School of Architecture College of Design

Learning the Vernacular Built Environment by Weican Zuo

Learning the Vernacular Built Environment


Through taking Arch 5677: Preservation of the Vernacular Built Environment and Cultural Landscape, I had the opportunity to get to know Professor Gail Dubrow, who, in my opinion, is one of the most amazing professors and scholars in the school. I chose to take this class because I wanted to learn what “vernacular” really meant. While Gail didn't’t provide a specific answer to this question, she allowed us to explore the idea step by step.


Our first assignment was presenting the place(s) where we grew up. Through this simple exercise, I realized that the places which seem so familiar and ordinary to us also have great value and fascinating stories behind their humble appearances. We presented in Gail’s apartment where she cooked chicken soup and all kinds of noodles, dumplings and vegetables for us to add into our meals. Afterwards, she told me that she was trying to teach us a lesson about vernacular. The soup was an old Jewish recipe, but you could add different things from different cultures. There might be one common chicken broth for everyone, but in each culture, there are different variations of what you put in it. She was trying to set the stage for conversations about vernacular that are not just about building, but also about ways that people act when they cook, when they build, and when they speak. Vernacular applies to each of these topics.


Studying a featured scholar was a later assignment we completed. Each of us were charged with investigating the life and career trajectory of a well-known scholar in the field. Most of us were able to schedule a phone interview. In my case I interviewed Ms. Donna Graves, who is an excellent researcher and practitioner in the historical preservation field. I was nervous before the interview, but when I had the chance to talk her I found out she is very easy to talk to and the conversation felt like I was talking to a mentor or adviser of mine. We had a great talk, which lasted about one hour. Gail’s intention of setting this assignment intended for us to realize that the “big names” in our field are really “ordinary accessible human beings”, someone we can talk to. Most of the time, we don’t realize that we could easily approach a professor and learn about something we want to know. Gail wants to remove this barrier, let us see the human side of some of the most interesting people in the field, and let us not be intimidated by their prestige.


Gail is a well-known scholar in the field of historical preservation. She got interested in design and writing at the same time. She attended the University of Oregon and double majored in architecture and literature in which she later achieved a master’s degree. When she was a doctoral student in UCLA, she worked with Dolores Hayden, who pioneered the integration of preservation, urban design, and public art from a multicultural perspective. Because of this experience, Gail set up her research career which attempts to identify and interpret places that have been overlooked in our history, particularly places connected to women, Asian Americans, and LGBTQ communities.


Over the last two years, she has received several fellowships to work on her new book which centers on revisiting Japonisme. She researched and visited Japanese American architects, landscape architects, gardeners, who were involved in Japanese design, which was popular in the last quarter of 19th century and first quarter of the 20th century. She then compares these individual’s work to their experiences as prejudiced immigrants. Japanese immigrants were discriminated against because they were different. At the same time, they were asked to produce Japanese works for Americans. Gail is studying that intersection. She looks closely at letters, papers, diaries, and  family photos to try to understand what it was like to be an immigrant countering this Japan craze.


Another important fact about Gail is that she loves cooking. Every week she will cook for us. Her repertoire spans from dishes such as ribs or salads to macaroni & cheese. She wants the students to support each other in class, as they need to comment on each other’s ideas and research. She wants to build a tight community where everybody is mutually supported and not competitive. She believes students could get to know with each other very well when they are relaxed, and that happens when everyone sits at a meal. Since we are full and happy, we can engage fully in the class.


Her cooking strategy works perfectly for this group of students. Just like one of my classmates, Isaac Tapp, who is also a GD2 student in architecture, told me that “... I have to say, it might be the most unique class I've taken. Not necessarily because of format, content, etc. but mostly because of our weekly meals. It took me a couple of meetings to warm up to eating in class, but looking back I see a lot of value in sharing a meal. Being largely discussion based our course relies on participation, and I think the informal nature of beginning each class period with food lightens the mood and encourages discussion. Gail being the great cook she is makes the unique idea that much better.”


For this course, Gail said "...the goal is to familiarize students with the literature on vernacular architecture, let them appreciate ordinary building with the same attitude and interest as high-style building." As students, we all think that the goal of this class has been achieved. One of my classmates said "...she coaches students towards more productive research strategies, which makes her an asset in the field of vernacular architecture. Her way of teaching creates space for students to explore relevant, messy, and nuanced architectures. Gail holds space for every learner to participate.



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