What we do.
At the BLC field school, as we explore urban neighborhoods we discover their complexity. Neighborhoods are physical locations, material artifacts of everyday life, centers of symbolic action and domestic activities, and community spaces of interaction and social life.
In 1982, Jules Prown asked, “Are there aspects of mind to be discovered in objects that differ from, complement, supplement, or contradict what can be learned from more traditional literary and behavioral sources?” Prown was referring to the importance of the material world around us in telling us stories of our culture in ways that words, texts, and traditional historical sources did not. Our study of this neighborhood begins with an analysis of the world of homes, streets, gardens, gates, and asphalt. We want to find out if the physical character of the Historic Water Tower neighborhood may tell us something about its history that written accounts and official histories fail to describe.
In such a study mere stylistic and aesthetic categories of analysis fall short because these issues merely parrot what the canonical sources of architecture tell us. Describing a building merely by its style—Neo Classical, Tudor revivals—seem less useful since these categories say nothing about how the meanings and interpretations of these buildings changed over time. Questions such as “who was the architect?” or “what is the aesthetic style of a building?” may well explain the initial context and reasons why an architect built a mansion. But these questions say nothing about social life in these spaces and a pittance about the experiences of those who live in these spaces. Stories of women, children, gardeners, butlers, and maids remain untold. Esoteric information about classical details and building morphologies may enhance the significance and value of the building, but they are not the sole registers of architectural connoisseurship.
Attending to this gap in our knowledge of the built environment, the BLC field school turns towards the study of cultural landscapes as a way to interpret this neighborhood. The term cultural landscape is one that is difficult to define. We use it loosely and geographers, anthropologists, and material culture scholars understand the term in different ways. Geographer Carl Sauer in his essay “The Morphology of Landscape” defines cultural landscape as “fashioned from the natural landscape by a cultural group. Culture is the agent, the natural area is the medium, the cultural landscape the result.” Others focus on the human experience of place rather than merely studying its physical characters. Scholars such as J. B. Jackson and Kevin Lynch draw our attention to symbolic, cultural and cognitive cues in such landscapes while Dolores Hayden and Setha Low argue that understanding cultural landscapes necessitates an exploration of how we perceive those landscapes and how such practices of spectatorship may be contested.
To us, cultural landscape is phenomena materialized in space. We define cultural landscape as the materialization of a complex relationship between an individual and her larger cultural and material contexts. Cultural landscapes need not be physical, tangible and visible. Indeed, much of what we search for may be symbolic, experiential and sensorial–invisible to our eyes. And just as we make our cultural landscapes, these landscapes influence who we are.
We do not merely read cultural landscapes. We experience it in multisensory ways. In our field school we respond to Dell Upton’s cautionary note that our overdependence on reading, that is the act of visual decoding, may not be a fruitful approach towards a critical study of cultural landscapes. Indeed, unseen forces, political alliances, and non-visual cues may play an important role in our engagement with our cultural landscapes.
At the BLC field school we begin with vernacular architecture scholar Paul Groth’s argument that cultural landscape studies, “focus most on the history of how people have used everyday space–buildings, rooms, streets, fields, or yards–to establish their identity, articulate their social relations, and derive cultural meaning.” Groth’s emphasis on relationships challenges the often-singular focus on architectural authorship and style used by architectural historians. In this field school we explored the experiences of myriad inhabitants and underscored their role in the making of this neighborhood.