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Understanding Vernacular Technologies

Vernacular Technologies

Vernacular architecture, rooted in local traditions and cultural practices, is gaining prominence in contemporary design and theory, especially as we face the pressing challenges of climate change. This resurgence emphasizes sustainable construction solutions deeply connected to their environmental context. Within this framework, vernacular techniques—like adobe brick production, thatched roofing, and woven bamboo walls—are being re-evaluated and celebrated. However, it's crucial to distinguish between vernacular techniques and vernacular technologies.


Techniques vs. Technologies

A technique, as defined by the dictionary, is a "special skill to perform something." In various fields, this refers to the specific methods or skills employed in a process. For instance, a chef’s technique for chopping vegetables swiftly and safely is a skill honed over time. Techniques date back to the dawn of human civilization, evident in early hunting tools and other primitive technologies, reflecting a culture's inherent know-how.

On the other hand, technology encompasses the study and application of scientific, industrial, and technical processes. It involves tools, machines, and methodologies used to solve problems or fulfill human needs. In the culinary world, technology refers to the equipment like sharp knives or food processors that aid in food preparation. Therefore, while a technique is "how to do it," technology is "what to use"—the application of scientific knowledge to develop and refine tools and methods.


Vernacular Technologies in Architecture

In architectural contexts, vernacular techniques refer to specific construction methods, while vernacular technologies encompass broader systems and processes that continually evolve to optimize resource use. Unlike general building technologies, vernacular technologies rely on local materials, minimizing the need for extensive transportation and preserving the natural qualities of these materials.

Modern advancements have intertwined vernacular processes with digital fabrication and robotics, demonstrating a productive synergy. For example, in Asunción, Paraguay, the FabLab CID at the university created the Parabrick device, aiding in diverse geometric masonry compositions. This device, digitally fabricated from fitted wooden pieces, simplifies manual labor on-site. Similarly, the CeramicINformation Pavilion showcased at the 2018 Biennial of Architecture and Urbanism in Shenzhen, China, exemplifies this blend.

In Mendoza, Argentina, the Nodo 39 FabLab developed a digitally cut wooden frame structure to support the weaving and iconographic traditions of local indigenous communities. Such projects illustrate the fruitful integration of traditional techniques with contemporary technological systems.


The Blend of Old and New

The fusion of vernacular techniques with modern technology is increasingly common in architectural practice. This blend fosters innovative explorations of ancestral methods while leveraging contemporary advancements. An exemplary project is the Children Village in Canuanã, Brazil, where prefabricated wooden pieces were combined with on-site earth bricks crafted by local artisans. This approach not only ensured sustainable construction but also created a thermally efficient and aesthetically pleasing environment.

Human Involvement and Social Sustainability

Henry Glassie, a prominent scholar of vernacular architecture, emphasizes the importance of human involvement in material manipulation and the construction process. As technology advances towards more indirect methods, the direct engagement and experiential learning inherent in traditional techniques risk being lost. This active participation fosters a deep connection between individuals and their built environment, promoting both material and social sustainability.


Conclusion

Vernacular knowledge integrates material sustainability with cultural and social relevance, operating at various levels of complexity. Understanding the role of vernacular techniques and technologies in contemporary architecture is essential for developing projects that are not only environmentally sustainable but also culturally resonant. By blending the wisdom of traditional practices with the innovations of modern technology, architects can create spaces that honor both heritage and progress.

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