SAH Blog


Mexico City: From Mexica Past to Modernism and Beyond

by Helena Karabatsos | Jul 07, 2014

Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day.

Since I am addressing a forum of intellectuals with a keen interest in history and culture, many of you might already know this fact.  I might have heard it a time or two in life, only to forget, and then be reminded again in Mexico City. I am not ashamed to admit that.  Why is this tidbit of information important to the history of architecture and urbanism in Mexico City, you ask?  It has everything to do with memory of place, transnational dialogues, regional differences, and most immediately, place names. 

Place names

My first week in Mexico City I went to the heart of it all, Zócalo, and walked many miles exploring the city, getting a feel for its historic center.  I was surprised to find that one of its major arteries, one that embraces Zócalo on the western periphery was named 16 de Septiembre.  While studying a map of Centro Histórico the significance street placement was apparent, but the meaning was lost on me, until I began a minor investigation into the significance of the date.  Modern Mexico City place names are reflective of its long, eclectic, troubled, and triumphant past, embracing a mixture of indigenous, independence, and revolutionary figures.  Alameda Central, for instance, is cradled by streets named for Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juárez, meant to pay homage to historic figures of independence and reform.  Delving into the meaning behind the names of a place is often one of the most enlightening activities one can pursue.  Each name is consequential and is a snapshot of the past.  In a capital city, place names are the epitome of patriotism, nation building, and myth making, a la Roland Barthes.


Figure 1. View of Alameda Central from Torre Latinoamericano

Pre-Hispanic past in contemporary city

In this capital city there are urban and architectural achievements that, by virtue of design, harken back to the pre-Hispanic Mexican past.  The Zócalo, historic center of the city, is a nodal point from which all understanding of the orientation and layout of the city can be derived.  This is because the Aztecs founded their ancient city of Tenochtitlán in the same space now occupied by the grand plaza, national palace, and cathedral.  When the Spanish conquered the great city, they admired its aqueducts and engineering. They chose to build their outpost in New Spain on what remained of the Aztec achievements (after, of course, they burned and ravaged the city first).  As scholar Jacqueline Holler argues in her article “Conquered Spaces, Colonial Skirmishes: Spatial Contestation in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City,” part of the power of the Spanish conquest was the fact that the Spaniards effectively cannibalized the space and materials of the Aztec city:

The revision of Tenochtitlan as a colonial capital, moreover, was an attempt to usurp rather than deny indigenous sovereignty. This usurpation demanded physical change on a grand scale, rather than intellectual sleight of hand. The dismantling of an indigenous urban complex and its reassembly in an altered form were the products of tremendous indigenous labor, itself an object lesson in domination.

Also in the historic center are the ruins of Templo Mayor just east of the Metropolitan Cathedral, as well as the Palacio Nacional erected on the ruins of Moctezuma’s “New Houses.”  In the historic center the Mexica and Spanish colonial pasts sit in complex juxtaposition to each other, illustrating clearly the significance of the space layered with history.

Figure 2. View of Metropolitan Cathedral over ruins of Templo Mayor

European Influences

Mexico City felt more European to me than I imagined it would.  I had tried desperately to figure out why this was the case.  What qualities of the city gave me this feeling?  One of the most outstanding qualities I would argue is the vitality of life in the public sphere.  The city has an embarrassment of riches in regards to the proliferation of public parks within its boundaries.  The city has taken a renewed interest and invested in its public spaces recently.  From the grand public parks of national significance like Alameda Central to the small pocket plazas and gardens in the various neighborhoods like Jardín Pushkin and Parque las Americas, residents of Mexico City pass much of their free time in the presence of others, beneath the shade of los árboles en las parques.  Mexico City is green, but not in the trendy way we talk about “being green” today (although it has begun countless initiatives to reduce the impact of pollution in the city).  The tree canopy is noteworthy, and lessens the blinding quality of light on a sunny day.  Two of the most recent places I have lived battle the problem of a disappearing or deficient tree canopy – Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.  The incessant heat and humidity in those cities during the summer months make living in both places nearly unbearable.  Walking the streets of Mexico City this June I have thought about how the quality of life in places like Washington and New Orleans would be improved tremendously with a far-reaching and widespread tree canopy.  Granted, New Orleans has its live oaks on major thoroughfares, but these prized trees are not evenly dispersed throughout the city.


Figure 3.  Images of daily life in parks taken within the span of a few hours on one day.  Clockwise from top left:  Plaza Morelia, Parque México, El Foro Lindbergh in Parque México, Parque España, Jardín Pushkin, and Plaza Río de Janeiro

Revolution and social reform

Politics. Passion. Poisonous liaisons. Perseverance. 

These are issues I was confronted with during the week I dedicated to touring sites associated with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. The way those messages are intertwined in the art produced in the middle of the twentieth century in Mexico City is raw, emotional, and nuanced. The artwork of Kahlo and Rivera, as well as their friendship with Trotsky during his last days in Mexico continue to define post-revolution politics for scholars across various disciplines.  Kahlo’s brand of feminism, Trotsky’s appeal to a sympathetic Socialist Mexico, Rivera’s many interpretations of Mexican history and warnings about the pro-capitalist future are topics accessible to scholars who are intrigued by intersectionality. The spaces in which conversations took place among these three, some of Mexico’s most celebrated and discussed historic figures, continue to be pilgrimage sites today.


Figure 4. Interior views of Casa Azul, Trotsky’s House, Diego Rivera’s Studio, and Anahuacalli Museum

Struggle, revolution, and social reform are major themes in Mexican history, and world history at large, and that narrative was evident at the Tlatelolco site.  I was advised to visit this site by Leslie Moody Castro, an art curator who works between Texas and Mexico.  I had no idea what to expect, I just knew I had to go.  Aztec ruins?  Student protests?  A massacre?  The Olympics?  I was confused and intrigued at the same time.

I started my journey at Tlatelolco walking from the bus station through the housing complex designed by architect Mario Pani.  I eventually found my way to the university and museums.  What the Tlatelolco site lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in content.  The Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco runs the museum section of the site, and the four various exhibits that are on display in the center are disjointed in their relationship to each other and are counterintuitive in circulation patterns.  None of that matters, however, once you enter into the space itself.


Figure 5. Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco

The first place I visited was the Museo del Tlatelolco, which told the story of the pre-Hispanic city that existed just north of, but separate from, Technotitlán. The exhibit space was so well curated that it would appeal to children and adults alike.  There were numerous moments for multi-media activity to engage visitors, and the exhibit productions and displays were thoughtful and tasteful.  After being thoroughly wowed by the Museo del Tlatelolco I visited the Colección Stavenhagen, which hosted a beautiful array of pre-Hispanic objects, from the everyday to the highly sacred.  I finished my visit at the utterly poignant Memorial del 68, a space that provided opportunity to reflect on the student protests of 1968 in Mexico, and the terrible massacre that happened shortly before the opening games of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.


Figure 6. Looking out onto Aztec ruins of Tlatelolco from inside the museum.  Temple of Santiago Tlatelolco seen on right.  A stark contrast of indigenous and colonial constructions

The Memorial del 68 situated the Mexico City student movement within an international trend of revolution and reform in the 1960s.  The opening video, “El laboratoria de la libertad,” is a montage of popular culture – music and imagery – of the world that captures the spirit of the 1960s.  It is followed by a timeline that illustrates major shifts in social and cultural politics.  It ends in a quiet, dark space of reflection where images of the plaza and events of 1968 are reproduced in an abstract, haunting manner.  In all, this museum is a moving encapsulation of a moment in Mexican history that changed its trajectory in a profound way.  Tlatelolco from the pre-Hispanic city, the site of Spanish conquest, the housing complex, the student massacre, and the ramifications of the 1985 earthquake, is a often-overlooked (by tourists) space in the city that truly captures the long history of the region.


Figure 7. Memorial del 68

Preservation and interpretation

Besides Tlatelolco, two of the most noteworthy places I visited in the Mexico City metropolitan area were Teotihuacan and the “Arquitectura en México 1900-2010” exhibit.  Perhaps I found them notable because of their success in preservation and interpretation.  I use the word success carefully, (some would argue loosely) since I am very aware that conservative preservationists consider Teotihuacan a Disneyfication of Mexican history.  I measure the success of both the historic site and the exhibit in two different ways.

Teotihuacan is an architectural historian's delight and disappointment.  The delight comes from one’s ability to get swallowed up in the overwhelming scale of structures that make up the Ciudadela, Avenue of the Dead, Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.  The disappointment would afflict any preservation and conservation purist.  Most of what one sees today at the site has been reconstructed, and historical evidence proves now that earlier reconstructions, done in haste by Leopoldo Batres for the Centenario, were incorrect.  UNESCO takes a fairly judicious stance about this condition, noting:

While some of the earlier reconstruction work, dating from the early years of the last century, is questionable in contemporary terms, it may be considered to have a historicity of its own now. In general terms, it can be said that the condition of authenticity of the expressions of the Outstanding Universal Values of Teotihuacan, which can be found in its urban layout, monuments and art, has been preserved until today.2

Scholar Gillian Newell does a very thorough job of describing the way various groups – local, national, international, tourist and indigenous alike – create a culture of consumption that support identity-formation at Teotihuacan.  Her article, “Rhyming Culture, Heritage, and Identity: The ‘Total Site’ of Teotihuacan, Mexico,” takes into account the different motivations people have for visiting the site, and argues that we must understand all of these various meanings and practices, both historical and contemporary, to grasp the “total site” of Teotihuacan.  I would agree with her conclusion.



Figure 8.  Teotihuacan selfie

The highly acclaimed “Arquitectura en México 1900-2010. La construcción de la modernidad. Obras, diseño, arte y pensamiento” exhibit deserves all the praise it has received in the international press.  Situated in the Palacio de Cultura Banamex - Palacio de Iturbide, this far-reaching show is divided into easily digestible themes that illustrate the evolving country’s architectural ambitions, from the Porfirian era to the twenty-first century.  The exhibit took advantage of the spacious site, with a beautiful array of models, furniture, architectural drawings, paintings, sculpture, and video.  The exhibit was even more successful than the “official” museum of architecture in Mexico, the Museo Nacional de Arquitectura.  Poorly organized because of space constraints, the lonely national museum of architecture sits in the top floor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and is hardly visited by a soul (its blog is worth a visit).


Figure 9. Arquitectura en México exhibit

One the one hand, Teotihuacan is successful because it remains open to interpretation.  Little is known about its original residents.  The spirituality of the space, however, speaks to the masses.  It is a sample of pre-Hispanic Mexico that various people derive meaning from, and it is also part of a larger lore about pyramids, outer space, and extraterrestrials.  Indeed, there is something for everyone, even the “believers,” so the meaning of what it is to be “authentic” is drowned out in the voices that proclaim the site to be both authentic and universal.

On the other hand, the “Arquitectura en México 1900-2010” exhibit is successful because it does exactly what the site of Teotihuacan does not.  It is directive, illustrating how political and social ideologies informed various periods of growth and design in Mexico.  Whether highlighting Porfirian elite design, or modernization efforts in anticipation of the 1968 Olympics, the textual information and visual aids of the exhibit create an enlightening experience for visitors.

Mexico City present and future

Mexico City’s past – Mexica, Spanish colonial, Porfirian, revolutionary – and the reclamation of and tension between these identities are at the forefront of how Mexico interprets and understands itself.  There is no consensus on what it means to be Mexican, as far as I can tell, and like any major country the interpretations vary by region, vocation, place of origin. I don’t know how these various identities affect the current state of affairs in the city and nation.  One thing is for sure – Mexico City does not try to hide any of it.  At least not anymore.

As I ended my time in Mexico City and arrived in the Yucatán, I tried to find the words to sum up the major takeaways from spending a month in this capital city, this global city.  In many ways, the national presence is felt so very strongly, with the richness of the heritage of the country at one’s fingertips.  In other ways, the city’s position on the global radar is also poignant, as I have had the opportunity to meet people from the States, Argentina, France, Spain, and other countries during my time here. 

The Mexican past is as long and complicated as a Diego Rivera mural, and in the twenty-first century, it includes narratives about hope and disillusionment that move beyond the time frame represented in the famous murals in the Palacio Nacional.  It has been over 60 years since that piece was finished, and the story of the city is far from complete.  Mexico City’s standing and trajectory for the twenty-first century is an enigma for someone new to the city, such as myself.  Clearly it is a thriving global city, one that has unparalleled human capital in population alone, and additionally has a wealth of foreign trade and investment.  The Brookings Institution noted in 2010:

Over 20 million people live in the Metropolitan Area of Mexico City (MAMC), making in the largest urban agglomeration in the Western Hemisphere, the largest Spanish-speaking metro globally, and the third largest metropolitan area in the world. Mexico City’s GDP stood at $411.4 billion in 2012, making it the eighth largest urban economy in the world.3

These factors are clear to anyone who has spent time in the city recently. The Brookings Institution warns, however that despite creating a place for itself in the international economy, “Mexico City’s international stature is not as stable and its global brand not yet as recognizable as other prominent emerging market cities like Istanbul, Mumbai, Shanghai, and São Paulo.”4

While in Mexico City I was introduced to two organizations that represent the future of Mexico City’s cultural politics and help us understand the country in new and profound ways.  The missions of the organizations are quite different.  Their strengths are that they are headed by young people – in their 20s and 30s – and depend on a serious understanding of the social, political, and cultural state of Mexico.  The first organization, ArtraversARTE, is a contemporary art tourism company that “weave[s] in historical context, cultural perspective, and urban life to create an unforgettable experience” of the city.5 Atravesar means “to cross over, to break through, to pierce.” AtraversARTE was created to provide art professionals and aficionados an opportunity to have transnational dialogue about the state of contemporary art in Mexico, with an eye on the future.  Since the art is deeply embedded within the genius loci, the urban condition is part and parcel of what one takes away from their AtraversARTE experience.  I was very much impressed with the organization’s mission, and it reminded me of another organization, Afrikanation Artists Organization, that works to promote cultural exchange between America and Africa – particularly east Africa: Somalia and Ethiopia.

The second organization I learned about in while in Mexico City is TECHO, an NGO that depends on “the collaborative work of families living in extreme poverty with youth volunteers … [to] overcome poverty in slums.”6 The TECHO mission is the epitome of what it means “to build:” edificar.  The Spanish translation of the word is closer to its true meaning and essence, its Latin roots: aedificium (building) + facio (make).  TECHO consists of political advocates who believe in the art of building, not just in the physical sense, but also in framing, constructing, and providing a foundation for an idea that all people should live without poverty.  Their work spans Latin America and the United States.



Despite the fact that Mexico City is one of the largest and most populous cities in the world, so many aspects of the city remain part of the quotidian, time-tested local traditions.  I started this blog talking about place names. I will end doing the same. On my penultimate day in Mexico City I made a trip to the El Museo de la Ciudad de México for personal and professional reasons.  Personally, I wanted an official body representing the city to tell me exactly what it wanted me to come away with on my trip.  Professionally, I’ve done research on city museums in Washington, D.C. and London and wanted to see how Mexico City approached this concept. I arrived at the museum and was about to pay my money for a ticket when the woman at the counter said, “You are here for an exhibit about Mexico City?  We don’t do that any more.” I was flustered, checked to make sure I was in the right place, and then walked out.  A guard who saw me walk up asked me why I was leaving.

Me: Esté es El Museo de la Ciudad de México, pero... no es el museo de la ciudad de México?

Guard: Sí.

Me: Por qué no cambia el nombre?

Guard: La gente lo conoce como "El Museo de la Ciudad de México."

Esto es la belleza de lo cotidiano.


Figure 10. El Museo de la Ciudad de México


H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

Learn more about the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship


Recommended reading:

Enrique X. de Anda Alanís, “The Preservation of Historic Architecture and the Beliefs of the Modern Movement in Mexico: 1914–1963,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 6 no. 2 (Winter 2009): 58-73

Luis Castañeda, “Beyond Tlatelolco: Design, Media, and Politics at Mexico ’68, Grey Room (Summer 2010) 40: 100-126

Keith L. Eggener, “Juan O'Gorman versus the International Style: An Unpublished Submission to the JSAH,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68 no. 3 (September 2009): 301-307

Keith L. Eggener “Placing Resistance: A Critique of Critical Regionalism” Journal of Architectural Education 55 no. 4 (May, 2002): 228-237

George F. Flaherty, "Uncanny Tlatelolco, Uncomfortable Juxtapositions,” Defying Stability: Artistic Processes in Mexico, 1952-1967, ed. Rita Eder (Mexico: MUAC, 2014), 400-417

José Villagrán García, Jorge Otero-Pailos and Ingrid Olivo, “Architecture and Monument Restoration (1967),” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 6 no. 2 (Winter 2009): 88-103

Jorge Tárrago Mingo, “Preserving Rivera and Kahlo: Photography and

Reconstruction,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 6 no. 1 (Summer 2009): 50-67

Jacqueline Holler, “Conquered Spaces, Colonial Skirmishes: Spatial Contestation in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City,” Radical History Review no. 99 (Fall 2007): 107-120

Kathryn E. O'Rourke, “Guardians of Their Own Health: Tuberculosis, Rationalism, and Reform in Modern Mexico,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71 no. 1 (March 2012): 60-77

Kathryn E. O'Rourke, “Mies and Bacardi: Mixing Modernism,” Journal of Architectural Education 66 no. 1 (2012): 57-71

Susie S. Porter, “‘And That It Is Custom Makes It Law:’ Class Conflict and Gender Ideology in the Public Sphere, Mexico City, 1880-1910,” Social Science History 24 no. 1 (Spring 2000) 111-148

Mauricio Tenorio Trillo, “1910 Mexico City: Space and Nation in the City of the Centenario,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 28 no. 1 (February 1996): 75-104

Steven S. Volka, “Frida Kahlo Remaps the Nation,” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 6 no. 2 (2000): 165-188

Adriana Zavala, “Mexico City in Juan O’Gorman’s Imagination,” Hispanic Research Journal 8, no. 5 (December 2007): 491–506



[1] Jacqueline Holler, “Conquered Spaces, Colonial Skirmishes: Spatial Contestation in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City,” Radical History Review no. 99 (Fall 2007): 107

[2] UNESCO, “Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan,” http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/414-title=Pre-Hispanic

[3] Brookings Institution, “The 10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metro Areas: Mexico City,” Global Cities Initiative, a Joint Project of Brookings and JPMorgan

[4] Ibid.

[5] Tanya Diaz, “AtravesARTE Brings Experiential Travel to Mexico City’s Contemporary Art World,” AtravesARTE Launch Press Release April 2, 2014.

[6] TECHO, “What is TECHO/History,” http://www.techo.org/paises/us/techo/what-is-techohistory/

Architectural History and Architectural Humanities

by Helena Karabatsos | Jun 23, 2014

Note: This essay is a revised version of the plenary address delivered at the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, on April 14, 2014.

In June of 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report that is or should by now be well-known to many of you: “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation.”[1]  I attended “The Heart of the Matter” launch on June 19th at the Capital Building in Washington, DC, where the project’s leaders delivered brief declarations about the importance of the humanities for their own lives, and especially for the nation’s health. It was a distinguished group that included Duke University President Richard Broadhead, former CEO of Exelon Energy John Rowe, ACLS President Pauline Yu, and the actor John Lithgow, among others. The launch event included the screening of a beautifully produced short film created by Ken Burns and George Lucas.[2] It was inspiring.


The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation

But the truly exceptional moment—the spectacularly memorable piece that seldom receives adequate attention in conversations about the report—occurred when two Republican members of Congress (Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee and Representative Tom Petri from Wisconsin) joined two Democratic members of Congress  (Senator Mark Warner from Virginia and Representative David Price from North Carolina) on a single stage and spoke about the reasons they commissioned this study and report.  This is no small feat, and it bears repeating:  The “Heart of the Matter” was commissioned by a bi-partisan congressional committee: two republicans and two democrats sat together on the stage, shook hands, and joined in common cause to support the humanities. Seeing them take the stage together was in many respects the most impressive thing about the entire project, because their appearance at the launch coincided with congressional proposals to either drastically cut the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) budget by nearly 50%, or to entirely eliminate NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as federal programs. And of course, that bi-partisan handshake predated the government shut-down that would occur in October of 2013 by only a few months, and appears even more extraordinary in its aftermath.

The report’s appearance generated significant buzz in both the national and the higher education press, the reception was both positive and negative, and much of it was cynical. Indeed, it is not a perfect document; few such reports can claim to be so. But the report successfully brought public attention back to the humanities in some important and widely seen venues—the New York Times, but also through Duke University President Richard Broadhead’s appearance on the Colbert Report (where he more than held his own while engaging in witty banter about the humanities), and in conversations that continue around the country at universities and in public venues like the Chicago Humanities Summit that took place in early January, 2014.[3] It stimulated and continues to stimulate conversations about our national commitment to the humanities and arts. Despite the sometimes loud and inflammatory publicity generated by some politicians and journalists who seek to blame various modes of scholarship and the application of theories related to questions of race, class, and gender for the imagined demise or crisis in public education and the humanities, the bi-partisan committee that commissioned the report demonstrated that such views are those of a few, and not of the many.  The report is out there, widely circulated, waiting for our consideration and—more importantly—for our action.

It is my belief that the report has fulfilled some very important objectives, and that  it has done some consequential work in its rather brief public life. The report helps us see that this is a time for taking action, for making changes, for speaking out, and for staking new or renewed claims to a public life for the humanities—and it usefully provides at least one set of approaches for doing just that.

So how should or might we as architectural historians—how can all of us who daily study the built environment and its past—regard this report? How can we use it as a way to critically assess the work we are doing as scholars, and even the work we do together, gathered as members of a learned society that is near and dear to our hearts? What kind of report card can we give ourselves in consideration of our own work to sustain a vibrant life of the humanities as global citizens? The “Heart of the Matter,” it seems to me, aims to provide a road map and a measuring device for the collective actions we might take as scholars and as members of a learned society to think anew about the ways in which we might better exploit the built environment's centrality in everyday life for the creation of a new conception of our work in the expanded field of the public humanities.

Like many of you, I’ve watched our field change and grow in exciting ways over the 25 years in which I’ve been an SAH member. But for all our growth, for all the exciting ways in which architectural history has become a complex, varied, and intellectually rewarding field, many of our colleagues across the humanities retain a somewhat outdated understanding of our endeavor. Even our colleagues in History departments—scholars with whom we should share many intellectual and methodological affinities—frequently regard our work as relatively unchanged from its shape in the 19th century. It surprises me each time I discover how many historians still imagine that we narrowly focus our studies on the form and style of buildings, or as exclusively preoccupied with writing biographies of particular designers and the histories of their careers. If we are having trouble reaching some of our most closely-affiliated university colleagues, we are surely facing some challenges in our efforts to engage the public in a more sophisticated, sustained, and robust set of dialogues. We have so much more to offer the humanities and the interested general public than we are currently understood to offer. If architectural historians are frequently among the first to discover new methods and approaches to historical inquiry that are of signal importance, we are often the last to be acknowledged for those discoveries, and this is important not as a matter of credit-where-credit-is-due, but of intellectual engagement.

If our work is not as visible as it could or should be to our university peers and to members of the public, it seems also not to have been much on the minds of the authors who produced the “Heart of the Matter” report. The word “architecture” appears only once in the report: “…public art, architecture projects, and discussion groups strengthen communities and enhance local economies.”[4] The report’s authors included architecture because they saw it as offering “an opportunity for lifelong education,” a kind of everyday, embodied encounter with the humanities and arts. The words “architectural history” never appear, nor does “art history.” “History” and the broad rubric of “the arts” are included. But committee member Richard Broadhead specifically mentioned architecture as among the most public and visible components of the humanities in an address he delivered in Chicago just prior to the January Humanities Summit—how could one not do so when speaking from a podium in Chicago?![5]

So although we might like to imagine the architectural historian as lurking in the unarticulated shadows of the report, we are not actually present; buildings are imagined as central, but our significance as scholars who study and interpret the built environment is absent. If buildings are central, but the central role of those who study them remains either an assumption or an oversight, how might we consider this report’s recommendations, and how might they matter for our fields?

The report essentially offers recommendations to advance three goals:

  1. To Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.
  2. To Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.
  3. To Equip a nation for leadership in an interconnected world.[6]

The roughly sixty pages of the printed report include a further set of recommendations for achieving these goals, but I’d like to focus on just a few that may be of greatest relevance to those of us here tonight:“ Engaging the public;” “Communicating the importance of research to the public (and they emphasize the importance of K-12 engagement for this); and encouraging all disciplines to address “Grand Challenges.”[7] The language used to articulate these goals makes clear the report’s intentions to link the production of future good citizens to assuring the strength of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in the United States. If we agree that the goals of the report are important to the health of us all as human beings, then how might we, as architectural historians, advance those goals? To get at this, I want to address two aspects of the report’s recommendations: Its exhortation that we engage the public, and that we increasingly engage with what they call “Grand Challenges” in our research.

1. Engage the Public

Let’s start with the commission’s recommendation that we engage the public.

On a most basic and self-interested level, we must certainly do this if we want  federal support for NEH and NEA to continue, along with anything else we do that relies on tax payer support, like work as humanists in large public universities as I currently do. The simple fact is that taxpayers have to better understand what we do and how it matters, and we should spend more time thinking about how to engage the tax-paying public. As the report states, we have to “Connect with them to make the funding case.. . .If scholars in the broad humanistic disciplines expect the public to be more financially supportive, they must make the case for the public value of their work much more effectively than they have in recent years…Everything scholars do to connect with the broader public advances their case for support, and everything they neglect to do weakens that case.  Top scholars should embrace the chance to connect with the larger community and help it feel the interest of their subjects and the power of their analyses.”[8]

Both NEA and NEH have long required this of their grantees, but our efforts as scholars have frequently been inadequate. As individual scholars, we need to work harder at engaging a wider variety of audiences and we need to do so on a more sustained basis. And we, as architectural historians, are lucky—our subject is inherently interesting to people, and accessible to them in a way many subjects are not—it literally surrounds everyone everyday. Buildings, landscapes, city spaces are inescapable daily realities, foreground and background, essential if often unnoticed.  But we tend to write about our subject for each other more often than we probably should. Bloggers are changing this; our participation in events like the Chicago Humanities Festival is changing this; In fact, I believe SAH is in many respects leading in this area.

How else are we doing so? One of the commission’s recommendations is to “expand the number of high-quality digital resources available to the general public” as a way to bring humanities and arts scholarship to the public, to broaden the scope of engagement with a community of public intellectuals, and to reach general audiences. Indeed, the report specifically mentions the benefits of the digital for presenting “historic buildings that are reconstructed” along with the ways classic texts and manuscripts can be made accessible.[9]  SAH excels in this category—we are way out in front, and SAH has been leading the way now for nearly a decade. SAH Archipedia is especially laudable, and it holds tremendous potential to expand our work to an even broader public audience—it is already doing so, with the Archipedia site averaging now about 1,000 visitors per day, nearly 30,000 visits for the month of March, 2014 alone, and with usage statistics climbing dramatically over the course of a single year. Ninety percent of Archipedia’s users now come from within the United States, but users from 29 other countries accessed the site as well, just in the month of March. This, it seems to me, is an astonishing example of successful work in the public humanities, one with the potential to grow, change, and attract ever larger audiences from around the globe. 

Our journal, the JSAH, is another interesting example. It is a scholarly journal, intended for an audience of specialists, but it has already changed significantly over the past decade in both its content and format, and it will continue to do so. More than 2.7 million viewers accessed the JSAH Online in the past 3.5 years by readers in every country on the planet—circulation statistics we could not have dreamed about even a decade ago. Those statistics will likely shift again according to the demands of and legislation attendant to the open access movement. But open annotation is also going to change the ways the public engages with the scholarship produced in our journal and other online publications. Whether we like it or not,  new and increasingly sophisticated forms of commentary creation will be available for all web content, so that anyone can annotate our scholarship directly, in place, and on the open web. To many, this is an unsettling prospect, but it is, nevertheless, inevitable. Are we not then, better off inviting it into our world? Computational models of trust and reputation that are being designed for use with platforms like the open annotation tool Hypothes.is means  (at least theoretically) that the days of uncivil and useless commentary attached as conversational threads that appear below online essays are likely to eventually disappear in favor of a higher-quality discussion that aims to elevate the most useful and reputable commentary attached to any particular content.[10] Our readers will be talking to us, arguing with us, contributing their knowledge to our work in ways we had not previously imagined. This is scary. This is also good, and we would do well to welcome this as early adopters considering the public nature of our subject matter. Rather than rejecting this technology, we might instead consider inviting the discussion that open annotation permits into our scholarly lives, and as authors we might also consider ourselves moderators of future online conversations with the capability to lead debates and shape a new realm of public discourse about the built environment with potentially enormous audiences.[11]

Having our work on the open web where anyone can read it has the potential to change our field more than almost anything else we might do. It will expand the audience for our work exponentially. And new forms of publication are now emerging that will permit this model to exist within the framework of the university library (which is increasingly becoming a publisher) and the university press. It also has the potential to create serious financial challenges for the SAH and many other smaller learned societies.  There may well be a cost then, to learned societies, that is attached to the greater levels of public engagement called for in the report--more on that, in a moment.

We can, of course, think of many other SAH initiatives that are bringing forms of our scholarship into the public realm. The increasingly active SAH Blog under the editorial stewardship of Kostis Kourelis, for example, seems to be attracting an ever-widening audience of readers from a range of fields with over 19,000 page visits this year; the SAH twitter account now has more than 1,200 followers; SAH has been generating K-12 lesson plans that are now integrated into the Archipedia website  where you can find lesson plans on complicated subjects like Civil Rights Memorials in Mississippi by clicking on “teacher resources” on the free Archipedia site; and our community outreach in annual conference cities has dramatically increased since the New Orleans meeting in 2011. This is all truly laudable work of which we can and should be very proud.

And yet, there is much to be done, despite the successes I just cited. These high-quality digital products are just one, very specific form of the kind of public engagement we must seek—a form that relies on particular modes of content access and on imagined forms of content uptake and intellectual engagement.  What remains for us to ask is how else we might engage the public in dialogues about our work, how else might we expand not just access to the high-quality historical studies we share with each other here and in the books we publish, but how might we also expand the realm of sophistication, of expectation, of inquiry about the built environment at the public scale by continuing to expand our audience, and their sense of the significance of our endeavor to their everyday lives?

Clearly, our specialization is one of our finest achievements, but it is perhaps also our biggest problem. Architectural historians possess analytical skills that are not easily achieved and that lead us in specific research directions that can be highly intellectually productive. But that same specialization can, as we know, become so inwardly or narrowly focused that we lose the ability to reach the wider audiences with whom we might profitably engage—both within the university and without (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone in the field). Has our specialization become “too extreme” so that we are no longer the contributors we might be in various public and even in various academic disciplinary spheres?[12] Writing for specialized, scholarly audiences is part of our work and it is among our obligations—one we must balance with greater attention directed to multiple, varied, and (hopefully) broader audiences. This is not to say that we should be “dumbing down” our content. Instead, I’m interested in exploring ways to present our work that invite larger groups of specialists and non-specialists alike to participate, to engage, to listen, and to help us formulate new questions. The rise of public humanities festivals around the country demonstrates the public’s interest in our subject matter and their desire to listen to thoughtful, sophisticated conversations about the built environment; so do websites like publicbooks.org, which is devoted to “stimulating vigorous debate about works and ideas...” written by “scholars who write accessibly without sacrificing sophistication or depth…”for “…the brainy, bookish, or insatiably curious, who share our passion for connecting to the world through ideas.”[13] We have yet to engage that larger population, but I predict it won’t be difficult to do once we make it a priority. We just have to make conversations with broader publics a central goal, as “The Heart of the Matter” urges us to do.

2. Address Grand Challenges:

The Heart of the Matter report asserts that “The public valuation of the humanities will be strengthened by every step that takes this knowledge out of academic self-enclosure and connects it to the world. As scholars in these fields seek bigger and more varied audiences, so, too, should they seek a new range of intellectual partners… Researchers in the humanities and social sciences should be encouraged to apply their work to the great challenges of the era as well as pursuing basic, curiosity-driven research.” Each enhances the other.[14]

I am especially aware that the language of the “Grand Challenge” can make a lot of humanities scholars very nervous. I know this because we included a Grand Challenge on the Global Midwest as a major initiative in the Mellon Foundation grant I recently received to form a consortium of 15 humanities centers at as many universities called the “Humanities Without Walls.”[15] Although scholars in the consortium are embracing the initiative and the opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration it supports, the “grand challenge” language has stimulated a variety of reactions including puzzlement, disdain, anxiety (worry that humanities subjects are not somehow “grand” enough?), along with a range of more sanguine reactions. The disdain in particular, I’m learning, derives from fears that the humanities can only be valued when they speak the language of the sciences. The “grand challenge” language, after all, derives from the sciences, primarily from  the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies who have sought academic research responses to the fundamental problems of our time. Typically, those challenges have been imagined as solvable through the applications of new technologies and scientifically formulated solutions created by research teams working in laboratories. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, for instance, defines Grand Challenges as “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination…. Grand Challenges Can:

  • Help create the industries and jobs of the future;
  • Expand the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and the world around us;
  • Help tackle important problems related to energy, health, education, the environment, national security, and global development; and
  • Serve as a “North Star” for collaboration between the public and private sectors.”[16] 

I don’t know about you, but I don’t immediately recognize my work in some of these bullet points. Creating industries and jobs is just not part of the way I imagine my work’s impact, nor, I suspect, does that resonate with many humanists. Our work does, however, expand the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and the world around us; Our studies can and do contribute to our understanding of important problems related to the environment and global development; If we serve as any kind of “north star,” it might be in our considerations of our own, collective collaboration with the public through the SAH, but also through our individual work in preservation activism; as historians working in State Historic Preservation Offices; as scholars and citizens serving on local housing boards; as national and public parks consultants and advocates; in public schools; as participants in prison education programs; and much more.

We are particularly well positioned to engage with grand challenges because architectural histories can and often do address questions at a range of scales: that of the building, a neighborhood, a city, a territory, a nation, the global. What I want to suggest is that we need to more frequently articulate our work in grander terms. Rather than shying away from the language of the grand challenge because it may seem to devalue the humanities in favor of a language better accepted in the sciences, I want to suggest, as does “The Heart of the Matter” report, that we embrace that language, that in fact nearly everything we do in the humanities addresses a grand challenge and that architectural, landscape, and urban histories are no exception. But again, we’ll have to be conscious of the scope and breadth of our inquiry so that we are not, in the words of David Armitage and Jo Guldi, “just contributing another brick to the wall of knowledge without formulating a turning-point of consequence to the rest of the field or explaining (its) significance to general readers and citizens.”[17]

Must we always orient our work to a large audience, or address such grand challenges? No. But there are stakes involved in this decision. There is no question in my mind that we bear some obligation to engage with the most pressing issues of our time, but it is equally clear to me that we can do so—have long been doing so---in ways that are not immediately instrumental to those challenges and that are extremely important. In some respects, our fields have led others, particularly with respect to the construction of histories of the everyday, and in our often nimble facility with multiple and complex forms of material and visual evidence as well as with the textual. But we’ve done so quietly, often unselfconsciously, and without outward engagement across the humanities.  Neoliberalism, globalization, imperialism—these are the topics consuming our colleagues in other humanities disciplines. And quite frankly, we may be learning about the same story of neoliberalism, globalization, and imperialism, told again about a lesser known location because the place, the site itself, is not enough part of the story. Scholars in every area of specialization from classicists, byzantinists, and medievalists, to early modernists, all contribute equally to these questions and the resultant conversations. But if we are afraid to claim our work as grand and challenging, if we shy away from that language, we do our scholarly endeavor an injustice.

3. Doctoral Education

Finally, we might profitably also ask how doctoral education in our fields prepares future historians to address such questions. “The Heart of the Matter” does not explicitly take up this topic, but it is of great relevance for nearly everyone in the SAH.[18] Our expectations for the dissertation are not yet significantly different than they’ve been for decades, but the pre- and post-doctoral landscape of our disciplines is shifting as it is for doctoral students across the humanities. As tenure-track jobs become increasingly scarce, and as so-called “alt-ac” careers become an increasing focus of graduate programs nationwide, we may see the emergence of a greater number of scholars in architectural history who possess a Ph.D. and who are seeking opportunities for the production of scholarship in the public realm. We are seeing a slight increase in public fellows programs and opportunities across the country, but the doctoral programs in which architectural, urban, and landscape historians are trained remain largely fixed to the same traditions and curricula by which they were governed in a previous era. How might we rethink the dissertation, for example, so that it can be better molded to suit various emerging opportunities in the public realm? What levels of public history work or public engagement would be acceptable in a dissertation? What kinds of questions might we accept that have not previously been seen as acceptable? What scope of time? What sorts of evidence? What sorts of new questions? What sorts of new products or analytical tools (which will almost certainly involve digital components)? What forms of collaboration? How can we teach our students to engage in the production of public writing, public histories that are both full of rich historical detail and delightful to read, that open up conversations among broader audiences about the ways space matters in and to everyday life? These are issues we need to address—and soon—to better prepare future architectural historians for a broader set of prospects that will necessarily include the levels of public engagement demanded by “The Heart of the Matter.” Those students are also and always the future of our fields.

We need to find ways to continue to invite people in—to engage diverse members of the public to join us in our curiosity about and study of the built environment, to make them part of our worlds. We have to do a better job as historians of demonstrating the myriad, complex, and fascinating connections that exist between the built environment of the past and present to many of the key issues of our time and of times past: environmental change, the exercise of political authority, the impact of religious beliefs on societies, immigration, identity construction, and much more. To some extent, architectural critics have embraced this rather more quickly and robustly than we have done, and I would again point to the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin as a model of someone who himself endeavors with his writing to “build a bridge between the public and the public realm,” helping, as he puts it, to generate public conversation about “our common destiny.”[19]

To some extent, it might be helpful for us to reconsider Manfredo Tafuri’s notions of the historian-critic, particularly his insistence on the notion of architectural histories as frameworks and catalysts for public debate.[20] I’m not arguing for the destruction of the boundaries that delineate the work of critics and historians, but I am urging us as scholars to learn from the ways architectural critics manage increasingly and through various new forms of media and the conversations they afford, to engage the wider public in a more sophisticated set of dialogues about the built environment. 

Finally—and importantly given the shifting role of the learned society that I’ve alluded to above: Ask not what your learned society can do for you, but ask instead what you can do to help raise the visibility of the work that is done within your learned society. We have to think about learned societies in new and fresh ways, and we have to understand them as a crucial part of a triad that includes the work of universities, and individual scholars—that they are our working partners with the potential for making scholarship publicly visible in ways that the university of the present often surprisingly lacks. We are used to thinking about the payment of membership fees in exchange for specific sets of society services and privileges, but that model is rapidly shifting. For example, as open access begins to be the rule instead of the exception, our journals will no longer be tied to our membership and while that erodes our present business model, it also means, as I noted earlier, that our scholarship will be on the open web where people can actually read it. Our ways of gathering for intellectual exchange may also change away from the traditional conference format in the coming decades if a variety of economic shifts continue to hold sway in the academy and if climate change makes the traditional conference model both environmentally irresponsible and locally untenable. So instead of thinking about membership fees as purchasing specific goods and services, we might instead consider them as the purchase of a certificate of commitment to the public good of our profession and of our realm of study; that membership in a society like SAH is a declaration of faith in and obligation to our collective responsibility to the advancement of a public branch of our intellectual work; that to be a member of the SAH of the future may be primarily about considerations related to the advancement of a publicly engaged scholarship that begins with K-12 education but does not end at universities, and that instead advances our work as a continuous effort to further sophisticated dialogues in public and in private domains and across the multiple and varied spaces in between.

What we see when we use “The Heart of the Matter” as a measuring device is an SAH that has been quietly leading the way—perhaps too quietly—towards a greater engagement with the public and charting paths for raising the visibility of the humanities through its digital projects. But for that work to become less quiet—and I believe it deserves to be both more well-known and still more widely accessed—we need to see that work as belonging to all of us, to everyone who is able to support it, engage in it, and produce more of it. A public architectural humanities has to become a priority rather than a hobby. To be a participant in that emerging realm of the public humanities is, for me, an exciting prospect—one for which I may be poorly prepared, but for which I am entirely game. For me, that engagement is at the heart of the matter.



[1] The full “Heart of the Matter” report can be accessed here: http://www.humanitiescommission.org/_pdf/hss_report.pdf

[2] The film can be viewed here: http://vimeo.com/68662447

[3] The Chicago Humanities Summit took place on January 9, 2014, and was co-sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Modern Language Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

[4] “Heart of the Matter,” p. 50

[5] Broadhead made these comments at a dinner in Chicago sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the MLA, and the Chicago Humanities Festival on January 8, 2014.

[6] “Heart of the Matter,” pp. 10-12.

[7] “Heart of the Matter, pp. 10-12, and passim.

[8] “Heart of the Matter,” p. 39.

[9] “Heart of the Matter,” p. 52

[10] For more on Hypothes.is, see the following website: www.hypothes.is.  Additional information on Open Annotation can be found here: www.openannotation.org.

[11] These thoughts about curating public debates about the built environment were stimulated by a lecture titled “Architecture Criticism: Dead or Alive?” delivered by Blair Kamin at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, March 10, 2014. Kamin has an outstanding record of stimulating and curating such public debates in the digital version of the The Chicago Tribune.

[12] R. R. Palmer, “A Century of French History in America,” French Historical Studies, 14, 1985, pp. 173-174. This is also cited in Armitage and Gouldi, p. 12.

[13] The Chicago Humanities Festival is an outstanding example. See www.chicagohumanities.org. For the quotes, see www.publicbooks.org/about.

[14] “Heart of the Matter, pp. 43, 45.

[15] The Humanities Without Walls consortium is based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and it is funded by a substantial grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For more information, see www.humanitieswithoutwalls.illinois.edu

[17] David Armitage and Jo Guldi, “The Return of the Longue Duree: An Anglo-American Perspective,” http://scholar.harvard.edu/files/armitage/files/rld_annales_revised_0.pdf, (2014, p.5).

[18] Doctoral education is also the subject of an important new report released in June, 2014, by the Modern Language Association, “Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.” The report is available here: http://www.mla.org/pdf/taskforcedocstudy2014.pdf

[19] Blair Kamin lecture, March 10, 2014.

[20] On the Tafurian critic-historian, see “There Is No Criticism, Only History: An Interview with Manfredo Tafuri” conducted in Italian and translated into English by Richard Ingersoll, in Design Book Review, no. 9, Spring 1986, pp. 8–11.