Saturday, May 31, 2014

[Review] "A Field Guide to American Houses" by Virginia Savage McAlester #bookaday

My response to "A Field Guide to American Houses" (Virginia Savage McAlester 1984 revised 2013 Knopf) is that of a lay person. However, the guide is the definitive reference book for architectural students. A lay person such as myself doesn't read the guide with the close reading strategies of an English teacher; rather, I read the book, and will continue reading it, through the lens of "place" and its rhetoric function in American homes and American literature. 

The guide is a visual and textual mapping of American home designs from the 1700s to the present. Simply, by referencing the guide, both professionals and lay people such as myself can place our homes and those of our communities, states, and nation in their historical and geographic contexts. 
I became keenly interested in the rhetorical function of home and architecture years ago, but my interest really came to life when I discovered a resource about the representation of homes in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." I still have a printout of the document in my filing cabinet but can't seem to locate it on the internet now. The juxtaposition of geography and the structures of homes in UTC resonated with me. 

Other books have informed my interest in homes as rhetoric: "Rebecca," "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," "My Antonia," "The Tragedy of Macbeth," "The Great Gatsby," "The Fountainhead," "A Raisin in the Sun," are among these. Even some YA has piqued my interest in the rhetoric of home, most recently "Reality Boy" by A.S. King. Of course, gothic literature, such as Poe's short stories, most notably "The Fall of the House of Usher," succeed in no small part because of their grounding in this place we call home. Of course, I'd be remise in not mentioning Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily." 

I mention these texts because "A Field Guide to American Houses" is a resource that I'll use in constructing lesson plans, particularly those texts that rely so much on place. From elevation design and influence to the way homes are grouped geographically to how designed is influenced by economics and war, "A Field Guide to American Houses" is chalk full of information I'd thought little about. 

Even the New Millennium Mansion (McMansion) in its obnoxious existence on too small lots took on new meaning as I read about its origins and its response to economic conditions. These homes, says McAlester, are part of the New Traditional Architectural movement that has at times been critiqued as "derivative." McAlester defends the movement as having unique features and its creators: They understand classical principles and architectural styele well enough to subtly alter or rearrange elements to create New Traditional home designs, not copies--houses instantly familiar yet subtly different from the homes that inspired them. Architectural historian Vincent Scully describes this as a 'conversation across the generations.'" (725)

Thinking about home design as "conversational" makes me think about how these topics can become conversations in my classroom. Additionally, the NCTE 2014 convention theme "Story as the Landscape of Knowing" resonates with me as I think about landscape as place, home as places where we create stories, and design that grounds us in a sense of nostalgic longing for the past as we simultaneously look to the future. 

Throughout the book one finds images of homes in a variety of geographical locations. Thus, looking at the home styles in states where I've lived became a fascinating scavenger hunt. The images of homes sent me searching for information so that my reading took a non-linear trek, as though I was journeying across the blue highways marked by squiggly lines on maps. Idaho, unfortunately, is woefully underrepresented in the book, probably because it has had no real influence on home design, unlike Illinois and California. 

If I were to criticize the book in any way, it would be in its absence of color photography. I imagine the utilitarian purpose (to inform) of the guide justifies the inclusion of only black and white photographs. Still, our cultural and architectural heritage is quite colorful, and "A Field Guide to American Houses" is a fun way to learn about the vernacular of our homes. 

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