Belated Reports from the Field: Berger and Burnett Inform my Trip to the 2012 Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference

The second weekend in June I attended the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference in Madison, WI. It was, owing to the topic, a considerably analog affair. At the risk of being obvious, vernacular architecture is exactly like vernacular language; only here the text is the built environment. It subsumes everything from housing to bridges to farm buildings to gas stations, and so on, and scholars are particularly interested in it for its reification of cultural landscapes. And while we read Berger (1977) and Burnett (2004) in terms of the digital humanities, I was struck by how much this Forum’s particular object of scrutiny underscores both Berger and Burnett’s writings. [Sidebar: I study cultural landscapes, as well, but my primary reason for being there was to take a very nerdy vacation. It was time very well spent.]

Berger explains that the knowledge of art conveys cultural authority, or Bourdieu’s (1985) cultural capital. The practice of scholarship is effectively intense “cultural capital investment,” with a heavy dose of academic passion for good measure. Our Friday tour of residential Madison and its university underscored to the extent that this is true for architectural historians, as well as illustrated the tension Berger alludes in to discussing Leonardo da Vinci’s The Virgin and Child: its “function is nostalgic” (23). One (I think) charming example of nostalgia is the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Stock Pavilion on its agricultural campus. Up through the 1920s the facility accommodated up to 2000 people and several animals for courses, livestock judging, and expos. Over time, however, county fairs and technology obviated the need for that particular building, and its use became less frequent. It has great acoustics, so it has been used for special events, including several concerts and one re-election campaign event for President Truman, but the dirt floor has discouraged permanent designation. And its single biannual use, student registration, was rendered obsolete in the space of a semester by digital technology. So now its official use is as landmark (

Likewise, a tension existed between the academics and the homeowners, depending on the latters’ custodianship of these architectural gems. Imagine the scene: dozens of art and architectural historians roaming the streets of Madison suburbs, eager to see examples of pre- and post-war suburban development in their natural habitat, as it were. In the Westmoreland neighborhood, one of the earlier examples of Madison’s post-war, auto-oriented developments, a couple welcomed us into their home that was not on the tour but still relevant for its prefab construction. The couple was delighted with their home, their community, and the opportunity to boast that in the next few days they would celebrate their fortieth anniversary in what was meant to be their starter home. In the intervening years they’d quite understandably updated their kitchen and two bathrooms twice each. (Another sidebar: one of my favorite things about housing is that until the digital revolution, most technological advancement took place in the kitchen – the dishwasher alone). This deliberate reshaping of their home to serve the family’s quotidian needs dismayed the visiting scholars. Of course they didn’t judge the residents, but they were curious to learn when and how the homeowners came to learn of their house’s postwar provenance, the subtle subtext being, “Wouldn’t it be nice if this house were period specific, if not authentically so?” Per Burnett, “There will always be both tension and contradiction between what is said and what is experienced with the images” (2004, p. 37). I realize I’m being unfair, but it exemplified for me what is the long distance between living one’s life and fetishizing manufactured goods.

P.S. And speaking of fetishizing manufactured goods, these houses are very cool.

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Filed under Quotidian, Scholarship, Travels


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