Built Inspiration: Folk Architecture and its Influence

640px-John_Adams_birthplace,_Quincy,_MassachusettsI had a funny exchange with the team at Folk Horror Twitter about the absence of folk horror from the New England landscape. The social media team over at the upcoming  A Fiend in the Furrows conference, noted that M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village has a New England folk horror feel to it. A film, much maligned but with  the folk horror DNA at its core, The Village is close to what I lamented as absent. I realized that, to me, The Village, was more Pennsylvania than New England. What made me associate the horror film with a state technically outside the traditional definition of New England? Architecture, landscape and place name.

What makes Pennsylvania aesthetic different than New York, than Massachusetts or Maine? It occurred to me in my life and travels around the Northeast (Pennsylvania to Maine) two things inform my perception of place, place names and architecture. Drive the roads and highways of Massachusetts and many place names are shared with England or Native Americans. This is a standard pattern for most of New England. Connecticut begins a shift to names that take on Dutch or German accents by the time you get to New York and Pennsylvania. However, my eye is pleased and mind inspired by architecture of the regions of America, specifically the Northeast. Here are some of the clearest examples of how place influences what we build, known as folk or vernacular architecture. Pennsylvania and New York share agrarian enclaves dotted with box-like, four room homes 800px-JChaddsHouseconstructed of stout, cool field stone. These field stone structures, generally two stories, are clean lined and sturdy with a no-fuss ethic to them. Shift to New England, especially the older cities and towns, field stone construction is mainly confined to property walls and foundations (such as my 1880 home.) Colonial homes, once ubiquitous  timber framed “Saltbox” found throughout New England (top,) are remnant styles of the mid-16th century and remind us of a continuing cultural influence on us. Each state seems to have a different tweak to architectural styles based on materials and needs. This is the foundation of folk architecture.

The structures are reflections of the people and their skills. Masons built field stone, carpenters assembled timber homes. Each group imprinting a unique cultural identity to the home. Since the creation of post-war suburbia much of folk architecture has become a relic. Yet these buildings are the stories our regional identities and link us to our past. So, what does this have to do with asymmetric creativity? Material provokes a sensory experience. That experience, retained as memory of the touch or smell of the material, spawns an emotion. Emotions sparks creativity. Wood clapboards of the New England “Saltbox” . Notice earlier I called those field stone homes of Pennsylvania “cool” a sensation not shared by some. The picture of the field stone home (right) may evoke an isolated, fortress feel. The place can change the tone of the story, how you express the creativity inspired by the structure. Is it cool and dark? Does it hide a rot in its earthen basement? What about the timber framed homes of old New England? Their low rough hewn timber ceilings, hovering like a repressive spirit over the occupants. Horror stories rarely work in gleaming, modern climate controlled cubes. Think of the brilliantly scary Poltergeist, it turned the horrors of suburbia on its head by making a clean, sterile tract home into a hell. But it wasn’t the home that nurtured the violation, rather the land it was built on. 788px-House_of_the_Seven_Gables_(1915)And what would a post about New England architecture and creativity be without even a passing mention of The House of Seven Gables? The mansion which I’ve walked past numerous times oozes an ominous feeling. Its jagged roof line and slate grey clapboards dominate the space, like a low mountain range over historic Salem, Massachusetts. Ideas are born from many influences. For me architecture prompts ideas, stories grim or heroic. Towering glass and steel can elicit awe, yet it does not inspire creativity in me as do the neatly stacked field stones or the long and wide timbers that make up our folk architecture past.

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