The Society was founded in 1964 as a result of interest in folk buildings stimulated by a course at the University of Cape Town Summer School, led by Dr James Walton.
In the same year Bernard Rudofsky put on the exhibition Architecture without Architects at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. He was the first to make use of the term vernacular in an architectural context, and brought the concept into the eye of the public and of mainstream architecture.
For want of a generic label we shall call it vernacular,
spontaneous, indigenous, rural, as the case may be …
Before then, little was known of the existence and characteristics of such buildings in the Western Cape and hardly any published information was available.
Since then, the Vernacs have promoted and encouraged the study of local vernacular architecture and its associated material culture, by fostering research, arranging excursions and study tours, organising lectures, publishing original work, and by any other means. See VASSA’s Aims.
Extract from James Walton’s 15th anniversary address, 1978
Record not just the Cape Dutch … the fantastic stuff,
but also the simple things and really learn something on an outing
“At the beginning … the idea was to have a society with the object of recording South African vernacular architecture, not just the Cape Dutch – the fantastic stuff – but also the simpler things, to study it and to create real interest in it … not just to go on Saturday excursions to drink tea and look at something interesting … but to really learn something while on an outing.”
“Information isn’t forced upon people, but with the services of capable people who see what other people can’t, and out of their shared knowledge … we have built a corpus of valuable information.”
“The object was to have outside people develop a really keen interest … assimilate information in a very casual sort of way … always with the idea that the members themselves should get to know something about vernacular architecture”
Extract from former president Mary Floyd’s AGM address, 2010
Slow Down the Philistines … and …
The Destruction by Opulence
“The teacher André van Graan once told me of his surprise at the lack of sensible reaction from architecture students who were asked what they would do to provide shelter in the middle of the veld with nothing and no one to help them.
I remembered a tale, said to be true, about two ex-soldiers arriving in the Addo valley shortly after the First World War in about 1919. They had come to claim the land which had been allocated to them in the new settlement. They found shelter by digging a trench and roofing it with a discarded sheet of corrugated iron. Using the skills they had learned on the battle fields of Flanders, they made themselves snug until they could build a home. True vernacular architecture and sensible use of available materials – I don’t know what they did about the elephants!
We are quite extraordinarily lucky in South Africa in having evidence of man’s progress in home-making over a very long time available to the inquisitive twenty first century man.
Stone Age man lived in our mountain rock shelters till a very short time ago. His habits and skills can still be glimpsed. The nomadic herdsmen still live in the North West Cape, still able to make comfortable, portable, prefabricated, beehive huts. Their herds and grazing lands are diminished but their vernacular skills just survive.
African traditional building made of clay, thatch, cattle manure and small trees no longer exist in all their variety and glory, as machine made building materials penetrate the whole world.
We have many examples of this ancient and prized vernacular building but much more needs to be done. Could we spread our encouragement to a new generation of architect?
The incomers of the 17th century and later brought their traditions and skills from Europe, North Africa and the Far East. They left their marks on their early simple buildings. Clay and thatch, minimal timber and limited stone were available building materials. In the dry, stormy places where clay was not available, ancient corbelled round homes were reproduced.
Tracing the origin of builders from the N.W Scottish Isles to the West Indian Islands has been fascinating. Flat roofed clay bricked buildings seem to have come from around the Mediterranean. Given the mixture of slaves and servants of the Dutch East India Company and later sailors, soldiers and adventurers who turned up at the Cape, building skills and traditions have come from almost everywhere.
I trust that we have been recording all the evidence and that one day soon those records will be available to be added to the wonderful Walton collection in The Stellenbosch University Library, before it all disappears.
A world wide interest in old buildings has been part of the gentrification of small homes in towns and villages away from big cities. Destruction of much of the old fabric is inevitable. We have been witnessing destruction by opulence here in the Cape.
We cannot grudge the gentle people their mod cons and good drains, but without being too judgmental, can we not slow down the philistines? Superficial fashion for oldie, cute cottages, building styles such as ‘’Tuscan’’, “West Coast Vernacular ” or “Cape Dutch” with inappropriate icing sugar plaster in funny places …
We must live through it and bravely help a return to genuine sanity and simplicity, keeping our integrity.’’