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Complexity in Architectural Time

Henry Glassie Indiana University Press 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.

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Compositional Levels

Henry Glassie Indiana University Press 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.

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History

Henry Glassie Indiana University Press 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

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An Entry to History

Henry Glassie Indiana University Press 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.

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Architectural Technology

Henry Glassie Indiana University Press 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.

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