The Vernacular Architecture Forum has never been an explicitly political organization. While our general viewpoint has been fairly liberal about the kinds of places and people we study, we have always assumed that our members have a wide variety of perspectives and that they should feel comfortable expressing their opinions without feeling out of place.
Last month, an issue arose that VAF’s Executive Committee felt required a somewhat political response. On February 23, 2023, the Washington Post reported on emails from Bert Ellis, a new member of the University of Virginia governing board, who criticized members of the university community interested in the role of slavery at UVA. Ellis specifically called out former VAF President and Buildings & Landscapes editor Louis Nelson, a professor and Vice Provost at UVA, who has been very active in exploring racial histories at the school, in the Charlottesville community, and in the larger world. In addition to his excellent books and articles on Black architecture on both sides of the Atlantic, Louis developed a field school in Falmouth, Jamaica which he used as a base for a VAF conference in 2011. He also wrote the grant for Mellon Foundation funding for our wonderful African American Field School, which begins its second season this summer.
VAF member Marta Gutman, an editor of the architectural history blog PLATFORM, arranged for an editorial on this issue in the blog and inquired about how architectural historians might respond. I am happy to report that VAF joined with the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) and the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH) to issue a joint statement objecting to this criticism, the first time these built environment organizations have collaborated in such a manner. The statement points out that the criticism from a member of UVA’s governing board violates the academic freedom of faculty and students to pursue research into topics of their own choosing. It also expresses support for the efforts of Nelson and all other architectural historians to better understand how racial discrimination has shaped our built environment.
Like many current efforts to prevent uncomfortable racial truths from being exposed, Ellis’s attack on Louis and other academic community members was couched in terms of protecting the founders of the university and the nation, many of whom owned slaves. Ellis is the head of a UVA alumni group organized to honor Thomas Jefferson and defend his legacy. Yet architectural historians today continue to discuss Jefferson’s place in the development of European classical architecture while also exploring how race determined the design and use of spaces within Jefferson’s buildings and landscapes. Ellis, who also suggested UVA’s financial department cannot walk and chew gum at the same time, appears himself incapable of holding two seemingly contradictory thoughts in his head: that the author of the phrase “all men are created equal” could also own other human beings.
While I don’t see VAF hitting the campaign trail anytime soon, I believe we must stay active as an organization in the wake of an extreme conservatism that seeks to deny our ability to carry out the organization’s most important work: the study of the social, political, and economic origins of a full range of building sites and landscapes. As a product of everyday life, vernacular architecture offers significant evidence of the ways in which racial, ethnic, and other forms of prejudice are inscribed in the physical landscape. VAF members have a strong track record of explaining how different cultures build their own environments and exposing the ways in which discrimination has helped to shape architectural and social form. We cannot allow political forces of any kind to prevent this work in the future.