- Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular
When I attended my first spring conference of the Vernacular Architecture Group in Essex, England, in 1984, I decided to investigate the flint-walled medieval parish church in the small village where several dwellings were open for our inspection. After a couple of days of touring, I had seen one too many former open-hall houses with smoke-blackened trusses and so unlatched the ancient porch door and walked inside the church. Alone among many treasures, I gazed up at the exposed roof frame, which, to me at that stage of my education in English framing, appeared as early and certainly more complete than any that I had seen in the nearby dwellings. Afterward, I mentioned the church roof to one of the veteran members of the VAG who looked slightly askance at what I had done. Surely, he mused, here was an American who needed to be informed about the ways of the group before he committed another fieldwork faux pas. The VAG didn’t do medieval churches, which was the purview of other groups. The academic boundaries were tightly drawn. In the English lexicon, vernacular architecture denoted early farmhouses and associated buildings and rarely tiptoed over into the eighteenth century, the Georgian era commonly perceived to mark the end of regional building practices.
The concept of vernacular studies in Britain has changed considerably since that time as it has expanded beyond the field of domestic architecture of a certain social class and period to encompass a broader approach to looking at buildings of every age, form, and function. Parish churches are no longer studiously avoided. This more catholic perspective closely matches the intellectual underpinnings of the Vernacular Architecture Forum in America, which from its inception wished to avoid floundering in trying to define the margins between vernacular and polite or to distinguish between popular and folk forms and building practices. Among a host of rising voices, Peter Guillery has been a champion of the reconceptualization of vernacular studies in Britain, urging scholars to reconsider the old categories and narrative framework of British architectural history. How might that story be reconfigured if issues of style, building types, and technology were subjected to new theoretical frameworks that made old barriers irrelevant? Though the VAG has yet to schedule a visit to a twentieth-century council estate in one of its spring conferences, there are an increasing number of British historians perfectly willing to consider the impact of local attitudes on modernist principles in the design of public housing.
Built from Below: British Architecture and the Vernacular illustrates this new direction in vernacular scholarship. The ten articles in this book edited by Guillery extend the concept of British vernacular architecture beyond its traditional boundaries to embrace structures such as medieval churches, seventeenth-and eighteenth-century villas, hospitals designed by Quakers, arts and crafts houses inspired by the traditional architecture of the Lake District, speculative “Tudoresque” suburban dwellings built between the world wars, and postwar mass housing. Arranged in chronological order, topics vary from an exploration of the use of compass geometry in laying out the twelfth-century nave of Ely Cathedral to contemporary design sources for “workhomes”—a tin-eared neologism that describes buildings containing domiciles and places of work under the same roof. Although most of the articles focus on buildings in England rather than Britain as a whole, one study makes a brief transatlantic foray to Jamestown, Virginia, where its author makes the case for geometrical design in the plan of one of the early timber-framed rowhouses, unfortunately misidentified as the governor’s house.
This collection of papers derives from a 2008 conference sponsored jointly by the Vernacular Architecture Group and the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain. The conference’s purpose was to explore ways of thinking about relationships between vernacular studies and architectural scholarship. It was an effort to challenge...