Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes

By Whitney, Jeanne E. | Western Folklore, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes


Whitney, Jeanne E., Western Folklore


Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes. By Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005. Pp. xxvi + 120, foreword, acknowledgments, introduction, photographs, illustrations, maps, notes, bibliography, index. $19.95 paper)

As the main title of their work suggests, Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley take James Deetz's slim and highly accessible Invitation to Archaeology (1967) as their model for a beginner's guide to vernacular architecture. Their book, also slim-the first in an occasional series sponsored by the Vernacular Architecture Forum-provides "basic pointers on how to study the vernacular environment" (xi). The authors intend their presentation "to be straightforward enough so that students and others encountering this material for the first time could easily use it" (xhi). Among works intended for beginners, only Lanier and Herman's Everyday Architecture of the Mid-Atlantic (1997) serves a similar purpose.

The book addresses three general topics: definition, methods, and interpretation. The introduction and first chapter provide concise definitions and explanations of material culture studies and of vernacular architecture, though these resemble others already available. In providing the usual reasons justifying vernacular architecture as a means for better understanding past and present cultures, the authors stress the ethnographic quality of vernacular architecture and its ability to provide insight into the "artfulness of a culture" (xvhi-xxh). As well, they draw more than usual attention to the concept of vernacular communities, showing that we can speak of local vernacular architecture communities as well as global ones.

The methods portion-how to "do" vernacular architecture-begins in the second chapter and continues through the third. Writing directly to the reader, the authors explain how to construct and conduct an investigation. After framing a problem and determining the historicgeographic focus of the study, the investigator is to perform four steps: preliminary research, field-reconnaissance survey, architectural documentation, and intensive archival and edinographic research. The first two steps, essentially documentary research, receive less attention than die others, perhaps on the assumption that beginners already have sufficient knowledge of sources and methods. For the succeeding steps the authors provide what amounts to a survey manual. Although the directions diey provide are clear and easy to follow, not all types of drawings receive equal treatment and many of the drawings provided are small and difficult to see. The authors insist diat while surveying and documenting are worthy ends in themselves, interpretation is at the heart of vernacular architecture. This they will take up in chapters four and five, but here they briefly discuss categories of analysis (e.g., time and space) that will serve to start the interpretive process. They also give useful suggestions for mapping structures according to factors such as wealth. While the categories and suggestions will probably be useful to beginners, the methods section could be stronger. For example, it offers sedation as a strategy for discerning patterns in the built environment but provides little explicit instruction. Illustration for the strategy comes from a British source (Brunskill 2002) rather than North America as all other examples do.

The book's final two chapters are the most interesting because they move away from being a how-to manual to showing what we can learn from buildings. In chapter four, Carter and Cromley summarize the findings of a number of studies in various categories. …

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