Thursday, July 23, 2009

A new class...

One of my new classes is "The Rural Cultural Environment: Architecture and Landscape." The readings for the first week gave an introduction to the topic of vernacular architecture: what it is, what messages it can convey, how to see and translate those messages, and why it's important for us to make the effort to understand them. By taking a broad, multidisciplinary view we begin to see connections between our cultural, economic and technological systems and how they relate to the physical, social, and psychological frameworks we've constructed for the world we live in.

The phrase "vernacular architecture" refers to the buildings and surrounds that are found wherever people live. It considers equally the dwelling places of rich and poor; commercial districts and workplaces, whether urban, suburban, or rural; and transportation corridors and open spaces of whatever size and situation.

I understand they all have value in our understanding of the built and adapted landscape, but I admit that I find it difficult to embrace all features equally as welcome evidence of man's attempts to "re-create Heaven on earth." Strip malls, miles of used car sales lots, and Jackson's "suitcase [non-resident] farmers" (Landscape in Sight, John Brinckerhoff Jackson, p.337) are all factors of cultural change in our environment, but it's hard for me to view them objectively. The culture they represent is largely commercial and opportunistic and I feel little connection to it.

Jackson says that with our new understanding of the contributing forces, "There is no longer any need for putting up with anarchy and ugliness in our environment; we do not have to watch helplessly the destruction of cultural values. It can be made to include those features of the old and new that we like, and it can leave out the others" (p.338).

But this is where it all begins to unravel, at least in today's world. How many community master plans and zoning ordinances refer to a goal of "maintaining the character of the neighborhood?" That phrase may have worked in the days when there were fewer people, when the people who were there shared uniform cultural sensibilities, when top dollar profit didn't rule most social interactions, and when most building projects were undertaken by members of the local community.

Now, though, with our American emphasis on personal freedoms and legal entitlements, how can it be enforced? Who determines the details of the actual nature of "community character?" Who determines what does or doesn't maintain that character? It is much easier for the courts to uphold personal property rights than it is for them to uphold community claims to vague and poorly articulated aesthetic values.

We may better understand the messages of our built environment than we did before, but it's hard to know where we go from here.

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