Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic: Looking at Buildings and Landscapes

By Simpson, Pamela H. | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, Winter 1998 | Go to article overview

Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic: Looking at Buildings and Landscapes


Simpson, Pamela H., The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic: Looking at Buildings and Landscapes. By GABRIELLE M. LANIER and BERNARD L. HERMAN. Creating the North American Landscape. GREGORY CONNIFF, BONNIE LLOYD, EDWARD K. MULLER, and DAVID SCHUYLER, Consulting Editors. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press in cooperation with the Center for American Places, 1997. xi, 407 pp. $55.00 cloth; $29.95 paper.

THERE was a time when most architectural historians thought of buildings primarily as a series of stylistic categories. Georgian, Federal, Greek, and gothic revivals followed each other in an easily traceable chronological sequence. Books such as Nikolaus Pevsner's famous county surveys of English buildings were essentially devoted to naming the style and describing the decorative features of local landmarks. Numerous American field guides followed the same format. Unfortunately, this approach placed such high value on description and stylistic categorization that the buildings became merely a sort of three-dimensional sculpture, independent of the lives of the people who made and used them. For twenty years now, younger historians such as Gabrielle M. Lanier and Bernard L. Herman have been developing a new approach to architectural scholarship that will repeople the buildings. They study architecture as a cultural artifact that can reveal not only individual histories but also community-based values.

How do they do it? They call their approach "archaeological" (p. 2). They look intensively at the building itself, peeling back layers of occupation and use just as the archaeologist would scrape away layers of dirt. No building is unchanged. Although owners rarely build their own houses, they almost always modify them, even if only by changing the color of paint. A new wing, a new heating system, a new roof might become necessary over time. Any alteration indicates not only chronological change but also human choiceschoices that can reveal much about individual, social, and cultural situations. When we study buildings closely and map similarities over regions, we discover broader pictures of diversity and community. The purpose, Lanier and Herman write, is to understand human history, and architecture can be a most informative means of doing so.

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