Editing Vernacular

By Jessie Wilcox

In the Cappadocian town of Avanos is a ceramics gallery and show room called Güray Seramik and Müze. Like so many examples surrounding it, the museum is carved out of the earth. Unlike so many of those spaces, it is a contemporary building (See Image 1). My surprise at finding it was outmatched by my surprise at learning that my host was friends with the architect.

While Turkish architect Şekibe Aslan built the space using a machine instead of hand tools, Güray Müze shares something basic with its older neighbors. Subtractive architecture is defined in this article as space-making done primarily by taking away material instead of assembling or adding it. When asked how subtractive architecture differed from assembly, Aslan explained that when we build conventionally, we are at the mercy of outside judgment, while when carving inward, we may focus instead on personal desires and needs; we may discover our own idea of home.(1) Her words allow building to be a revelatory process.

This beautiful assessment may seem novel, but assemblage and more conventional productions also reveal our biases. The reason that we acknowledge this revelation so readily in subtraction is because of subtraction's editorial nature. This method requires us to understand what was there before and work with it immediately. It denies an abstraction of the earth and further requires the earth to be part of the whole solution. Assembly does not necessarily share this requirement. It can stand apart. Because of its entanglement, subtraction has a unique ability to reveal those things in the background and clarify our definition of architectural purpose.

Vernacular architecture, like the physical ground, is often regulated to the background. To think of vernacular works as objects, as something separate from us, is incorrect. Vernacular is not a fact—it is a continuous process.(2) It is not just noble, sustainable, or traditional, nor is it spontaneous or uneducated. Like all architecture, it is the reflection of a culture's biases, worldviews, and solutions, learned from and passed on. In that sense, much of our contemporary world is also vernacular. If we don't like what we see around us, it is obvious why we would want to see it as separate from us. 

As subtraction acts as a clarifying process itself to reestablish a connection to our backgrounds and reveal our biases, using it as a lens through which to consider vernacular architecture can offer lessons in how to define a broader and deeper relationship to the process of vernacular and help us find ways to incorporate that relationship into our practice and contemporary environment.


Lesson 1: The Sassi of Matera or The Ground has no End

The city of Matera, located in the Bascillicata region of southern Italy, is home to one of the oldest continuously inhabited human settlements: The Sassi. The Sassi are cave structures in east-facing cliffs which are complimented by small assemblages of stone taken from the caves themselves, arranged in front of the extraction. Over millenia, this dense layering within tight limits created a remarkable city labyrinth that can almost defy imagination (See Image 2). The line between architecture and earth is blurred.

Our tendency to see architecture as divorced from the earth and what exists is reflected in practice and in western theory. Keller Easterling reminds us that the demolition drawing is often the first drawing in a set of construction documents, but as an act is rarely leveraged as a design tool in itself.(3) Contemporary practice wants a clean, flat, abstract line of ground on which to assemble other resources most likely taken from other places. Robin Dripps, in her essay “Groundworks,” tells the stories of various old cultures that would never have accepted such a thing.(4) Her whole essay is a wonderful introduction to many alternative views of the definition of ground. Perhaps the most relevant to this example is the difference she brings up between site and ground. A site is a politicized ground, one that takes on the values of those who would choose to abstract it for their own interests. It can be owned. It is certain and defined, whereas ground changes and has immediacy.(5)

The Sassi has been, in its life, highly politicized and exploited as site. The space of the city was consistently used by various political regimes to tell their own narrative, a narrative that eventually created mass shame and caused the relocation of the people there in the 20th century. The successful vilification and abandonment of these vernacular grounds in an entire generation, however, was challenged by the realization that so much of the culture of these people was defined by its relationship to the specificity of the Sassi. During the Risanamento program, which designed new houses for the dislocated Sassi population, the planning authority managed to find certain formal aspects of the Sassi worthy of their Modernist endeavor. The group made recommendations to reassert the vernacular typology of the Vicinato (intimate courtyards that served as small neighbourhood meeting places) in the new town plan. This typology was, however, reinterpreted as wide, unprotected greenspaces between the Modern, freestanding apartment blocks instead of the small, insulated, and territorial spaces found in the Sassi.(6) Meant to be new places of meeting and community, the sprawling lawns stood empty. The failure of the interpretation instructs us in how intrinsic physical space, form, and imbeddedness is to a cultural idea, and that abstracting it beyond that physicality is difficult.  

Image 3: The layers of Matera, thousands of years in use, as seen from across the Gravina. September, 2015. Photograph by Jessie Wilcox

A broader view of the city continues to defy political narratives and encourage thinking more deeply about the relationship of architecture to ground. When viewed from the opposite of the Gravina, one can see the oldest Sassi caves appearing above the tufa rock, piggybacked by ever-more contemporary cuts, additions, and assemblages until finally one sees the cranes poking up against the sky (See Image 3). It is difficult to understand where one piece begins and the other ends—it all becomes whole. In the long history of ground and its change, human time is incredibly insignificant. It would be useful to understand architecture as part of a story, not the story itself.

The subtractive spaces of the Sassi especially highlight that vernacular architecture is a continuous process. When that process is objectified or politicized, it creates distance between us and our backgrounds. If we return to spatial agency of the boundaries created through the subtractive process, we realize how much agency our backgrounds have in forming cultural traditions.


Lesson 2: Cappadocia or Architecture of the Anti-Ego

The story of the physical formation of Cappadocia is rooted in constant and reoccurring events of oppression. While the history of persecuted Christians is a story most often tied to the region, it is generally agreed that there existed an even longer tradition of peoples fleeing exploitation here, beginning with the Hittites.(7) The sparse landscape of Cappadocia, providing scant natural resources, is much of what pressured the carved way of living. Without wood or resources to carry quarried stone to produce shelter in this region, an economical course was taken to build in and around the porous rocks themselves. Protection within the belly of the earth becomes a sort of seed for innovation in Cappadocia. The formal evidence of this need and the answers the earth provided were many. Some examples included stone wheel doors (See Image 5), hidden and hard-to-reach entrances, secret passages to religious sanctuaries and, perhaps most remarkable, entire underground communities such as Derinkuyu.

Derinkuyu provides one of the most thought-provoking examples of relationship to the ground. It is an entire village, with most all necessary resources thereof located completely underground. It is just one of many examples of such places that were so good at keeping their secrets that this and others were only found in the last 50 years. These cities had the possibility of keeping twenty thousand people hidden for 3 months at a time. The use for protection extended into relatively modern times. In the carving of the towns, the builders also allowed for light and air to penetrate to the greatest depths and had systems for waste management and food storage as well as security systems in the event a violent group would find their entrances.(8) Like Matera, the system highlights a relationship to space, location, and ground that is stubbornly unmoving, resourceful, and humble. Humility is embedded quite literally in the ground here. Being the only resource at hand, it was accepted and understood deeply—it was that which gave and sustained life.

The significance of this lesson is further seen in comparison to the stories on display at the Topkapı palace in distant Istanbul. The columns in this palace are a rainbow of various stones taken from the places the empire conquered. Unlike the reason for the earth digging in Cappadocia—that of necessity and resourcefulness—these assembled columns are physical manifestations of conquering ground and politicizing it as a site to be ruled. Although we would like to believe that contemporary, conventional assembly is not related to this, the story reminds us that when we bring material and resources from far away, we are abstracting the material out of its context to create an invented narrative. But further, whether pillaged or bought, we are refusing the lesson of resourcefulness and humility provided by a local ground which would allow it to lend its own voice to possibilities and innovations.   


Lesson 3: India: Neither this nor the Other, the feminine in subtraction and the need for relationship in production

A unique vernacular typology in India, concentrated in the arid western states, is the stepwell. Stepwells are infrastructural works made for collecting and maintaining water supply. Formally, they were dug out of the earth in a variety of shapes and reinforced with cut stone. They certainly question the bias of architecture existing above an abstracted line of ground. Often, a short wall along the landscape is the only indication of even the grandest of subterranean volumes and decorative sculptures (See Image 6). Like the temple complexes described above, they were originally built to satisfy basic needs but became increasingly intricate as they were tied to patronage, deity favour, and competition. What is unique, however, is that they were patronized not only by powerful men, but also women and even women and peoples of lower castes. Stepwells were primarily the space of women as it was they who would fetch and maintain water throughout the cultural region and because women and fertility were consistently associated with water here.(9)

Image 6:  The two images here of the Ran-ki-vav, or “Queen's Stepwell,” highlight how there is very little above the line of ground that would suggest the complexity of the structure below. December, 2015. Photograph by Jessie Wilcox

Aesthetically beautiful while also functioning in a greater, ecological, system, the wells were built and utilized for a millennium, up until British colonization (See Image 7). The British viewed them as dirty and inadequate, not understanding the environmental systems in which the wells existed any more than they understood the social implications of vilifying this relationship to the earth. Similarly to the inhabitants of the Materan Sassi, people were encouraged to abandon their vernacular structures for more “modern and clean” forms of water retrieval and even similarly began to use them as garbage dumps.(10)

But recently there has been a resurgence of both local and elite appreciation of these architectures. Preservation of these works of both excavated and rock-laid architecture has become well-established (see image 7). Other uses are becoming prevalent as well, such as female deity worship: women are re-appropriating what were historically their spaces to bring homage to local Goddesses or to the ultimate Feminine Aspect.(11) In this way, stepwells are becoming once more spaces for women and their cultural needs and values.

Image 7:  A visiting woman stands in the shadow of the now protected Adalaj-ni-vav. While mainly touristic, other wells are being used as temples or have temples associated with them. December, 2015. Photograph by Jessie Wilcox

A discussion with some female colleagues at the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology University (CEPT) lead me to understand the importance of the duality of masculine and feminine in both Hinduism and in its architectural manifestations. Although the religion is vast and has an incredible diversity in its regional and even familial specificity, in the broad view there is understood to be both a masculine and feminine aspect to each significant deity. The attributes are meant not so much as opposition in the sense of power, but in the sense of balance and harmony. With transformation comes energy, with preservation or maintenance comes fulfillment and prosperity, and with destruction must come consciousness and wise judgment. Depending on the particular structure of the belief, these characteristics might be aspects or sides of one Truth, or be individual Truths wedded to each other.

It was a general thread throughout much of the philosophy and mythology of all of the subtracted sites that negative spaces are related to the feminine, to the maternal, or to ideas of birth and rebirth. The importance these cultures placed on this view was not divorced from the masculine, however, or in opposition to it. Similarly, uplifting pure subtraction over assembly as a “better” way of architecture is not the argument. Subtraction reveals our bias to assembly but simultaneously teaches us that we cannot, in fact, experience positive matter without negative space, nor can positive space be produced without utilizing and revealing negative space. And seeing vernacular through this unusual mode of production reminds us that it is not the informal, spontaneous, or uneducated that defines vernacular, but a local manifestation of harmony with our backgrounds instead of power over them.

Image 8:  A close up of the detail at Ran-ki-vav makes obvious the tension of carved and uncarved, of light and shadow in this method of building. December, 2015. Photograph by Jessie Wilcox

Conclusion: Towards a new architectural vernacular through subtraction

Subtraction in vernacular architecture returns us to the very basic understanding of architecture as a boundary or a relationship and allows us to view that relationship with clarity. While we often turn to vernacular to learn more about environmentally sustainable solutions for our world, vernacular architecture can clarify so much more. What all the examples explored here share is that, while as structures they defy an objectification and separation from the earth, as works of cultural meaning they also defy an objectification of history and refuse to promote any singular narrative. This may be the most important lesson of vernacular we can explore if we wish to learn from it or progress in our contemporary practices. Vernacular is not something in our past, but simply in our backgrounds—a continuous process. We must resist the urge to see architecture as separate from that process. It is not something to be solved but to be embedded within.

As these subtracted vernacular works show that architecture can be understood as one and the same with the earth, we can surely begin to see our already existing buildings as natural resources.(12) In doing so, there is less need to bulldoze these resources to an arbitrary line as a matter of course, establishing a singular vision that denies what already existed. Instead, this acknowledgment makes way for a new architectural vernacular which further supports subtraction as a means of responsible production alongside assembly. That is, a vernacular which subtracts and assembles through careful listening, collaboration, resourcefulness, necessity, harmony, and humility in regard to our existing built environments—a vernacular that realizes that trying to “throw away” a building would be like trying to throw away the earth itself.


(1) Şekibe Aslan, Interview with Author, Personal Interview, Avanos, Turkey, November 6, 2015.

(2) Robin Dripps, “Groundworks,” in Site Matters, ed. Burns, Carol J. and Andrea Kahn (New York: Routledge, 2005), 61-62.

(3) Keller Easterling, “Subtraction,” Perspecta, Vol. 34. (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003), 81.

(4) Dripps, “Groundworks,” 64-65.

(5) Dripps, “Groundworks,” 61.

(6) Anne Parmly Toxey, Materan Contradictions: Architecture, Preservation and Politics (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2011), 116-117.

(7) David Stea and Mete Turan, Placemaking: Production of the Built Environment in two Cultures (Brookfield, USA: Avebury, 1993), 43.

(8) Green Tour, organized through Nomad Hotel, Group Tour, Gerome, Turkey, October 28, 2015: So much of this information is of general knowledge within the region, and is shared daily with visitors. The evidence of shelter from enemies extends to other similar underground communities.

(9) Purnima Mehta Bhatt, Her Space, Her Story: Experiencing Stepwells of Gujrat (New Delhi: Zubaan, 2014), 25.

(10) Bhatt, Her Space, Her Story, 133.

(11) Bhatt, Her Space, Her Story, 133-139.

(12) Toxey, Materan Contradictions, 317.

Jessie Wilcox, 2015 recipient of the Julia Amory Appleton Fellowship, continues to investigate the nature of her and our biases using the lens of architecture. A lover and skeptic of theory, she also pursues how practice can be immediately affected by an interpretation of ideas into tangible studio processes. She graduated from the Harvard University Graduate School of Design with distinction and from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.