What is the Spatial Turn?

The Spatial Turn in Architecture

In 1952, the British Vernacular Architecture Group was founded to moot the concerns of the method’s growing body of followers. Following the model of the radical walkers, the VAG led its members on walking tours of particular locations.[1] The American Vernacular Architecture Forum was founded in 1980, and its founders immediately began taking their fellow-scholars on walking tours of landscapes like Salem, Massachusetts.[2]

The “vernacular landscape” or “vernacular architecture,” like Randall’s “country” and Hoskins’ “landscape,” pointed broadly to the class of buildings excluded from seventeenth-century definitions of “politeness.”[3] As Peter Collins showed in 1965, this excluded category, the “vernacular,” had been identified by nineteenth-century architects like A. W. Pugin and Gilbert George Scott (the first author to use the term in this sense) reappraised the vernacular as a source of aesthetic inspiration.[4]

Vernacular studies typically freighted the observation of everyday landscape with another agenda, the location of nationalist identity. The search for the geographic origins of British identity commenced with Nasse’s Agricultural Community of the Middle Ages and Inclosures of the Sixteenth Century in England (1871), followed upon by Sir Henry Maine’s Village Communities in the East and West and Seebohm’s English Village Community, which traced an undisturbed legacy of Roman political organization in the fields around Hitchin. Both promised that in understanding the shape of ordinary villages, some sacred format of community identity would be disclosed. A. G. Bradley’s Highways and Byways in South Wales (1903) claimed to delineate the line of Norman conquest through Pembrokeshire, across which there was “no social trafficking, no inter-marriage, no sympathy of any kind to speak of” for eight centuries.[5] In the unchanging British countryside, they located the materials for a nationalist history of British identity. Even the walking radicals contributed to this discourse.  Randall, for example, asserted with Hilaire Belloc the definite continuity of English institutions since the pre-Roman canton. Belloc even argued that common law had come down untarnished: a native spirit was indissociable from the soil. Randall contested this notion and explained English culture rather as a montage: "Our art is part of the general European culture… Our faith is official Christianity, a Hellenized and Latinized form of an Oriental religion in its many forms or aberrations. … On the other hand, our language is not Roman, but Teutonic in grammatical structure and in the common words.”[6] The birth of the Vernacular Architecture Group was bound more tightly to these nationalist politics than to the radical ones embraced by Hoskins and Beresford. It was for such reasons of an “unduly prominent” obsession with national identity that architecture students at the University of Manchester began a survey of vernacular building types during World War Two. Those documenting the types of popular architecture were frequently motivated by nationalist identity politics, the historic preservation movement, and the interests of architecture schools.[7]

Historic preservation was intensely fruitful in terms of methodology, however. In the 1950s and 60s, R. A. Cordingly and R. W. Brunskill oversaw nation-wide surveys of vernacular building types in Britain. Brunskill eventually produced manifestos documenting a “systematic procedure” for recording instances of vernacular building.[8] The tendency to regard material culture as the source of information about popular life inspired reverberations in other disciplines as well. Nineteenth-century archaeology had already influenced Henry Randall, as we have seen. Early in the century, American geographer Fred Kniffen applied housing types to the study of migration of ethnic groups across the American south.[9] By the 1950s, American archaeologists and anthropologists like James Deetz and Henry Glassie turned the traditional methods of material history to work on a people’s history of working-class life, mining gravestones and the arrangement of vernacular dwellings.[10] For scholars in other disciplines, this shift implied that radical attention to the material culture of everyday life in the modern era could be as instructive as archaeology of the ancient world.

The meetings of both groups encouraged the publication of new works detailing the material experience of popular life, from the many studies published in the Winterthur Portfolio to staples of antebellum scholarship.[11] A flood of historical works documented the changing shape of the country house in the era of enclosure, relying on the built environment as a source of a social history that cut across the lines of class.[12] Others extended to the changing pattern of landholding, village arrangement, and rural institutions.[13]

Like the radical walkers, these later students of vernacular architecture framed the built environment as a source of historical information about aspects of popular social life that left no other traces. Strains of radical walkerdom shot through discussions of material culture in the 1950s and 60s. “The artifact is potentially democratic,” wrote anthropologist Henry Glassie, assailing disciplinary practices that he argued left “most people and most artifacts out of consideration.”[14] Because of that connection, the methods of radical walkers appealed especially to a new generation of radical historians who embraced the politics laid out by Randall, Hoskins, and Beresford. Working-class historians, driven by the search for visual and spatial sources for a history of the masses, mined the vernacular landscape of informal building and design.[15][16] Various historians traced the migration of ethnic traditions through the history of housing.[17] Early feminist historians, too, found a trove of evidence of the undocumented lives of women who left no papers themselves, documented in works such as Dolores Hayden’s history of modern kitchens.[18] Material culture had become the major point of entry for studying the story of those who left no other records behind.

[1] Adrian Green, “Confining the Vernacular: The Seventeenth-Century Origins of a Mode of Study,” Vernacular Architecture 38 (February 2007): 5. The VAG began to publish occasional papers in 1958. For a retrospective on their work, see Cary Carson, “Whither VAG?” Vernacular Architecture 15 (1984): 3-5.

[2] Old Salem VAF tour, April 2, 1982. ([Winston-Salem N.C.: Old Salem Inc., 1982); Tom Carter, ed., Tours : May 1st-4th, 1985 : Golden Gate National Recreation Area, San Francisco, California. ([S.l: Vernacular Architecture Forum, 1985). They began publishing an annual series in 1982.

[3] For the seventeenth-century origins of the division between “polite” and “vernacular,” see Adrian Green, “Confining the Vernacular: The Seventeenth-Century Origins of a Mode of Study,” Vernacular Architecture 38 (February 2007): 1-7.

[4] Peter Collins, Changing Ideals in Modern Architecture, 1750-1950 (Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1965), 2-13. For the evolution of the term in the 1960s and 70s, see Dell Upton, “The Power of Things: Recent Studies in American Vernacular Architecture,” American Quarterly 35, no. 3 (1983): 262-279.

[5] Quoted in Randall, op. cit., 66.

[6] Randall, op. cit., 77.

[7] Charles B. Hosmer, “Preservation Comes of Age: From Williamsburg to the National Trust, 1926-1949,” Bulletin of the Association for Preservation Technology 12, no. 3 (1980): 20-27; R. W. Brunskill, “English Vernacular Architecture,” Journal of the Folklore Institute 2, no. 3 (December 1965): 300-307. Brunskill explicitly identifies the “unduly prominent” documentation of “national identity” during the first surveys of vernacular architecture conducted by architecture students at the University of Manchester during the Second World War. His paper then lays out the subsequent regional surveys of architecture conducted first under R. A. Cordingley and later himself. These surveys later became the basis for the preservation agendas of the National Trust. For the origins of preservationist thinking among the archaeologists admired by Randall, see Cyril Fox, The Personality of Britain: Its Influence on Inhabitant and Invader in Prehistoric and Early Historic Times (Cardiff: Published by the National Museum of Wales and by the Press Board of the University of Wales, 1943); essays on vernacular architecture in Idris Llewelyn Foster, Culture and Environment (London: Routledge & Paul, 1963). I here omit a full discussion of the canonization of national “heritage,” choosing instead to focus on the dissemination of scholarly methods for interpreting the significance of the built environment, whose uses have radical as well as conservative traditions. For a critique of the role of preservation in sponsoring the study of vernacular building, see David Lowenthal, “British National Identity and the English Landscape,” Rural History 2, no. 02 (1991): 205-230.

[8] R Brunskill and Vernacular Architecture Group., A systematic procedure for recording English vernacular architecture, Abridged ed. --. ([London?]: Vernacular Architecture Group [available from the Ancient Monuments Society], 1975); N. Alcock, A Catalogue of Cruck Buildings (London: Phillimore for the Vernacular Architecture Group, 1973); Robert Hall and Vernacular Architecture Group., A Bibliography on Vernacular Architecture (Newton Abbot: David and Charles, 1972).

[9] Fred Kniffen, “Louisiana House Types,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 26, no. 4 (December 1, 1936): 179-193; Fred Kniffen, Building in Wood in the Eastern United States : A Time-Place Perspective (New York N.Y.: American Geographical Society, 1966).

[10] James Deetz, In Small Things Forgotten: The Archaeology of Early American Life, 1st ed. (Garden City, N.Y: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1977). Henry Glassie, “Eighteenth-Century Cultural Process in Delaware Valley Folk Building,” Winterthur Portfolio 7 (1972): 29-57; Henry H Glassie, Folk Housing in Middle Virginia: A Structural Analysis of Historic Artifacts, 1st ed. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1975); Henry H Glassie, Pattern in the Material Folk Culture of the Eastern United States (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969). For an overview of this genealogy, see Camille Wells, “Old Claims and New Demands: Vernacular Architecture Studies Today,” Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture 2 (1986): 1-10.

[11] George W Dolbey, The Architectural Expression of Methodism (London: Epworth Press, 1964); Henry Glassie, “Eighteenth-Century Cultural Process in Delaware Valley Folk Building,” Winterthur Portfolio 7 (1972): 29-57; Labelle Prussin, “An Introduction to Indigenous African Architecture,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 33, no. 3 (October 1974): 183-205. William B. Rhoads, “The Colonial Revival and American Nationalism,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 35, no. 4 (December 1976): 239-254; Cary Carson, "Doing History with Material Culture," Material Culture and the Study of American Life, ed. Ian M. G. Quimby (New York:W. W. Norton and Company, 1978), pp. 41-64; Abbott Lowell Cummings, The Framed Houses of Massachusetts Bay, 1625-1725 (Cambridge:HarvardUniversity Press, 1979); Cary Carson et al., “Impermanent Architecture in the Southern American Colonies,” Winterthur Portfolio 16, no. 2 (Summer - Autumn 1981): 135-196; Mary Ellen Hayward, “Urban Vernacular Architecture in Nineteenth-Century Baltimore,” Winterthur Portfolio 16, no. 1 (Spring 1981): 33-63; Jules David Prown, “Mind in Matter: An Introduction to Material Culture Theory and Method,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 1 (Spring 1982): 1-19; Dell Upton, “Vernacular Domestic Architecture in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Winterthur Portfolio 17, no. 2 (Summer - Autumn 1982): 95-119; Richard Longstreth, “From Farm to Campus: Planning, Politics, and the Agricultural College Idea in Kansas,” Winterthur Portfolio 20, no. 2 (Summer - Autumn 1985): 149-179; Sally McMurry, “City Parlor, Country Sitting Room: Rural Vernacular Design and the American Parlor, 1840-1900,” Winterthur Portfolio 20, no. 4 (Winter 1985): 261-280; William B. Rhoads, “Roadside Colonial: Early American Design for the Automobile Age, 1900-1940,” Winterthur Portfolio 21, no. 2 (Summer - Autumn 1986): 133-152; David Gebhard, “The American Colonial Revival in the 1930s,” Winterthur Portfolio 22, no. 2 (Summer - Autumn 1987): 109-148.

[12] M. W Barley, The English Farmhouse and Cottage (London: Routledge and K. Paul, 1961); Lawrence Stone, The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965), esp. ch 10; Malcolm Airs, The Making of the English Country House, 1500-1640 (London: Architectural Press, 1975); Colin Platt, The Great Rebuildings of Tudor and Stuart England (London: UCL Press, 1994).

[13] Tom Williamson's many books documented the rise of enclosure as a phenomenon of dislocation and village clearance. Oliver Rackham located the long story of environmental exploitation in the rise of aristocratic deer parks in the era of Elizabethan foreclosure. Christopher Taylor, Fields in the English Landscape (London: J. M. Dent, 1975). Oliver Rackham, Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape (London: J. M. Dent, 1976). Tom Williamson, Property and Landscape: A Social History of Land Ownership and the English Countryside (London: George Philip, 1987); T. Williamson and J. T. Brighton, Polite Landscapes: Gardens and Society in Eighteenth-century England (Sutton, 1998).

Robert Tittler, Architecture and Power: The Town Hall and the English Urban Community, c. 1500-1640 (Oxford University Press, 1991); Stanford E Lehmberg, The Reformation of Cathedrals: Cathedrals in English Society, 1485-1603 (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1988); Peter Clark, The English Alehouse: A Social History, 1200-1830 (London: Longman, 1983); P. Borsay, The English Urban Renaissance: Culture and Society in the Provincial Town, 1660-1770 (Clarendon Press, 1989)

[14] Henry Glassie, “Eighteenth-Century Cultural Process in Delaware Valley Folk Building,” Winterthur Portfolio 7 (1972): 29-30.

[15] David P Handlin, The American Home: Architecture and Society, 1815-1915, 1st ed. (Boston: Little, Brown, 1979); Jan Cohn, The Palace or the Poorhouse: The American House as a Cultural Symbol (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1979).

[16] Kenneth Jackson, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[17] Rhys Isaac, The Transformation of Virginia, 1740-1790 (Chapel Hill: Published for the Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Va., by University of North Carolina Press, 1982); J. M Vlach, “The Shotgun House: An African Architectural Legacy,” Afro-American Folk Art and Crafts (1986): 275 ff.  E. A Chappell, “Acculturation in the Shenandoah Valley: Rhenish Houses of the Massanutten Settlement,” Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1980): 55–89.

[18] Gwendolyn Wright, Moralism and the Model Home: Domestic Architecture and Cultural Conflict in Chicago, 1873-1913 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Gwendolyn Wright, “Domestic Architecture and the Cultures of Domesticity,” Design Quarterly, no. 138 (1987): 12-19; Meryl Aldridge, “Only Demi-Paradise? Women in Garden Cities and New Towns,” Planning Perspectives 11, no. 1 (1996): 23.