Elizabeth Collins Cromley


On her book The Food Axis: Cooking, Eating, and the Architecture of American Houses

Cover Interview of January 18, 2011

The wide angle

Although my training in architectural history was very traditional—I studied the history of architects, their patrons, and buildings produced with high budgets and aesthetic ambitions—I became interested in how people use buildings and how buildings may be persuaded to conform to people’s needs even when those needs are different from what architects intended.

This led me to a particular interest in American house design—partly because my own experience as a dweller led me to think about the way I could make my own family’s dwelling work, and partly because in the printed and manuscript materials in American archives there are numerous accounts by people using houses and reporting on how that happened.  I wanted to place the experience of how a building performs at the center of architectural history.

The Food Axis is mainly a study of vernacular architecture.

In the 1960s and 70s, a number of scholars turned to the history of vernacular architecture—in contrast to traditional architectural history’s focus on individual architects and aesthetic ambitions.  By “vernacular architecture” we mean the ordinary buildings of the common landscape.  Perhaps 5% of the buildings that get constructed in the United States are really designed by architects; the other 95% belong to the category of vernacular buildings.  In addition to the buildings themselves, the landscapes in which they are set are also of interest to vernacular architecture scholars.

The contemporary study of vernacular architecture was prompted in the United States by historic preservation legislation that required individual states to do inventories of their significant buildings.  As surveyors went out into the hinterlands of America, they found that most of the buildings they were seeing did not belong to a very specific historical style or had a very specific ceremonial or monumental purpose.  Instead they found thousands of buildings that seemed to fall in between the traditional architecture categories.  So they began to call these buildings vernacular.

In 1980, the Vernacular Architecture Forum was assembled, bringing together scholars from many different disciplines who were interested in the vernacular landscape.  Anthropologists, archaeologists, architectural historians, folklorists, professional practitioners, preservationists, and scholars from American Studies have created a fruitful mix of approaches to studying the vernacular landscape and its buildings.  I have learned from these diverse perspectives and brought this thinking to the task of understanding houses.

Teaching architectural history in architecture schools for the past 30 years, I have developed courses in World Architectural History, Modern Architecture, American Architecture, and more recently courses in American Housing.

I was led to the topic of food in house design because of my own interest in cookbooks and recipes, in preparing meals for family and friends, in trying out new restaurants and chefs, and in going to specialized food markets.

Sometimes one’s private life and personal hobbies must be kept separate from professional interests.  But in this case I felt there was an opportunity to bring my cooking together with my architectural research.  I hoped that this would make for a more personalized architectural history—likewise, I expect that people who are interested in cooking and the design of kitchens may find this book has more personal value to them than some other kinds of architectural history.