How can we newly understand the dynamic nature of the vernacular?

Daniel Millette, Ottawa, Canada  David T. Fortin, Sudbury, Canada  Department of Unusual Certainties, Toronto, Canada  Heather Braiden, Montréal, Canada  Hello Everything, Nairobi, Kenya  Jason Surkan, Vancouver, Canada  Jen Davis, Toronto, Canada  Lucie Kroening, Paris, France  Mary Rothlisberger, Across America  Miriam Ho, Toronto, Canada  Nelson Mota, Delft, Netherlands  Omar Gandhi, Halifax, Canada  Pantopicon, Toronto, Canada  Paula Meijerink, Columbus, United States  Ruth Jones, Toronto, Canada / Los Angeles, United States  Shuyin Wu, Waterloo, Canada  Tings Chak, Hong Kong, China  Victor Seguela, Paris, France 

Every month we present a Global Roundtable in which contributors are asked to respond to a specific question as it relates to one or more of ArtsEverywhere’s lines of Inquiry.
List of writersHover over a name to see an excerpt of their response…click on the name to see their full response.
Shuyin Wu As a result, every year 90 thousand natural villages disappear, including yao-dong villages.
Lucie Kroening & Victor Seguela, Paris The contradiction embodied in the word banga reflects a society caught between different identities.
Tings Chak They are women who have been displaced by global capitalism, separated from their homelands, their families, and their communities to be displaced again.
Mary Rothlisberger Rural communities rely on the post office to provide critical space for community news
Omar Gandhi, Halifax & Toronto If a building was an organism and that organism had to survive, how would that change the way that it worked?
Heather Braiden and Paula Meijerink For over 100 years, waste rock was piled next to the lucrative asbestos mines in southern Québec.
Daniel Millette What is missing from the work of many architects and planners is the notion of true “community-led-design.
David Fortin and Jason Surkan There is limited understanding of Métis customs related to buildings and infrastructure
Department of Unusual Certainties and Pantopicon The concept of the vernacular originates from confusion in the present when trying to understand the importance of objects and actions from the past.
Hello Everything Its economic growth is reciprocated in a large regional migration to the metropolis, where East Africans leave historic modes of pastoral life in pursuit of new opportunities.
Nelson Mota …and thus the vernacular became a lingua franca, a code for communication shared by a wide spectrum of cultural actors, including – of course – architects.
Ruth Jones and Jennifer L. Davis As a group, I don’t think that architects feel like we’re contributing to or evolving the vernacular of the contexts we work within!
The Site Magazine Editorial Team

The Site Magazine Editorial Team

Miriam Ho

is a writer, editor, installation artist, and architectural designer based in Toronto.

Ruth Jones

is part-time faculty in the Humanities and Sciences department at Art Center College of Design (Los Angeles).


The Site Magazine is Canada’s longest running independent magazine for architecture and urbanism. The following roundtable for ArtsEverywhere is a curation of content from Volume 35: Vernaculars. The excerpts of pieces published in this volume were selected for their ability to frame, individually and collectively, the specific ideas outlined above. To read complete pieces and the full breadth of the current issue, please visit:

Building is a universal phenomenon: long before there were architects, people have crafted their own homes, built cities, and designed systems to harvest requisite natural resources such as water, wind, and light. Today, as climate change threatens, as engineered solutions spur new problems, and global politics fall short in addressing local issues, architects are turning to the vernacular: the informal, the spontaneous, the regional, and the handmade. Is it mere nostalgia that drives us to seek examples from the past?

To see the vernacular only in terms of “mere nostalgia” is to anchor its forms and practices in a past that, if it isn’t lost, is at least very far away, dismissing the longing for the past—in its naivety, in its impossibility, in its illusions. But, as the respondents here make clear, vernacular as both a linguistic and architectural phenomenon, is both more involved with the present and more complex in its relationship to the past than this kind of easy dismissal allows for. Vernacular language is anchored in the adaptability of speech more than the conventions of writing and vernacular architecture is likewise tied up with building practice and ways of doing that are shared by and adapted through community relationships to contexts both ecological and political. So new terms and old forms collide within and alter the fabric of the vernacular without dismantling it.

There seems to be a certain vibrancy and cultural relevance in the vernacular that is often missing in developments created through top-down planning. These are, after all, architectures that depend on involvement to exist. Their builders and planners stay with the objects they create, adjusting, repairing, using, and investing in a way that can seem alien to the progress and replacement model of much contemporary architecture. For this reason, urbanization and globalization seem to be forces that are in conflict with the local vernacular. They are modes that depend on displacement as well as change, on new, less uniform collectives, and on macro forces whose scale is at odds with intimacy we find in idealizations of the local and the small. Still, as the lessons and definitions of the vernacular often retreat to the margins of the global present, they do not necessarily retreat from the present itself—dug-earth houses can be conceived as suburban to the city that grows up around them, a Rolex can become more than a watch.

Moving beyond simply celebrating the informal, colloquial, and everyday, the respondents included here offer new ways of understanding the dynamic nature of the vernacular.

Shuyin Wu

Shuyin Wu

Shuyin Wu obtained her Honours Bachelor of Architectural Studies (with Distinction) in 2012 and Master of Architectural Studies in 2016, from School of Architecture, University of Waterloo, Canada. She received the Student Scholarship from Moriyama RAIC International Prize and the Mitacs Globalink Research Award, which funded her research in China.

Shuyin Wu

The yao-dong is the spiritual shelter for the peasants in China’s northwest. These peasants live in the yellow soil, eat what is grown and harvested from the soil, and call themselves sons and daughters of yellow. “Yao” is the word for the beehive-like structures used throughout China’s countryside to fire bricks and tiles. “Dong” means a cave. Over a thousand years of Chinese history, caves evolved into yao-dongs. For people unfamiliar with them, yao-dongs may appear to be of little value—caves or even slums. Abandoning yao-dongs and moving to houses means progress and modernization for the majority of Chinese villages. As a result, every year 90 thousand natural villages disappear, including yao-dong villages. Village culture also disappears at a fast rate, as China urgently seeks to synchronize itself with the contemporary world and time. This fast paced development leads to a growing inability to ground experiences and memories, which contributes to the misunderstanding of yao-dong architecture.

Yao-dong life starts with drawing lines on the ground to indicate the sunken courtyard and entrance. The craftsmen put their hands on the earth just like the poet Neruda describes: they “plunge a turbulent and tender hand to the most secret organs of the earth.”[1] Craftsmen excavate the sunken courtyard, sculpt the entrance cave and yao-dong, and dig the water well cave in the ground of the courtyard to store rainwater. Yao-dong life continues in everyday maintenance such as hardening the yao-dong’s earth with a liu zhou (a tool for grain threshing) after rain, ensuring good air circulation in summer, firing a kang (a heatable adobe brick bed) in winter to keep the earth dry and stable, scraping off 0.5–1 m of eroded soil every ten or more years and so on. The longer a yao-dong is lived in, the more the earth hardens and the more stable it becomes. An exceptional yao-dong can last up to 800 years. The cyclical nature of yao-dong architecture and the art of kan-yu, which is critical for yao-dong construction, are based upon the belief that everything has a soul. A yao-dong cannot be taken anywhere else. It is very much about the “root”—the earth. Mountains and rivers are sacred, and yao-dong villages integrate into nature with minimum impact.

Farmers call matured earth “cooked” earth, because earth-sheltered architecture can be recycled back into fertile soil nurturing new lives. “Raw” and “cooked” earth indicates time, memories, and natural cycles. But for developers, the earth’s value lies sorely in its price per yard stick. Today, according to You Tien-Hsing’s book The Great Urban Transformation, “primary development companies [have] turned the so-called ‘raw’ land into ‘cooked’ land, which entails relocation and compensation negotiation with current land users, as well as investment in site clearing and infrastructure installation to prepare the site for new construction.”[2] This is known as the economy of demolition. Demolishing the historic fabric built in harmony with nature creates new demand for housing, while sacrificing the organic cycles that the Chinese spirits dwell upon.

[1] Pablo Neruda, The Heights of Macchu Picchu: A Bilingual Edition, trans. Nathaniel Tarn (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 3.
[2] You-tien Hsing, “Municipal Governments, Socialist Land Masters, and Urban Land Battles,” in The Great Urban Transformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 35.

Lucie Kroening

Lucie Kroening

Lucie Kroening is a freelance journalist and translator based in Paris, France.

Lucie Kroening & Victor Seguela

Banga, Mayotte

Banga is one of the first Shimaoré words one hears upon arriving in Mayotte, right after caribou (Welcome!). Historically, it refers to the young man’s banga, the banga la mutru baba, the colorful house of a young bachelor that was part of a coming of age ritual for the male adolescents of Mayotte, representing a transition in life, one that is inscribed in Mahorais tradition. However, today banga has also come to refer to a second type of structure that has nothing to do with a space reserved for the joyous celebrations of youth. In the French-language press and official speak, the word banga has come to refer to unsanitary, informal structures: the units of the sprawling shantytowns that spill down the mountainsides. This banga is a derogatory term closely associated with undocumented immigrants from the Comoros despite the fact that a significant number of shantytown inhabitants are in fact legal residents of the island.

The word Banga designates two different architectural objects with polar opposite sentiments—one, a heritage object and a point of pride, and the other a tool of stigmatization. The contradiction embodied in the word banga reflects a society caught between different identities, not quite French, but cut off from the rest of the archipelago—suspended. The intensity with which these opposing sentiments are expressed is a by-product of Mayotte’s past. In a 1974 referendum, the island, then a French colony, voted to remain under French administration, becoming a département d’outre mer—an outer seas department. Its sister islands (Grande Comore, Mohéli, and Anjouan, just 70 km away) declared independence as the Union of the Comoros. Mayotte’s decision implied a rejection of the island’s regional context, substantially weakening its commercial and social links to its neighbors.

Many of the Mahorais who voted to remain part of France hoped that their economic situation would improve with this decision. They dreamed of public schools and paved roads. They believed that if they remained attached to the Comoros islands, as one of the least populous islands in the archipelago, their needs would be neglected. With the acceleration of Mayotte’s transition towards département status, bangas have become a major site of social and political conflict.

Victor Seguela

Victor Seguela

Victor Seguela received his Master's in Architecture from Ecole Nationale Supérieure d'Architecture de Paris-Val de Seine. He lived and worked in Mamoudzou, Mayotte in 2014-2015. He is based in Paris, France.

Tings Chak

Tings Chak

Tings Chak is an architecturally trained artist and migrant justice organizer whose work draws inspiration from anti-colonial, anti-capitalist, and spatial justice struggles. She is the author and illustrator of Undocumented: The Architecture of Migrant Detention (The Architecture Observer, 2014), which explores the politics of architectural design and representation in mass incarceration.

Tings Chak

Suitable Accommodation

“Is a maid’s bed different from any other kind of bed?” asks a respondent to a forum thread on[1] The original post was by someone urgently seeking a “maid’s bed” in Hong Kong. In the string of messages that follow, various people comment: “Space is limited in Hong Kong. That is the fact,” “Maids should consider themselves ‘lucky,’” and, “A maid’s bed needs to be smaller.” Commenters list shops that specialize in custom-built furniture for spaces that “Even the smallest IKEA beds (apart from the child ones) would not fit in.”

There are nearly 350,000 Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) in Hong Kong, largely women coming from the Philippines, Indonesia, and South and Southeast Asia. They comprise about 4.7% of the population and 17% of the female workforce. They are the unacknowledged workers who raise the younger generation, care for the elderly, and maintain domestic life in order for women and men not only in Hong Kong but in many wealthier nations, mostly in the global north, to be “liberated” to enter the workforce. They are women who have been displaced by global capitalism, separated from their homelands, their families, and their communities to be displaced again—through the denial of personal space—from the places where they live and work in Hong Kong.

Suitable Accommodation is a series of real estate advertisements that aim to open up dialogue on how the struggle for space faced by all Hong Kong people—residents of a city of skyrocketing real estate prices and lacking in affordable housing and subsidized child and elderly care—is inextricably linked to the struggle for space for domestic workers in search of a home, for the live-out option, for dignity and respect, and for the right of abode. Though capitalism will always mask this reality and continue to pit “native” workers against “foreign” workers, the struggle for a dignified work and life is a common one.

It is a powerful sight on Sundays, at the podium of the HSBC headquarters—a monument to capitalism designed by Lord Norman Foster—to see hundreds of domestic workers gathered around temporary streets marked by cardboard enclosures, choreographing group dances, painting toenails, calling loved ones, napping, organizing, surviving, living. These are acts of resistance, of home-making, of claiming space by those who have been systematically denied space (materially, politically, economically, and socially). When a worker’s house is not her home but her workplace, suitable accommodation is not a matter of maximizing square footage but of creating conditions necessary to live a fuller, more dignified life.

[1] or-moving- to-hong-kong/threads/129234/maids-beds/

Mary Rothlisberger

Mary Rothlisberger

Mary Rothlisberger is a citizen artist with an emphasis on cultural empowerment in rural and under-recognized communities. Her work is conversational and research-based, in response to the social, built, and natural environments we situate ourselves within.

Mary Rothlisberger

God Bless the USPS

As the last vestige of a communications commons, the social relationships formed within and through the United States Post Office are unique and complex. Intimacy and institution collide in the rural post office, which often serves as the social fulcrum (both publicly and privately) of remote communities. Rural communities rely on the post office to provide critical space for community news, both by word of mouth across and around the conversational space of the counter and through bulletin boards for local announcements. Many rural communities are hours away from a metropolis and depend on the post office for regular delivery of essential goods such as medicines, equipment, seeds, newsletters, and family correspondence. The small-town postmaster is also a necessary community mediator, being one of the few citizens who knows and interacts with every resident.

Architecture roots this government agency in place and time, from post offices built by the Works Progress Administration to frontier schoolhouses repurposed for mail collection to bunker-style government strongholds on Tribal lands. In developing rural towns, the necessity of a community post office (for communication and for commerce) often demands improvisational architecture: the post office reflects the vernacular language of the built environment where it is situated. In other cases, the post office is deliberately placed or rehabilitated by the government and therefore reflects the institutional trends of the time, such as the complex place-based murals commissioned for each post office built the 1930s as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal.

This photo essay is a slow drive across America, a patient research project, and a love letter to the USPS.

Post office in Gilman, Minnesota.

Post office in Wyanet, Illinois.

Post office in Powder River, Wyoming

Omar Gandhi

Omar Gandhi

Omar is a Canadian architect born in Toronto, raised in Brampton, and currently practicing and residing in both Halifax and Toronto.
Omar is the recipient of the 2014 Canada Council for the Arts Professional Prix de Rome and was listed in Wallpaper* magazine’s 2014 Architects Directory—their list of the top 20 Young Architects in the World. Most recently, Omar was named one of the Architectural League of New York’s “Emerging Voices” of 2016 and one of Monocle Magazine’s 20 most influential Canadians.

Omar Gandhi

What if architecture could create a symbiotic relationship with the environment?

The following is an excerpt from an interview with The Site Magazine editor Miriam Ho

One of the things I studied for the Prix de Rome was the idea of adaptation: how architecture can respond more intelligently, not necessarily in a passive way but whether we can think about its form or a detail that’s about embracing context and climate, trying to take everything that you need from it in order to achieve a positive effect, as opposed to just simple things like how do we keep water out. I’ve looked at digital modelling and taking climatic data and we’re wondering how we can affect the overall form of a building. We looked at biomimicry, where you’re looking at an organism or a species that’s the way it is to survive. We’re thinking about architecture without any pre-conceptions, and wondering if maybe it’s not about adapting from a [vernacular] model such as wood frame construction in Canada, but what if architecture was something a lot more complex that was really trying to create a symbiotic relationship with the environment. If a building was an organism and that organism had to survive, how would that change the way that it worked?

Traditional construction methods used the best technology that people had at their fingertips. What we’re doing is certainly a departure from what came before, but at the same time this is the next chapter of the same thing. What’s different in our case is the technology, the way we fabricate buildings, whether it’s using 3D printing or digital fabrication as well as modelling. The requirements were different 150 years ago, but the materials that they used, over time, they developed methods of building that were optimal. Their architecture protected them from the harsh climate, and allowed them to do whatever they needed to do that was specific to this area. Instead of building onto this model, we’ve decided to go back and start from those primitive things again.

I also think it will be a new regional architecture as opposed to the one that we know. The vernacular that we know has a lot to do with nostalgia and form, but I think we’re losing or forgetting what the basis of a lot of these ideas was: extremely smart building in a specific place over a period of time. It was the smartest way they could possibly do it. Now we have so many other capabilities that you have to sort of rethink what this local, vernacular architecture is using methods like our evolutionary, ecologically derived model.

Heather Braiden

Heather Braiden

Heather Braiden is an Assistant Professor in Landscape Architecture at Dalhousie University and a PhD candidate at the McGill School of Architecture.

Heather Braiden and Paula Meijerink

How will Green Succeed in a Grey World?

For over 100 years, waste rock was piled next to the lucrative asbestos mines in southern Québec. Eventually, the tailings hills or “dumps” reached heights comparable to the region’s tree covered mountains and, with their distinctive steel-blue colour, are clearly set apart from what is natural. These unique and impressive forms punctuate the Town of Thetford Mines’ built skyline, yet for many of the town’s residents, the dumps hardly exist beyond remnants of an industrial era gone-by. Sympathetic to future economic prospects and vigilant of lingering anxiety over the material once mined here, the town seeks ways to stabilize a landscape that is debatably, yet scientifically, classified as hazardous. Revegetation of the dumps is one plausible solution.

Vernacular studies of this and other mining regions typically focus on economic or domestic architectural space—the factories, processing plants, shafts, and housing—rather than the by-products of industry, like the pits and tailings, which are landscape spaces, but these post-industrial scars, as geographer Anna Storm asserts, are significant physical reminders of past and present culture. The topographical forms in the dumps change our understanding of the vernacular landscape, as they show industrial advances and transportation technology altering the height, width, and overall shape of the land. There are contemporary threats, both imagined and real, posed by the dumps to which the town must consider solutions. The greening of the tailings is inevitable, but what will happen to the tradition of mining evidenced by this surprisingly inspiring landscape? Will we erase evidence of this vernacular, or could grey be the new green?

Paula Meijerink

Paula Meijerink

Paula Meijerink is an Associate Professor in Landscape Architecture at the Knowlton School, Ohio State University and cofounder of the firm WANTED Landscape.

Daniel Millette

Daniel Millette

Daniel Millette, PhD, MASA, MA, RPA, RPP, MCIP
Daniel Millette has worked on Indigenous land matters for approximately twenty years. He is Director of Strategic Planning and Communications with the First Nation Land Management Resource Centre. He specializes in land use planning, land strategizing, and land use-economic development interfacing, with an aim at empowering individual communities through self-governing over unique sets of lands and resources.

Daniel Millette

Architectures of Renewal

Daniel Millette is the author of “Architectures of Renewal: The Indigenous Architectural Landscape of Canada.” which, in his words, is “not a history book; it is a record of examples of environmental design on indigenous lands.” The following is an excerpt from The Site Magazine’s interview with him.

What is missing from the work of many architects and planners is the notion of true “community-led-design.” When the Europeans arrived, indigenous communities already owned and governed the lands that are now Canada and already had well-established processes for environmental design. The latter was approached from one perspective, be it architecture, land use planning or settlement planning, and the same community-led processes were involved. These processes were dynamic and “lived” within the community; to some extent, I would suggest that they are presently resurging. That which we find within indigenous communities today emerge out of the same processes.

To me, in the successful examples of vernacular architecture (be it designed by pedigreed or non-pedigreed architects) and settlement plans (be it land use plans or land-based community plans), the community always leads. This means that architects and planners need to learn to truly listen to their indigenous clients. I say this with a great deal of respect for the two professions—we learn all about community engagement in school and we learn about community consultation through formal processes, but to truly listen to a community is to do one’s best to understand the immediate cultural realities, the underpinnings of historical legacies, and the deep desire for better futures.

Vernacular architecture is not necessarily intended to commemorate history. It is “lived” and as such, evolves in time, varies by community (and within communities), and takes into account immediate context, be it in terms of intended use, cultural meaning, spiritual significance, available materials, immediate skills, artistic intent, and so on. The value of studying “indigenous vernacular architecture” lies within several areas that include, among others, cultural context, historical understanding, and broader lessons that can be learned in terms of environmental adaptation related to several design fields such as “regenerative design.”

The definition of heritage has changed over time and carries various meanings in different communities. It is much like history in the sense that it references specific events and people, generally at a specific moment in time, often using mnemonics (such as architectural examples) to register the same events or people within the collective memory. The problem with it is that at the same time, the mnemonic may activate offensive memories for other groups. Thus a residential school might have meaning to a group of people holding the “heritage registry pen,” but it may be considerably hurtful and offensive to a group of people having held the “classroom pen” within the same building. Registering buildings within official lists thus poses considerable problems for groups struggling to not memorialize the events around the same building. To me, the selection of buildings to be protected, be it through official registries or community practice, should be up to the community within which the building is sited, and here, I do not necessarily mean geographic location; I mean cultural location.

The indigenous landscape speaks for itself; one simply has to re-learn to examine this landscape all-the-while making best efforts to remove the colonial lens.

David T. Fortin

David T. Fortin

Born in Calgary, David grew up in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan before studying at the University of Saskatchewan, the University of Calgary, and the University of Edinburgh. He is a registered architect in the province of Alberta where he worked for McKinley Burkart Architects and GEC Architecture. He is one of the founding faculty members at the McEwen School of Architecture in Sudbury, Ontario and is a member of the Métis Nation of Ontario.

David Fortin and Jason Surkan

Towards an Architecture of Métis resistance

While various other indigenous vernacular typologies, such as the igloo, teepee, longhouse, and wigwam, are recognized in Canada, there is limited understanding of Métis customs related to buildings and infrastructure. Recreation halls, schools, housing projects, and various other structures built in Métis communities would seem to have minimal—if any—larger cultural impact.

In 1986, an award-winning interpretive centre opened at the Batoche National Historic Site in Saskatchewan. A central intent of the design, by renowned Winnipeg firm IKOY, was to “interpret the history of the Métis settlement,” yet their decision to shape the main gallery of the industrial-looking building after the hexagonal section of a rifle barrel pointed directly, and intentionally, at the church, is as jarring as their description of the project.[1] The site, they wrote, “has come to symbolize the Métis’ last stand as united people, the end of their independence, and the eventual closing of the Canadian frontier.”[2] Not only did the project explicitly ignore contemporary Métis political and cultural vibrancy in the area, which welcomes over 5000 people a day for the annual Back to Batoche Festival, the juxtaposition of the building confirms a complete disregard for its historical and material context.

There are several reasons to discuss Métis architecture. First, it allows architecture to be appreciated alongside other Métis cultural forms. Second, it encourages Métis community members and leaders, as well as architects and builders, to better interrogate future proposals for their invested responses to a specifically Métis cultural context. As Henry Glassie writes, the study of vernacular architecture “seeks ways to use buildings as evidence in order to tell better versions of the human story.”[3] Following the recent Daniels case, which reaffirmed the Métis as “Indians” as per the Constitution Act, and amid ongoing debates about the very nature of Métis identity and registration across Canada, Métis architecture can contribute a chapter to the ongoing Métis story.

[1] “Batoche Interpretive Centre,” IKOY Architects, accessed January 21, 2016.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Henry Glassie, Material Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999): 231.

Jason Surkan

Jason Surkan

Born and raised in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, Jason holds a B.Arch from Carleton University and is currently a graduate student in architecture at UBC. He has worked intermittently for Douglas Cardinal Architect since 2014 as well as Oxbow Architecture in Saskatoon.

Department of Unusual Certainties

Department of Unusual Certainties

DoUC (Department of Unusual Certainties) is a creative studio who employ their natural curiosity to design experiences, visualizations, and spaces that simplify the seemingly complex and inspire thought and dialogue. We experiment with storytelling through exploration and design. We practice the tradition of pragmatism and are directed by curiosity, information and perceived knowledge. In 2010, DoUC started as a result of a shared need to ask questions about our everyday existence. This curiosity continues to grow and has manifested over the years through projects that traverse urban design, public art, social engagement, cartography, and education. Our hope is to affect the social good through the physical world and to help build society through our work. Sometimes strange, beautiful or controversial, DoUC tells each story with a dedication to creating substantive experiences and content that people can engage with, reflect on and react to.

Department of Unusual Certainties and Pantopicon

Human-Centred Vernacular

The concept of the vernacular originates from confusion in the present when trying to understand the importance of objects and actions from the past. This confusion can also lead to misunderstanding and the projection of current values onto situations about which we have very little understanding. However, the true beauty of vernacularization is its ability to create narratives about places we could never otherwise have experienced, not unlike the practice of future-making that is so entrenched in contemporary design. We are living in a moment where we have the tools to both reconstruct history and construct the future.

This presents an interesting opportunity to help societies of the future better interpret our values through a coherent understanding of the different objects, actions and discussions that define our lives in the present—our vernacular. In response to this, we created a generative system that can help to elevate historical speculation by future generations; a system that offers clues about the objects, actions and discussions that permeate our contemporary lives, allowing for richer stories of vernacular to be created in the future. It is a system that is flexible and inclusive, allowing for multiple views and thoughts to collect in one place—a democratic database.

With regards to “Human Centred Vernacular,” we attempt to “democratise” the process of generating vernacular by creating a system that contextualises current—and potentially significant (or not)—actions, objects and discussions, into a generative “working system.” This system accumulates and compiles the vernacular that can then be cross-referenced and assigned value by others and, hopefully, be deployed and made accessible to a broader range of people. This would provide a more holistic picture of the context surrounding vernacular, as well as what could and should become defined as vernacular in the future.

Human Centred Vernacular system chart



We are a strategic foresight and design studio. Through speculative and analytical means we craft tools and processes, stories and strategies, products and services to stimulate debate and translate its outcomes into actionable content.
More information available at and upon request.

Hello Everything

Hello Everything

helloeverything is an international design studio founded in 2013 by Austin Smith, Julian Ocampo, and Sixto Cordero. Their work emerges from the opportunities of the standard to proliferate the spatial agency of the people, objects, and relations which constitute contemporary life.

Hello Everything

Vernacular of Adaptation

One of the largest and most economically developed cities on the continent, Nairobi’s transformation is driven by an enormous investment in the modern tech industry and global logistics infrastructure. Its economic growth is reciprocated in a large regional migration to the metropolis, where East Africans leave historic modes of pastoral life in pursuit of new opportunities.

The Kibera Hamlets School, located in Nairobi’s oldest and largest settlement (often referred to as a slum) is built as a test of how the architecture of modification, reinterpretation, and serendipitous accident can engage a community and establish platforms through which people become active agents of design at a very local scale. In continuous feedback with its context, the project strives towards something mutable and plastic, which is very difficult to contain or impose upon the vernacular of globalized adaptation—a kind of productive consumption that exemplifies a highly unique, but also generic, identity.

The following is an excerpt of a “glossary” that describes a shifting network of people, environment, and architecture. It delineates an evolving language that mimics the evolving architecture of Kibera Hamlets.

Kibera Hamlets School emerged out of the collaboration of our architecture practice, helloeverything, with Madrid based architecture studio Selgascano, the photographer and co-organizer for the project Iwan Baan, and our local partners Studio 14 with sponsorship by Second Home, a London cultural venue and workspace. Originally commissioned as a pavilion for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Denmark, the project traveled over 11,000 km by sea to be reborn as a school for youth in Kibera, Kenya.

Sheng is a hybrid Swahili-English dialect that is the common tongue of Kibera Hamlets’ construction site. Highly regional in terminology, it is a free agglomeration of languages, which is continuously reformulated to suit an individual’s circumstances.

Matatu #8 are small Matatu microbuses best suited to weaving through the congestion surrounding Kibera. The informal bus service brings you into Kibera, the second largest slum in Africa.

MPesa is an advanced form of phone-based money transfer/storage system ubiquitous throughout Nairobi. The system is SMS based and has recharging locations in every corner of the city. It has had positive effects on the urban fabric and social interactions. Accepted everywhere and by almost everyone, it has eliminated the need to go through Nairobi and even Kibera with physical cash.

Mabati is a Swahili word for corrugated metal sheets. These are the cheapest and longest lasting spatial barriers you can buy in Kibera. An iconic material of Kiberan life, the Mabati’s resilience, reuse, crumpling, and oxidation compose an environmental narrative of collective architecture.

NYS is the acronym for the now defunct National Youth Stewardship program, whose mass embezzlement left thousands of Kenyan youth without income and resources to work towards the social betterment of their community. The opportunity of community organization and employment for Kibera Hamlets emerged in the void of the NYS. The NYS scandal is an acute example of the consequences of national corruption on a community’s well-being.


In a building environment where most locally sourced materials are also locally produced, everything is customized for a task. Affordable manual craftsmanship lowers the barrier to building with differentiated parts because construction “norms” are so flexible. Customization in this form is difficult to scale, though highly effective for individual buildings.

Programmatic Hybridity

At night, Kibera is very dark. Introducing simple artificial lighting allows the space to be multifunctional across different times of the day. In environments where access is quite limited, a building is challenged to provide as many programs to as wide a range of users as possible.


Throughout Kibera, women prepare Chapati bread. For 30 cents you can add egg and vegetables to your chapati for quite the luxurious breakfast. Hence it carries a posh moniker—the Rolex.

Nelson Mota

Nelson Mota

Nelson Mota is Assistant Professor at Delft University of Technology and guest scholar with The Berlage Center for Advanced Studies in Architecture and Urban Design. He holds a PhD from Delft University of Technology and is a founding partner of the architectural office comoco arquitectos.

Nelson Mota

The Vernacular as Lingua Franca

I would contend that the current dissolution of the limits between modernity and vernacular tradition is often too automatic and uncritical. The Portuguese architect Fernando Távora’s shrewd reading of the zeitgeist suggested that modernity is an assemblage of situated episodes, rather than a universal phenomenon. Vernacular social and spatial practices were fundamental components of those situated episodes and thus the vernacular became a lingua franca, a code for communication shared by a wide spectrum of cultural actors, including – of course – architects.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), modernity is “the quality or state of being modern.”[1] The definition of “modern” reads as “relating to the present or recent times as opposed to the remote past.”[2] Further, the etymology of “modern” stems from the Latin word modernus and derives from modo, which expresses the idea of just now. An attribute of modern, according to the OED, is “denoting a current or recent style or trend in art, architecture, or other cultural activity marked by a significant departure from traditional styles and values.”

An earlier definition, in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 1971, describes modern as an adjective to qualify something “having the characteristics of a movement or style in the arts marked by a break with tradition esp. academic forms and techniques of expression, an emphasis upon experimentation, boldness, and creative originality, and an attempt to deal with modern themes.”[3]

However, in the Webster dictionary, the entry “modern” is also a synonym of “common place, ordinary, trite as used, for example, in Shakespeare’s sentence ‘full of wise saws and modern instances’.”

Curiously enough, the ordinariness of “modern” instances has a striking similitude to common definitions of vernacular. Indeed, the etymology of “vernacular” originates from the Latin word verna, which refers to the “homeborn slave, native.” For example, in the OED, vernacular is “the language or dialect spoken by the ordinary people of a country or region.”[4] In Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of 1971 it is defined as “a language or dialect native to a region or country rather than a literary, cultured, or foreign language.”[5] In these definitions the idea of native appears in opposition to foreign as “cultured,” which implicitly assumes the latter as the most desirable condition.

Furthermore, vernacular can even be directly related with the architectural discourse, by defining something “of, relating to, characteristic of, or expressed in the style of a place, period or group […]; of, relating to, or being the common building style of a period or place: employing the commonest or most typical architectural forms and decoration.” In the OED, its application to the architectural discipline designates something “concerned with domestic and functional rather than public buildings.”

The notion of vernacular can indeed be connected with concepts such as “particular” or “nonstandard” but it can also be related with notions such as “common,” “typical,” and even “functional,” which come to our minds more frequently associated with the experience of modernity rather than with the “exotic” world of the vernacular. It is the very ambivalence of the notion of vernacular that stirred some of the most inspiring discussions on the relation between high-art and mass culture in the post-war politics of architectural design and criticism.

[1] “Modernity,” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press), accessed February 8, 2014,
[2] “Modern,” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press), accessed February 8, 2014,
[3] “Modern,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1971).
[4] “Vernacular,” Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press), accessed February 8, 2014,
[5] “Vernacular,” Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language, Unabridged. (Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam Co., 1971).

Ruth Jones

Ruth Jones

Ruth Jones is a writer, editor, and curator currently based in Toronto. She holds a PhD in French from UCLA and has previously taught courses on urbanism, infrastructure, and narrative at ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA.

Ruth Jones and Jennifer L. Davis

Another Vernacular

Ruth: Coming from a literature background, I’ve always thought of the linguistic vernacular as having to do with language as a material that creates as well as expresses meaning. To talk about the linguistic vernacular means talking about a form of language that is in continuous use and, therefore, continuously changing. The vernacular doesn’t need to be sanctioned to accommodate new situations—it adjusts, and then those adjustments filter up. Think of Oxford and Webster’s with their end of the year introductions to the dictionary—informal use becoming formal, official, entries into the language. (The French are more severe about this, with the Academie Française determining what counts as language and what doesn’t, sometimes irrespective of what people, often large groups of people, say.)

Jen: I see the architectural definition of vernacular having similarities but also diverging from the linguistic vernacular. I’m from Nova Scotia—ground zero of Brian MacKay-Lyons’ critical regionalist practice—so let’s take his work as an entry point. At its most essentialized, his design process and outcomes are inflected by locally found forms such as wood-sided barns, boat building construction methods, or pragmatically built dock structures. These ubiquitous structures are considered “authorless” from the point of view of the architectural discipline and could be considered the “common” language of building within that landscape and culture. So there is an acknowledgement that the vernacular is “of the people” just as it is in linguistics.

In publications about MacKay-Lyons’ work, his architectural projects are depicted alongside images of these vernacular structures, which communicates a few key things to me about the nature of the built vernacular. Firstly, the vernacular is seen as something beyond the disciplinary boundaries of architecture that can be appealed to and sampled from at an architect’s discretion. As a group, I don’t think that architects feel like we’re contributing to or evolving the vernacular of the contexts we work within! Secondly, I get the sense that the vernacular exists on a time scale that is somehow larger and also parallel to the one I’m operating on as a practicing architect. As I see it, an architect who is taking queues from vernacular architecture is probably attempting to achieve a timelessness to their work. This is but one tactic that architects may deploy in the larger pursuit of producing edifices/cultural projects that operate on a time scale that is longer than our own lifespans.

Jen Davis

Jen Davis

Jennifer L. Davis practices architecture, art, and independent curating in Toronto, Canada. She holds a Master of Architecture (2011) from the University of Toronto and is co-curator of Rear View (Projects).

More Posts in this Series:

17 thoughts on “Graffiti and street art can be controversial, but can also be a medium for voices of social change, protest, or expressions of community desire. What, how, and where are examples of graffiti as a positive force in communities?

  1. Advertisers pay the owners of publicly visible sites. They do not pay the viewers for trespass on their vision. Bravo to graffiti artists for breaking the monopoly of money over what we see.

  2. The monopoly of information creates distortions in public opinion makes the case is defined as graffiti vandalism . Despite its power and ability to go beyond the official discourse is something that enriches the public.

    Thanks for your opinion

  3. Graffiti is a triggered emotional response to an inner conscious or unconscious call for justice and understanding. If the spaces weren’t or aren’t made available, it would be like having denied first humans to embed petroglyphs in cave walls. Graffiti is genetic human nature.

    Therefore, graffiti expression should be a right. The controversy lies in the notion of public and private. Because in ancestral times that concept did not exist, it was the community who gave birth to graffiti out of the primal need to communicate.

  4. Bogota exists in a very strong relationship with the discussion bathroom graffiti and public space. Mass Media Economic Groups belonging to argue that it is of both ” artistic ” Mar is a contribution to the landscape of the city . the concept of “art” that is imposed from Manages Media THESE leaving out everything they considered ” vandalism ” .

  5. Degenerate forms of power show up through automatisms: one does something without being aware of what he is doing. Media system power takes advantages of our lack of conscience. Many of the sentences or tags that I see around on the walls of the cities seem to be made in this way. It smells of frustration and alienation. However, frustration and alienation can be transformed in aesthetic and political tools if they are fertilized by inspiration and intuition. My invitation is to consider “graffiti e street art” as a form of expression which can have a strong political impact: do not consider walls as a personal blackboard but be conscious of our feelings, ideas and talents in terms of giving a contribution to a “conversation” (also and above all with our “enemies”)

  6. I agree. However, we have to be careful not to universalize all graffiti as an expression of anger/frustration against hegemonic powers. In some cases, graffiti (including tagging) can reinforce hegemonic ideas. In particular patriarchy. The graffiti that is used by gangs to mark territory can be incredibly misogynistic and does not counter prevailing systems (in this case patriarchy). Thus it does not counter prevailing powers but rather supports a particular form of prevailing power.

  7. Graffiti is a powerful tool to counteract the arbitrariness of power. The walls never stop talking …

  8. Tagging versus Graffiti

    There is an interesting tension between what counts as graffiti and tagging. Is there a difference? Is tagging a form of graffiti? Or is it it’s own category? Indeed, those who tagg seems to fall more easily into Patrick’s category of vandal (as opposed to artist)?

  9. Great topic, thanks for this!

    Concerning the beneficial influences of graffiti, there is an interesting example in East Harlem. The Harlem Art Collective (HART) “took over” a wall on 116th street, and they use it to express and encourage art with political and social intentions. This month, for example, the wall focuses on women, women rights and gender equality, in celebration of International Women’s day. Not only they do their own “guerrilla art”, but they also encourage people in the community to share their art, poetry, photographs, or anything they want on the wall.

    On their Facebook page ( you can see photos of the different themes they have focused on. On this page they also share their goals, among which we can highlight: “Inspire our community and encourage artistic expression; create an inclusive and welcoming environment for everyone to participate” and “Instill pride and respect in our neighborhood by beautifying and restoring abandoned and neglected spaces.”

    On this regard, I have a few questions: To what extent are they accomplishing these and their other goals with their actions? What are the keys to success in the use of graffiti art as an effective tool to have a positive influence in a community? How can we measure the alleged beneficial influence of graffiti art? What is the lifespan of these benefits? Do these benefits transcend the ephemeral art that brings them about?

  10. A good example of the positive energy that graffiti can generate, but Javier, why do we need to ‘measure’ the benefits of graffiti art? What kind of quantification do you have in mind? How on earth do you establish whether the “benefits transcend the ephemeral art”? Isn’t that a step towards entirely unnecessary commodification?

    We must be able (perhaps we have to relearn) to conceive of the various strands of life, human and otherwise, without placing them in the framework of measurement and commodification or else we run the risk of never being able to see the world without burdening our vision with the myopic distorting glasses of the marketplace.

  11. Wonderful … Only through the measurable human is built ? Although surely they will exist indicators measuring sensory experiences the subject of graffiti contribution to community building goes beyond , as Paul says , conventional measuring systems. The other week will share their experience of a woman stencil, that writer in Bogota, and how its practice contributes to building community from the sensible . And if we see the points made by Javier in relation to the Harlem experience it can be seen only with images power in terms of building (social, artistic , urban ) relationships generated .

    You need to try to measure what is done , but it is more important to share when it comes to graffiti , is IMHO

  12. On the point of “measurement” I can see both Paul Downton’s and Javier Otero’s points. I’m not sure how one would study the lasting impacts of ephemeral graffiti, as Javier suggests, but there could be some valuable ideas that emerge from studies about changing public attitudes about graffiti. Javier’s point also reinforces the idea that graffiti *has* benefits—that’s what this roundtable is partly about. It’s good to explore what these benefits are, or are not—both in scholarship and public fora—both to individuals and to communities.

    And surely we should make concerted efforts to document graffiti—this is a form of measurement also. Indeed, there are many such efforts underway.

  13. Patrick, you make some good points in your article. Graffiti wasn’t considered an art until the galleries realized that they could make money off of it. The more it becomes commodified the less democratic it becomes. Like it or not, the illegality of the act in itself is a political statement.

  14. Ce qui m’interrese ce sont ces ” erase” qui parlent autant, voir plus que les mots . By collectif CA.RE.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.