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  • Viewpoint: Fieldwork, Mind, and Building
  • Jeffrey E. Klee (bio)

Opposition has been central to the mythology of vernacular architecture studies in North America since the 1970s—most emphatically, opposition to scholarly practices that emphasize elite buildings and academically trained architects.1The rhetoric of revolution appears in much late twentieth-century work on ordinary buildings, in which resistance came to define the contours of its scholarship as effectively as any set of shared assumptions about the built environment.2 This generation of scholars critiqued perspectives that seemed too narrow in outlook, too focused on the powerful, and above all, too elitist. According to Henry Glassie, “the goal of history must not be the chronicle of the outré, the obvious, and the violent; it must be a record of what happened.”3Such work did not always proceed “from the bottom up” but the spirits of E. P. Thompson and Jesse Lemisch preside over many of the most influential texts in vernacular architecture studies of the last forty years.4

Essential to this rhetoric of opposition has been a reluctance to define the parameters of vernacular architecture (a reluctance not shared by more resolutely antiquarian scholars in the United Kingdom).5 Anything that questioned the notion that only the most accomplished architectural monuments merited serious study was theoretically fair game, although in practice, much of the scholarship on vernacular architecture in the closing decades of the twentieth century focused on housing, often preindustrial or rural. Faced with the problem of bringing order to such a broad spectrum of buildings, thoughtful scholars argued that the study of vernacular architecture coheres not around a class of structures but rather an approach to the built environment. What mattered was not what one studied, but how.6 Studies of the vernacular were characterized by their humanism, their attention to the social and cultural history of communities, and their grounding in architectural fieldwork.

This is as true as ever, but two things have changed recently to reveal how significantly the terrain of vernacular architecture studies is shifting in its maturity. First, the critical and contextual approach that emerged in the 1970s and 1980s is increasingly applied to objects that were once beyond the pale for the folklorists, historians, preservationists, and geographers who pioneered the modern study of vernacular architecture. The expanding field of vernacular architecture scholarship now includes important studies of architect-designed suburban churches, hospitals, and insane asylums, as well as reconsiderations of iconic singular buildings such as Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.7 The second, related shift is a decline of the centrality of field-based research to the study of architecture among scholars of ordinary buildings.8To some degree, this is a consequence of the field’s increasing achievement of its longstanding ambition to cover the entirety of the built environment. Taking articles published in the journal Buildings & Landscapes as an index for the range of scholarship, twentieth-century topics now outnumber papers considering all other periods combined.9 If fieldwork was necessary for the study of Maryland tobacco barns or Massachusetts timber framing, it is a less obviously [End Page 1] essential technique for engaging with condominiums or ranch houses.10

At the same time, the object of critique has changed. If vernacular architecture studies could once be understood as the critical complement to traditional architectural history, this role is no longer available, or necessary.11 The articles published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians over the past two decades well illustrate the reach of this shift. Though many essays continue to address the work of architects and elite patrons, they are situated more securely in their social context. It is partly for this reason that leading scholars of vernacular architecture have occasionally called for the retirement of the term “vernacular” altogether. As early as 1991, Bernard Herman and Thomas Carter suggested renaming the emergent field “The New Architectural History,” but their proposal was not widely embraced.12

Serious scholars of the full range of buildings recognize the importance of cultural context; those who do not court irrelevance. The drift in North American scholarship toward a materialist, socially engaged approach to architecture has been pervasive and is not restricted...


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