Venerating vernacular architecture

Some years ago, while attending a get together with some of my former students in Nizwa, I began waxing lyrical about the subtle beauty and minimal elegance of Omani vernacular architecture. But before I could finish my panegyric, one of my ex alumni cut in. “That’s easy for you to say, Mr Clive,” he said. “You didn’t grow up in a mud-brick house with no electricity, no running water, no sanitation and a cow constantly bellowing in a downstairs room!”

Fair point, I didn’t, though I would argue that growing up in the gloomy austerity of a traditional dwelling should not necessarily preclude one from the aesthetic appreciation of archaic architecture, or from lamenting its demise. I spent much of my childhood in the Spartan discomfort of my grandfather’s freezing, mouse-infested early 18th century vernacular Irish stone farmhouse, complete with thatched roof and outside lavatory.

There was even a resident child phantom who could occasionally be heard wandering the corridors in the dead of night, babbling and singing, or seen playing in the orchard on a sunny day. Yet it is with a heavy heart that I now anticipate the approaching demise of that dank and mirthless dwelling in which eight generations of my ancestors lived, often in great hardship, and in many cases died prematurely.
Vernacular architecture is often used as an umbrella term for all indigenous, ancestral, traditional, folk and rural architecture. It may also be applied to buildings that serve a variety of functions, such as defensive, religious, civic and domestic. Yet in spite of this seemingly broad range of building types and uses, true vernacular buildings of whatever function share three characteristics. Taken together, these serve to provide us with a more precise definition of what exactly vernacular architecture is.
Firstly, vernacular buildings are made without the intervention of professional architects, their forms often emerging during their construction. Secondly, they are the products of local customs and techniques that are often ancient in origin. Thirdly, they are made exclusively, or almost exclusively, from locally sourced raw materials, which often have a strong deterministic influence on their forms and modes of construction.
So if we apply this three-part definition to a typical Omani vernacular building such as the one pictured here, we can see that its form was clearly not planned with the sharp-angled precision of an architect’s pencil, ruler and setsquare. And to me, therein lies a large part of its charm. Every single vernacular building in Oman, indeed in the whole world, is unique in form.
In addition, it is clear that our vernacular building did not just ‘appear’ out of the blue, but rather arose out of a long and very slowly evolving building tradition. It is fascinating to think that if this vernacular dwelling could travel back in time to, say, the 10th century, nobody from that far-distant epoch would likely view it as being incongruous.
Furthermore, every single element of this building is fabricated from materials that are locally available. Stones for the foundations, mud for the bricks, wood from local ghaf or sidr trees for the door and window-frames, mud and limestone for the gypsum rendering of exterior walls and roof, and various elements of the date palm for the floors and ceilings. I could not find a single imported item used in the building of this house.
Put simply, every single a vernacular building, even ones quite recently built, connects us with long superseded epochs in a way that a modern villa or a block of flats simply cannot. Such structures stand as tangible links to those anonymous souls who once walked this very ground we inhabit and are testimony to their ingenuity in those far less abundant times.
So rather than seeing such vernacular buildings as nothing more than outdated hovels that are rightly being consigned to oblivion, I would strongly argue that we should celebrate their uniqueness, their enormously long architectural antecedents and the ingenuity of their anonymous builders, who created adequately serviceable and austerely graceful structures out of what meager materials their environment offered.
In my lifetime, Ireland’s vernacular architectural heritage has been all but decimated, not only by ‘progress’, but also by a failure of perception, a general inability of many to view our vernacular architectural heritage in these venerable terms. What a great loss it would be if the same were to happen in Oman.

CLIVE Gracey