Riding in the back of a taxi to my suburban home. On Melody FM they are playing Phil Collins; ‘In the Air Tonight’. It’s late, I’m tired. The motion of the cab is hypnotising.
The song seems to slow down. I feel like I’m falling into it, feeling the nuances of the production. Neon signs give way to sodium lit half-timbered suburbia, gradually, it dawns on me: the key to the song is one precise detail. There is something about Collins’ drum sound …
A mixture of the primitive percussive hit and something incredibly refined. As though studio technology had allowed Collins to freeze a single beat, zoom into it, navigate the peaks and troughs like a diver over the sea bed. Perfecting the intricate texture of the sound: polishing, burnishing, waxing, filling and sanding. Switching scales back to view the drum beat as an isolated object floating in space, spinning it around, feeling its texture. Whap, Whump. This is a drum beat that has been machined into sonic perfection. If you could pick it up it would feel cold like steel.
Once Collins had prototyped and perfected one of these beats, he could roll them off the production line like munitions, deploying them in groups like gun batteries.
Wham! It lands a blow to my temple. Whump! A dig deep into my stomach. Each thump the desolation of a man whacked by Fate. Energy expelled like Kubricks ape smashing a skull with a femur.
Imagine the pain Collins must have felt in order to manufacture this drum sound. Its an anger distilled. Formed as an exact sonic replica of his inner torture outside his flesh.
I can feel each synapse firing in slow motion. Engulfed by this one moment, this one sound slows till it sounds like the fabric of the universe splitting.
I stumble from the cab, bruised and battered by this AOR journey. How is it possible that such lightweight entertainment can have such a profound effect? Perhaps its because pop music is densely packed with content. Even Phil Collins.
A long time ago music, painting, sculpture and architecture shared the same subject matters: ‘Religion’ and ‘How Great the King Is’. Art managed to find secular and republican subjects. But in the drift towards secular society, architecture struggled. It became bogged down in stodgy Victorian and Beaux Art architecture. Modernist rejection of all this was understandable. Modernist abstraction was blank and white like new stationary at the start of a new term: full of optimistic possibility. But it’s drive towards abstraction purged everything – not just the boring, useless civicness it was rebelling against, but also the bright vitality of the vernacular.
Alongside the high culture of Church and Court was vulgar folk culture: vernacular, bawdy, comic, everyday, ordinary. In art and music – unlike architecture, these traditions continued. Think of all those songs about love: 96 trillion teenage tears. Pop musics obsession with romantic love is high religious devotion, multiplied by folky lust.
Pop music uses the vernacular to create radical, progressive and provocative work, AS WELL AS sweet, corny and popular. Think of these moments: Electricity zapping the Blues. Beautiful white Elvis playing black folk music. The Beatles confusing R’n'B with Irish folk. In the Black Ark in Jamaica, Lee Perry combines African folk with cosmic echoing infinity. In London art schools, vectors of rock and roll intersected with radical French art theory. Morrissey paired Oscar Wilde with nostalgic rock and roll.
This strange potion of folk, high technology, distribution and consumption spans the globe like atomised perfume. There was a moment when it was impossible to escape Chers vocoded ‘I believe something inside me …’ echoing down Siberian mine shafts, whispering across the antarctic wasteland. Pop teeters on the brink between a unique moment in a specific place and global hegemony.
Architects relationship to the vernacular is to patronise it as traditional, kitsch, as the lowest common denominator. Maybe they fear its wild and uninhibited nature, maybe they are wary of its ruthless directness. Certainly it is a different tradition of building. It obeys different laws to high architecture. This makes it difficult to pin down: it absorbs different aesthetics, it mutates, it shifts its subject matter.
The Pop Vernacular in architecture is everything you would never see inside a design magazine. Classified under terms like Repro, Neo, or Knock Off. Without the need for authenticity, its free to reinvent itself.
The Pop Vernacular is a both a graveyard for the old and the superseded and the spawning ground of unexpected futures. A cornucopia of architectural salvage. The Pop Vernacular draws on all of time and space. And despite its familiarity, it glows with optimism and freshness. Far from the end of history, it is the well spring of the imminent future.
Washed up on the shores of this electric ocean: rustic bird boxes, ornate plastic plant pots, carriage lamps, gnomes, reconstituted stone statues, sliced pieces of log with house numbers branded into the surface. Regency desks with LCD vanity mirrors, hard drives concealed within drawers and keyboards tucked underneath. Horse brasses. Fibre optic Indian Restaurants. Plastic coated Chinese take aways. Medieval garage doors.
To try get hold of it and examine the way it operates, let us take a specific example:
The Pop Vernacular is an ever expanding cornucopia of stuff.
Half Timbering was a vernacular construction technique that evolved in Germanic Saxony. It came to Britain with the Saxons in the 5th century BC as a mercenary army for the failing Roman occupation. By the 6th century the Saxons and other Germanic tribes controlled most of the lowlands and were expanding to the north and west.
Half Timbering is already cutting loose from being a vernacular building technology, and heading towards a role as a cultural symbol. Removed geographically from its origins but related to a sense of identity.
Celtic tradition mixes with Saxon culture. Forests had been home to the Celtic Druids. Tree spirits possessed magical properties. The Anglo-Saxon poem ‘The Dream of the Rood’ is a meditation on the crucifixion of Christ. In it, the tree speaks: ‘I was cut down, roots on end …. I was raised up, as a rood … I was wet with blood’. This personification of material suggests symbolism and identity are deep within the technology of building.
History continues …
The last Saxon King, Harold faced the Norman invasion. At Hastings, William defeated Harold. He was crowned in London on Christmas Day 1066.
England was now ruled by a French speaking king. The Norman Lords seized the assets of the Saxons. Norman architecture begins its transformation of England with the Tower of London, the first of a network of castle-strongholds. 21 years later, 100 had been built.
Saxon identity remains distinct through this era. Folk heroes like Robin Hood emerge as the scourge of Norman aristocrats. Like Robin Hood, the timber Saxon architecture was light, quick, and friendly in contrast to the cold heavy mass of the stone military State Norman buildings. Oppressed Saxon culture gains mythology and so do its buildings. Half Timbering is the architecture of the people: the tavern and the home.
Time passes. Eventually, Henry Tudor seizes the throne.
The Tudors forged a powerful new identity for England. Mythologised as one of the glorious eras of British history. Exploration, colonisation, victory in war, and growing world importance. Splitting from the Roman church, Shakespeare and Bacon, Drake and Raleigh. The rise of British sea power brought security, riches and glory.
Half Timbered architecture became known as Tudor. It becomes more extravagant and decorative, its graphic intensifying. Built with the very same skills which are providing England with her burgeoning sea power, these buildings celebrate the importance and skill of timber craftsmanship. Half Timbering is imbued with military technology. The relationship between military might and architectural statement is pretty clear through Tudorbethan architecture.
Sir Walter Scotts novel ‘Ivanhoe’, published in 1791 was an embellishment of the Robin Hood story big on Saxon/Norman fighting. It leads to a fashion of reviving English vernaculars, re-mythologising stories of King Arthur and Robin Hood. This historicism is later theorised by Pugin and Ruskin, and bleeds into the Arts and Crafts movement. Arising in response to the Industrial Revolution, its ambition was to revive craftsmanship in the age of the machine. Politically, it was nascent socialism with anarchist tendencies.
Half Timbering is revived as an overtly historical style. It is used because it connects with cultural myths supporting their political position. Just like the appeal of Robin Hood to the Arts and Crafts movement: a band of men living in the forest away from civilisation, robbing of the rich to give to the poor, in opposition to the control of the state and on the side of the people. Just like William Morris’ rural company.
Half Timbering is now used as a badge of allegiance – a decorative political statement.
Arts and Crafts drifts from its Christian Socialist origins into mainstream fashion. It becomes a decorative symbol of status not politics. The country houses designed by Lutyens feature Half Timbering as part of their picturesque montaging of historical styles.
These large, Tudorbethan, bespoke homes for the wealthy became the template for the inter-war building boom. Volume building interprets the pre-war, expensive Arts and Crafts villas. Building quick and cheap, coupled with a shortage of skilled labour leads to a shift in Half Timbering from structure to applique. Thin timber panels fixed to the exterior of the buildings which make patterns not limited by the demands of holding buildings up.
These houses represented a way of life. These miniaturised manor houses represented safe European homes after the mechanised horror of the 1st World War. Half Timbering still carries the progressive sentiment of Ebeneezer Howards Garden Cities. A mixture of optimism and fear, built on a budget. These metroland homes were a mass market version of pre-war progressive and bohemian lifestyle.
Sometime around now, Mock Tudor becomes exported around the world. In part through Englands still large Empire, but also through the pages of magazines like Country Life. Movie stars build Half Timbered homes that lining Beverly Hills streets. Frank Lloyd Wright designs icing coloured Half Timbering with giant sized roofs in Chicagos Oak Park.
By now any vestige of a traditional notion half timbering as a vernacular building technique has been cast off. Liberated, globalised through media, it becomes an international style. Its connection is no longer with a tribe like the Saxons, a Royal Dynasty like the Tudors, a country, or an ideology.
In the same way, the stories that were once part of Half Timberings myth are remade: Douglas Fairbanks a black and white and silent Robin Hood, Errol Flynn a Technicolor outlaw. Later, Disney cast a cartoon fox Robin Hood. Kevin Costner plays a sullen PC romantic version and Sherwood Forest is stalked by denim clad, fender strummin’ minstrel Brian Adams. The folk story has less to do with Norman England and everything to do with Hollywood sensibilities. Like clouds of radioactive fallout, folk stories reach the jet stream and instantly envelop the globe.
Half Timbering continues as a means of construction, but it also gains layers of meaning throughout the centuries. At each iteration it continues the story. Tacked onto the outside of Moes Bar in the Simpsons, painted pink in suburban London like a Jamie Ried collage, the framing of a Morris Traveller, an option offered by developers in Chinese gated communities.
Half Timbering is like light from a distant star: incredibly old yet as it falls on our retina bright and new. Half Timbering has been made repeatedly new through its different incarnations. Bristling with meanings which continue to peel away from geographic place, race and circumstance.
Phil Collins drum sound was created accidentally when the talkback mikes in the studio at were left on. They picked up the signal of the other mikes which had a reverse compression effect. The recording was not just the sound of the drum, but the sound of the drum in a room. The vernacular thump of drumskin is distorted through high spec technology. The result is a sound which is both familiar and unique, human and superhuman. The sound recalls both ancient tribal drums and the sonic boom of a supersonic jet.
Architects pursuit of the original, new, and different has ironically narrowed the possibilities of content within architecture because of its fascination with its own canon. Embracing cultures outside of its own offers myriad possibilities. Here is the artist Jeremy Deller: “Warhol said that pop art was about liking things, whereas for me Folk art is about loving things.” And love, warmth and humanity are unlikely sensations for modern architects to be interested in.
First Published in Archis