Architectural Style: High Style vs Vernacular

We know well Winston Churchill’s famous statement, “ We shape our buildings, and they shape us.” But architectural historians know that how we shape our buildings is the outcome of cultural influences within the history of a particular time period. Realizing these factors is key to a deeper appreciation of architecture that goes beyond learning a rote descriptive memorization of a building’s parts that make up its style and define its architecture.

Four Square house is vernacular.

Architectural historian Talbot Hamlin, (Architecture Through the Ages, Putman & Sons, New York, 1953) defines the term style, when applied to architecture, as a particular set of architectural elements or articulated features that serve to identify the building’s architecture as belonging to a body of similar structures with common characteristics placed within a culture in a defined period. Typically, this form of architecture can be broadly termed “high style,” when an upper economic class becomes vested in such buildings. However, a critical thread in this writing will be portraying the role of vernacular houses in light of high style architectural examples.

Architectural styles frequently contain elements of previous styles. For instance, Victorian architecture is notorious for incorporating Romanesque features such as masonry arches, corner pilasters and dentils from Greek Revival and Gothic Revival, and scroll brackets from Italianate architecture. Some architectural styles become combined into hybrids of two typically distinct styles, such as Greek Revival and Italianate, which can be found in Irvine Park in Saint Paul, and on Nicollet Island and Fifth Street Southeast residences in Minneapolis.

Frequently, a particular architectural style is what the design of the house begins with, but is completed with “variant” architectural expressions within that style that render an individual expression to the structure. Which is what true architecture is supposed to do. This quality can be seen quite frequently in Minneapolis and Saint Paul houses.

Applying a style to a building, painting, musical work or work of literature by some critical historians occasionally results in establishing a defined set of influences which over-explain the art’s identity. The result, says Hamlin, can reduce the artist, architect, writer or musician “to become an adding machine, automatically adding influence to influence, to produce an automatic result. This is an entire misapprehension of the artistic process and denies the architect or builder the creative imagination which is his or her greatest quality.”

High Style Versus Vernacular

A “high style” Colonial Revival house.

Almost all architectural discourse in academic publications pay attention to high style architecture. These buildings exemplify architectural features that are consistent throughout their surfaces of attributes, particularly ornament, identified with a defined architectural style.

By contrast, buildings of typically straightforward architectural design, which rely much less on use of ornament and tend to identify with the building’s purpose or function, are commonly called ‘vernacular.’ Whereas high style architectural structures definitively belong to a style, vernacular buildings typically belong to type instead of style. Their identifiable architectural elements often develop from tradition-based uses and construction methods, occasionally exhibiting elements of commonly known architectural styles. Vernacular buildings have straightforward design, with style features applied to specific areas, so designed to attract the eye, that define its architectural presence. Vernacular architecture is a response to adapting style elements to common buildings in ways that provide a more or less modest architectural expression.

The term vernacular as a particular pattern of buildings coming from local tradition that was, and to a limited extent still is, a practice handed down throughout generations of builders and carpenters, the more experienced of them becoming master builders. They communicate what their purposes and fabrication can tell us about their function and place in our working and cultural environment, why they were created in the traditional patterns they were built with, occasionally with minor reference to their historical and social origins.

About Robert Roscoe

“A camera teaches you how to see without a camera.” Dorothea Lange My professional experience includes over 36 years of architectural office experience, with the last 21 years as principal of Design For Preservation. My education includes a Bachelor of Arts degree in Art History, and five years at the School of Architecture, University of Minnesota. I served 21 years on the Minneapolis Heritage Preservation Commission and I have written articles for Architecture Minnesota, a publication of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Institute of Architects. I have given lectures on preservation architecture at the University of Minnesota School of Architecture and various public forums. Art photography is a main avocation for me, focusing on capturing images of abandoned parts of the built environment, and I have been featured in several art exhibitions. I have co-authored a book on County Catholic Churches and am the author of the book Milwaukee Avenue – Community Renewal in Minneapolis. Also, I am editor of the infrequently published Journal of American Rocket Science.