OpEd: Generational Transitions and the Digital Revolution

16 Oct 2014 1:03 PM | Christine R Henry (Administrator)

by Chris Wilson

Generations of VAF members enjoying a tourThe Vernacular Architecture Forum is 34 years old--an age in the life of an organization when the presence of the founding generation begins to fade and the torch is passed to younger members. Fortunately for the VAF, a steady stream of new members--fostered by our emphasis on student conference fellowships, the welcoming spirit of those conferences, and our publications--has supported a healthy transition from the founding generation to what are now a second and a third generation of members. As many of us in the founding generation age toward and into retirement from our day jobs, I would like to reflect on how this generational succession--intensified by the digital communications revolution--may be playing out.

Generational theory suggests that the shared formative experiences of each generational cohort help shape the concerns and character of that generation as it moves through life. Those shaped during their youth by the Great Depression and World War II, for instance, focused on education, careers and raising families after the war, while also initiating the social justice movements of subsequent decades. Several VAF founding members belong to a transitional cohort, born in the last years of the Depression and during World War II, which bridges between the experiences of the pre- and post-war generations.

           Pop sociology terms the three succeeding generations:

ŸBaby Boomers, born from the mid-1940s into the 1960s, and now in their 50s and 60s.

ŸGen Xers (from Generation X), born early 1960s to early 1980s, mostly in their 30s and 40s.

ŸMillennials (also known as Gen Y), born since the early 1980s, including our youngest members in their 20s and early 30s, and the key pool of prospective new members in the years to come.

This line of interpretation asks, what have been the formative experiences, changing circumstances, opportunity paths and intellectual concerns of each generation.

Baby Boomers

The rise of the automobile and White Flight fueled the preeminence of the suburbs after World War II, where, I suspect, most VAFers of this generation grew up. The Civil Rights movements, opposition to the Viet Nam War and the anti-establishment Hippie counterculture strongly colored their early adult years. The folk music revival and a back-to-the-land ethic contributed to an interest in folk culture, including traditional construction techniques, which remains strong in the organization to this day.

Social justice concerns contributed to the rise of a New Social History that sought to broaden from elite, economic and political history to include the experiences of all ethnic, gender and racial groups. As many of these groups left few written documents, scholars turned to oral history, and to the study of material culture, vernacular architecture, and cultural landscapes to augment traditional sources. In this egalitarian spirit, our practice of alternating female and male presidents has reflected a commitment both to gender equity in the organization and to gender analysis in our scholarship.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, by establishing state preservation offices, and initiating multi-year cultural resource surveys, opened career paths in government and new consulting firms. These inclusive resource surveys, and a shift of focus from house museums to larger districts, put vernacular buildings on a par with elite, architect-designed structures. The establishment of the VAF countered the elite focus of the older Society of Architectural Historians, and many early VAF members carried the vernacular concept into academia, especially history, architecture, American studies and preservation programs.

Vernacular Subjects and Methods

The conception of Vernacular Architecture at the heart of the founding of the organization in 1980undefinedor at least as I came to understand it when I joined in 1988undefinedsought to study, valorize and preserve the work of unschooled builders in contrast to the work of professional architects. Vernacular encompassed both the pre-industrial folk designs of rural and village communities, and the popular generic building types of urban and suburban settings.

To put vernacular buildings on a par with architect-designed buildings, with their already-existing blue prints, for instance, required field work to produce measured drawings. But beyond vernacular subject matter, many members argued that the research methods and analytical frameworks developed for the vernacular should also be applied to elite design. This meant, for instance, the augmentation of a traditional focus on style--so often bound up in elite status displays--with the analysis of the use of spaces within buildings and communities to achieve a deeper history of family and social relationships.

Gen Xers came of age in the era of globalization, initiated in international finance in the mid-1970s. The lowering of trade barriers and the free movement of capital reduced the power of national governments in favor of global corporations. People too moved more freely across international borders.  With the loosening of travel regulations and a boom in jet travel, many regions turned to heritage tourism to counter deindustrialization. The number of legal immigrants annually to the U.S. more than doubled from 1977 to 2007. Latino, East and South Asian immigrants energized cities, while Latinos also helped slow the decline of many small towns across the country.

The conservative wave led by Ronald Reagan sought to reduce taxes, and funding for government and education.  In 1981, for instance, federal preservation grants, which had been available for all types of properties, were replaced by preservation tax credits reserved for the rehab of income-producing properties. Resources for historic properties surveys, which had encompassed vernacular architecture, shifted to the preparation and review of National Register nominations and tax credit applications, primarily for architect-designed buildings.  

At various times since its founding, VAF members have developed an emphasis on vernacular methods in graduate programs; Indiana, Berkeley, Delaware, George Washington, Virginia, Wisconsin and Boston University come quickly to mind. Their Gen X protégés, with newly-minted PhDs, added to the proportion of VAF members finding academic jobs. This second VAF generation shared inclusive, vernacular interests with the founding generation.

But if early issues of Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture favored pre-industrial topics, by the 1990s, members of both generations turned increasingly to 20th century and international topics, to the city and suburbia. The transformation of Perspectives into our current journal, Buildings and Landscapes, in 2007 reflected the growing importance of cultural landscape studies. Its creation and inclusion in JSTOR and various data bases has also been key to attracting and supporting our academic members. The growing numbers of articles on minority and immigrant populations in the U.S., and on international topics parallels a heartening (if incomplete) rise in racial, cultural and ethnic diversity among our members.

The computer and digital communication revolution that typifies Globalization appears to be causing a major cultural paradigm and consciousness shift. The personal computer and video games became common as Gen Xers came of age. Not surprisingly, they have taken the lead in the rise of Digital Humanities since the early 1990s.

Millennials, of course, are the first generation of “digital natives,” for whom the computer, internet and smart phone are second nature.  While some people assume that globalization causes a placeless cultural homogenization, it paradoxically has intensified the importance of place. The ubiquitous use of maps as graphic user interfaces serves to geolocate information in a way that makes people more, not less connected to where they are.  In other words, we now navigate the world with smartphones in our palms displaying maps linked to remarkable depths of information. The computer has made possible the visualization and geospatial representation of data, while animations and fly-throughs bring historic environments to life. Indeed, the equality of text and visuals that is often cited as a key characteristic of Digital Humanities is something that VAFers have practiced since the founding of the organization.

The Great Recession of 2008 and continuing high levels of unemployment have hit Millennials hardest. Cuts in spending on government and education contributed to fewer full-time government and academic jobs, and to higher levels of student debt.  Meanwhile, in these unsettled times, many workers delayed retirement, further exacerbating the job shortage. (This represents a troubling abdication of the responsibility of one generation to the next.)

This generation’s inventiveness in the face of circumscribed opportunities is very heartening. Urban agriculture, farm-to-table restaurants, artisanal food production and a myriad of high tech and local road start-ups reflect the new Do-It-Yourself (DIY) entrepreneurialism. Growing percentages of the young are opting to give up their cars and suburbia in favor of urban living, and to make do with less by biking and taking mass transit, by couch surfing and sharing hot desks, by starting businesses in Maker incubator spaces.  Likewise, Tactical Urbanism deploys imagination and a few planters and benches to reclaim pedestrian space from auto dominance.

Moving Forward

The VAF has responded in various ways to the digital revolution and reurbanization. Members maintain VAF Facebook and Twitter accounts, a digital newsletter and a journal on JSTOR. We have developed a strong website, now in the process of migrating to Wild Apricot, which also accommodates membership renewals and various other functions. Annual conference websites, apps and YouTube previews are becoming common. The Chicago organizing committee, led by Virginia Price, will not only publish an eBook to complement the printed field guide, but has also  included a wide range of individuals and organizations active in neighborhoods and the revitalization of the city among the speakers and tour stops. (For other possibilities in this vein, take a look at the Congress of the New Urbanism’s NextGen initiative which has put resources in the hands of Gen Xers and Millennials. They have developed a simultaneous and virtual conference parallel to the traditional annual conference. Their use of Twitter, streaming and an evening PechaKucha space has fostered a substantial increase in young members, who increasingly set the tone of that organization.)

The VAF has also begun alternating conferences focused on rural and small town settings, which honor our origins and the interests of many members (Gaspè, Quebec, 2013; South New Jersey, 2014); with others that engage the history and rejuvenation of our cities (Chicago, 2015; Philadelphia, projected for 2018); and still others that mix the two (Durham, N.C., 2016; Salt Lake City, projected 2017).These, of course, are just the musings of one aging Baby Boomer. . .  but one who looks forward to seeing where our Gen X and Millennial members will take the Vernacular Architecture Forum in the years to come.

My hope is that these thoughts will foster discussion about the future of our organization.  So please add your comments below to the VAF Presidential Blog. If you would like to consider writing a longer, contrasting interpretation, contact VAN editor, Christine Henry to explore this possibility.

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