Saturday, June 15, 2013

How some stories are born

Some stories emerge from nowhere. They establish themselves unnoticed–suddenly marking new traditions and leaving lasting imprints.  The Von Trier roundtable has been a place where some sneaky stories materialized in an unplanned manner.  At the end of a tiring day we regroup in this neighborhood bar. A few chairs are drawn around a small table; then another table added. A few more chairs are borrowed from the lonely man drinking alone in the corner.  Before long we take over the dark musty front room of Von Trier’s classic cocktail lounge. Much of the discussions that follow revolve around our impressions of fieldwork; events that took place that day and accounts of unexpected moments. These stories were not about the information collected or the methods used to collect them.  

It may seem to many that talking about our experiences of fieldwork is not exactly fieldwork itself. But it is. In social theory we use a term “reflexivity.” The term refers to circular relationships between cause and effect. It is a form of self-reference that allows us to look back at our actions and interactions with the object of our inquiry. We aren’t voracious beasts incessantly collecting data in an obsessive attempt to so in a perfect manner. We make mistakes and we get frustrated when we take incorrect measurements.  We are troubled by what we hear. We expect to see a world in the buildings we enter and we are surprised by what we find. Often we are disappointed. These are stories that emerge around the tables at Von Trier. Tragic, magical, mundane, and heroic ones. We are the central characters in these stories and our actions and reactions define the plots.

Intimate stories of us engaging the world around us are important sources of learning in a field school.  But more importantly these stories open hidden doors to interpretations. They provide clues, intuitive responses, and unexpected explanations regarding the historical data that we collect during fieldwork. Sharing these stories is necessary and documenting them carefully becomes part of fieldwork.

Chatter around Joe’s house pointed us towards some such nuanced interpretations that could help our historiography. Joe’s house is a quaint love of labor. An architect built it and the original owner did not live there for long. The house, despite its smaller footprint, was carefully crafted. Wood cabinetry, hidden storage, elaborate brass handles and decorative work rival those found in the more spacious Villa Terrace, a few blocks away. Yet the building itself is small, storage space is scarce and the service quarters are reduced to a small maid’s room at the end of a corridor running along the second level bedrooms. Was this building a fleeting quixotic fancy of an ambitious architect? Does this building say nothing much about the social history of the neighborhood? Is this just an odd eccentricity as is the boathouse in my neighborhood that we catalog in the drawer of curiosities?

Jeff led us into a reflexive moment when he mentioned how this house impacted him deeply. It was difficult to describe that emotional response, but it was something about the cocooning domesticity, artful craft, and the careful arrangement of the interior that made this home seem familiar and its interior ambience seem so reassuring to us.  He mentioned “art,” a thematic category that appears in Dell Upton’s book Architecture in the United States. And perhaps the story of Joe’s house is not about the layout, style or building type. Instead it is a story of the affective role of craft and art in defining this historic dwelling as a perfect domestic space and our job would be to explore how the built form recreates such an emotional response from us and what it says about us as a society.