Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Vernacular Architecture

Instructor: Frank Ainsley (now deceased)

A vernacular house A vernacular house

Required Texts:

Carter, Thomas & Elizabeth Cromley. Invitation to Vernacular Architecture: A Guide to the Study of Ordinary Buildings and Landscapes. Knoxville, Tennessee: Univ. of Tennessee Press, 2005.

Glassie, Henry. Vernacular Architecture. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Optional Texts:

Foster, Gerald. American Houses: A Field Guide to the Architecture of the Home. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004.

McAlester, Virginia and McAlester, Lee. A Field Guide to American Houses. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Noble, Allen G., ed. To Build in a New Land: Ethnic Landscapes in North America. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1992.

Noble, Allen G. Traditional Buildings: A Global Survey of Structural Forms and CulturalFunctions. London, NY: I.B. Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007.

Oliver, Paul. Dwellings: The House across the World. Austin: The Univ. of Texas Press, 1990.

Course Description:

Vernacular-Ordinary-Traditional-Folk-Commonplace. These labels are applied to the kinds of unpretentious architecture that comprise the majority of the built fabric of our cultural environments. Ordinary buildings provide a visible, material record of human values, ideas, historical settlement, and community development. This record is reflected in the types of dwellings and other structures built during a particular period of time, by certain cultural ethnic groups, or in a certain geographic region of the world.

Course Objectives:

This course explores examples of these building types for the purpose of identifying and analyzing geographic patterns of world folk architecture. The course is meant to introduce students to vernacular architecture and the skills needed to analyze individual sites. It will help students to understand how people who are not trained as architects design and build, how cultural differences affect built form, how buildings are used, how buildings coexist in cultural landscapes, and what those buildings and landscapes mean to their builders and users. Students will be able to define and use the basic vocabulary of vernacular architecture studies. Each student is expected to master the skills of visual literacy: how to think critically, to analyze creatively, and to write clearly about the vernacular built environment. Completing this course will enable one to classify, by type, houses in North America, Europe, and other selected world regions. This classification scheme can be used to determine when certain areas of North America were developed, what groups of people occupied those areas, and how those areas reflect cultural, political, social, and economic values. This course examines all aspects of the history, characteristics, and meaning of vernacular architecture. Topics covered include ethnic traditions in folk house forms, the architecture of traditional American houses, and the more utilitarian structures associated with farmsteads around the world. Also covered will be industrial housing settings and commercial buildings as well as the influence of the automobile on the built environment. A vernacular approach is taken to examining the entire built environment-the cultural landscape, in which so-called high style and more commonplace buildings coexist and are part of a historical and spatial continuum.


Each student is required to prepare an original research project on any aspect of vernacular architecture. The project should be both descriptive (presentation of research materials) and interpretive (analysis of research materials). Projects that explore the physical history and context of an individual building or complex are an excellent starting point for those with little or no experience. Successful projects, for example, may include individual house studies, data base studies of landscapes and buildings documented in tax lists and other record groups, thematic studies (such as barn framing in a small locale), and the study of building records and legal disputes.

Images provided by instructor.

Last Update: February 6, 2017