The Vernacular in Architecture

This past Friday I was asked by Geoff Gjertson of the UL School of Architecture to join him and a number of architects on a panel for the Center for Louisiana Studies’ Vernacular Inventions program. Here are the notes I wrote, not all of which were read outloud:

Let me begin by noting that folklorists understand tradition as the creation of the future out of the past. That is, individuals who think, as it were traditionally, rely upon their knowledge of what has been in order to make what must be … well, be.

Plucking what has been out of the gossamer of experience in which what is now is also entangled is pretty tricky, and one of the great joys of being a folklorist is watching people do it and trying to understand how it works. Tradition, by definition, is always tested against the present moment, against trends that sweep across a community, through a culture.

So, then, what we have before us are two qualities of things, let’s call them traditional and trendy. Traditional is the deep well of what has been and trendy is the wide plain of what is now. There is always the chance that what has been is no longer needed, and it will fade into memory and, from there, if we are lucky, into the historical record. (One of the goals of folklorists is to expand the historical record, to expand the well of human memory.) And there is also the equal chance that what is now will fit so well with tradition, that it will become lodged there and become part of what has been.

That is the nature of tradition: it moves forward, always fattening itself on the trendy, slimming itself of things it no longer needs. More vibrant traditions are better at keeping things around for as long as they can, in case they are needed, and anemic traditions forget too quickly, leaving their practitioners bereft of possible responses to a changing world.

The vernacular can be understood as the dynamic between tradition and trend, between what has been and what is, and, sometimes, what must be.

Folklorists use vernacular as a way to get disciplines more driven by trends to think about tradition, to think about people and their need for a past, their lives in the present, and their dreams for a future.

For folklorists, then, vernacular architecture is a way to get architectural historians to pay attention to all the buildings that people actually live in that are not the stuff of Architectural Digest. Which is to say the vast majority of the planet’s population, 75% of whom, at last count, qualify as peasants — that is, subsistence farmers and the villagers (priests, smiths, and others) with whom their lives are intertwined.

That is, vernacular architecture, like other vernaculars, is a kind of working compromise between folklorists and architectural historians. If folk, was, perhaps, too narrow a term, then popular was too broad, too ephemeral, too fleeting. It is, as such compromises go, a much better arrangement than the one that has developed in the gap between folk art and popular art, sometimes called outsider art, which allows into the realm of those fully grounded within a collection of traditions that interlard any community the clinically insane: I have been to exhibits where Clementine Hunter’s paintings were next to some seriously disturbed individuals. It’s not fun.

Not traditional nor trendy, not folk nor popular, vernacular is the working vocabulary of a community of practitioners within a given form. Some things are, as we say, “in the vernacular.” Which is another way of saying that they have become part of a language, either as part of the way things are put together, the way syntax structures the words in the sentence, or the things that are put together, the words themselves.

I am delighted to be on a panel with working architects, each of which hopes to contribute to an emergent vernacular that moves the traditional architecture of this region toward an ideal, or set of ideals, that is their concern, their fascination. Certainly each of them draws upon regional architectural vernaculars in different ways. Gleaning the traditional in the new is relatively easy, getting the new into tradition … that’s the hard part.

Compound Interest

I gather that Al Bartlett is something of an internet legend when it comes to getting people to think about the power of rates of change, be it doubling, exponential, or compound interest. I wish the video was a little shorter. I’d like to share it with Lily.

New Journal: History of the Humanities

The [University of Chicago Press][] is starting a new journal:

The University of Chicago Press is pleased to announce the launch of History of Humanities, a new journal devoted to the historical and comparative study of the humanities. The first issue will be published in the spring of 2016. History of Humanities, along with the newly formed Society for the History of the Humanities, takes as its subject the evolution of a wide variety of disciplines including archaeology, art history, historiography, linguistics, literary studies, musicology, philology, and media studies, tracing these fields from their earliest developments, through their formalization into university disciplines, and to the modern day. By exploring these subjects across time and civilizations and along with their socio-political and epistemic implications, the journal takes a critical look at the concept of humanities itself.

It might be something for Jonathan Goodwin and me to think about, or at least Goodwin himself as he continues his graphing of various intellectual histories. I wonder how dominated the journal is going to be by historians.

Think Big

You may very well, and with good reason, mistrust how much and what Google wants to know about you in order, from its point of view, to customize your user experience and/or, from your point of view, sell you to advertisers, but you cannot doubt that members of its organization have the capability to think big: after delivering fiber to cities that otherwise left wanting, Google wants to build better airports, better cities, and defeat death, and they’ve started a new part of the company to make that happen, Google Y. There’s not much information on this new facet of Google, but I found the following description of Google X Labs by Ricardo Prada really insightful, and inspiring:

Google X is a wonderland, not a utopia. We’re dealing with real-world, messy, awesome and occasionally mundane problems. We need creative people whose hands are stained with whiteboard ink, but who don’t take themselves too seriously. This stuff is fun. Don’t feel limited by the tools you used last. Be open to looking at new problems, and trying or learning new tools.

That’s the kind of place I want to work in/at/for. But, more importantly (and, sigh, perhaps more realistically), we should aim to make this happen more places. Really, the humanities need to get themselves out of a funk and begin thinking about themselves more as a lab, a skunk works, where you can both do pie-in-the-sky work but also how what you do can make a difference in the world, solve a problem, open up opportunities. My own work in the realm of small text processing of real world texts seems to be gaining traction in various corners of the internet, and, I think folklore studies itself could become part of a more interesting conversation extending/revising things like natural language processing. I think Jason Jackson has been thinking big for a while when it comes to building a new infrastructure and a new way of looking at the world. Jason and I will be talking at the annual meeting of the American Folklore Society: look for the session on Thursday morning on Open Folklore.

Plain Text Commenting

One of the reasons to continue to use Word is that it makes it easy to add comments and/or mark up a document, in the editorial sense and not in the HTML/XML/TEI sense. Critic Markup is not likely to solve the issue such that those of use who prefer plain text over Word are going to have a breakthrough moment with our colleagues and collaborators, but if you are lucky enough to work with like-minded folks, then Critic Markup may just do what you need.