There’s Nowt So Ordinary as Folk

September 8, 2014

Short essay by Ordinary Architecture (Elly Ward and Charles Holland).


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The Castle. © Ordinary Architecture.

“Folk Art” is the catch-all name given to the creative endeavors of ordinary people. From shop signs to ship’s figureheads to hand-embroidered quilts and samplers, these objects are sometimes a little shonky but always caringly crafted and often exquisitely made. Using an economy of means and made from materials to hand they are symbols of local traditions, family narratives, and individual obsessions.

This type of work by untrained artists and unskilled craftspeople is in turn periodically disregarded and celebrated by our cultural institutions. When the Royal Academy was established in 1769, it explicitly excluded anything remotely folk-ish ruling that “no needlework, artificial flowers, cut paper, shell work, or any such baubles should be admitted.”1

Distinctions between high and low art have become somewhat more blurred since, everyday objects having enjoyed a kind of parallel existence as rarified exhibits in the gallery since at least Duchamp’s urinal. This summer, for instance, the Tate held an exhibition of folk art, and the British Council now host a virtual Folk Archive collection which includes contemporary items such as homemade costumes for carnivals and placards for protests and pop concerts.

When displayed in the gallery though, folk objects change their meaning. We approach them in a different way. The direct meanings they often carry are replaced by more ambiguous aesthetic meanings. Architecture though is experienced, for the most part, within the context of the everyday. Buildings almost always retain their basic use value, their most prosaic requirements, even considered to be high culture.

So what would constitute a folk architecture? We might, for instance, think of painted gypsy caravans and canal narrow boats or wooden Russian orthodox churches, or of “outsider” constructions such as Watt’s Towers in Los Angeles. Another kind of folk-architecture can be found in DIY culture and the history of self-build developments such as plotland housing.

The history of housing is as much a history of folk adaptations as it is of original architectural intent. Doors, windows, and their frames are decorated or replaced by residents, original brickwork painted or concealed behind half timbering or stone cladding to reflect individual tastes and aspirations. From a porch to a full-blown castellated construction, this form of expression is often deeply intimate and laden with personal significance.

Folk architecture raises obvious issues of authorship and legitimization. Unlike art, not everyone can be an architect, it is a term protected in law. Outsider, ordinary, or folk architecture will always be marginalized by the profession because it is produced for the most part beyond the profession’s gaze. It is the product of people making architecture who aren’t actually architects.

How as an architect can one approach positively the idea of ordinary architecture? Can an interest in the everyday qualities of folk architecture move beyond tokenism? Can buildings exist in both the world of “high” architecture and ordinary popular meaning? Is it possible to learn from these things without losing the qualities in them that resist architecture’s urge towards tasteful restraint and aesthetic neatness?

Not much modern architecture by architects is generally referred to as ordinary in a complimentary way, although some have occasionally used it to describe a set of values. But the ordinary art and architecture created by those outside of these institutions is rich with meaning and significance in a much more important way. It contains meanings and qualities that resist architecture’s tendency towards abstract value. And it is often full of extra-ordinary delights.

These illustrations form part of series of both observed and exaggerated real-life resident adaptions to terraced houses in Netherfield, a modernist housing estate in Milton Keynes, UK designed by Dixon Jones in 1971.

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The Admirals House. © Ordinary Architecture.

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The Beachcomber. © Ordinary Architecture.

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The Farrow and Ball. © Ordinary Architecture.

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The Tudorbethans. © Ordinary Architecture.

1 “British Folk Art” (quoted in exhibition, Tate Britain, June 10-August 31, 2014).