2017 Access Awardee Rachel Heiman Reflects on Experiences in Salt Lake City

17 Jan 2018 12:00 PM | Christine R Henry

by Rachel Heiman, The New School

What a delight it has been for me to have found my way to the Vernacular Architecture Forum, with its warm and welcoming intellectual community of scholars and practitioners who deeply appreciate the profound significance of the mundane materiality of everyday life. As an anthropologist increasingly working at the intersection of architecture and urbanism, I had come to feel that I needed to step further outside of my intellectual comfort zone. I had been spending far too much time at anthropology conferences and needed something that would trigger unexpected thoughts and unanticipated connections. I also had been appointed chair of the Urban Studies program at my university, with a charge to find ways to reinvigorate its liberal arts curriculum while building new bridges with our design school. So I did what we admittedly often do in moments of antsiness and interested curiosity: I turned to Google.

It was during a moment of seeming procrastination that I came upon a website that listed various upcoming Urban Studies conferences, including the Vernacular Architecture Forum in Salt Lake City. How perfect, I thought! I had spent significant time conducting ethnographic research in the Salt Lake Valley in the Daybreak master-planned community, a massive transit-oriented development on reclaimed land once used for mining activities and developed with equal parts attention to sustainable suburban design and the values and practices of Utah’s members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-Day Saints. Yet my knowledge of the architectural, religious, extractive, and cultural history of Utah was too limited to fully appreciate the ways that Daybreak’s designers and marketing team were articulating global discourses of ecodevelopment with local desires, values, and aesthetics, including historical buildings and landscapes. When I read about the 2017 VAF conference theme, “Two Utahs: Religious and Secular Landscapes in the Great Basin West,” and looked over past VAF programs and saw the unique conference structure with extensive tours, social gatherings, and presentations from practitioners and academics, I was sold.

Little did I know of the other gem of VAF conferences: the amazing tour books! My first night at the conference I found myself reading them well into the wee hours of the night, wishing that I could clone myself and participate in all of the tours. I ended up choosing the ones most directly related to my research and delighted in what I learned. The first day on the tour of the Sanpete Valley, “Town and Temple: Mormon Villages in the Nineteenth Century,” I came away considering Brigham Young in a whole new light: as an urban planner and early proponent of using infrastructure construction as a form of economic stimulus. I also charmingly learned that Scandinavian design refers not only to mid-century modern furniture and Ikea, but also to early Mormon settler log-cabin notches! The next morning, in perfect complement with the “Two Utahs” theme, I went on the downtown walking tour, “Urbanization and Reurbanization of the Gentile City.” The tour enabled me for the first time to see the downtown’s built environment as an object lesson in the uneasy relationship between the LDS Church and federal, mining, and railroad interests, from the siting of the Moss Courthouse to the Neo-Classical style of the Stock and Mining Exchange. That afternoon on the “Two Rails, Two Developments: Re-urbanization in Salt Lake City” tour, I came to appreciate how the city’s early development as an urban agrarian settlement created unique conditions for contemporary efforts to retrofit Salt Lake City for a sustainable future. While its wide streets might feel alienating for pedestrians, they provide ample space for multiple re-uses, with light rail tracks, bike lanes, moving cars, and parked cars all able to share the same terrain. And the massive block size, while also a retrofit challenge for human-scale dynamism, enables residential neighborhoods to have ample backyard space to add detached dwelling units that do not affect the form and character of neighborhoods. On this tour, I also greatly valued seeing the architecture of homes in Sugar House, many of which form the design palette for homes in Daybreak.

The following day, it was admittedly a stark transition from tours in the bright, hot sun to talks in windowless conference rooms, but the warmth of the VAF crowd made the day of presentations an equal pleasure. Having spent two and a half days meeting new colleagues at receptions, on bus rides, and in tour clusters, I felt welcomed into the VAF intellectual community in a way that I had never experienced at a large conference. As panel discussions spilled into halls, I had so many stimulating conversations, including how the “fieldwork turn” in vernacular architecture research is converging in interesting ways with anthropology’s “material turn,” even as claims to new turns in both fields elide long histories with these practices in each. As the final reception and dinner came to a close that night, I was for the first time in my academic career sad to see a conference come to an end. I had known no one when I first arrived and had chosen this conference largely because of its location in Salt Lake City, but as I packed up my tour books and scrolled through tour pictures on my phone, I expectantly put into my calendar the dates for the next VAF conference on the banks of the Potomac. See you all there!

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