- Viewpoint: Mi Casa or Su CasaU.S. Influence on Domestic Architecture in Northern Honduras
I have spent much of my professional career focusing on how and why buildings change, both individually and collectively. I have studied the introduction and adaptation of Georgian houses, the reworking of farm buildings to accommodate new production strategies, and the role of tourism in shaping what is preserved and what is not. Yet I admit to being somewhat oblivious to the role I play in influencing changes to the global built environment. Those in the design professions are aware that their plans determine the appearance of individual buildings and even larger communities. Anyone involved in official review processes, meanwhile, understands how government regulations and their interpretation affect streetscapes and skylines, even choices about siding and signage. However, beyond the local, we may lose track of how the things we take for granted in the United States shape building trends around the world. My own experiences in Honduras during annual visits beginning in 2015 suggest that monetary wealth, combined with strong convictions about the benefits of our own way of life and the ability to convey those beliefs globally, have promoted and continue to promote the spread of U.S.-influenced architectural environments around the world.
The study of the forms that result from unbalanced political and economic relationships is nothing new when it comes to vernacular architecture. For the past few years, I have taught a course entitled Cultural Encounters at SUNY Oneonta's Cooperstown Graduate Program. In this course, I explore with my museum studies students the complex interactions of people of various cultural groups as they shape their material environments. The focus has been on North America and the Caribbean during the colonial era, as indigenous Americans, European immigrants from different parts of the continent, and the African slaves they kidnapped and imported came together in a place that was for the Europeans and Africans physically different and for all the groups culturally unlike anything they had encountered before.1 As a class, we explore the transfer of culture from the Old World to the New World, tease out cultural survivals among disempowered groups, and interpret tangible cultural adaptations among all the peoples caught up in the creation of what would eventually become independent nations in the Western Hemisphere. Christianity commonly dominates at least some discussions as we explore tangible expressions of religious zeal and efforts at conversion.
The framework for this class came from my own earlier research on Pennsylvania Germans in colonial America. As a graduate student at the University of Delaware, I was interested in understanding how the houses occupied by people of German descent during the eighteenth century compared with those of British settlers. The standard interpretation had been that German immigrants first built houses that varied significantly from those of their English neighbors, but that over time German speakers adopted classically inspired house types with closed floor plans and symmetrical façades in a move to assimilate into the dominant culture.2 I argued that the situation was more complex, and I posited that the adoption and adaptation of the so-called Georgian [End Page 1] house form was more about class than ethnicity and that the resulting buildings should be viewed as blended, or creolized, New World forms. Their design inspirations originated in Europe—both on the Continent and the British Isles—but were equally informed by distinctively colonial conditions in North America.3
Such an approach to vernacular architecture and material culture has become de rigor in these first decades of the twentieth-first century.4 Scholars based in the United States and Canada are increasingly aware of the multifaceted, but ultimately imbalanced, relationships among various cultural groups. Increasingly we dissect the tangible and intangible legacies of colonialism, focusing not only on colonizers but also on indigenous people, victims of racial slavery, and other nondominant groups, paying special attention to the influence they exercised in shaping their built environments. In my own scholarship and teaching, I increasingly focus on the roles of appropriation and adaptation as parts of the cultural process of making one's way in a new place or...