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Buhera as vernacularity

A theoretical attempt to emancipate vernacularity in architecture

by buhera klub

Professor Geoffrey Batchen while defining the term vernacular to rebrand it for the kind of photo discourse he was interested in pursuing “began to investigate the use of the word vernacular, a word already employed in architectural circles to describe ordinary structures, like homemade mud brick dwellings but also, and more controversially, the ugly generic buildings used by Pizza Hut or McDonald’s”.1

Inspired by his findings we asked the team of 'buhera klub' to shed a light on the origin of the phrase vernacular architecture so we can gain more knowledge about theoretical parallels that lie between the before mentioned architectural practices and everyday forms of photography.


buhera klub, still from buhera video (Pediment), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

Vernacularity in its most direct understanding stands for something rooted in its locality, the specific place and space of its production, without imported materials or knowledge, and most likely made by the very people who will put them to use.2 While this definition seems quite straightforward, it already alludes to a lot of where vernacular studies’ origins lay, as well as to what might be the contemporary breaking points within the understanding of vernacularity in the 21st century. As such, we first attempt to give a brief, and due to the scope of the essay inevitably generalising and selective overview of the richness and variability of ideas around vernacularity, and then connect it with contemporary understandings of our built environments, urbanities and structural questions of architecture, what we think vernacularity could mean. 

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Details of a barn), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

Vernacular studies’ origins are deeply rooted in the 19th-century  traditions of the American antiquarians, the English Arts and Crafts movements and ideas promoted by primitivists, exotics, nativists, and associationists, preserving and showcasing “authentic”, “original” “antiques”, tinted with ideas of nationalism, moralism, and coloniality.3 Their interests were underscored by the conviction that the built environment and object-culture of a locality represent the deeper essence of a culture, as well as the assumptions that earlier and simpler forms of architecture were closer to natural, original, purer, and as such truer forms. Moreover, when different architectural traditions, typically Western and non-western are compared, the architecture reveals the evolutionary progression of human civilization as well.4 While the underscoring of these theoretical debates of early vernacular studies changed significantly (getting rid of most of the exoticising of the non-western, as well as understanding non-western cultural productions as primitive) in many ways these debates originating in the 19th-century still influence understanding vernacularity today and as such are important to mention.5

One aspect to this is what Dell Upton, an architectural historian identifies as cultural and historical understandings of vernacularity within 19th-century scholarship. The early understanding of vernacularity as cultural, aimed at finding the overarching commonalities based on typology, statistics, and geography.6 In its contemporary form, we would connect it with the strand of debates concerned with primarily Western, pre-modern traditions of architecture, understanding vernacularity to be pre-modern, pre-industrial, rural, and rooted in the past, often branded as folk.7 As such, academia aims to conserve and document the buildings, classifying them as objects to study, rather than part of contemporary culture and life. While this description is of course generalised, it demonstrates contemporary trends of cultural heritage practices in Hungary as well, creating exhibitionary spaces of certain typologies, fixing complex architectural practices emerging from specific social, cultural, and political background to stationary relics of a past long gone. 

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Tin fence), 2022, Zala county, Hungary

This phenomenon can be firmly rooted in the historical development of architectural practices in the region. In Hungary, vernacularity as an independent architectural category practically lacks academic attention. In its place is the historic development of the meaning of vernacularity in architecture melting into the definition of folk architecture, used practically interchangeably. The problem is rooted in the interference of undefined phrases in the Hungarian academic dictionary and architectural consciousness, as well as the dominance of the above-mentioned cultural understanding of vernacularity. The roots of this collision can be found in the historiography of the appearance of folk architecture’s definition in the 19th century. Derived from German and English influences of the Arts and Crafts movement and the Deutsche Werkbund, the vernacular made its way into architectural consciousness through the work of Art Nouveau architects of the early 20th century, as sources for ornamentic manifestation of the Hungarian national soul. While this degree of essentialism softened in Hungarian context as well, the dominance of the cultural understanding of the vernacular remained, resulting in a vernacular equalling folk, as a site of cultural heritage.8 Yet the distinction of vernacular and folk is not a question of mere intellectual rigorousity but has fundamental consequences to how we view our built environment, as we hope to argue. 

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Satellite dish and fence), 2022, Zala county, Hungary

The second approach towards vernacularity, derived from its origins, is what is often called the historical one, focusing on the changes of architecture in the face of social, economic, and cultural specificities of its locality.9 Here we would highlight two important aspects of the intellectual legacy of vernacular studies. One is focusing on the ordinary, the everyday, the other has its emphasis on spatiality of architecture, rather than its aesthetics in categorising.10 These aspects are still something that don't come naturally to architectural history as a discipline, or our general view of architecture. We deem to concentrate on the unique, the monumental, and the specific, rather than the average, the many, and the reproducible. Additionally, these categories and the historical approach allow us to view vernacularity firmly connected to our contemporary present, in a continuum with the past.

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Eaves gutter and back-front), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

In the 21st-century new approaches to the vernacular appear, concerned with it from what we can call a technological perspective, narrowing down on aspects of vernacularity concerned with construction techniques and reusability. These studies are bringing vernacularity to the forefront of architecture from a sustainability and ecological perspective, highlighting the building methods themselves as valuable knowledge for the 21st century.11

Parallelly, as exemplified by ICOMOS’s Charta on vernacular architecture (symptomatically translated in Hungarian into folk architecture, even if it refers to vernacularity within its main body), the cultural heritage sphere regardless views vernacularity as more or less fixed forms, heritage, something that is disappearing, which is in danger, whose survival is questionable.12 This approach connects to canonised aspects of vernacularity fixing the heterogenous connection points between the built environment, lifestyle, and cultural specificities of a locality (even if even the Charta admits to the changeability of vernacularity itself,) while it disregards shifting forms of contemporary consumption, materiality and ad-hoc transformations of the built environment.  It makes sense of course, from a cultural heritage perspective traditional folk houses need to be preserved, and are prone to be understood as fixed forms signifying rapidly disappearing or already gone social constructs and cultural manifestations. Yet we believe that vernacularity can not be transposed so directly to signify solely folk architecture (and parallely, folk architecture can not be neatly fitted solely into the category of vernacularity), and as such, very much alive and evolving practices are worthy and important of both scholarly and architectural attention.  

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Home-made sanctuary with statue of Christ), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

These approaches all connect to the problematic use of the vernacular, all signifying the architecture of the Other, and, as suggested by architectural anthropologist Marcel Vellinga, is signified within the vernacular discourse “as an anonymous  and undifferentiated type of architecture that exemplifies all that contemporary architecture is supposed to be not, it is the architecture of 'them' (indigenous  communities, 18th-century peasants, 'the people'), but never that of 'us' (academics, architects, 'the elite').”13

At this exact moment the etymology of the word vernacular needs to be addressed. “Etymologically, vernacular is that which concerns the verna, a slave born to a slave mother in thedominus’s (master’s) home in Roman state society.”14 It implies a directly hierarchical position, where from a linguistic perspective the local becomes very problematic. It strips the word and consequently the concept of any room for romanticisation of embedded, not alienated, culturally rooted communities and highlights the grim reality of the origins of the word: slaves being local because they did not have the freedom to move. 

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Facades), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

Can we use this concept, rooted in colonialism and essentialism, as an emancipatory project's starting point? Can we connect it to ideas of right to the city, right to architecture, the sovereignty of the inhabitant?

While we believe that the foundations of vernacularity as a subject of study are not reducible to the slave owner-slave relationship, the concept’s roots and consequent development in the context of colonisation makes the etymology of the word the very least uncomfortable, but furthermore potentially unfit for the emancipatory project we would like to outline below. As such, while we were using vernacularity as a terminology to highlight key aspects of the academic discourse surrounding the phenomenon, from this point we would like to attempt to introduce a new term, buhera, to exist in a discontinuous parallel with vernacularity, in order to introduce a different approach towards our built environment.15

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Facades), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

The term buhera can be grossly defined as a specifically Hungarian version of bricolage, of making, originally intimately connected to vernacular material culture, as well as the economic, social and political context of the late Hungarian state-socialist context of the Kádár-era. It can be characterised as an activity by the unskilled, nameless creator. This activity is an endless and unclosed kind of fragmented, mosaical making. It is always an addition to something (a building, an object but even a concept, a situation). It is a technique based on improvisation which comes from necessity, creativity and is fundamentally problem oriented. 

As László Rajk, Hungarian architect, defined it: it's “doing the same thing, but differently”. Going with his definition, we believe that buhera is also “universal and without borders”, which means for us that it is not a describable activity with sharp edges and clean definitions, but an approach.16

buhera klub, still from buhera video (Facades), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

This is the point where, connected to the notion of buhera, a term, we would  like to reevaluate the definition given in the introduction as not a retrospective explanation to certain examples of architectural form, but as a possible starting point for architectural theory for the present.17 A starting point that reflects contemporary building practices outside of the official (often legal) ways of architecture, not (necessarily) professionalised, often born from scarcity, but often from sole practicality. One that takes us closer to having control over our built environment, and less emphasis on bureaucratised and hierarchised notions of safety, heritage, cityscape, aesthetics or architectural practices, with a capital A.

buhera klub, still from buhera video,(Process of wall-covering), 2022, Nagykanizsa, Hungary

We propose understanding vernacularity/buhera not as something that can be pinned directly into the rural, the pre-industrialised, not as something which has a set of aesthetic and cultural manifestation, something which is inseparable from its direct locality. Yet we also oppose the technicised understandings of it, where the cultural specificities disappear in face of the technical solutions’ reusability. We believe that buhera/vernacularity is deeply rooted in the cultural, social, economical and political realities of its locality, yet it could be understood more as an approach towards building use, and understanding our built environment. We also suggest the understanding of vernacularity not from the point of production, but from the point of the user, the inhabitant. Our buhera is not concerned with comparisons between non-architectural builders' techniques and architectural standards, it also resists the ideas of authenticity attached to building practices that has been handed down through generations. It is rather concerned with taking back the right of the inhabitants to shape the built environment in a radical approach of self-governance, and sovereignty of the inhabitant. As such, the concept of verancularity/buhera could aid us in thriving for larger authority and sovereignty over our own built environment, architecture and urban fabric.


'buhera klub' is an architectural theory collective run by Anna Seress and Anna Zsoldos.

Anna Seress studied architectural history and theory at the Bartlett School of Architecture in London, and currently pursues her PhD studies focusing on connections between urban and social policies in the rust-belt areas of post-communist cities.

Anna Zsoldos is an art historian and curator. She works at the Ethnography Museum where she deals with the phenomena of everyday life. In her praxis as a curator and PhD student focuses on invisible actors of architecture and contemporary art.


Bibliography

Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga “Introduction” in Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century, eds.:Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga, Routledge, New York, 2006., pp. 1-24.

Gerle, János:”Gondolatok a magyar századfordulós építészetről” in  A századforduló magyar építészete, Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó - Bonex, Budapest, 1990, pp. 7-15.

ICOMOS.(1999). A népi építészeti örökség kartája, https://icomos.hu/datas/kartak-konyve/2d1be8f3a882b152d52fe689644a8ace.pdf pp.67-69.

ICOMOS. (1999). Charter on the Built Vernacular Heritage. https://www.icomos.org/charters/vernacular_e.pdf.

KA. “Vissza a Vályoghoz.” Építészfórum, https://epiteszforum.hu/vissza-a-valyoghoz.

Miller, Daniel. "Consumption studies as the transformation of anthropology." Acknowledging consumption. Routledge, 2005., pp.271-300.

Nezar, AlSayyad. ‘Foreword’ in Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century, eds.:Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga, Routledge, New York, 2006. pp. xvii-xx.

Selvamony, Nirmal. "Vernacular as Homoarchic Mode of Existence." South Asian Review 41.2 2020, pp. 194-196.

Upton, Dell. “Outside the Academy: A Century of Vernacular Architecture Studies, 1890-1990.” Studies in the History of Art, vol. 35, 1990, pp. 199–213.

Vellinga, Marcel. “The End of the Vernacular: Anthropology and the Architecture of the Other.” Etnofoor, vol. 23, no. 1, 2011, pp. 171–92.


1 Geoffrey Batchen. 'Whither the vernacular?' in Imagining Everyday Life: Engagements with Vernacular Photography, eds: Tina M. Campt, Marianne Hirsch, Gil Hochberg, and Brian Wallis, Steidl/The Walther Collection, 2020, p. 33
2 AlSayyad Nezar. ‘Foreword’ in Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century, eds.:Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga, Routledge, New York, 2006. p. Xvii.
3 Dell Upton . “Outside the Academy: A Century of Vernacular Architecture Studies, 1890-1990.” Studies in the History of Art, vol. 35, 1990, pp.200.
4 Upton (1990). pp-199-200
5 These debates revolved not independently around vernacularity, but  within the fields anthropology and ethnography as disciplines, where until the late 20th century, searching for national and cultural origins were intimately tied with the search for authenticity, perceived in Western, middle-class,  patriarchal and ultimately essentialist frameworks. See: Marcel Vellinga. “The End of the Vernacular: Anthropology and the Architecture of the Other.” Etnofoor, vol. 23, no. 1, 2011, pp. 171–92. 
6 Upton (1990), 199.
7 Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga ‘Introduction’ in Vernacular Architecture in the 21st Century, eds.:Asquith, Lindsay, and Marcel Vellinga, Routledge, New York, 2006. p. 5,
8 János Gerle: Gondolatok a magyar századfordulós építészetről, in. A századforduló magyar építészete, Szépirodalmi Könyvkiadó - Bonex, Budapest, 1990,p. 7-15.x
9 Upton (1990), p.199.
10 Upton (1990), p.205.
11 This can be exemplified by an increased interest in adobe house building techniques in Hungary, often with the contextualisation of need for sustainable, climate-proof building techniques. See: KA. “Vissza a Vályoghoz.” Https://Www.Epiteszforum.Hu, 6 June 2019, epiteszforum.hu/vissza-a-valyoghoz. .
12 ICOMOS. (1999). Charter on the Built Vernacular Heritage. https://www.icomos.org/charters/vernacular_e.pdf. As well as in Hungarian: ICOMOS.(1999). A népi építészeti örökség kartája, https://icomos.hu/datas/kartak-konyve/2d1be8f3a882b152d52fe689644a8ace.pdf pp.67-69.
13 Marcel Vellinga. “The End of the Vernacular: Anthropology and the Architecture of the Other.” Etnofoor, vol. 23, no. 1, 2011, p.180.
14 Nirmal Selvamony. "Vernacular as Homoarchic Mode of Existence." South Asian Review 41.2 2020, pp. 194-196.
15 The attempt to free vernacularity of its othering approaches is by no means our original or independent project. For international approaches see.generally the work of Marcel Vellinga, who’s work we are immensely in debt of. The novelty of our project is trying to pave ways for new terminologies and understandings of vernacularity within a historic context.For similar, yet much more in depth attempt in the Hungarian context, using the term buhera , through the analysis of weekend houses around Lake Balaton see the PHD thesis of Bartha András Márk.
16 Rajk László. “A buhera dicsérete”. Népszabadság 2002. április 27.
17 Furthermore, we would like to draw these debates closer to 21st century developments of anthropology, where through consumption studies, and material studies there have been great efforts in breaking down essentialist anthropological reflexes, and viewing consumption, post-industrialisation and materiality not exclusively western, and not contradicting authenticity. See: Daniel, Miller.. "Consumption studies as the transformation of anthropology." Acknowledging consumption. Routledge, 2005. 271-300.

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