The standard definitions of vernacular architecture include some variation on local tradition, design without architectural theory, built without an architect, and so on. All fair enough but the photo above – taken on a rainy day at 74th Street and First Avenue – raises another possibility.
On the right, foreground, facing the avenue, we have three Old Law tenements. We have a number of modern high-rises in the background representing, from right to left, the clichés of the 1980s or 90s, the 80s, the 70s, and the 00s. So far, so boring. At the corner, we have an old bank repurposed as a clinic. The bank was most probably Citibank, back when it was the First National City Bank of New York, because that company built a bunch of branches that looked just like this. Very mildly less boring, but still not exciting.
But here’s the thought that came to mind looking at three separate examples of very common types – the 1890s tenements, the late-1900s high-rise apartments, and the branch bank identifiable by its bastardized classical architecture – maybe these are all vernacular architecture. (I’ve had this thought before, but rarely so well represented in one picture.) What if an alternate definition of “vernacular” is “what people build when they can’t think of something else to build”? Why is First Avenue full of Old Law tenements? Because housing was needed and the easiest thing to build was the exact same minimal design that everyone else was building because it was the least that the regulators would allow. Why is the Upper East Side full of similar-appearing high-rise apartments? Because housing is still needed and the easiest thing to build is the same type of design everyone else is building. Why did banks build endless little sort-of-classical buildings? Because that style was seen as representing serious and important occupancies and it was easier to use that trope than try to defeat it.
This is not meant as an attack on architects. Most newspaper articles fit into a handful of templates (e.g., dog bites man); most tv shows, famously, are repetitions of already-popular shows; ditto songs, novels, and movies; and perhaps most importantly in this context, most engineering designs are adaptations of existing designs. It’s what people always do: if we can reuse, we do.
Vernacular architecture is what people build when they can’t think of something else to build. I need to think about that more.