I remember the challenge of that first architecture commission: how to cram enough cool modern moves into it to ensure you win a P/A Award and become instantly famous. And then the sad reality: Not every mother has the Mrs. Venturi spirit of architectural adventure. How disappointing to be faced with a brief stating that vernacular architecture is what's called for—pitched roofs, clapboard siding, perhaps a porch with some gingerbread trim.
But, ever crafty, the young architect will attempt an end run around his hopelessly unhip client, perhaps slipping in some slats disguised as a sunshade or maybe a small area of titanium shingles; or, if he is possessed of a truly golden tongue, he might finagle a small section of flat roof. Certainly, this was my business partner and me when we first began our careers. It took us a long while to realize that the result of our efforts was less a stunning hybrid of old mixed with modern, and more a disappointing stew, neither fish nor fowl.
Flash-forward several years. Our local vernacular architecture is now a familiar friend, and our appreciation for its flexibility has grown along with our vocabulary of forms and details. It has gradually dawned on us that architecture doesn't need modern interventions to feel new and that we can be creative within the vernacular language.
industrial age Playing an important early role in our revised way of thinking was Hancock Shaker Village, a neighbor in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts. The Village couples late 18th- and 19th-century power and beauty with a minimalist sensibility. We have borrowed many details over the years from one particular building, the Laundry and Machine Shop: its stone columns, its monochromatic exterior, its asymmetrical bold massing, its very delicate eave detail—even its interior color scheme of a pale milky green and barely off-white. In addition, this building gave us the idea that vernacular architecture does not necessarily mean a rose-covered cottage.
We've learned that when our clients request a “farmhouse,” what they're really asking for is traditional detailing, windows made up of relatively small units, and a rhythm of massing of component parts that feels “New Englandy.” The Shaker Laundry and Machine Shop is not a residential building at all, but it has the desired elements that make it feel familiar and accessible. In fact, New England industrial buildings from the 18th century to the present have become a mainstay of our new vernacular vocabulary. An unusual pair of commissions highlighted the diversity possible within this single genre when two brothers hired us to do two houses. Both loved the idea of industrial buildings—the grittier the better—but had differing ideas on how to transform them into domestic structures. One wished for an unarticulated Butler building, inscrutable from the street, with a dynamic interior. The other wanted a narrative exterior recalling old mill buildings in a historic continuum, with the restraint on the inside. The resulting houses are as different from one another as the brothers themselves.
Another typology we frequently go to, and a good choice for the vernacular-lover on a budget, is the barn. A farmhouse requires dormers, porches, brackets, and small-scale parts to feel right, but all of this costs a lot of money. A barn, on the other hand—with its simple massing, simple eave details, no porches, no gingerbread, and no dormers—can be built for far less without cutting corners. Even for the client with a huge budget, the barn and the industrial building are good models for another reason: their scale works well with large programs, avoiding the undesirable look of a farmhouse on steroids.
outside influences We've come to realize it is not the building type itself that is desirable, but rather other, less quantifiable aspects of massing and detailing. This knowledge has freed us up to look for inspiration beyond our local New England region. The ad hoc shapes of rural 18th- and 19th-century English industrial buildings are wonderful; massing quirks, born of necessity, give personality and infinite variety. Equally inspiring are the sublime vertical airiness and industrial bombast of mine shaft cable-winding towers in coal-mining country in the United States and Europe, as photographed by the influential German team of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Those have been tougher to modify to our needs, but they're always at the back of our consciousness. Last year we finally found an opportunity to introduce a bit of the 19th-century winding towers captured in the Becher photos into yet another vernacular typology: the Main Street mixed-use commercial building.
Tapping regional forms has yielded results that please both us and our clients. The growths and bumps—and the look of a building added onto over many years—work well with the programmatic complexity of a modern residence and satisfy clients' desires for a vernacular feel. The starkness of cable-supported overhangs, factory sash windows, enclosed bridges connecting separate buildings, and the absence of gingerbread all appeal to our own desire for simplicity, even austerity.
No longer do we resent the client who isn't looking for a modernist statement. Instead, we try to do work that pushes forward the continuum, breaking new ground within a venerable vernacular tradition.
Ann McCallum, FAIA, is a principal of Burr and McCallum Architects in Williamstown, Mass. She teaches architectural design at Williams College.