Andrew Zago introduces J. B. Jackson, author of such books as The Necessity for Ruins, a professor at the University of New Mexico. His work focuses on the form and origins of the American landscape. He examines those aspects of our culture that are commonly considered to be of no relevance and redefines them as the fundamental expressions of American thought, lifestyle, and beliefs.
Jackson discusses his research and ideas about American vernacular architecture. Deciding to focus his research on vernacular housing near his home, he identifies the great variety of building types that exist side by side there and notes how unlike similar dwellings on the East Coast, the inhabitants are often also the builders of the house. He loosely defines vernacular architecture as a house built of local materials, using local techniques and traditional local forms to satisfy daily use. He also describes daily life in a vernacular settlement as he recalls it from his youth.
Jackson shows photos of vernacular settlements in New Mexico as they existed in his youth, and talks about how they have changed in organization and use as a result of a changing economy. The people living in these places can no longer make a sufficient living from farming or ranching and most work in the service industry in town. As a result, each house now connects to a paved street and must accommodate several cars for commuting. The new types of housing for this lifestyle include mobile homes or trailers which Jackson includes in his definition of vernacular.
Jackson argues that the autonomous “Vitruvian house” is the ideal of middle class Americans, through the non-autonomous vernacular house is the reality for most. They are incomplete, and insufficient to meet household needs without outside support. Vernacular houses are dominated by the street to which they are attached, as opposed to Vitruvian houses which dominate their streets. Street life is essential in vernacular neighborhoods, however it is the street life of the neighborhoods, and not the bustling street life of the urban strip.
Jackson describes the organization of a contemporary vernacular neighborhoods that has produces the new mobile consumer as well as new types of buildings that treat cars as surrogates for people. Old notions of the vernacular only considered form, whereas new definitions include social and cultural aspects. Reexamining Vitruvius, and his ideas about the importance of the atrium and hospitality help to explain an important feature of the vernacular house. As in the Vitruvian atrium, spaces are used as the user sees fit without always conforming to a predefined program.