By design, our group of ambassadors from Auburn University were a diverse crew. We were split between history and architecture, graduate and undergraduate, and within our own areas of specialty and interest. The experiences of these students then--told below in their own words--represent the capaciousness of VAF and its multi and interdisciplinary approaches. Each student found moments of experience at the conference or in the city that they could view through their own areas of study, or use to expand their perception of the built environment.
As a recent graduate of Auburn University’s architecture program, I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity for such a unique and thorough exploration of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. It was clear from the beginning that this conference was special and the people I met throughout the weekend gave constant testament to the character and hospitality of the event. I felt incredibly privileged to attend this event as a student ambassador, and was blown away by all the things I was able to see. The other attendees, some architects, historians, or preservationists to name a few, were so quick to answer my (many) questions on our tours. We were able to see many historic houses and townhomes and were welcomed and shown around most graciously by each and every host. I think the most amazing experience was walking through Elfreth’s Alley. The row houses we saw were absolutely stunning. Even more than that, it was incredibly encouraging to meet the people who live in and maintain these historic beauties. For me, coming from a classroom culture that really pushes modern architecture, it was refreshing to be in a place with people who love and value historic architecture. Everywhere we went I felt like I was given a behind-the-scenes look and it was such an incredible experience. I hope this is the first of many future VAF experiences for me.
As a historian of religion, I quickly chose the Southwest and Darby tour for the VAF Conference in Philadelphia. Being able to go to Bartram’s Garden and touring the Quaker buildings in Darby was easily worth the trip alone, and seeing old homes and churches where people have worshipped for decades was a special experience for me. All of the other conference events made it an outstanding experience as well, especially for a graduate student. I really enjoyed being able to meet people from different places, schools, and professions who all had a desire for studying and understanding the effect of space and place on people. The panels covered such a wide array of time, geography, and spaces, from farm ponds across the United States to altars in the rooms of domestic workers in Venezuela. Not only did these presentations stretch my understanding of space and architecture, they interested me in subjects I had never thought about before. This type of study is different than what I have been exposed to in most of my classes or work, and really widened my eyes to the effect it could have on my own work studying religious spaces and who is welcome where. Everyone I met was also extremely helpful and welcoming. The VAF Conference has easily been my favorite conference experience so far, socially, culturally, and academically the environment was engaging.
My first VAF not only influenced my interest in the vernacular but also pushed me to reconsider purposeful relationships in my research. As a 2019 Ambassador, the Philadelphia Conference provided a dynamic space to interact with experts in a variety of fields promoting intellectual exchange. Though I am in a history program at Auburn, the differing perspectives on Architecture, Historic Interpretation, Museum Studies, and American Studies pushed my scholarly framework to move beyond academic departmental confinements. The conference allowed me to gain vital professional growth and intellectual perspectives, while the Ambassador program offset a majority of the cost, emphasizing the importance of open and philanthropic academic places that push for younger scholars’ active participation in the organization.
The city of Philadelphia provided a great landscape to study as a first time VAFer! I found the tension between the complex urban landscape and the rural foundations of the city fascinating. The bus tours emphasized the early reliance on agriculture through the remaining farmhouses and barns we saw on the Germantown tour. For a rural historian, the agrarian realities of the city underline the false divisions placed on the American landscape. On Friday, the walking tours introduced me to numerous nooks and crannies across the city that caught my attention. Elfreth’s Alley stressed the importance of historic preservation in a city that is continually modernizing. This idyllic street transports visitors to Colonial America while placed between massive skyscrapers and apartment buildings. On Saturday, the paper presentations displayed the vast array of disciplines that converge at the conference. From rural spaces to urban life, each panel pointed to understudied and overlooked areas on the landscape. The atmosphere at each panel I attended was accepting, encouraging, and stimulating. The studies of the built environment throughout the week not only made me excited to attend next year but also hopeful to participate in the future. Thank you for advancing scholars and investing in my future.
As a social historian, I initially felt a slight degree of trepidation in attending the VAF conference. I was not immediately sure how I would be able to apply my experience at the conference to my own research, which primarily examines how neighborhoods in both New York City and San Francisco became increasingly gentrified after the mass migration of young, middle-class, predominately white youth in the late 1960s. Attending VAF and talking to other scholars of space and architecture encouraged me to think about gentrification as a process enacted upon buildings and spaces. On the second day of the conference, I participated in the Germantown bus tour, which allowed me to explore how space could serve as a form of resistance to gentrification. One of the more interesting aspects of touring Philadelphia was seeing porch culture in action; blocks of rowhomes with people socializing outside on their porches seemed to represent a means of resistance to gentrification by reinforcing a sense of community. The many private tours and hospitable homeowners made the conference experience extremely intimate and exciting; because of its interdisciplinary and unconventional approach, I returned to Auburn with a new outlook on my own research that focuses on the relationship between the built --environment and people.
Philadelphia is perhaps the truest of American cities, embodying the endurance of history, the grit of industry, and the pursuit of the self-made family within a slightly leaning composition of red brick, white trim, and blue shutters. The VAF Conference was a meticulously researched survey of these core American pillars throughout everyday Philadelphia. The city is comprised of architecture that is both unassumingly symmetrical and intentionally ad hoc, giving an identifiable fingerprint to the ubiquitous row houses. With tours through attics and basements, the conference celebrated the behind-the-scenes spaces of real life.
The longest lasting impression of the VAF conference was the varied conglomeration of individuals in attendance. From architects to preservationists to historians, every person was the utmost of welcoming encouragement to this recent graduate and first-time attendee. Early on a Thursday morning in late May, I found myself standing in the backyard of a private residence in the outskirts of Philadelphia next to a complete stranger. He turned to me and said, “I love the backs of houses. They’re crooked and perfect.” With that quirky statement, I knew I was among people who love buildings and the individuals who use them just as much as I do.