Tuesday, 11–1

300S Buell Hall

Mary McLeod



Modernism and the Vernacular 1900-Present

Regionalism, Tradition, Identity, and Resistance


“The true basis for any serious study of the art of Architecture till lies in those indigenous, more humble buildings everywhere that art to architecture what folklore is to literature and folk song to music and which academic architects were seldom concerned. . . . These many folk structures are of the soil, natural.  Though often slight, their virtue is intimately related to the environment and to the heart-life of the people.  Functions are usually truthfully conceived and rendered invariably with natural feeling.  Results are often beautiful and always instructive.”

—Frank Lloyd Wright, 1910 (Wasmuth Portfolio)


“Architecture is the result of the state of mind of its time. We are facing an event in contemporary thought: an international event, which we didn’t realize ten years ago; the techniques, the problems raised, like the scientific means to solve them, are universal. Nevertheless, there will be no confusion of regions: for climatic, geographic, topographical conditions, the currents of race and thousands of things still today unknown, will always guide solutions toward forms conditioned by them.”

—Le Corbusier, Precis, 1930.


“Stories of origin are far more telling of their time of telling than of the time they claim to tell.”

—Robin Evans


This class explores the intersections between modern architecture and what is sometimes called  “vernacular” building from the early twentieth century to the present.   Other adjectives that have been used to describe buildings erected by non-architects (though often with considerable qualification) are “indigenous,” “spontaneous,” “anonymous,” “folk,” “popular,” “rural,” and “primitive.”  This interest in vernacular forms also relates directly to concerns for “tradition” and “regionalism,” which modern architects have either espoused or questioned.


The working hypothesis of the seminar is that modern architecture, despite its commitment to technology and modernization, was deeply involved with ideas about vernacular buildings, and that the nature and meaning of this fascination with indigenous structures changed in the course of the century.  In the early twentieth century, architects such as Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, saw these “non-designed” buildings as a models of functionalism and aesthetic simplicity: both traditional residences and industrial buildings represented a kind of “truth value” in contrast to the artifice and eclecticism of nineteenth-century academic architecture.  The interest in traditional domestic architecture gained even greater force during the Depression and political crises of the 1930s, when many saw rural and non-Western cultures as an alternative to and critique of European and North American materialism and technological modernization.  After World War II, the interest in indigenous buildings became even more widespread among Western architects and the general public, resulting in a series of books and exhibitions, which culminated in the 1960s with the publication of Bernard Rudofsky’s Architecture without Architects (1964) and Paul Oliver’s Shelter and Society (1969).  Shortly thereafter, however, an appreciation of what is sometimes called the “commercial vernacular” emerged, especially in the United States, spurred by the publication of Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour’s Learning from Las Vegas (1972).  The rise of postmodern architecture in the 1970s and 1980s also brought a new interest in regionalism and tradition, leading many architects to consider other qualities besides functionalism and volumetric simplicity in vernacular buildings, such as ornament and decoration, materials and craft techniques, and urban configurations.  In  non-western and postcolonial societies, an interest in regionalism and tradition also led to a rediscovery and renewed appreciation of indigenous architecture, though often taking on a  different meaning than it did in Europe and North America:  it became a symbol of both cultural identity and resistance.  In some cases, it also represented a more realistic way to build, one that was less expensive, that employed readily available materials, and that relied on local labor and existing construction practices.  The concluding section of the class will be devoted to the work of some contemporary architects working outside of Europe and North America, such as that Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu), Francis Kéré, and Marina Tabassum; these architects often use and adapt vernacular forms, materials, and building techniques while exploring distinctly modern approaches to design and construction. 


Class structure and requirements:  This seminar has two major components: (1) close readings and discussion of seminal texts raising issues relevant to vernacular architecture and its influence on modern architecture and (2) student presentations of design work that was inspired or in response to vernacular buildings or of seminal exhibitions or books.  The topics covered each week will depend in part on students’ research interests.  Besides leading the discussion of one reading, students are expected to make three presentations in the course of the semester: the first dealing with the period before 1950, the second concerning the period from 1950 to 1970, and the third with architecture and theory since 1970s. In addition, students are required to write a research paper of approximately fifteen pages, due at the end of the semester.  The paper topics can either be drawn from the subjects below or can be chosen by the student in consultation with the professor.  Students should select their paper topic by March 3 and meet with Mary McLeod at least once in the course of the semester to discuss it.  A preliminary synopsis and bibliography should be submitted before March 31.


Guest lectures:  In the course of the semester there will also be a series of guest speakers who will discuss some of the topics in the class.   


Note: The topics and readings for the different sections will vary somewhat, depending on student presentations.  A more complete list is given on the course syllabus.



Week 1.  Introduction: Theories of vernacular and early examples of “discovery”


Weeks 2 and 3.  Early twentieth-century explorations 


a.  Adolf Loos, Villa Karma (1903–06), Villa Khuner (1930)


b.  Schultz-Naumberg, Tessenow, Muthesius, Hellerau, heimat (talk by Theresa Harris)


c.  Werkbund and industrial vernacular


d.  Le Corbusier, Voyage à l’orient


e.  Le Corbusier, Une Maison - Un Palais (1928), Précisions (1930)


Weeks 4 and 5.  The 1930s and the rediscovery of the vernacular


a.  Le Corbusier: 5 Houses, Ghardaia; Perriand, folklore, Georges-Henri Rivière


b.  Pagano and Daniel, Architettura rurale, 1936


c.  Taut, The Japanese House, Perriand, Japan (1940s)


d.  Eldem, The Turkish House  


e.  Breuer, Gropius, and American wood construction 


f.  Juan O’Gorman, “Cave” House 


Weeks 6 and 7.  The 1940s


a.  The war and scarcity:  Refugee housing, Le Corbusier, Les Murondins 


b.  Bay Area style: Mumford, H.H. Harris


c.  Hassan Fathy, New Gourna 


d.  Costa and Brazilian colonial architecture


e.  Englishness, the pub, Architectural Review


Weeks 8 and 9.  The 1950s


a.  Scandinavian modernism, New Empiricism


b.  Cullen, de Wolfe, Townscape, Italian Hill towns, Bastide towns


c.  Neo-realism, Tiburtino


d.  Spontaneous architecture, Triennale, 1951


e.  Aldo van Eyck, Herman Haan, Dogon


f.  Pikionis, Konastantinidis, Greek vernacular, Old Athenian Houses

g.  Stirling, regionalism, Maison Jaoul


h.  Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture 


i.  Colin Rowe and John Hedjuk, “Lockhart, Texas”


Week 10.  The 1960s


a.  Drexler, Gropius, Tange, rediscovery of Katsura and traditional Japanese architecture.


b.  Rudofsky, Architecture without Architects, 1964


c.  John Turner, barriadas, informal architecture, Previ competition


d.  Paul Oliver, Shelter and Society, 1969


e.  Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of the American City, 1961


f.  Lina Bo Bardi and the Brazilian Northeast


g.  Safdie, Habitat, Jerusalem


Week 11.  From the 1960s to the late 1980s (postmodernism)


a.  The Strip and commercial vernacular: J. B. Jackson; Peter Blake God’s Own Junkyard, 1964; Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, Steven Izenour, Learning from Las Vegas, 1972; Charles Moore and Disneyland, Banham and Los Angeles


b.  Vincent Scully, Shingle Style Today, Charles Moore, Sea Ranch, Venturi’s Mother’s House,  Nantucket houses


c.  Kenneth Frampton, “Critical Regionalism”


d.  Liane Lefaivre, “Dirty Realism”


Week 12.  From Postmodernism to the Present


Note:  Case studies will depend on student selections.


Mimar magazine


India:  Charles Correa, Doshi, Laurie Baker


Sri Lanka:  Geoffrey Bawa 


New Guinea:  Renzo Piano, Tijbaou Cultural Center


China:  Amateur Architecture Studio (Wang Shu and Lu Wenyu)


Burkina Faso:  Francis Kéré


Bangladesh:  Marina Tabassum, Bashirul Haq


Burkina Faso:  Francis Kéré


U.S.:  Rural Studio


Lagos: Koolhaas


Vietnam, Vo Trong Nghia


Greece, Point Supreme


Indonesia (Bali), John and Cynthia Hardy, The Green School 

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