American Vernacular

~ an anthropological study of historical American architecture, with an emphasis on the common house ~

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Giving credit where it's due

I credit this book by Henry Glassie with seeding my fascination with historical architecture. I haven't read the book in years, but it was the one and only book that I had to read for a college class that I kept after college was over. It's packed away somewhere now, lost in the 15 years of disorganization since college, but I need to either get a new copy or find my old one soon and re-read it. (I notice that Glassie has some other books available on Amazon as well...hmm. Will have to check those out.)

What I took away from this really well-written, interesting, (but) scholarly work is that what we build, especially our common house forms, tells stories about us. And when we look at old houses, we can see into the daily lives, hopes, fears, dreams, loves, and values of the people who lived there. We can get to know people who died hundreds of years ago, when we study their houses.

For example (and this is completely off the top of my head, paraphrasing from a book I haven't read in at least 12 years), historically speaking, if you look at the homes built by European-Americans versus those built by African-Americans, basic room sizes are different. The basic room square of African-Americans was 8x8 feet, and the basic room square of European-Americans was 10x10 feet. If you had put an African-American in a 10x10 room, s/he would feel uncomfortable; ditto for a European-American in an 8x8 room. Culturally, they were acclimated to expecting a room to be a particular size, and were comfortable with that size. (This is similar to the "cultural distance" phenomena in physical interactions between people; some cultures train people to stand or sit closer together when interacting, and some farther apart, which can lead to confusing social discomfort when cultures collide.)

Now imagine what the modern American householder, proud owner of a nice suburban home with garage in front and open floorplan, will feel if you put him/her in a shotgun-style home where rooms are small, few, and connected linearly. There will be discomfort, because our cultural understanding of home and how it should work has completely changed.

I also recall discussion in the book of fenestration placement--where the windows and doors go on a house, and what that means.

All in all, really fascinating stuff, and I highly recommend it.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your support! The residents of the Coast asked for rebuilding plans that would suport the heritage of their towns and neighborhoods. In the face of a status quo that is pushing for wider highways and high-rise condo towers, local resident can use all the support they can get. And in the face of architectural critics who bemoan the lack of deconstructuralist experimentation, the Renewal Forum plans can use all the support they can get.

12:44 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home