In many ways, I’m useless as an architectural historian. I’ll point to a building and say “look at that thing above the other thing made out of stone!” Usually enthusiastic pointing can carry the day, despite my failure to recall the specific term (often French) that can be applied to the unique variation of a distinctive style that I never bothered to learn the name for. Even those who paid a bit more attention when studying up on the details of building technologies and historic styles however, often find themselves reaching for a visual architectural dictionary or a field guide when working on a building description.
Personally, when I’m in a tough spot trying to identify a variation on a style or put a names to an odd little detail, I turn instead to Wikipedia. As with many topics, Wikipedia consistently offers a wide range of useful references on the broad domains of architectural history and historic building technologies. For example, take a quick look at this solid article on arches including a tremendous set of illustrations of arch forms organized roughly the order in which they were developed.” Two more practical favorites are the pages on brickwork and hinges familiar topics to many folks who work with historic buildings.
Categorization can be a bit uneven but where someone has taken an interest you can browse articles by stylistic associations, time period, or use, much more useful than the alphabetical order enforced by the constraints of print publications. Overarching categories include architectural elements, architectural styles, building materials, and more. Within each category narrower sub-categories proliferate from Baroque architectural features, Greek Revival architecture, or simply Roofs.
There is still a great deal of writing, photography and illustration needed to improve the breadth and depth of articles related to architecture and architectural history. Like many more traditional architectural dictionaries, Wikipedia is currently more useful for monumental high-style buildings and architects than it is for local historians and preservationists often working with vernacular buildings. This challenge brings me to a final point where Wikipedia can improve on a traditional architectural dictionary: working together we can make it better. Preservationists and architectural historians can join in ongoing efforts like the Architecture or National Register of Historic Places WikiProjects or start a new effort more closely focused on historic preservation, local history, or vernacular architecture and landscapes.
I’m not quite ready to throw out my field guide entirely but I hope that I’m not alone in finding Wikipedia as a welcome alternative.