Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes. Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Collins Cromley. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2005. 248 pp.
Reviewed by Michael Ann Williams
With Invitation to Vernacular Architecture,
the Vernacular Architecture Forum and University of Tennessee Press
inaugurate a new series on vernacular architecture studies. The authors
of the premiere volume, Thomas Carter and Elizabeth Cromley, use as
their inspiration, both in title and intent, James Deetz’s classic of
the 1960s, Invitation to Archaeology.
The work is a concise, “crash course” in the study of vernacular
architecture. This book, however, is by no means a field guide. Carter
and Cromley make no attempt to present various regional or ethnic
typologies. Rather the authors walk the reader through various
definitions, field techniques, and frameworks for analysis. The intent
is to introduce the student to the how, not the what.
With a text of less than one hundred pages and illustrations drawn from a variety of sources, Invitation to Vernacular Architecture
is likely to serve as an inviting entrée for the student. However,
conciseness does have its limitations and those not new to the field
may question the omissions and the simplifications. In the brief
overview of the development of the field, for example, why does
cultural geography receive such short shrift? Fred Kniffen, who
certainly deserves recognition as one of the significant founders of
the field, receives only a passing mention, and then, only as a mentor
to folklorist Henry Glassie. Perhaps the most troubling
oversimplifications within the book are the presentation of certain
orthodoxies, both methodological and theoretical, as if they are
accepted by all within this complex, interdisciplinary area of study.
times the authors assert that “fieldwork” in vernacular architecture
study consists of the recording of buildings with measured drawings.
Certainly measured drawings provide a wonderful document of a
structure, but there are countless vernacular architecture scholars,
both academic and in the public sector, who primarily pursue other
methods of documentation. Fieldwork techniques in vernacular
architecture deserve a separate volume or volumes and they will
undoubtedly be forthcoming in the series. In Invitation to Vernacular Architecture,
Carter and Cromley tend to be too doctrinaire in what they present as
proper fieldwork technique; at the same time, the volume is too brief
to be truly instructive. Students, particularly those not
enrolled in programs within schools of architecture, may simply assume
that they do not have the requisite skills to pursue this area of
study. In that case, the “invitation” appears to be more “black tie
only” than “y’all come.” The brief section on photography is equally
puzzling. Few students will have access to, or ever use, a camera with
a parallax-correcting lens. However, many students (particularly those
hired to do architectural survey) will find that they are more likely
to use photography than measured drawing in their future jobs, and some
more fundamental instructions on taking good photographs of buildings
would be appreciated. The vexing issue of obtaining archival-quality
digital prints, which affects anyone who prepares a National Register
nomination, also deserves some consideration.
enough, after suggesting that measured drawings are requisite in
vernacular architecture studies, the authors assert in chapter three
that “drawing buildings, however valuable, is not the main concern of
our work” (p. 45). The buildings must be analyzed and interpreted.
Again they state an axiom that not all vernacular architecture scholars
may be comfortable with: buildings represent an “unmediated” record of
human action (p. 65). If that is truly so, do we even need
interpretation? Are we really sure that in making “mute buildings
speak” (to paraphrase the book’s foreword), we are not practicing
ventriloquism, rather than interpretation (p. ix)?
Despite my quibbles with the author’s statements, Invitation to Vernacular Architecture
does give the student a good introduction to the field. In many ways,
chapter four is an antidote to some of the assertions of the first half
of the book, giving the reader a solid acquaintance with a variety of
interpretative approaches within vernacular architecture studies. The
use of illustrations from diverse studies also gives the student an
appreciation of the range of work encompassed within the scholarship.
In chapter five the authors wrap up the book with an in-depth look at a
single structure, an early twentieth-century double house in Buffalo,
New York, by applying several different interpretive strategies to the
recently used this book in my Vernacular Architecture course at Western
Kentucky University and the students responded positively to it. The
book functions precisely as it should, giving a comfortable
introduction to the field without being overwhelming or trying too
hard. I assigned the book as the first reading of the class and,
supplemented by a variety of articles drawn largely from the Vernacular
Architecture Forum’s Perspectives
series, it provided a firm foundation for the semester. We have long
needed an introductory textbook in vernacular architecture; Carter and
Cromley should be applauded for taking on this daunting task.
Ann Williams is Department Head and Professor in the Department of Folk
Studies and Anthropology at Western Kentucky University. She is the
author of numerous works, including the books Homeplace: The Social Use and Meaning of the Folk Dwelling in Southwestern North Carolina (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1991), Great Smoky Mountains Folklife (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1995) and, most recently, Staging Tradition: John Lair and Sarah Gertrude Knott (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006).