Vernacular Architecture of Chicago: Book Review

For this review of a book on Chicago architecture, we take a look at Out of the Loop, a collection of essays from the Vernacular Architecture Forum that explores Chicago’s architectural landscape from the view of our neighborhoods. Various scholars put together these essays in tandem with the tours that they offered for their 2015 conference. So just to let you know, this will be a little bit more of a scholarly post.

Defining Vernacular Architecture

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Let’s start out with a definition of “vernacular architecture.” People have some different interpretations. Historically a lot of the art and architecture history focused on the creations or consumptions of those in power. Mansions, churches, castles, or skyscrapers. Recently, scholarship has turned to also include the lives of everyday people. That’s what studies of vernacular architecture speak to.

Vernacular buildings can be residential, industrial or agricultural (like barns) and usually they are not designed by any famous architect. Some say that vernacular must be unique to the materials and conditions of the local environment. Igloos in the Canadian arctic, for example. Others would say that vernacular architecture is simply more commonplace, like the mass-produced architecture of a Route 66 gas station. Though its design is not necessarily locally sensitive, it reflects culture.

So I got pretty excited about this book as it comes close to our approach to architecture on our interior architectural walking tours or bus tours of Chicago neighborhoods. I like to point out the extraordinary qualities of ordinary buildings, like why houses look sunken below street level in certain areas of town. On our new “Big Shoulders Historic Bar and Food Bus Tour” I point out how the multiple diagonal streets of Bridgeport defy the grid because they were built before the layout of the city, and these streets were designed perpendicular to the river, which had been the focal point of the street layout. I was excited to the conference and this book as providing me with rich new fodder for my stories of Chicago history as a tour guide.

An “Out of the Loop” Anthology

The writers for these essays, who range from community figures to urban planners to historians, take very interdisciplinary approaches to their topics. Concepts span sociology, geography, history, art history, and anthropology (like our tours!).

I love how VAF Chicago’s conference chair Virginia Price opens the book: “What binds VAF participants is a methodology grounded in the investigation, analysis, and interpretation of the ways the built environment shapes – and, in turn, is shaped by – human experience.” This is the stuff I live for!

This more cultural approach to understanding everyday architecture is a newer idea, and thus the field of vernacular architecture seems to be trying to solidify its identity. Many of the essays – while informatively written – simply share facts about the buildings, such as their location or materials, rather than directly reflecting upon and processing the ways in which buildings and urban space are actually used by human beings.

Types of Buildings and Neighborhoods

Terry Tatum’s breakdown of Chicago residential building types, such as bungalows or courtyard apartment buildings, is helpful for outlining the forms and materials of the homes on regular Chicago neighborhood streets. Insights into the cultural forces that have shaped these buildings would help it better fit within the studies of vernacular architecture.

For example, we can consider how the ways we use a common Chicago house dictates the building’s form. Many Chicago homes have the kitchen in the back of the house. That enabled easy access to the back yard (where there may be a garden) and the alleyway, where the trash is taken out. While it seems mundane to a Chicagoan, this is not always the case in other cities. Or I wondered, did people respond to a workers cottage versus a greystone? Was a standalone cottage the dream of the working class man or still not enough? What messages do these buildings say to both its inhabitants and those looking at them from the outside?

jane addams little italy museum of public housing
A 1938 housing development in Little Italy.

Recommended for Chicago Architecture Enthusiasts

The content of the book makes it an excellent addition to both scholars or aficionados of Chicago architecture and neighborhoods. Chapters dig into big ideas in Chicago history and planning. Our grid layout, the Chicago Union Stock Yards infrastructure, and religious buildings are all covered. Then other chapters go into specific neighborhoods, from Pilsen to Little Italy to Devon. There’s a fascinating story of how Lawndale went from a Jewish community to what a sociologist called a “hyperghetto.”

The Hull-House essay contrasts the dystopia of tenements with the utopia of the Hull-House Settlement. It details who lived in the buildings and the functions of the spaces. The readers finds a clear tie between the architecture and culture. “Hull-House reformers resisted and confronted gender-based oppression through this utopian reimagining of the space and meaning of home.”

The study of architectural history becomes deeply human when buildings are seen as reflections of our own cultural identities. For me at least, this is the definition of “vernacular architecture.”

–Amanda Scotese, Chicago Detours Executive Director

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