by Wes Cheek
It leaves a bit of residual academic whiplash, working on a Ph.D. in sociology after getting my master’s in historic preservation. Attending the Vernacular Architecture Forum Outside the Loop conference in Chicago this June was a great reminder to me about what drew me to preservation and architectural history in the first place. There were so many truly inspiring examples of scholars using architectural history to ask complex and interesting questions and find diverse and multifaceted ways by which to answer them. I was incredibly impressed at the variety and depth of the work being done by everyone involved in the conference. Being the only person with a background in architectural history in my current program I often have to begin presentations with an explanation of what the term vernacular means and why the buildings that we describe with this term are essential to study and explain. It was quite a relief to be at VAF around people who already grasp the importance of everyday structures as a given and then work from that understanding.
The tours helped to illustrate what we often describe about vernacular architecture, that it is the setting for our everyday interactions and a frame for how we understand ourselves. Hearing the residents of public housing describe the fight to keep their housing from being destroyed reinforced the concept that preservation isn’t just mansions and monuments; it is also the places in which people live. Eating at a fish fry in a church basement showed that communities come together in places that they hold to be important. It was also revelatory for me, as I didn’t know that you knew how to do a fish fry up North. I stand corrected. I also got a chance to see President Obama’s house, but that was accidental and I didn’t stare. I promise. Those who lead the tours were informative and insightful. Additionally I learned a great deal from other people on the bus who were able to contribute their own knowledge on everything we were seeing.
Try as I might I couldn’t make it to everyone’s paper presentation but I say this in all honesty; I wanted to see all of them. Each presentation I was able to make it to was an insight into a subject from a perspective I had not yet heard or considered. I now know far more about funeral homes in the South, community-based reconstruction in New York and abandoned buildings in Baltimore than I did when I started my trip.
It is a long train ride from New Orleans to Chicago. I spent the majority of it drinking coffee and staring out the window at the vast wide United States; the swampy deltas and the little towns. I spent the trip up wondering what the VAF conference would be like, what I would hear and see. I spent the trip back down full of new images and concepts, feeling that I had learned more than I had known a week earlier- always the sign of a good trip- and eager for next year.