- Editors’ Introduction
Last spring, in May 2010, members of the Vernacular Architecture Forum gathered in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of this now august organization. As the festivities unfolded, discussions of focus, purpose, and history highlighted places and research methods that have been part of the VAF for more than three decades. The meeting also showed VAFers to be open to new topics and methodologies, willing to consider new sites and ways of thinking about them that help to broaden vernacular architecture scholarship.
Like the anniversary meeting, this issue of Buildings & Landscapes is a testament to both the resiliency and elasticity of the vision of architecture history adopted by the VAF some thirty years ago. The journal opens with a Viewpoint essay, “‘From the Unknown to the Known’: Transitions in the Architectural Vernacular,” that poses provocative questions about method. Mike Christenson asks us to consider the ways in which the word vernacular can be used to structure information about architecture, rather than as a term or label for a specific kind of building or place. This question is inspired by Henry Glassie’s observation that naming “marks a transition from the unknown to the known,” referring specifically to vernacular architecture. Taking as examples key works by Glassie, Rudofsky, and Banham, Christenson compares how each uses information to make vernacular architecture known and for what purposes. In addition to framing questions, he directs attention to fieldwork and the use of photographs, showing how the “unstable nature of photographic images” makes them suitable to manipulation, including for the purposes of propaganda. This discussion leads Christenson to consider Google Street View, Google Earth, and Flickr and to acknowledge the wealth of information offered by these open-access sources to a global audience (at least to those able to afford a computer and with access to the Internet). Christenson also shows that these digital tools blur the distinction between vernacular and nonvernacular ways of knowing—between place-specific knowledge and widely disseminated, publically shared information. As such these digital tools call into question the utility of the word vernacular at the same time as they underscore the importance of the term to understanding the material world.
Other scholars are giving attention to and assessing the effect of the digital revolution on scholarship. Like Christenson, they are dazzled by the proliferation of open-access sources and the opportunity offered to retrieve at the click of a button heretofore unimaginable kinds and quantities of information. At the same time, again like Christenson, they are concerned with what he calls “distinctions in ways of knowing” and the geopolitical consequences of the uneven (to say the least) recording of and availability of digital information. In a recent essay, architectural historian Claire Zimmerman assessed the “three-dimensional, navigable environments” that may be created out of two-dimensional photographs and are becoming common on proprietary digital databases (like ARTstor). She pointed out that, regardless of the seemingly magical opportunities afforded for dimensional manipulation, the flat surface—the screen—prevails. With that physical condition comes an emphasis on the visual as the way to know. Her suggestion is not to reject intelligence that is optical, mobile, and curious, but rather to remember that places are not only imaged, not only virtual, but also tangible and concrete.1 As such, buildings resist singular or homogeneous interpretations: they come to be [End Page v] known through embodied, multisensory experiences; they are sites where actual lives are lived; and they are stages for disputes and contestations of meaning.
Following the Viewpoint are three essays offered by authors who, like Christenson, are new to the journal. They turn to place-based research—what Christenson calls vernacular ways of knowing—to expand our understanding of vernacular architecture and in so doing to underscore one of Zimmerman’s central points: that lived experiences count in architectural analysis. These articles may stick closer to home than has been our wont recently in B&L, but their authors nonetheless introduce new topics by engaging in physically, socially, or culturally marginal places in the United States: garment factories in high-rise lofts in New York City, Cherokee plantation houses in rural...