Super Vernaculars:
Design for a regenerative future

Jane Withers curatorial statement

Global expansion and rampant capitalism at the expense of the planet has precipitated the climate catastrophe and accelerated the massive imbalance between humanity and the natural world. Super Vernaculars, the theme for BIO27, explores a growing and ambitious movement that takes inspiration from vernacular design traditions and practices from around the world to shape a radical vision for a more responsive and resilient future.

In design culture, the term vernacular is generally associated with traditional architecture and design, but the approach defined by Super Vernaculars is in no way reactionary or retrogressive. At the intersection of innovation, anthropology and ecology, the philosophy and movement gathering force around it are based on an increasing recognition of the value of TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge) as a catalyst for inspiring contemporary design culture and rebooting toxic value systems. In contrast to our extractive ‘take make waste’ economy, these vernacular traditions are rooted in regenerative systems and cultures that live with the earth rather than from it. For BIO27,  Super Vernaculars will bring together practitioners and thinkers globally who look to value systems and wisdom traditions that have been largely ignored in the modern industrial era as a catalyst for exploring  alternative narratives and mythologies to the industrial and technocentric and inspiration for 21st century innovation.

During a period of seismic change and improvisation, Super Vernaculars makes connections across larger cultural and societal conversations.  In his 2020 BBC Reith Lectures Mark Carney, Canadian economist and former governor of the Bank of England, argues that behind the environmental crisis is a crisis in values brought about by rampant global capitalism. Clearly if we are to engineer a shift from the industrial revolution to a sustainable revolution, society’s underlying values need to change.

Super Vernaculars is rooted in the work of pioneering thinkers from Bernard Rudofsky (Architecture without Architects, MoMA 1964) to Julia Watson (Lo-TEK 2019) who have been influential in illuminating indigenous cultures and vernacular traditions and their value for the contemporary world.  In ‘Architecture Without Architects’, Bernard Rudofsky argued that the philosophy and know-how of vernacular architecture presents a vast untapped source of inspiration for industrial man as ‘They (anonymous builders) rarely subordinate the general welfare to the pursuit of profit and progress’. In Lo-TEK, Watson argues that it is time to reset our thinking. ‘The indigenous cultures of the world, many of which have been obscured by the shadow of progress, need to be recognised as innovative rather than primitive and have their knowledge embedded in the thinking of our future.’

These ideas have been gaining in credence and influence in recent years, and BIO27 Super Vernaculars is an opportune moment to collect and interrogate proposals for alternative ways of building, farming, making, eating, and living that are inspired by experiences and value systems from diverse cultures.  Exploratory, interdisciplinary, and intercultural, Super Vernaculars will not be a conventional design or architecture show.  Instead, it is envisaged as a collection of stories told through case-studies that  show how these ideas are serving as a springboard for contemporary innovation. As well as showcasing design projects from different corners of the globe, visitors will encounter a series of commissions that engage the next generation of designers and citizens and aim to demonstrate the potential for this approach to address regional and global issues at scale and rank among contemporary approaches to climate change. In a period of reflection and reckoning, this call to explore more diverse cultures and practices as a catalyst to designing a more equitable future is more relevant than ever.

‘Super Vernaculars is a chance to explore a promising movement in contemporary design that looks to vernacular traditions and largely non-western cultures as a springboard for fresh 21st century ideas. Clearly many of the ways we do things in industrialised countries have fuelled the climate catastrophe and if we are to engineer a sustainable revolution, we need to adopt a different mindset and values. Growing interest in TEK  - Traditional Ecological Knowledge - is providing  a rich seam of inspiration for contemporary designers looking to regenerative systems that live with the earth  rather than from it. Super Vernaculars aims to give a platform to this movement and explore its potential to address regional and global issues at scale, and rank among contemporary approaches to climate change.’