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Vernacular Architecture

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Based on thirty-five years of fieldwork, Glassie’s Vernacular Architecture synthesizes a career of concern with traditional building. He articulates the key principles of architectural analysis, and then, centering his argument in the United States, but drawing comparative examples from many locations in Europe and Asia, he shows how architecture can be a prime resource for the one who would write a democratic and comprehensive history.

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Vernacular Architecture

ePub

BUILDINGS, LIKE POEMS and rituals, realize culture. Their designers rationalize their actions differently. Some say they design and build as they do because it is the ancient way of their people and place. Others claim that their practice correctly manifests the universally valid laws of science. But all of them create out of the smallness of their own experience.

All architects are born into architectural environments that condition their notions of beauty and bodily comfort and social propriety. Before they have been burdened with knowledge about architecture, their eyes have seen, their fingers have touched, their minds have inquired into the wholeness of their scenes. They have begun collecting scraps of experience without regard to the segregation of facts by logical class. Released from the hug of pleasure and nurture, they have toddled into space, learning to dwell, to feel at home. Those first acts of occupation deposit a core of connection in the memory.

 

Materialization

ePub

Architecture works in space as history works in time. History interrupts time’s ceaseless flow, segmenting and reordering it on behalf of the human need for meaning. Architecture intrudes in the limitless expanse of space, dividing it into useful, comprehensible pieces. Converting space into places through disruption, architecture brings meaning to the spatial dimension.

With astronomy as the extreme instance, the architectural impulse begins in exploration and naming. The baby crawls upon a softness that matures in meaning as time passes and names pile up: the softness is a rug, it is a red rug, it is a mediocre late nineteenth-century eagle Kazak. The explorer ventures into unknown territory to parcel and claim it with names that commemorate his heroism. Through time, names accumulate on the land and combine to recall its history: the sequence of settlement, the conflict between the invader and the native.

The name is a fleeting means for bringing history into space and marking the land as meaningful. Marking becomes firmer with physical alteration, when a trail is blazed through a forest, or one stone is piled on another to set a limit. More stones confirm the limit and rise into walls: the wall the Chinese built that turned the mounted warriors westward toward Europe, the wall the Romans struck across Britain to cede the heathy highlands to the wild men of the north, the walls of forts along the borders, the walls of prisons and gated communities, the walls of the cottage where the bold thresherman, his day’s work done, dandles the baby on his knee.

 

Architectural Technology

ePub

The relation of the human and nonhuman begins its transformation in the first step of technology, the selection of materials. A distinction between local and imported materials was among the first criteria that writers, in England particularly, used to define vernacular architecture. Vernacular buildings are composed of local materials, they argued. During travel, they enjoyed watching the substrate of the earth rise and form into buildings, crossing the land in bands of sandstone, limestone, and granite, and they deplored the rash of red brick buildings that spread along the railways, oblivious to geological differences. Their taste was built on conventional dichotomies: natural and artificial, native and alien, old and new, local and national, handmade and industrial. The contemporary cynic would find their view easy to deconstruct as elitist and dismiss as sentimental. But they were on to something.

During architectural fieldwork, I have taught myself to concentrate on form, but everywhere I go the people whose houses I study classify buildings by materials, and especially by roofing. I found in Turkey that the local historians separated old houses with flat roofs from new houses with pitched roofs covered by purchased materials. In Bangladesh, village people, thinking less about history than social class, divide buildings by the materials of their walls — stuccoed brick versus puddled mud or bamboo lashed in tension — and by their roofs of thatch or tin. In Africa and Latin America, thatch is comparably yielding to tin, and in the rural United States one age gave way to another when wooden shingles were replaced by shiny sheets of metal.

 

Social Orders

ePub

Technology’s political questions do not come into focus in the situation described as ideal by writers on vernacular architecture. In the ideal, design, construction, and use — domains of potential conflict — unify in a single man who gathers materials from his own land to build for himself the building he wants. Such things happen.

In 1938, Richard Hutto built a barn near Oakman, Alabama. He cut the trees on his own farm, dragged them to the site with a mule, and he raised them, alone, into a building. Its form is what scholars call a double-crib barn, and they can trace the plan from Alabama along the mountains to Pennsylvania, and from Pennsylvania to Central Europe. Mr. Hutto took the form from the memories he developed out of life in his locale. He trimmed the trees, cut them to length, and he notched their ends to interlock at the corner in a variety of timbering that the geographer Fred Kniffen named V-notching. Mr. Hutto called it “roof-topping.”

Richard Hutto’s barn was all his. It had only him to blame, it seems. But, when we talked in 1964, he attributed its failings to the times in which he worked. He told me he was thinking of tearing it down. It did not satisfy him because he had been forced to build it alone. He did not have the help of a black laborer as Pete Everett did when he built a barn, similar in form and construction, near Pine Hill, Mississippi, one year earlier. Mr. Hutto did it alone, but in the better days of the farther past, he said, a team of neighbors would have gathered to help. With more energy available, the timbers would have been hewn, rather than left in the round. Poles, he called them, not logs. The team would have included experts with the proper tools. The ends of the logs would have been trimmed cleanly with a saw, instead of raggedly with a chopping axe.

 

Composition

ePub

We began with walls. It would have been as logical to start at the hearth. But I thought of the endless expanse of space, divided it with walls, and then wrote about what it takes to build them, how natural resources are processed and labor is organized. Had I begun at the hearth, where natural resources are transformed by fire into food, I would have made a beginning at the sociable center of life. Then imagining walls around us, just as Paddy McBrien and Tommy Moore did when they stood in the grass and planned Paddy’s house, I would have concentrated, not on the walls themselves, on the materials of their building, but on the way they create divisions. Having two sides, walls work to include and exclude. Simultaneously, they make interiors and exteriors.

Architecture divides space for differential experience. It provides an exterior to see and an interior to use. One problem the designer must solve is how to make the exterior and the interior, appearance and function, fit together in a composition.

 

Architectural Decoration

ePub

Ornament creates an exciting tension within architectural experience when the inside and outside are treated differently. Ellen Cutler whitewashes the exterior of her house in Ballymenone. The whitewash confirms the unity of the building and separates it cleanly from its natural surround of muddy lanes and grassy fields. On its exterior, her house is solid and singular, artful in its massing and its unrelieved whiteness. Step over the threshold. The brightness of the whitewash continues in the buffed and polished surfaces of the things she calls ornaments: the brass candlesticks and enameled dogs on the mantel, the pictures and plates on the walls. But similarities are swept away by differences. The hard, plain unity of the exterior yields to the softness of textiles, to a busy, glittery dance of little things, to a rainbow of color and a happy cacophony of pattern.

The walls of her kitchen darken from smoke nearly as often as the walls outside darken in the wet weather. Nearly as often as she whitewashes the exterior, she papers the kitchen, covering its walls with running, repetitive patterns of medallions. Mud tracked in by the damned old men, when they come from the fields for their tea, causes her to scrub the floor every day. So it will shine, she covers the floor with a smooth sheet of linoleum that brings another pattern to her kitchen. And more patterns come on the strips of cloth that cover the tables, curtain the openings, and run along the shelves of the mantel and dresser.

 

Complexity in Architectural Time

ePub

Temporal mixing characterizes the buildings called vernacular. The English parish church, a world wonder of architectural creativity, carries the vernacular idea deeply into time. If vernacular buildings tick with many clocks, changing different components at different rates to display continuity and change at once, then they contrast with buildings that belong perfectly to one moment in time. Nonvernacular buildings are wholly original, new in every detail. Here we have come prematurely to an important conclusion. No building is entirely new. If it were, it would be utterly incomprehensible. Rejecting every old convention, lacking windows and doors, serving no function of shelter or social division, the thing might be sculpture, but it would not be a building. No matter how grandiose or revolutionary the creation, there must be some tradition, some presence of the common and continuous — of the qualities called “folk”— or people would not be able to understand it or use it. In their mixing of the old and the new, all buildings are vernacular, the products of real people in real situations. But within practice, attitudes differ.

 

Compositional Levels

ePub

Now the walls belong to a composition. Acts of composition bring interiors and exteriors together, massing and ornamenting buildings into units that contain diversity. Then composition expands, and meanings complicate, as buildings are set in relation, one to the other in space. While building walls, people perform on a complex field of influence, balancing the natural and the cultural. By weighing the influences of the natural environment against social and economic influences, we will have a way to begin a consideration of the expansive orders of composition.

It is hot on the vast, flat delta of Bengal, so hot that the climate must figure powerfully in architectural planning. At home in the village, cooking takes place outdoors in fair weather. The heat of the fire disperses, and the woman at work gains a touch of relief from the winds that find their way from the river. It is tropically hot, and it is wet. Rain is an insufficient name for the downpours of summer. In the rainy season, the fire for cooking is moved beneath a roof that is pitched steeply to shed the water. The roof is held aloft by impaled posts. Between the posts, bamboo screens make frail walls. Coolness comes in, the heat of the fire escapes.

 

Forms and Causes

ePub

Now, understanding something about building in Bangladesh and central Sweden, areas that are strikingly different in climate and prosperity, yet comparable in architecture, we can turn to causation. Founded upon faith, conjoining the familial with the communal, an idea of social order seems to be the prime condition of design when architects in Bengal or Dalarna plan relations among buildings. The environment sets an outer ring of constraint. Its conditions are brought into consideration whenever they do not contradict the more fundamental concerns that are sacred, social, and economic. There is logic in that formulation, but it is not so easy as that.

The most successful historical movement of our time, in my estimation, has been dedicated to the study of the landscape of the British Isles. By treating the land itself as the primary text and reading it closely during painstaking fieldwork, by building a geographical base for understanding and then bringing the more fragmentary and less democratic written record to bear during the construction of explanations, scholars have shaped a sweeping new view of history that attends to both continuity and change, while focusing on general cultural processes and not on the doings of a few errant princes. In England, W.G. Hoskins gave eloquent, public voice to the movement. In Ireland, the great spokesman was E. Estyn Evans.

 

History

ePub

In Virginia and in Massachusetts, the first English settlement was a village. Providing protection and a familiar experience, the village brought unity to the disparate populations gathered at Jamestown and Plymouth. At the time of settlement, early in the seventeenth century, the England they left was in the midst of the most revolutionary change since the Neolithic. Openfield villages a thousand years old still stood on the lowlands, but the process of enclosure, powered by money and law, was reordering the landscape.

The open fields were surveyed, divided, consolidated, and fenced — enclosed — and separate farms were created on the arable lowlands. Village people resisted, leveling new walls, uprooting new hedges, and formulating loose customs into firm traditions designed to counter the expansion of law. Their heroic actions attracted the attention and won the sympathy of intellectuals, and the study of custom and tradition, of folklore, was born in England.

Mormon Village. Paris, Idaho. 1990

 

The American Landscape

ePub

The purpose of this excursion has been to understand the choice that made the American landscape. Living in villages in Jamestown and Plymouth, English people understood village life, and they knew of an alternative: enclosure. In both places, they abandoned the village for separate farms. They did not risk their lives on a black ocean to repeat the old but to create the new. They came to get rich. Religious rhetoric and the resistance of the native people could retard but not stop the spread of enclosure.

Jamestown and Plymouth might have been twin points of origin for a landscape unified by enclosure. Instead, history led to regional difference. In New England, the Puritans fought dispersal and isolation, returning by choice to the openfield village. They located a meetinghouse at the center of town and scattered tillage in strips through the open fields, rededicating themselves to the way of the Lord. New England developed in tension between the opposed energies of compression and dispersal. Villages predominated in some areas, notably the lowlands of the Connecticut Valley. In other places, high, rough, and marginal, the farmhouses stood alone. The scene in the South was simpler. Houses, churches, and even courthouses stood apart. Old Virginia was the first impeccably capitalistic landscape.

 

An Entry to History

ePub

I discovered history in houses. In 1966, I selected a small area in the middle of Virginia for study. A wide, loose survey convinced me that the area would make a good sample of the large architectural region of the Chesapeake Bay. Acting happily within the frame for research crafted by my mentor Fred Kniffen, I intended to depict the geographical personality of the region through its buildings. I made a quick record of every house and drew careful measured plans of many. Old houses dutifully exhibited a distinct regional character, but the more I analyzed them, the more I felt that the big story was historical change. My training in social science, in days dominated by synchronic systematizing, did little to prepare me for the job at hand.

Houses spoke of history. The old house had a square hall with a narrower parlor built on its end. The front door gave access immediately to the interior, and it was set a touch off center to expose the internal workings to view. With one step, the visitor enters the hall, then turns toward the fire where the work of cooking and entertainment takes place.

 

Comparison in Ireland

ePub

Thinking like that about the architectural change in Virginia, I proposed to test the idea with something like science. I knew from the superb writings of E. Estyn Evans that Ireland divided into two great architectural regions. The houses of the east, where the English settled, had central chimneys and linear plans like those of southeastern England. The houses of the Celtic west had chimneys on the ends, and they were socially open and pierced asymmetrically like the hall-and-parlor houses of Virginia. I knew, as well, that the Georgian form was introduced to Ireland in the eighteenth century, just as it was in Virginia. My idea was this: though it was present on the landscape, the Georgian form would not become adopted into common building practice until the people were ready, until they were ready to trade the little community they knew for an abstract concept that would bring them into national alliance with people they did not know. That, I surmised, would happen a decade or so before the successful revolution of 1916.

 

The U. S. in the Nineteenth Century

ePub

Returning to the American story, we can envision a moment of unity, the most coherent instant in American history, when after the Revolution segmentable houses with symmetrical facades and closed interiors could be found from one end of the new nation to the other. That is as modern as things ever got.

In his excellent introduction to American architecture, Dell Upton comments correctly that the nineteenth century has been studied less well than the centuries that precede and follow it. One reason is that scholars seem to believe that the directions apparent in the eighteenth century continue through the nineteenth. Another is that, with the nineteenth century, there is a sudden flood of paper with words printed on it, and historians can relax at home, reading written texts that are easy to understand instead of the architectural texts that give them fits. But there is absolutely no alternative to fieldwork, to direct and patient study of real buildings in great numbers. The written texts of the nineteenth century are pertinent, but, alas, the story conveniently constructed out of them violently misrepresents the reality.

 

Pattern in Time

ePub

My argument is done. Architecture provides a prime resource to the one who would write a better history. I will contrive a conclusion with a summary. Our history breaks into three great periods. Its dynamic depends upon impurity.

First is the period of the village, a time of compressed housing and dispersed fields. The great creation of the period was the largest, most permanent, most lavishly adorned building of the community. Collective resources were banked and the collective will was materialized in a sacred edifice that was built to last, when houses were not. It should humble us some that the religious buildings of this period are the world’s greatest architectural creations: the parish churches of England, the stave churches of Norway, the earthen mosques of West Africa, the towering temples of India — Chartres Cathedral, the Selimiye at Edirne, the Todaiji at Nara.

Urnes stave church. Sogn, Norway. 1995

San José. Trampas, New Mexico. 1987

In the beginning, there was the village, a neolithic invention, and in the beginning, there was enclosure. Valiant people carved farms out of the waste and built longhouses to shelter themselves and their stock against wolves and cattle raids. Enclosure expanded steadily, chewing away the wilderness on the margins, but it was blocked on the fat lowlands where enterprise was entangled in intricate webs of rights and obligations. Village people wanted to prosper, but no more than they wanted to live in confidence among their neighbors. Their cooperative arrangements worked economically, and their religion gave them a vision of unity. They wanted to prosper, but they understood that an appetite for worldly goods than ran beyond necessity was avarice — a sin as deadly as gluttony or fornication. The aim of life was sufficiently clarified by Christ’s message that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

 

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