Fieldwork and the Vernacular Architecture Forum

The Vernacular Architecture Forum encourages a wide array of fieldwork practices to achieve a deeper understanding of the everyday built environment. This variety contributes to the interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary character of the best scholarship in vernacular architecture, aiming to tell broader and more inclusive stories, “entangled stories” as Arijit Sen notes on Platform, “in which the personal and the communal, past and present, permanent and the ephemeral, visible and the invisible are intertwined.”

For many, this work has focused on the close study and analysis of the physical fabric of buildings. Recording through photography, measured drawings, and now aided by 3D laser scanning, paint analysis, and other modern technologies, detailed on-site investigation is one of the best methods for understanding a building’s evolution. Coupled with archival research, these tools help researchers sharpen their analysis of construction methods, changing uses, and the arrangement of space. As Edward Chappell writes in The Chesapeake House, quality fieldwork is grounded in the careful observation and documentation of materials and features for the purpose of “recognizing changes, sorting out dates, and discovering variability that reveals human choice and ideology.”

But this is not the only fieldwork undertaken by members of the VAF, who regularly engage streetscapes as well as details of finish, settlement patterns as well as floor plans. For many, the focus is not on individual structures, the farmstead or ranch or even the hamlet, but rather on larger aggregations of buildings, clustered in villages, stretching across large expanses of the countryside, crowded into city and suburban neighborhoods. VAF members are alert to the importance of considering buildings in context and over their long lives and recognize that multiple senses and responses inform us as we move through these places.  

And so fieldwork stretches beyond a consideration of the artifact itself, as historians, designers, practitioners, activists, and students seek to better understand how past and present users encounter and comprehend their environments. They work with local communities to plan and implement their research programs -- taking oral histories, recording gatherings, filming festivals – as they learn together. VAF recognizes the crucial role that these various approaches to fieldwork play in projects that value the diverse ways people build landscapes and experience them each day. 

VAF’s commitment to fieldwork is reflected in the programs, grants, and awards that focus on this type of research. This is the work that precedes our annual meetings and provides us with the informative guidebooks that illuminate our signature field tours. The fruits of these efforts can be sampled at our annual conference’s paper sessions and fill our newsletter VAN, our journal Buildings & Landscapes, and our Special Series

To encourage this work, VAF provides funding for students, emerging professionals, and seasoned practitioners in support of individual research projects and to attend field schools, both through Ridout Fieldwork Fellowships.

This year VAF will launch a new field school initiative, in partnership with the University of Virginia and with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.  This exceptional opportunity will support training at three different sites, one beginning in each of the next three years and each running for two seasons, through VAF’s African American Field Schools Program. Current programs are detailed here: Johns Island, Bellevue, and SHEET.

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