Haunted Vernacular by Kurt Kohlstedt
There’s a subset of culturally specific designs that are associated with less, well, worldly concerns, like warding off ghosts, appeasing spirits or otherwise dealing with figures of myths and legends. Take, for instance, the “witch window,” which is a type of fenestration mostly found in the Northeastern United States. “Witch windows” are basically conventional vertical windows, just tilted at an angle. And so their sides end up aligning with sloped roofs rather than straight walls or floors. As the story goes, witches can’t fly through the tilted frames, hence the name “witch windows.” Some other theories say that these openings are also sometimes called “coffin windows” which suggests that they were made to let caskets pass in and out of upper stories.
In the American South, you can find blue paint on the ceilings of outdoor porches, sometimes referred to as “haint paint.” This is said (by some) to ward off ghosts or spirits. The idea is that the spirits will confuse the blue for water, which they are reluctant to cross. Or they might think it’s the sky, so they’ll go up toward it instead of swooping inside. Another possible explanation for the blue paint is that it’s just a holdover from Victorian traditions of using more natural colors on homes—in this case, tied to the local availability of crushed indigo in the South. Another is that the practice originally had to do with keeping away insects, either because they confused the paint for the sky, or because blue paints used to be made with lye, which is caustic.
In Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, there are actually purpose-built structures called “spirit houses.” Instead of trying to keep spirits out of normal homes, this approach actually provides alternatives, inviting spirits to stay in custom-built alternative dwellings. And in Hong Kong, you can find tall buildings with huge gaps in the middle that basically look like someone punched a hole in the side of a skyscraper. The theory is that these gaps enable dragons to fly unhindered back and forth between the mountains and the water.
In the 1980s, the Bank of China Tower by the world-famous I.M. Pei got a lot of grief for ignoring feng shui. Meanwhile, in that same decade, when Foster & Partners was designing the HSBC bank building nearby, they took the advice of feng shui experts. In the end, they wound up adding some maintenance cranes mounted on top of the latter structure. These are actually functional things, but they look a lot like cannons that are pointed at the I.M. Pei building. Symbolically, these are meant to deflect the other building’s negative energies.
Some forms of superstitious vernacular architecture are much smaller in scope, like the tradition of “topping out” that originated in Scandinavia. Historically, the idea was that putting a tree or wreath on top of a new house or other kinds of buildings would appease tree spirits — so it was a kind of “thank you” to the forest for providing the wood used to make architecture.
There’s a constant back and forth between function and folklore, and at some point, it can be hard to separate the two. Gargoyles have supernatural associations, but they’re also part of very pragmatic drainage systems.
Welcome mats, too, are useful for wiping off dirty boots, but the idea of having wards or welcomes at thresholds goes back thousands of years. So it can be a real challenge in some cases to tell what came first, the practical or spiritual reasoning behind a given design strategy.