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Anonymous Architecture

Drawing, Sugar Cane Mill in the Buccaneer Plantation, St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

Drawing, Sugar Cane Mill in the Buccaneer Plantation, St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

What can we learn from the anonymous buildings of vernacular architecture? Which truths can be found in what Bernard Rudofsky called “architecture without architects?”

The architect of tomorrow should look at yesterday, “at the actual architectural evidence of the past.” There he will find “inspiration and stimulus.” The architecture of the future will have to rely upon a new understanding of technology – broader than the narrow focus on calculus and mechanics – and upon a study of settler buildings. The latter are offering a “superb lesson in regionalism without romanticism, in functionality without mechanism, in structure without ugliness, in tradition without regression.”

(Hilde Heynen, citing Sibyl Moholy-Nagy)1

While modern architecture attempted to get as close as possible to the fundamentals of construction, vernacular architecture may hold not only the sincerest answer (of function and meaning), but also the essence of architecture.

But the value of vernacular architecture goes deeper… in addition to service and aesthetic appeal, the structure built by settlers in a new land can serve as visual means to come closer to an understanding of the causes of architecture. They are in the actual meaning of the term primitive, meaning not simple but original.

(Sibyl Moholy-Nagy)

Sibyl Moholy-Nagy is therefore suggesting an epistemology of architecture: to understand architecture, we must look away from the so-called modern architecture – cold and disconnected – in favour of the “primitive” one – anonymous, intuitive, spontaneous, rural and organic; the one that responds to true needs; the one that permits unmediated human expression; the one that leads to architectural efficiency.

Photo of the book Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: Architecture, Modernism and its Discontents.

Photo of the book Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: Architecture, Modernism and its Discontents.


  1. Heynen, Hilde. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy: Architecture, Modernism and Its Discontents. Bloomsbury Studies in Modern Architecture. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019. ↩︎