2019 Bishir Prize Recipient

Remarks given by Cary Carson at the 2019 Philadelphia Conference

The Bishir Prize, named after our very own Catherine Bishir and awarded since 2012, is different from other prizes we give. Different in some important scholar-friendly ways. Unlike the Cummings book award, we give this one for essay-length articles that make outstanding contributions to our understanding of vernacular buildings and cultural landscapes. Journal articles bring new work into print sooner than books do. That means for us, for readers, they’re often our first introduction to colleagues we’re just getting to know and to ideas and approaches that they may be among the first to advance. In other words, Bishir Prize winners can be the trail-blazers who show us where scholarship in our field goes from here. Bishir prize winners is where I look for new work that’s just coming to a boil.

Good evening. I’m Cary Carson. Margaret Grubiak asked me to do the honors tonight and announce this year’s Bishir Prize winners. Margaret was the very hardworking and able chair of our little selection committee of three. “We” being her, me, and Jerry Pocius. Early in our deliberations we were challenged to explain what made vernacular building studies vernacular. Jerry voiced his concern that VAF and our journal Buildings & Landscapes were maybe at risk of becoming “SAH Lite.” That set off a very lively conversation. Along the way Catherine Bishir herself weighed in. No surprise that!

Always before, the criteria for the prize had been 3 in particular—original research, innovative interpretations or methodologies, and a significant contribution to the intellectual vitality of the field. To this last we added a corollary: prizeworthy articles should, we argued, make a significant contribution to understanding the uses and users of buildings, all buildings, not only their designers, makers, materials, and construction methods. In other words, the hallmark of the VA approach, we told ourselves, is research that explains how buildings and landscapes shaped the behavior, intended or not, of everyone who lived there, worked there, worshipped there, played there. 

There are two winners this year. That’s right. Our committee chose a pair of Bishir Prizewinners. They couldn’t be more different. Yet both articles have this in common. They put real people making real choices at the center of built environments.

Maire O’Neill Conrad is Professor of Architecture and Design at Montana State University. Her work on the development of farm buildings in the Northern Rockies is solidly grounded on extensive field recording. The larger significance of this exemplary regional study is assured by Maire’s attention to broader historical contexts—a rapidly changing agricultural economy, new technologies, connections to sources of innovation in eastern cities, and the transcontinental railroad. 

While this is a thorough study of materials and construction methods, it also meets our committee’s special interest in understanding the uses and users of vernacular buildings. The cow and hay barns she recorded and describes in this study were fashioned and often quickly refashioned in response to Montana farmers’ and ranchers’ needs for winter shelter for livestock and large amounts of hay storage.

Gabrielle Berlinger, a folklorist and ethnologist at University of North Carolina, comes to the study of vernacular architecture in an altogether different way. Her study of the Jewish sukkot [sAH-KOT]—a temporary ritual enclosre built for the Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites’ journey to the Promised Land—unfolds from an ethnographic research methodology.

Her fieldwork from 2010 to 2011 in Tel Aviv coincided with the Occupy protest movement. Demonstrations sparked by shortages of affordable housing turned the traditional sukkot into a symbol of dissent. We admired Gabrielle’s work for the way that it combines architectural fieldwork, ethnography, and analysis of contemporary social problems.

The Bishir Prize selection committee congratulates both Maire O’Neill Conrad and Gabrielle Berlinger for these outstanding contributions to vernacular architecture. 

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