Niall Maxwell, whose practice the Rural Office for Architecture (ROA) won RIBA House of the Year 2017 award for Caring Wood, focussed his talk on cultural identity and regionalism in the context of design, alongside a showcase of some in-progress and completed work from RAO. The team at the ROA classify themselves as regionalists, often working within rural settings, responding to context and surroundings by reinterpreting the familiar architectural language of the past. Since Niall moved to Wales in 2004, he has been consistently observing the typologies and the different languages of the built environment, place, and also the “rather lovely” assemblage of buildings consciously driven to focus on the needs of farms and agricultural practices in Wales.
Niall describes the Welsh vernacular as ‘…not thoroughly and academically planned or designed…an architecture concerned with the domestic and functional (agricultural) rather than public or monumental…’
There is very limited concern to civic architecture in the Welsh suburbs, with most of it imported from other regions through migration. During the mining boom, migrants from other parts of the UK brought with them particular styles and adapted them to work with the materials available in the area. Niall therefore presents the vernacular as quite a complicated issue. It’s not just looking at the romantic notion of some cottages and holiday estates. It becomes a rich and constantly moving subject – something Niall reconsiders with every project to understand the context in which they are working. According to Niall, the ‘new vernacular’ are the pre-fabricated buildings shouting to the changes that are happening globally. This ‘mass houses’ issue is about choice, opportunity, aspiration and education. And for as long as we do not have architectural education in schools, we will lack the ability to appreciate architecture within the public sector.
Another development of vernacular architecture appearing across the Welsh landscape is through mass production farming that inevitably reflects on how the agriculture responds to the needs of today’s society. It becomes a category of architecture based on local need and construction materials that reflect local traditions. This then evolves over time to reflect the environmental, cultural, technological and historical context in which it exists. Niall suggests that the vernacular cannot be described as a design phenomenon because it is a non-design process. Where his approach differs is by leaving behind the theory and ideas, and instead letting the creativity deal with the rest – having a confidence in your unconsciousness to respond directly to the design problem, which he calls a “movement against universality”.
Following the talk came a time for questions and discussion that ranged in topics from common themes of Scottish and Welsh rural architecture to increased publicity since ROA’s RIBA House of the Year win in 2017. Throughout this discussion shone Niall’s understanding of regionalism that allows him to be both critical of and exploratory with the themes of the vernacular, and allowed an insight into the workings of the practice as a whole. We want to thank Niall again for his time and for initiating such a fascinating conversation. This talk was the second of the current season of talks around themes of design and making. For more information about the Talks at the Lane series, please click here.