Above, the princely dream; below, the Tesco reality: Superstores disguised as barns fool no one. But one new scheme, says Dan Cruickshank, provides the slim hope of a vernacular revival

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The Independent Culture
THE VIRTUES of vernacular building are much praised as part of a popular reaction against the most clinical Modernism and placeless internationalism. The vernacular tradition has been much misused over the past decade. It can be argued that vernacular architecture - once the glory of British towns and villages - is undermining the fabric and look of places it attempts to emulate and fit into.

The forms and details of historic buildings - borrowed from Middlesex barns, Kentish oast-houses or Cotswold cottages - are being plundered by architects and builders to nurture a cosy architectural camouflage calculated to make big new buildings acceptable to local planning committees. But pitched roofs, weather-boarding, timber, weathercocks and brick tiles fail, more often than not, to merge modern buildings into sensitive surroundings.

The most familiar expression of this vernacular camouflage is, perhaps, the mighty edge-of-town superstore, spiced with decorative details used in a maddingly superficial manner, and spreading its bulk below a tall, pitched roof and timbers in a vain attempt to pass itself off as a latter-day tithe barn.

Obstacles to the successful revival of vernacular building in Britain seem overwhelming, yet here and there attempts are being made. The most interesting proposals relate to the building of the Prince of Wales's housing project for Poundbury, Dorchester, which can be viewed as a test case. This housing scheme, which has recently received full planning consent after six years of controversial development, is an attempt to return to time-honoured principles of town planning and design.

The initial master plan was drawn up by Leon Krier - champion of the traditional European city and of elemental Classical design - who envisaged that Poundbury would be divided up into a number of self- contained 'quarters', each organised around an informal public square. Blocks forming the quarters would each be used for a mix of different functions, from light industry and shops to offices and housing.

The blocks themselves were to be formed by terraces of buildings set on the street edge without front gardens, to recreate the grain of traditional towns and villages. The architecture of the majority of buildings in each quarter was to be in the local vernacular tradition. Krier favours this approach for many reasons, not least because the relationship between humble, self-effacing dwellings and the occasional architectural monument forms one of the key components in the composition of traditional towns and cities.

Beyond this, Krier recognises the vernacular as a timeless expression of elemental architectural values. It is a building tradition based on a set of rational principles; the use of sound local materials, construction techniques that reflect the materials used, detailing aimed at good weathering and minimal maintenance.

The Poundbury project is to be realised on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, but paid for by private capital - by housebuilders and developers working both to the master plan and to a tight profit margin - and with no great desire to participate in a crusade for traditional values in architecture.

Early on, Krier recognised the problems of reviving vernacular design and construction conditions in a building world wedded to the concrete block, cavity wall and gas-filled double glazing. He also realised that the form of building he required was diametrically opposed to the forms favoured by the average housebuilder, whose ideal is the freestanding house set back on its plot with front garden and garage.

How were these apparently conflicting views to be reconciled and how was the authentic vernacular spirit to be resuscitated? Krier's answer was to produce a building code, a device with which he had experimented during his earlier involvement with the traditionally planned and constructed Florida town of Seaside. Aimed at reminding builders of the detail and technique of traditional vernacular design, planning and construction, the Krier code was intended to inspire, inform and encourage as much as regulate and prohibit. It was intended to create a cultural climate in which builders could devise acceptable solutions of their own in the hope that some of the inventive vigour of authentic vernacular might emerge.

Krier's initial ideas about the code, however, have now been given a slightly different cast by those who will build Poundbury. The first phase of 61 homes will be designed by three locally based architects working under the direction of the Percy Thomas Partnership, a large Bristol-based firm more usually concerned with designing office blocks. The builder has undertaken to work to these designs with the architects, providing not only elevations and plans but information on construction, detailing and materials. A co-ordinating architect appointed by the Duchy will monitor construction and retain the power to condemn sub-standard work.

In this way, the Duchy minimises the risk of design aberrations and has tight control over the final appearance of buildings. Yet, by making the design and detailing of vernacular buildings the responsibility of architects, and by finalising most details before construction begins, the possibilities for the creative participation of the builder are reduced, as is the scope for spontaneous and genuine vernacular invention.

The Duchy is, perhaps justifiably, nervous about the ability of builders to rise to the challenge of making an acceptable contemporary vernacular. Experience suggests the vast majority of builders cannot be relied on to get traditional details right. Ancient skills and crafts are forgotten and the thread of continuity with the past has been broken over the past 50 years.

So can Poundbury really work? Will its vernacular be any more real than that of Tesco and Sainsbury? One of the real difficulties is that, as with other vernacular projects, the architects at Poundbury are perhaps having to try too hard to capture the spirit of forgotten or dead ways of building. Vernacular building is, essentially, the opposite of architecture. Strictly speaking, it is the largely unselfconscious product of builders working in a regional idiom with local materials, and with limited aspirations and resources. It is the making of modest and ordinary buildings to serve the basic function of providing shelter of the soundest type for the least expenditure.

The making of architecture is, on the other hand, a highly self-conscious affair. Indeed, architecture often involves a reversal of the fundamental aims of vernacular building by making symbolism and architectural display more important than the basic concern of creating shelter.

Can the innocence of true vernacular be regained? Can professional architects with a weight of training behind them be expected to design in a manner that reflects the humility and unselfconscious charm of old village buildings?

Equally, can local builders be left to their own devices to produce an acceptable essay in tradition when the authentic vernacular of our age is perhaps best represented by the facile historicism and mock traditional construction of the barn-like superstore, of the house-builder's estate and by thoughtless use of the same dire details available from DIY stores?

The industrialisation of building has taken its toll on the vernacular tradition and robbed the builder of his art and crafts, of the mysteries of his trade and of his pride in workmanship.

If Poundbury's revived vernacular building could be imbued with genuine vigour, if modesty prevails to prevent its streets looking like a showcase for architects' talents and if a lively mix of uses is finally attained, then the experiment will be justified. It could yet become a model that demonstrates that it is possible to build modern housing that possesses the timeless quality of traditional vernacular building, that it is still possible to build new towns that possess those qualities which make the best of old towns work, and that it is possible to learn and apply useful and creative lessons from a careful study of history.

These are big ifs; we live in self- conscious times and it remains to be seen whether the Poundbury experiment can stop the rot in the vernacular revival or whether we are better off not trying to recreate old ways of building.

The author teaches at the Prince of Wales' Institute of Architecture.

(Photograph omitted)