Friday, October 1, 2010

Rise of Consumerism, Fall of Craft: American Vernacular Architecture, 1850-2010

The works presented below represent a range of research spanning the fields of American vernacular architecture, consumerism, and craft, as they combine to form the basic building blocks of research into the examination and study of consumerism’s effect on the decline of traditional craft building methods used in constructing the built vernacular landscape since the Industrial Revolution. The authors and scholars presented here are all experts in their respective fields. John Brinckerhoff Jackson (Discovering the Vernacular Landscape) and Peter Dormer (The Culture of Craft) to name a couple, are not only experts in their given fields, but have devoted their lives to them (American vernacular architecture and craft, respectively). In compiling sources pertaining to a research topic that is composed of three significant topics in their own right, it was essential to bring together scholars with an absolute mastery of their subjects as the substantial nature of their research frequently ties into the other topics involved in this discussion, due in part to the breadth of each scholar’s work.

The goal of each work presented here is to first, provide us with a substantial understanding of each of the three primary topics involved in the discussion of the research topic (American vernacular architecture, consumerism, and craft), and second, to provide us with the connections amongst the primary topics which have already been established through scholarly research. The sources and their respective authors in this essay will progress from a discussion of American vernacular architecture, to consumerism, and finally, to craft. Along the way, connections amongst the sources will be made not only to connect the primary topics in a manner relevant to the discussion of the research topic, but to also substantiate or clarify information put forth in a given source.

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The late John Brinckerhoff (J. B.) Jackson, one of America’s greatest and well-known advocates for the study and appreciation of the vernacular landscape, presents within one of his most significant works, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape,[1] the necessity and importance of exploring and understanding the vernacular landscape as an encompassment of our culture; its values, politics, economics, et cetera. A collection of Jackson’s essays written over the course of a decade[2] from the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape explores a number of different, yet interrelated topics pertaining to the American vernacular landscape.

Contributing to the discussion of American vernacular architecture, Jackson provides some valuable insight in regard to defining and interpreting vernacular architecture in his aptly entitled essay, “Vernacular.”[3] Within this essay, Jackson discusses the notion that the typical, almost standardized definition of vernacular architecture developed by architects and architectural historians, focuses too much on form and too little on function and relationships to work and community.[4] Elaborating on this, Jackson discusses how scholars from other fields of study such as geography and archaeology, have become increasingly more involved in the study of vernacular architecture, contributing “to a broader, more prosaic definition of vernacular architecture that we cannot afford to ignore.”[5] For American vernacular architecture is a complex, constantly evolving representation of not just an architectural evolution, but a cultural one.

Another essay within Jackson’s collection of writings that lends itself to the discussion of American vernacular architecture, but with ties into our discussion of consumerism and craft, is “Craftsman Style and Technostyle.”[6] Within this essay, Jackson discusses a period in America’s history shortly after the turn of the 20th century, when a large part of our culture began to become dissatisfied with the mundane “anonymous, mass-produced, middle-class dwelling,”[7] which had become so prevalent in the American landscape. To protest this, the Arts and Crafts movement was established, initiating a cultural obsession with the handmade, and thus a rejection of the machine-made and the mass-produced. Ironically, what resulted was the development of new building products which mimicked the handmade, which therefore resulted in a redefinition of style in domestic vernacular architecture, exemplified by the production of “styles defined by workers and techniques of work. Vastly enlarged, hopelessly inaccurate in detail, entirely up-to-date in utilities and plan, these dwellings recalled not a traditional period as such but traditional manual occupations.”[8] This cultural shift, Jackson examines, resulting in the mass production of domestic architectural elements, served to even seemingly vanish the traditional craftsman from sight.[9]

Before we shift our attention to the other two foundations of our discussion, consumerism and craft, we should first strengthen our understanding of the specific culture of building, an important element of vernacular architecture. American architect and writer Howard Davis in his most significant work to date, The Culture of Building, examines “the coordinated system of knowledge, rules, procedures, and habits that surrounds the building process in a given place at a given time.”[10] Davis believes that building cultures, such as the vernacular, reflect the socioeconomic cultures of which they are a part. The Culture of Building provides a framework for showing how all of the different elements composing our building culture relate to one another – elements such as “the ways in which building plans have evolved hand in hand with social life, or how the craft economy was replaced by modern manufacturing.”[11] Touching on everything from the vernacular to pre- and post-Industrial Revolution craftsmanship, The Culture of Building is an outstanding resource for comprehending the core ideas behind how any building culture evolves.

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Informing the overarching topic of consumerism in our discussion, material culture scholar Ann Smart Martin in her essay, “Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework,”[12] provides an insightful look into the role of consumerism, consumption, and materialism in American culture, positing that our culture’s desire for material goods is capable of providing “new insights into the study of the intersection of people, objects, and ideas in our past.”[13] In the section entitled, “Consumerism as an Interdisciplinary Problem,”[14] Martin, of significance to the discussion of consumerism’s effect on vernacular architecture, presents the idea of examining buildings as consumer goods – “as well as containers for material goods,”[15] an idea developed by architectural scholar Edward A. Chappell. Looking at buildings in this way, “changes in housing can be studied as parallel phenomena to changes in consumption of household goods.”[16] In conclusion, Martin writes that the study of “household objects, landscapes, and buildings amply demonstrate that the artifactual record is replete with evidence of cultural change in people’s conceptions – and creations – of their material world.”[17]

Relating to Martin’s discussion of consumerism as it relates to American culture on the whole, writer and urban designer John Chase turns the discussion of consumerism back to architecture in his essay entitled, “The Role of Consumerism in American Architecture.”[18] Asserting that consumerism is “the single most important social and economic organizing force in the United States today,”[19] and that “building production can only be understood by analyzing its relationship to consumerism,”[20] Chase examines consumerism’s role and effect on the design and production of primarily modern-day American architecture. One of the most significant contributions that Chase makes to the discussion is the evolution of the traditional vernacular to a now more “commercial vernacular,” examining our society’s changing attitude toward vernacular architecture in general:

Commercial vernacular is part of our economic and social evolution, and it is tied to changes in public taste and living patterns. What makes its study so confusing is that this vernacular seems so unvernacular. Although there are accepted ways of building vernacular architecture today, these widely accepted practices are often the result of technological innovation, advertising, and marketing, whereas in earlier times these customs were the result of slowly evolving patterns of social interaction.[21]

Another field that has been substantially altered due to technological innovation and consumerism in our culture is craft, the third and final topic involved in the discussion of consumerism’s effect on craft. The late Peter Dormer, one of the greatest proponents and scholars of craft, particularly in modern-day society, compiles a collection of essays from some of the most widely recognized and authoritative writers on the subject of craft in his book, The Culture of Craft: Status and Future.[22] Dormer, who contributes extensively to this volume, compiled this collection because of his displeasure with the marginalization of craft in modern-day society. This marginalization Dormer believes stems from three fundamental factors: a “plurality of meanings”[23] in regard to the definition of craft, the advancement and increased use of technology in modern-day manufacture, and finally, a lack of a substantial discourse on the subject.

The Culture of Craft is divided into three sections, each containing a handful of essays regarding the three fundamental factors contributing to the marginalization of craft as outlined above. The essays contained within each of the three sections, “The Status of Craft,” “The Challenge of Technology,” and “Writing About the Crafts,” are almost all capable of providing some valuable insight into the overarching discussion of consumerism’s effect on craft over the course of the past century and a half. For the benefit of this discussion however, we should focus on two essays in particular, Gloria Hickey’s, “Craft Within a Consuming Society,”[24] and Jeremy Myerson’s “Tornadoes, T-squares and Technology: Can Computing be a Craft?”[25] as their contributions are most directly related to the primary discussion.

Although Hickey discusses craft from the viewpoint of gift-giving in “Craft Within a Consuming Society,” this insight is valuable to the discussion of consumerism’s effect on craft as it provides us with a cultural look at how we view craft-produced objects. The premise of Hickey’s essay is that although our culture places a high value on craft, it is sadly only typically shown in our consumerist society’s exercise of gift-giving and not through the objects we purchase on a more frequent basis. Outlining this Hickey writes:

Gift-giving is probably one of the oldest and most basic of human behaviors. To say that for centuries these gifts were handcrafted is a truism. However, to say that today, from the vast proliferation of market goods, craft objects are frequently selected as gifts is significant… Examining craft as giftware allows us to examine a variety of values and meanings assigned to the handcrafted object by contemporary society.[26]

Jeremy Myerson, in his essay “Tornadoes, T-squares and Technology: Can Computing be a Craft?” examines the modern-day difficulty in grappling with the question, ‘what is craft?’ Myerson’s view as expressed through his essay is that craft methods are not being displaced by consumerism and technology, but rather, are simply evolving with our culture. For Myerson believes that computer-based design and manufacture are the new craft methods of the late twentieth century.[27] This of course is apposite to our discussion of consumerism’s effect on craft in our culture in that it provides a significant and thought-provoking alternate viewpoint, one that must of course be taken into consideration.

Relating to both Myerson’s discussion of what is becoming of craft in modern-day culture and to the general discussion of the resultant effects of consumerism on craft in our culture since the Industrial Revolution, American artisanship and labor scholar Peter Betjemann discusses the seemingly axiomatic relationship of skill and technique to vernacular craft methods in his essay, “Craft and the Limits of Skill: Handicrafts Revivalism and the Problem of Technique.”[28] In this essay, Betjemann suggests that definitions of craft since the Industrial Revolution are “in fact predicated on a paradoxical relationship to skill.”[29]

Betjemann, drawing upon work from craft expert and previously discussed writer and scholar Peter Dormer, argues that “if skilled labor seems the self-evident alternative to mechanical production, it is [then] also true that machines, capable of absolute precision and uniformity, threaten the traditional associations of craft and perfect workmanship.”[30] To substantiate his argument, Betjemann looks to handcrafted wooden furniture produced primarily from the mid-nineteenth century up until the turn of the twentieth century as his primary example. What Betjemann discovers is that as our consumerist culture became so enamored by the handmade, especially following the peak of the Industrial Revolution, towards the beginning of the twentieth century (see again Jackson’s “Craftsman Style and Technostyle”) it became necessary from an economic standpoint to allow machines to manufacture certain typically handmade elements of an object as a means of making that object more affordable to not just the middle- and upper-class, but the lower-class as well. The discussion of Betjemann’s argument in “Craft and the Limits of Skill” leads him to summarize and conclude that the culture of craft foresaw the disappearance of skilled labor and therefore “had to develop a sense of style predicated on more than just the actual details of manufacture…[for] practicality and effect, technique and image are less the dividing lines of authenticity and fakery than the twinned principles of workmanship in the modern age.”[31] For in many ways, “handcraft has become less a mark of true rusticity than a consumable aesthetic.”[32]

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Through the works of J. B. Jackson, Howard Davis, Ann Smart Martin, John Chase, Peter Dormer, and Peter Betjemann, we find a number of themes regarding consumerism’s effect on craft (our culture’s fascination with the handmade, the evolution of craft, loss of skill), but more importantly, we are left with some critical questions: What does the current academic literature involving consumerism and craft say or imply about the future of American vernacular architecture? What is craft becoming? How has consumerism influenced other country’s vernacular landscapes? In moving forward we must answer these questions if we are to contribute to the scholarly discussion of what consumerism’s effect on craft means for the evolution of American vernacular architecture. Currently there exists little academic literature on this topic. The preceding sources have provided us with a substantive academic resource from which we can begin to formulate and develop our own hypotheses and arguments leading to some much-needed scholarly research on the topic. For consumerism, as a foundational element of our culture, must be evaluated in regard to its influence on the development of the American vernacular landscape, as without this critical study, we are missing one of the most significant components in the study of our culture’s built environment.

[1] John Brinckerhoff Jackson, Discovering the Vernacular Landscape (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984).
[2] Ibid., ix.
[3] Ibid., 85-87.
[4] Ibid., 85.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid., 115-123.
[7] Ibid., 115.
[8] Ibid., 118. Jackson goes on, “they were the modern versions of the homes of the fisherman, farmer, craftsman, and colonial pioneer.”
[9] Ibid.
[10] Howard Davis, The Culture of Building (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5.
[11] Ibid., 4.
[12] Ann Smart Martin, “Makers, Buyers, and Users: Consumerism as a Material Culture Framework,” Winterthur Portfolio 28, no. 2/3 (Summer-Autumn 1993): 141-157.
[13] Ibid., 142.
[14] Ibid., 142-146
[15] Ibid., 146.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ibid.
[18] John Chase, “The Role of Consumerism in American Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education 44, no. 4 (August 1991): 211-224.
[19] Ibid., 211.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Ibid., 213.
[22] Peter Dormer, ed., The Culture of Craft: Status and Future (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).
[23] Ibid., vii.
[24] Gloria Hickey, “Craft Within a Consuming Society,” in The Culture of Craft, Status and Future, edited by Peter Dormer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)
[25] Jeremy Myerson, “Tornadoes, T-squares and Technology: Can Computing be a Craft?” in The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, edited by Peter Dormer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997)
[26] Gloria Hickey, “Craft Within a Consuming Society,” in The Culture of Craft, Status and Future, edited by Peter Dormer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 83.
[27] Jeremy Myerson, “Tornadoes, T-squares and Technology: Can Computing be a Craft?” in The Culture of Craft: Status and Future, edited by Peter Dormer (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997), 176.
[28] Peter Betjemann, “Craft and the Limits of Skill: Handicrafts Revivalism and the Problem of Technique,” Journal of Design History 21, no. 2 (Summer 2008): 183-193.
[29] Ibid., 183.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Ibid., 192.
[32] Ibid.

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