Monday, July 14, 2008

Some Thoughts

I thought I'd take a brief pause to discuss my ongoing project.  Anyone who's glanced over my Amazon list may have guessed that I'm up to something, and it's true.  Basically, I want to go back to graduate school for my Masters, and I have my eyes set on CUNY.  In the meantime, I've decided to put together an outline for my thesis, because it's fairly specific what I want to pursue.

I'm going to explore the Semiotics of Architecture.  Though it's not a period or style for which I have any particular love (or the contrary), I've decided to focus on Colonial American residential architecture from before 1776.  I felt this would give me a good, tight, finite set of examples to examine.  This early stage of development in the U.S. also has the most basic, honest architecture, first by way of necessity on the part of European settlers needing to house themselves as quickly and efficiently as possible, and also because the American style would not have had much time to evolve on its own yet.

The first problem is that some of the thirteen, Maine for one--then part of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts--had not really been settled into that early.  My next thought was to look at the first big wave of settlement in each region.  This is a bit more difficult because it would require careful analysis of the U.S. Census, which is often quite spotty from that long ago.  I intend to research that, anyway, to determine from what European countries the settlers were coming, predominantly, in the counties where their houses stand.  If I do broaden the time period, it could be that some of my sets end up as late as, say, the 1850s, which is definitely less pure.

The next problem is that the buildings that still stand may not be the most perfectly representative cross-section.  First of all, wooden structures are far more prone to fire and rapid aging than brick and stone.  A disproportionate number of these may now be lost.  Secondly, I'm most interested in the structures built by the common settler, not the exorbitantly wealthy or important members of society.  So this also reduces the chances of a building being historically protected, because typically they have little importance to preservationists outside of their sheer age.

These decisions will become easier, I suspect, when I see what and how much is still standing.  Here I have a problem as well, because again, looking at the houses of ordinary people, these are a bit less likely to be recorded in any sort of historic register or similar list I could hope to find.  Some of the best and unaltered examples may be little old farm houses on the side of some country road in Middle-of-Nowhere, West Virginia, long forgotten and about to collapse in a heap.  I'd never find them all, and a road trip like that could literally take an entire lifetime.  The prospect of visiting all of even the small number of houses on a list, for all thirteen colonies, is daunting enough.

My line of attack, though, is to go in order of latitude, from north to south down the Atlantic coast, recording everything.  Some elements may end up more telling than others, but angle of roof pitch, construction techniques, number and location of fireplaces, stoops and verandas, symmetricality or the lack thereof in facades and floorplans, shutters, cladding materials, dormers, moldings and their symbolism (organic/ floral or geometric/ abstract for instance, as in ornate mantelpieces or ceiling medallions), attached or detached kitchens, number, location, and orientation of staircases.  Absolutely everything.

Then for the location itself: climate, average temperatures, precipitation and average humidity, geology, quarries and clay deposits, altitude perhaps, local flora, especially amounts and types of lumber locally available, national origin of the majority of settlers in the region, average household incomes may become important, and so on.

Just a week or so back, I had a small epiphany, that all the information about the structure itself could potentially be organized into a tree, with branches like exterior--front facade--cladding--shingle--cedar, shingle--8" square, front facade--symmetrical, front facade--fenestration--shutters--pine--painted--black, and so on for every aspect of the building.  I'm not yet convinced that the location of items on the tree would be significant, I suspect that's the poetry of architecture itself.  But the content of it will be, for sure.  Of course I'd never have to construct an entire tree for one house.  The lower branches and where they diverge from region to region would be where my discussion would take place.

What I intend to find is that various combinations of branches and tree configurations will tell me all I need to know about the second paragraph, and in some cases narrow a structure's location down to colony, at least, in some cases maybe even county.

For example, lets say you have a combination like a roof pitch of 45°, wood-frame construction with maple siding, two chimneys and four fireplaces, and an asymmetrical floor-plan.  I intend to find that such a combination very likely would only have come together in a certain part of, say, southern Pennsylvania that has very specific climate conditions and snowfall, reasonable access to maple forest (why the wealth of the homeowner may be important), and so on.

Add in factors like specific construction practices and styles of ornamentation of particularly Dutch origin, and now we may be able to narrow it down to even the county, if only one county that fits all the other criteria had a large Dutch population.  Other elements may suggest being further from the coast or a large body of water, etc.

One of the first issues I considered is the fact that so much prior knowledge is required in order to read these different symbolic relationships.  My question, however, is whether or not a colonist riding past in his horse-drawn carriage in 1762 didn't have most of that knowledge.  Most recently though, I've been fascinated by what Umberto Eco is saying about dictionary versus encyclopedia, and the way we understand metaphors.

I actually don't think architectural symbolism is metaphoric, but the point is that in order to understand metaphors, we have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the words, outside of their basic definition.  As in "Mark is a robot."  You know this isn't literally true, so you have to understand what of all the things that make up "Mark" and "robot" the two might have in common to interpret what I mean.  I really like what this says about the depth of our understanding of the language.

So did the ordinary resident of a county know, when she walked into a house, that the owner must be in a certain economic class to be able to afford mahogany doors, since mahogany was not locally available?  Did he know that a veranda around the entire circumference of a house would cool the air on a muggy 100° day, and therefore "it must get hot here in the summer?"  Honestly, I believe they did, especially considering that most settlers at that time had been involved to some degree in the construction of their own homes.

It's also recently occurred to me that context is terribly important.  I realize that this system says one thing if you know where the structure stands, and something entirely different if you don't.  In other words, if I know where a structure stands, then it conveys to me information about the people who built it and some things about the region, as in "the builders used particularly Spanish construction techniques, therefore they likely settled here from Spain, therefore this region had Spanish settlers," which, by the way, in that early time period, may have only occurred in, say, the four southern-most colonies or wherever, but nonetheless a geographically limited region.

But if I'm only looking at an image of it, and don't know where it's located, then it conveys information that I have to interpret based on my knowledge of the world to determine where it is, as in "fireplaces in every room, therefore located in a colder climate, therefore in a northern colony."  In other words, I have to already know that Maine is far colder than Georgia.  The Spanish influences require me to know already what northern colonies had Spanish settlers in order to determine where it's located.  I think this may be a problem, and I'm not exactly sure how, yet.  I think the question may be, how deeply can I go into prior knowledge of the world before the signification is too obscure to be communicative?

It also brings into play the pictorial representation of the structure, as opposed to the real structure itself, which I fear may be an entirely different animal in some ways.

In any case, I needed to get some of these thoughts out of my head.  Updates as they develop.

©2008, Ryan Witte

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