Constructing Image, Identity, and Place: Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Volume 9
Edited by Alison K. Hoagland and Kenneth A. Breisch. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2003; 312 pp., illustrations, notes, index; paper $30.00.
The latest anthology of papers presented at the 1998 (Annapolis, Maryland) and 1999 (Columbia, Georgia) annual meetings of the Vernacular Architecture Forum continues the tradition of earlier volumes by pushing the boundaries of traditional architectural history.(1) Significant attention is paid to common buildings and landscapes, building and landscape typologies, and construction techniques in essays written by scholars from diverse fields including historic preservation, art and architectural history, history, urban planning, and historical archeology. Following another trend for the series and the field in general, this volume contains essays on uncommon spaces such as the Taconic State Parkway in New York and the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey.
For those of us who identify with the field of vernacular architecture studies, such inclusions are no great surprise. The current editors echo sentiments of their predecessors (and much of the forum membership) by insisting that the field is defined less by subject matter than by "method," which they characterize as investigations "fixed on the social function of building"—the production and use of buildings as part of social contexts. Most essays fit these broad parameters, but the mix of topics and approaches is so broad that understanding the volume as the product of a unified field proves quite challenging. Although the diversity of essays might suggest a field in the process of definition, it seems problematic to do so, given that the forum has been established for a quarter of a century. Instead, it reflects a lingering uncertainty about what precisely those who study vernacular architecture do. The field is still struggling to define itself, its relation to its parent disciplines, and perhaps even its contemporary relevance.
While this volume provides enriching scholarly essays, it is disappointing that the editors' introduction offers little in the way of an explanation of where it fits among evolving concepts of vernacular architecture. Several previous editors of Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture used their introductions to reflect on changes in historiography and method. Essays by Camille Wells (PVA 2, 1986) and Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman (PVA 4, 1991) have become standard fare for undergraduate survey courses that teach "vernacular" to budding preservationists.(2) Given that the subject matter of vernacular architecture studies has expanded dramatically in the last 15 years, according to the editors, beyond its "core fascination with 'common' buildings," it seems problematic to celebrate diversity without considering the implications of the field's expanding boundaries for forum members as well as for the larger Perspectives' audience, which includes preservationists making decisions vital to the survival of vernacular resources.
These criticisms do not detract from the individual essays, most of which are fascinating, well-written examples of historical scholarship that will be interesting and potentially useful to preservation professionals. Essays on lesser-known building types, such as Shannon Bell's essay on drive-in theaters in the Middle Atlantic states, Mark Reinberger's study of sharecropper houses in the Georgia Piedmont, and Robert W. Blythe's study of Alabama mill villages, may help preservationists in evaluating these types of resources in preservation planning or perhaps in developing typologies for similar structures and landscapes in other regions. Essays by Willie Graham on the Chesapeake region's pre-industrial framing technologies and by Jason D. Moser, Al Luckenbach, Sherri M. Marsh, and Donna Ware on archeological evidence of 17th-century domestic building practices in Providence, Maryland, contain important data that will be useful to fieldworkers in the Mid-Atlantic region.
Other essays offer fascinating interpretations of the built environment that go beyond explaining particular buildings or landscapes and may serve as models for interpreting various resources—vernacular or otherwise. Camille Wells's examination of the relatively restrained classical ornament of Menokin, a Virginia plantation house constructed by John Tayloe II, expands upon work by Dell Upton and others in explaining how style reflected as well as enacted power hierarchies among the colonial elite. Her findings offer us richer ways of interpreting extraordinary resources, as well as the not-so-extraordinary ones, beyond the identification of the stylistic features of their facades.
Jennifer Nardone's essay focuses on the coded exteriors of juke joints in the Mississippi Delta—inexpensive places to eat, drink, and dance to the music of juke boxes during the 1930s and 1940s—and considers how different audiences viewed these buildings (which were often existing structures converted into use as juke joints) in a landscape marked by racial segregation. Nardone's insights ask us to look beyond the traditional architectural "codes" gleaned from style books to understand the use and significance of these buildings. She reminds us that interpreting buildings requires looking at how they functioned in a social context—something all of the essays stress but which is highlighted in this fascinating case study.
Carl Lounsbury's essay on Anglican Church design in the Chesapeake region offers a field-based examination of a building type, examining the tensions between a "pure" design style and its regional derivatives. Lounsbury's approach is rooted in the core values of the forum members, which emphasize field research in buildings and archives. At the same time, his essay allows us to understand a range of alternatives within a type, which typological studies, especially style guides, often neglect in stressing the "norm."
Worth noting in this volume are the number of studies devoted to landscapes. Two essays address the history of parkways: Kathleen LaFrank discusses the Taconic State Parkway and Timothy Davis looks at the parkway movement. Two others, Blythe's and Reinberger's essays mentioned earlier, look at the complicated labor landscapes of the South. Other authors explore the early-20th-century San Francisco commercial streetscape, the factory tour landscape, and Civil War encampments. Other essays in the volume look at buildings as part of landscape ensembles rather than as isolated entities, reflecting a trend in vernacular architecture scholarship since the mid-1980s.
It seems ironic that the latest volume of Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture deals with "high style" architecture and landscapes at the same time that preservationists are trying to come to grips with the importance of preserving truly ordinary kinds of buildings. Perhaps vernacular architecture studies and historic preservation are struggling to address just what precisely "vernacular" is and the relevance of studying or saving vernacular resources. This volume does not help to resolve the dilemma for historians of vernacular architecture; if anything, it points to the need for those working in the field to think more about what distinguishes them from other students of architectural history, or from historians of material culture generally.
If such questions seem merely a matter of ivory tower intellectual debate, they become important when we remember that preservation professionals rely upon books such as this to help make decisions about what to preserve and what stories are worth telling. Taken as a whole, this volume may seem at first to offer preservationists little in terms of their dilemma; the inclusion of high-style buildings and landscapes subjected to a "vernacular architecture approach" might be seen as complicating matters by suggesting that all buildings are common—at least to someone at some point. But this, after all, is the point of the vernacular architecture movement: to insist that all buildings have stories to tell—whether "high style," vernacular, or somewhere in between.
This volume continues to push the forum's core message. In making decisions about what to preserve, preservation professionals must remember that "integrity," particularly in terms of style, is only one factor to consider; an extraordinary resource might have low integrity but have an important story behind it (jukejoints, for example). The latest volume of Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture reminds us that we need to keep our eyes open to all kinds of resources and the potentially fascinating stories they have to tell because often the "vernacular" stories are the most interesting.
Anna Vemer Andrzejewski
University of Wisconsin, Madison
1. For information on the Vernacular Architecture Forum, see http://www.vernaculararchitectureforum.org.
2. Camille Wells, "Old Claims and New Demands: Vernacular Architecture Studies Today," in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 2 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1986), 1-10; and Thomas Carter and Bernard L. Herman, "Introduction: Toward a New Architectural History," in Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 4 (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1991), 1-6.