Vernacular Architecture and the Uses of the Past

Silke Briel (Camera), Jonas von Lenthe (Production Manager), Marion von Osten (Director), Jill Winder (Actor), Text quotes by Hilde Heynen.

Documenting Vernacular Architecture

In sending out the manuscript of Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture to a publisher, Sibyl Moholy-Nagy added a note on the “Genesis of the manuscript,” which is quite revealing about the intellectual trajectory that gave rise to it. She began by referring to her father and her husband as the main sources for her ideas on architecture, explaining that she started a teaching career only after the latter’s death. When she first began teaching the history of art and architecture, she wrote, her main education during these “apprentice years” came from lecture trips: “These journeys—in the years between 1948 and 1952 I can count about 34—made me see this country in a way I had never known it before. I discovered a spontaneous building genius, now almost smothered by technological and speculation construction, which through its uninhibited originality often seemed superior to European folk architecture.”1 She thus positioned herself as first and foremost a traveling observer, learning from direct contact with artefacts and buildings, curious about their histories and willing to interpret material evidence and local narratives.

László Moholy-Nagy, Portrait of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Lakeview Avenue apartment, Chicago, 1940s, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

To her it seemed these buildings embodied a certain ideal of architecture she described as follows: “In searching for an organic architecture for the living organism, I started to focus my attention on the basic houses and work buildings that had been constructed out of an intuitive comprehension of a specific need without the benefit of architectural theory. I discovered an astonishing number of examples in the Americas which combined my father’s classical ideal of form harmony and site response with the contemporary demand for functionality and adequate materials.”2

Indeed, these sentences sum up the major arguments of her book: that American vernacular architecture is closer to the primal causes of architecture because it was less governed by stylistic traditions than in Europe; that some (though not all) of these vernacular buildings are beautiful in an organic and coherent way; that this beauty is generated by the regard these builders possessed for site and climate, for function and form, and for materials and skills, thus producing a “sense of quality,” which since has been lost in common building production.

Moholy-Nagy had been struggling to organize her material and find a good structure for the book. In a letter to a friend mentioned that she aimed to bring together “as many interesting examples as I can find of early settler architecture, with particular emphasis on the way they put their buildings in relationship to the landscape or the site, the way they reacted to climate, native materials and skills, and the use of ornament and traditional elements they brought along.”3 Articles published in Casabella and Perspecta in 1955 tried out initial formulations, such as “traditionless” an brauch, of what would later become important arguments in Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture. In both, Casabella and Perspecta, Moholy-Nagy refrained from a discussion of ornament. Even here she understood that the outer forms of these buildings simply resulted from the way they enclosed interior spaces, paired with the way they were conditioned by site, climate, materials and specific purpose—without any consideration of academic conventions or style. Such “primitive” (sic) structures were worthy of consideration, especially by architectural students, because the latter should develop “an awareness of architecture as the carrier of life continuity that transforms tomorrow’s dreams into yesterday’s heritage.”4

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Sugar Cane Mill, Buccaneer Plantation, St Croix, Virgin Island, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation

Moholy-Nagy constructed Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture didactically in order to show architects/readers how vernacular builders were attentive to “site and climate,” “form and function,” “materials and skills”—the categories making up the three main sections of her book. By focusing on these factors, the structure of her book deviated considerably from the stylistic, chronological, geographical or typological modes of organization structuring previous architectural histories or vernacular architectural studies. Whereas the introduction (part one) and the conclusion (part five) formulated more general arguments about the nature of architecture and the sense of quality generated by the best examples of vernacular, the three main sections were composed of a brief theoretical argument, followed by a series of striking examples of anonymous buildings that demonstrated particularly well how they responded to specific requirements. These buildings were represented by one or two photographs, sometimes enhanced by a diagram, and by extensive captions clarifying their exemplary values. The photographs were mainly taken by the author herself, although she also made use of images from the Library of Congress and from some other photographers.

The introduction to the section on “site and climate” contrasted the attitude of the settler, who asked “What can the land do for me?” to that of the speculator, who posed the challenge “What can I do to the land?” In responding to site and climate, Moholy-Nagy argued, anonymous builders developed a diversity of solutions, reflecting their respective cultural backgrounds. They nevertheless all shared the characteristic of transforming handicaps into assets, making the best of whatever difficulty they encountered. Among the examples in this section is a sugar cane mill, found at the Buccaneer Plantation in St. Croix, Virgin Islands. She called this mill an impressive example “of settler skill in devising a type of building as new and experimental as the automobile factory was in 1900.”5 Its remarkable tapered form was a response to the threat of earthquakes, necessitating a particularly stable form. The mill’s large vertical opening was where the tall sugar cane was fed to the grinding mechanism of two meshing stones. It lent the building’s monumental mass a magnificent articulation that was highly expressive, forming an unmistakable landmark for the seafarer.

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Stone House, Otomi Region, Hidalgo Mexico, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

The section on “Form and function” started with a discussion of coherence as the distinctive quality of surviving anonymous buildings. Referring to Vitruvius, Moholy-Nagy argued that proportions and unity of parts (making up coherence) were important factors in assessing the quality of a building. The anonymous builder often had an “automatic” aesthetic sense. He would have been perplexed by the complicated arguments between functionalists and formalists in the 1950s, for “he created with the artlessness of pure conscience that looks for nothing but fulfilled purpose. This purpose included physical and spiritual needs. The form mediated between the strength of materials and the interior space.”6 The generating force in the anonymous builder was his intuition, responding to the “need to shelter,” what he and his companions “were and hoped to be.”7

Moholy-Nagy found a particularly fine example of the interplay between form and function in a stone house in the Otomi Region, Hidalgo, Mexico. The Otomi people lived in an area that could be bitterly cold at night and where water was in short supply. The barrel vault above the kitchen portion of this dwelling was finished to an extreme smoothness, because it was the water shed of the dwelling, where each drop of precipitation and condensation that rolled off it was collected. “In all its bleak simplicity,” Moholy-Nagy stated, “this is a dwelling in which function and form coincide in rare totality.”8 In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania—a very different environment—she found a Mennonite Barn, which likewise displayed an intricate but completely valid relationship between form and function. To make his barn as strong as possible, the Mennonite farmer tapered the outer pilotis, giving them the same angle as those found in the foundation, thus providing a very stable anchoring for the supporting beam and joists of the second floor. This second floor needed to be particularly strong because it was accessed by a ramp—up which the farmer drove his team to deliver the hay—whereas the ground floor was used for stalls and pens of livestock.

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Mennonite barn, Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

In the section on “Materials and skills” Moholy-Nagy stated that “native architects” selected building materials and methods on the basis of their availability and fitness for the given purpose, but also with regard to their response to time and climate: in other words, how they aged. Another factor was “economy,” not in terms of maximum output for minimum input, but rather in terms of preventing waste: “Economy in indigenous architecture means maximum advantage of all given factors.”9 Anonymous building thus observed a rural ideal of quality that the author saw vanishing in her own time. The use of particular materials reflected sometimes the backgrounds of the settlers: in New England, frame and board construction prevailed because of the English shipbuilding tradition; in Pennsylvania, on the other hand, German settlers relied upon their heritage as stone builders. Moholy-Nagy singled out a double house in New Hope, Pennsylvania to demonstrate how their skills in stone masonry gradually and organically developed and became more refined. The old house on the left dated from the beginning of the eighteenth century, and was put together as simply as possible, with windows set into the wall with a minimum of framing. The new house from the end of the eighteenth century displayed more sophisticated techniques, using quoins of sandstone boulders, a footing of large blocks and specially cut stones above the window.

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Corner of well house, New Hope, Pennsylvania, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

The Vernacular as Counter-image for the Modern

As can be gathered from this sampling of Moholy-Nagy’s case studies, her selection was highly eclectic and not at all systematic in terms of geographical distribution, typological diversity or historic evolution. Her cases include examples from Canada, the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean, the regions she had been able to travel to between 1948–1953. They pertain equally to buildings constructed by European settlers as to indigenous structures, extending even to an example of “negro architecture.”10 By subsuming all these different experiences under the single heading of “anonymous architecture,” she glossed over major differences in social hierarchies, power structures and economical resources—although these factors were often acknowledged in her extensive descriptions of each case. They were not seen, however, as structurally determinant within the overall argument she was making. This had more to do with a battle over the contemporary meaning of architecture than internal discussions with other scholars of the vernacular. It is clear that in Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s case, her study of anonymous architecture was carried out primarily for the benefit of the modern architecture discourse.

This motivation clearly informed her choice of cases. Many of her examples stood out as fine demonstrations of Le Corbusier’s definition of architecture as the masterly, correct and magnificent play of volumes brought together in light—although she denounced this definition in her book as “pure esthetics.”11 The sugar cane mill, the Otomi stone house and the Mennonite barn are compositions of pure geometric volumes, striking in their simplicity. Their attractiveness stems from the interplay of proportions and openings, underscored by the effects of light and shadow, just as in modern architecture. Other cases provide clear visual expressions of their structural principles. A streetscape in Port-au-Prince, Haiti shows the sticks and beams construction that is the basic principle of modern architecture’s open plan structures. Although these buildings present, as she recognized, a somewhat “shoddy” and “impermanent” impression, they are nevertheless innovative in their use of these structural means to carry “balconies and loggias that (…) utilize each slight breeze and the cool air of the night.”12 Modern architecture’s obsession with the honest expression of the use of materials also resonated in the choice of cases like the double house in New Hope where differential use of materials was not covered up but rather exploited to give a specific presence to the building.

What remained absent from Moholy-Nagy’s examples and discussions are all the things that did not fit in her pre-ordained idea of “good” anonymous architecture: the application of ornaments; the often less than sophisticated use of materials;13 the at times overly meagre ground plans, with dark interiors and cramped living spaces; the intensive maintenance that was necessary to uphold the quality of finishing and to withstand weathering. All these, however, were indeed not very important for Moholy-Nagy, since the impetus behind her book was clearly to construct an instructive narrative for contemporary architects rather than offer a full and balanced account of American vernacular architecture.

The introduction to her book clearly framed the argument this way. Studying the “folklore of building,” she argued, was instructive because this kind of architecture occupied an intermediate position between two extremes that were increasingly common: on the one hand the idea that architecture was pure aesthetics, on the other the reduction of architecture to technology. Moholy-Nagy however advocated that

“(…) there is a growing awareness that architecture is neither the sophisticated libertinism of the artist who is responsible only to his own genius, nor the simple-minded mechanical objectivity of the slide rule, no matter how scientifically disguised. The variety of problems, inherent today in the architectural task, makes it more than ever a selective and coordinative function. It is a challenge of responsible choices with the ultimate aim of total coherence. A good vernacular structure, being eminently selective, coordinative and coherent, is of similar architectural importance.”14

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Abraham Hasbrook House, New Paltz, NY, Courtesy of the Moholy-Nagy Foundation.

She thus justified her study of American settler architecture by referring to contemporary needs. Condemning the “inadequate and unserviceable speculation houses that were crowding the American landscape,15 she claimed the anonymous architecture of the past could offer sources of inspiration for designing better homes in her own time. The former displayed the exact qualities that were lacking in the mass-produced houses of the 1950s. Nevertheless, imitation was not the point she was advocating. In comparing a Levittown speculation house with the Abraham Hasbrook House of which it was a pasteboard replica, she ridiculed the intentions of the building promoter. Whereas the original example was a marvel of functionality and good design, considering its location and time (which included poor heating provision and situation in insecure territory susceptible to Indian attack), the replica was a cheap formal reproduction lacking any functional or climatic justification. What she advocated, therefore, was that architects should commit themselves again to the design of homes and not leave these to the care of building promoters and real estate developers, and that they should seek inspiration from the intrinsic qualities (not the external forms) of the vernacular houses of the past. For

“To provide the home as an ideal standard is still the architect’s first cause, no matter how great and rewarding are his other contributions to monumental and technological building. (…) As those builders of old, the architect of today has to create an anonymous architecture for the anonymous men of the Industrial Age.”16

The positioning of vernacular architecture as relevant to contemporary debates on housing is also what was at stake in a brief article she wrote for The Wisconsin Architect.17 This article was a condensed version of a lecture she gave the Wisconsin Architects Association Convention in February 1955. We can safely assume she gave this lecture—or some version of it—repeatedly, in venues all over the country.18 The article set out by asking—against the background of all the “New Monumentality” (a reference to ongoing discussions among modern architects)— “What is to become of the dweller?” In answering this pressing question, Moholy-Nagy argued that the architect of tomorrow should look at yesterday, “at the actual architectural evidence of the past,” where he will find “inspiration and stimulus.” The architects of the future will have to rely upon a new understanding of technology broader than a narrow focus on calculus and mechanics, and upon a study of settler buildings. The latter offer a “superb lesson in regionalism without romanticism, in functionality without mechanism, in structure without ugliness, in tradition without regression.” These buildings provided clues, she concluded, for “a new type of domestic dwelling in a mastered but undestroyed environment.”

This is an excerpted version from Chapter 2 of Hilde Heynen's upcoming publication Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. Architecture, Modernism and its Discontents, Bloomsbury, London/Oxford 2019.

  • 1 Papers of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Archives of American Art (AAA), microfilm reel 948 / 0162-0165, frame 0163.
  • 2 Papers of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Archives of American Art (AAA), microfilm reel 948 / 0162-0165, frame 0164.
  • 3 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Letter to ‘Dear Eugene’, August 13, 1953, Archives of American Aart (AAA), Inv.-No. 944.
  • 4 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: "Environment and Anonymous Architecture," in: Perspecta, Vol. 3, No. 1, 1954, pp. 2–7. This article was republished in Robert A. M. Stern, Alan Plattus & Peggy Deamer: (Re)Reading Perspecta. The First Fifty Years of the Yale Architectural Journal, MIT Press, Cambridge (Mass.) 2004), pp. 55–57.
  • 5 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture, Horizon, New York 1957, p. 74.
  • 6 Moholy-Nagy: Native Genius, 1957, p. 108.
  • 7 Ibid., p. 111.
  • 8 Ibid., p.126.
  • 9 Ibid., p. 171.
  • 10 Moholy-Nagy was well aware of this. In her already mentioned application to the Architectural League, she claimed: “The European migrant who pushed his life’s ship away from the shore of the mother continent, had to create new buildings of his own, from the shelters of Iceland to the inland missions of Argentina. He had to transform his heritage under the influence of new climatic, social, and material conditions. What he built grew from a new land. That is why it stands coequal with the building art of the aborigines who were there when he arrived. Their structures—the joined wood houses of the Kwakiutl in Alaska as well as the finely woven mat walls of the Polynesians—grew from the same climatic, social and material conditions. There is a deep unity in anonymous building.” Application of November 1952, summarized in the Minutes of the Committee for Scholarships and Special Awards Meeting, Architectural League, New York, December 12, 1952, Papers of the Architectural League, Archives of American Art (AAA), Box 70.
  • 11 Moholy-Nagy: Native Genius, 1957, p. 36.
  • 12 Ibid., p. 122.
  • 13 Morrison refers for instance to the ‘log cabin myth’, which suggested that log cabins had been built by the early colonial settlers. In reality however, log-cabin construction was probably introduced by the Swedes and only reluctantly adopted by the English settlers in the eighteenth century.
  • 14 Moholy-Nagy: Native Genius, 1957, p. 36.
  • 15 Ibid., p. 37.
  • 16 Ibid., p. 23.
  • 17 Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: “Future of U.S. Home Design Calls for Mating of Science with Study of Historic Regional Buildings,” in: The Wisconsin Architect, Vol. 55, pp. 5–7.
  • 18 In the “Note on the Genesis of the Manuscript,” she mentioned that she “had many attentive audiences all over the country—from Harvard and Yale to Florida and Iowa,” Papers of Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, Archives of American Art (AAA), microfilm reel 948 / 0162-0165, frame 0164.
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Ivan Serpa, Lygia Clark, and the Bauhaus in Brazil

The art school of the Museu de Arte Moderna do Rio de Janeiro was established in 1952, led by Ivan Serpa, who gave classes for both children and adults—including artists who would go on to form the Grupo Frente (1954–56) and later the neo-concrete movement (1959–61). Writer and critic Mário Pedrosa described the “experimental” character of these classes, but the fact this experimentation was structured through study of color, materials, technique and composition has encouraged art historian Adele Nelson to claim Serpa’s teaching method was substantially based on the Bauhaus preliminary course. → more

Walking on a Möbius Strip — The Inside/Outside of Art in Brazil

This text investigates how the topological figure of the Möbius strip, famously propagated by Bauhaus proponent Max Bill, was used in Brazil within dissident artistic practices of the 1960s and 1970s as a tool for reflection on the subject, alterity and public space. The Möbius strip is revisited in this essay as a conduit for thinking critically about possible subversions of Eurocentric forms, as well as various appropriations of traditional popular culture by modern and contemporary art in Brazil. → more

The Poetry of Design — A search for multidimensional languages between Brazilian and German modernists

In the 1950s and 1960s, intense debates and exchanges took place between Brazilians and Germans working in the fields of design, art, and their various manifestations—from architecture and painting to music and poetry. These intertwined lines are identifiable in myriad events: journeys, meetings, exchanges of letters, exhibitions, lectures, courses, and publications. Common modes of production emerged out of these different encounters where, more than relations of influence, one can observe how entangled realities led to a questioning of the directionality of the flow between center and periphery. → more

The Latent Forces of Popular Culture — Lina Bo Bardi’s Museum of Popular Art and the School of Industrial Design and Crafts in Bahia, Brazil

This text deals with the experience of the Museum of Popular Art (MAP) and the School of Industrial Design and Handicraft, designed by the Italian-Brazilian architect Lina Bo Bardi, in Salvador (capital of the state of Bahia), Brazil. Such a “school-museum” is based on the capture and transformation of latent forces that exist in Brazilian popular culture. → more

Teko Porã — On Art and Life

Cristine Takuá is an Indigenous philosopher, educator, and artisan who lives in the village of Rio Silveira, state of São Paulo, Brazil. She was invited to present a contemporary perspective on questions and tensions raised by interactions between the Indigenous communities and the mainstream art system, as well as to address Brazil’s specific social and political context. → more

Times of Rudeness — Design at an Impasse

In 1980, Lina Bo Bardi began working on a book concerning her time in the northeastern part of Brazil. With the help of Isa Grinspum Ferraz, she captioned the illustrations, revised her contributions to the book and drafted the layout and contents. The latter also included texts by her collaborators who, in a truly collective effort, had tried to envision the project of a true Brazil—an unfettered and free country with no remnant remaining of the colonial inferiority complex which had plagued the country earlier in its history. Bo Bardi discontinued her work in 1981. In 1994, the Instituto Lina Bo e P.M. Bardi published this project as Times of Rudeness: Design at an Impasse. → more

Connecting the Dots — Sharing the Space between Indigenous and Modernist Visual Spatial Languages

Ever increasing numbers of design institutes note the merits of cultural diversity within their pedagogy and practice. Rather quixotically, however, Eurocentric modernist ideals remain dominant within design curricula. This ambiguity results in non-Western social, cultural and creative practice, remaining side-lined, albeit while still being lauded as of great value. Critical of this duplicity, this paper introduces three Indigenous visual spatial languages, identifying a number of correlations and contradictions these offer to the establishment and implementation of Bauhaus pedagogy and subsequent examples of modernism adopted beyond Europe. → more

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