UWM Ambassadors share videos and thoughts on conference

15 Aug 2018 1:40 AM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)
Associate Professor Arijit Sen, VAF Ambassadors, and Paper Presenters from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee

The 2018 VAF ambassadors included two undergraduate students and one doctoral candidate from the Department of Architecture at the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee (UWM). In addition, our team included another doctoral candidate who presented his paper on Saturday. Our goal was to bring two undergraduate students to experience this conference while being mentored by experienced doctoral students and faculty members. The selected students are funded-scholars who excel in their studies and show great potential to contribute to the study of vernacular architecture and everyday environments.

We thank the Vernacular architecture forum for offering the UWM ambassadors a unique opportunity to observe paper sessions, learn about vernacular architecture, and engage with scholars in ways that only a VAF conference can offer. This experience has greatly enhanced the confidence of these young intellectuals and introduced them to ways by which they can “study, document, serve, and disseminate” their own community-histories.

At UWM, we share VAF’s goal of attracting young and established scholars from underrepresented groups into our membership ranks. We received matching funds from the UWM Office of Undergraduate Research, Department of Architecture Doctoral Program Committee, and the Wisconsin Alliance for Minority Participation to achieve this objective.

In addition to reporting conference events via social media, the ambassadors also promoted a project titled #WeAreVAF. Their goal was to poll a cross-section of conference-goers to gauge the impact of this organization. During the tours and between paper sessions, the students fanned out to ask participants what VAF meant to them. They disseminated these short surveys via social media. Selected examples from the #WeAreVAF pilot are listed at the end of this report.

The students send the following messages to members of the VAF.

A few months ago, I attended the 2018 Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference: Urban and Rural Experiences on the Banks of the Potomac in Alexandria, Virginia. This would not have been possible without the Ambassadors Award scholarship, which allowed me to attend the conference free of charge. As a sophomore undergraduate in Architecture and someone whose career has just begun, this was a great opportunity for me. The conference opened my eyes to the possibilities that the field offers and allowed me to interact with the top scholars of vernacular architecture, some of whose books I have read.

This was one of the most exciting things for me about the conference. I could have open conversations with scholars much more experienced than I in the field. Very often, especially as a young woman with little experience, it is easy to feel inferior and that your opinions are not valued as highly as others. I did not feel this way at all at the conference, and I think the format and structure of the experience facilitated this openness and equality amongst age, gender, and race. Regardless of who you are and what your experience is, everyone went on the same tours, did the same things, and were all valued equally. The experienced scholars were not off doing more sophisticated things while the students were elsewhere; we were all climbing through hot dusty attics and running from peacocks. We were all doing the same things, and therefore all participants had the same amount of power. This made it very easy to have open conversations and share ideas without letting age and experience get in the way. I personally think this is a great and progressive model and many organizations could benefit from this type of equality and open communication. This specifically made the conference stand out to me and separated it from similar situations where top scholars hold all the power.

 Aside from the logistics of the conference and its structure, we also explored some great buildings. From an architectural perspective, and as someone who has studied physical and implied boundaries in the past, I was interested in seeing how class and labor boundaries were manifested in this type of building that I was not too familiar with. When I had previously researched boundaries, I was looking at primarily early 20th- century duplexes in Milwaukee, Wisconsin with which I have become extremely familiar. In these buildings, service and labor is usually visible through smaller back staircases, closed off kitchens, and milk chutes. However, the buildings we saw at the conference were not quite as clear as I expected. In most cases, the slave’s quarters were often ignored, removed, or refurbished, making the original layout and circulation difficult to understand. This is most likely because of the age of these buildings. Since slave housing was often built out of cheaper materials than the main house, they may have collapsed over time. The lack of slave’s quarters could also be attributed to the connotation of slavery vs. servitude that sometimes causes slave history to be erased. The place that the original slave’s quarters were best preserved was at Mt. Vernon. All the places and routes where they would have circulated were cast off the central property. The slave’s hall or dining area is on the west side of the property. Continuing west is the gardener’s house, salt house, spinning house, blacksmith’s shop, greenhouse, and slave’s quarters. I found the orientation and the accessibility of the slave’s quarters to be particularly interesting. They are brick, which says something about how Washington valued his slaves. However, the entrances face away from the main property and each room is only accessible from outside, forcing an indoor/outdoor living situation. This creates a separate living landscape for the slaves as compared to the life of the residents. This separate living landscape has evolved over time and changed scales, but is truly still present today, especially in the very segregated city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

I truly thank the Vernacular Architecture Forum for giving me the opportunity to attend the conference through the Ambassadors Award. It was a very eye-opening experience for me, and I hope to attend more conferences in the future.

With sincere thanks,

Bella Biwer

Bachelor of Architecture, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

Thank you for gifting me with the honor of serving as an ambassador for the Vernacular Architecture Forum. As an undergraduate student studying architecture, urban planning, and Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, I am truly grateful for the opportunity to be in the company of intelligent scholars from a variety of disciplines! Due to your generous invitation, I experienced the 2018 VAF conference—A Shared Heritage: Urban and Rural Experience on the Banks of the Potomac. I met a range of scholars who were extremely welcoming and willing to share their knowledge with me. This was an invaluable experience and I appreciate the VAF for being so versatile in your approach to learning about the built environment!

During the conference, I learned about the history of many homes located on the Banks of the Potomac through a series of site visits. The places we explored provided an opportunity to engage with history and envision how spaces were inhabited in the past. Each site offered a new perspective on the built environment and how it has been organized to fit the needs of different people’s lived experiences. My favorite event during the conference was the boat tour on the first night. Later in the evening we had wine and an awards ceremony at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It was the first time I had experienced a slave plantation in the United States. It was a very conflicting feeling, and I was oddly relaxed the entire time. The second day consisted of a bus tour where we periodically stopped and visited different homes. It was interesting to see how people have either personalized these old homes to make them livable, or how they have preserved them. I really appreciated the homes with the original art and/or furniture intact. It provided an opportunity to visualize the time in which they lived. The site visit to the historically black school in Galesville was very refreshing. The community members created a space to teach black children what they were missing from the educational system that existed prior. Members of this black community matched the amount of money allocated by the government and other partnering organizations, at a time when black people in America were at war with many of its citizens. The school is stand standing, and it was nice to witness that. The third day consisted of self-guided walking tours which enabled me to connect with other conference goers and enjoy the beautiful views the city offers. The paper sessions were unique in peoples’ ability to express new ideas and information regarding how they engage with the built environment. One of the sessions that I particularly appreciated spoke about women vs. gender, and the impacts these two variables have on social life, power structures, and power dynamics. The author examined how race, class, and gender created a trilogy of complex layers of information that intersect to influence architecture in a variety of ways. I found the approach very intriguing.

As an ambassador of the VAF conference, I had the privilege of engaging in conversation with professionals about how they decided on their life path. People told me about some of the obstacles and opportunities they have encountered during their professional progression, and gave me advice on how to navigate my professional trajectory. I also interviewed conference goers using the Pixstori app, to capture different perspectives of the Vernacular Architecture Conference. The questions I asked were meant to capture the essence of VAF culture. Overall, I had an amazing time at the Vernacular Architecture Forum Conference, and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to be an ambassador.

With sincere thanks,

Teonna Cooksey

Bachelor of Architecture, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

My experience at the 2018 VAF Conference—A Shared Heritage: Urban and Rural Experience on the Banks of the Potomac gave me a sense of the field that I am growing into as a doctoral student. As an ambassador, I could survey current issues, as well as more deep-rooted subjects in both the tours and the paper sessions. The conference allowed me, as an attendee, to walk through the methods of study. This immersive research experience is crucial to understanding the built environment, and strengthens my readings of methodological articles. Most of all, being around other VAF attendees, I got a sense of the love everyone has for their field of study. Attending the conference is like tapping into the pulse of a constellation within academia, understanding what drives others in their areas of concentration, and the ardor is contagious.

So, how is this ardor transferred to new attendees such as myself? Late in the heat of the afternoon, our bus pulled off the road, and we walked down an old country gravel road to find a grouping of barns with a complex but unified roofline. A few sets of gables stood facing different directions, lofted above airy rooms filled with slightly cooler air away from the sunshine. There were about 60 people milling about. We immediately exploring the floor plan, searching the uneven ground of the field behind to catch the perfect angle for a photograph, and filling the senses with the textures, structure, and getting a sense of the history of labor, agriculture, and culture in this building. As we did so, we’d catch a smile or a word from each other, a quick pardon or ‘after you’ in passing, and perhaps a deeper conversation about the place.

There’s a sense of openness and kindness that really underlies the feeling the VAF conference, but it’s the enthusiasm that really draws me in. At first, as a younger academic, I had come to feel a little on guard at conferences, and a little reticent to immerse myself in getting to know the field, because my position within it was still amorphous and developing. Of course, there is also a sense of being out of my league and needing to ‘prove’ my mettle. Yet, with VAF, there’s such an enthusiasm about buildings, materials, textures, landscapes, and the act of exploring the two and three dimensional qualities of a place that invites me in with a feeling of camaraderie and wonder. This is a group that wants to share their love of place with those around them, and to foster that enthusiasm in its membership, in next generations of academics, and in those who join the exploration just for an hour. It can be quite a commitment to have this enthusiasm; it certainly can be exhausting to check all the locations of a VAF walking tour off in one day, but it’s a rewarding commitment.

I’m grateful for my experience at the 2018 VAF in Alexandria, because I’m a doctoral student whose work sometimes blurs the line between architecture, geography, and history, my experience at this conference solidifies both the interdisciplinary work but roots me in the study of the built environment. The tours and the paper sessions help to orient me within the field and develop the relationships and patterns between my work and focal subjects within the field of vernacular architecture studies. My work looks at theories of power, specifically how race and class shape spaces at a range of scales; but I also look at how everyday practices are defiant actions that resist these powerful shaping forces. The paper sessions about indigenous landscapes, settler colonialism, as well as the exploration of agricultural, recreational, and home spaces allows me to think about this in new ways and think through sources and theories that I wasn’t familiar with. Overall, my ambassadorship allows me to test and reinforce my understanding of the field and perhaps find my place within it.

Chelsea Wait
Doctoral Candidate, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee

The UWM Ambassadors had a great time interacting with VAF attendees, and recorded many reflections with a tool called Pixstori.  The stories are wonderfully engaging! Please click on the name to listen to each story.

  Joy Huntington   Matt Papineau
  Peter Morrill   Michelle Jones
  Laura Grotjan   Arijit Sen
  Bella Biwer  Philip Gruen

More Pixstoris:




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