Citation: Dell Upton. “Architectural History or Landscape History?” Journal of Architectural Education (1984-), Vol. 44, No. 4. (Aug., 1991), pp.195-199.

Argument: This paper claims that the architect is the go-between of human and landscape (landscape meaning both the physical environment and cultural setting), understanding that one affects the other, and asserting that the physical building that is inhabited by the human and inhabits the landscape is not more important than either of these aspects. Therefore, architectural historians should focus on the realm in which a project sits, rather than its quantitative parts.

Author: Dell Upton is professor of architectural history at UCLA Berkeley. As author of Architecture in the United States (1998) and Another City: Urban Life and Urban Spaces in the New American Republic (2008), both award winning texts, his courses engage in the topics of American architecture and urbanism, as well as world architecture. Other architectural interests include history, theories and methods, as well as a focus on culture and how it has formed spaces in the post-colonial era, as exhibited in his other text Holy Things and Profane: Anglican Parish Churches in Colonial Virginia (1986). His educational background consists of BA, MA, and PhD degrees in History, English, and American Civilizations from both Colgate and Brown Universities respectively. He has worked in New York as a consultant and chief catalogue essayist at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, before completing his study on civil rights and black history monuments. He currently lives in California.

Method: Upton argues that the cultural landscape is more important than the building facts. “But the historian must seek a more subtle understanding of the landscape than the subject/object relationship between creator and work permits,” he writes, explaining one support (Upton 197). Upton is suggesting that a building could be expertly executed, but it is of no value if it is not necessary to the culture; similar to placing a state-of-the-art Apple Store by a well-known architect in the middle of the jungle.  Identifying the pure form in architectural history is unimportant. It is the meaning of the architecture to the people that is of worth. A second support is that humans do not experience architecture through fact, which architectural history provides. Besides seeing it, we experience architecture with our additional senses, as in phenomenology. “Our experience of the material world is thus a complex, multisensory, constantly changing tangle of relationships that cannot be captured on mylar or film” he writes (197). As a third support, Upton states that these phenomena are unintended, but are most important. Architectural history fails to report on the phenomenological qualities of a work of architecture, thus failing to report on the primary information. For these points, it sounds as if Upton is using personal experience as support, realizing his reactions to architecture.

Keywords: beauty, taste, vernacular
‘Beauty’ is an important keyword in Upton’s paper. He writes that beauty is “set apart as something transcending the particular,” that it is a traditionally “high” authority in art and history (Upton 196). Architectural history tends to praise the beauty of a work. Beauty is rare, which means it is not commonplace in society or in the cultural landscape. If architectural history is to describe the cultural landscape then it should be describing that which is deemed “low” and not out of the ordinary with beauty.  A second keyword is ‘taste’, which is perhaps the ability to distinguish the high from the low. Who, however, makes this distinction? Upton mentions taste multiple times as a part of aesthetic universals, which he defines as one of the three central concepts for understanding architectural history. A third keyword is ‘vernacular’, which by definition means domestic and functional rather than monumental buildings. Upton argues that the vernacular is not architectural history, but it is the social, cultural, and environmental components of a project.

Map: The word map represents the relationship between the terms “taste, beauty and vernacular” in a version of a Venn diagram. Each bubble represents a term, while the words floating around that bubble are synonyms or phrases that connect the term to architecture. Taste and beauty overlap as the two pose questions regarding one another: is good taste found in beauty? Vernacular sits on the outskirts of these terms, while the over-arching idea of “architecture” aligns the terms:


Evaluate: Sources

Groth, Paul. “Making New Connections in Vernacular Architecture.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 58, No. 3, Architectural History 1999/2000 (Sep., 1999), pp. 444-451

(available here)

Heathcott, Joseph. “Reading the Accidental Archive: Architecture, Ephemera, and Landscape as Evidence of an Urban Public Culture.” Winterthur Portfolio 41.4 (2007): 239-68. Print.

(available here)

Rationale: Heathcott’s essay touches upon the meaning of beauty in which Upton also refers. “Reading the Accidental Archive: Architecture, Ephemera, and Landscape as Evidence of an Urban Public Culture” tells of not just the home of a middle class family in early twentieth century St. Louis, but also of their “accidental” belongings, accidental meaning the items that the family lost by leaving them in their pockets and dropping their clothes down the laundry shoot. In this case, the recovered belongings explain much more about the lifestyle, culture, and personalities of the St. Louis home’s owners than the house itself, which was built to fit the standard of the time period in an era of uneven wealth. To a middle class family that desired to fit into the category of “high” as Upton describes it, their recovered belongings reflect the “low”: they were ephemeral items, like receipts, that existed in everyday life. Upton argues that it is the “low” of culture that is relevant to architectural history, not the rare beauty of the “high”. Heathcott explains this in his own way, saying that the artifacts found, the artifacts of that culture, are “within and against the very artifact that captured them for posterity – the house” (Heathcott 240). The banal artifacts reflect the family more than the house.

Like Upton, Groth is also a professor at UCLA Berkeley. In “Making New Connections in Vernacular Architecture,” he explains that when doing research for his architectural history book, Living Downtown, social class and social stratification were important issues, instead of a focus on building style. Like Upton, Groth’s research supports the idea that the vernacular is a stronger descriptor of the cultural landscape. In the article’s case, the vernacular goes beyond individuals to say “pointed questions about economics and social class…are essential if we are to understand…the forces that bring buildings into being” (Groth 445). Groth goes on to say that students of architectural history should be able to connect buildings to their larger contexts and immediate surroundings (447).


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