SAH Blog


  • Banham's America by Gabrielle Esperdy

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    Mar 27, 2012
    Reyner Banham may have died in 1988, but he is active on Facebook, with a fan group, an author page, and, at last count, 1,048 friends. This is far fewer than the average teenager, to say nothing of Lady Gaga, and there are certainly more sober ways to gauge the influence of the British historian and critic of modern architecture and design: two collections of his writings, a hefty intellectual biography, and a volume of essays by distinguished scholars inspired by his work. In addition, a number of his books remain in print decades after their original publication, including Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960) and Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971). Most recently, Ice Cube's video for Pacific Standard Time is as reverent an homage to Banham's style of casual but informed analysis as one might imagine. Clearly, Banham still matters in all the ways that count for a traditional intellectual - but Banham still matters in ways that count for an intellectual in the age of social media, too. And the man whose work happily vacillated between the academic and the popular would have appreciated the giddy enthusiasm that's prompted hundreds of people, from dozens of countries, to like and friend him posthumously.

    Banham had plenty of giddy enthusiasm himself, especially for the United States - its culture and technology, its cars and its buildings. After years of observing America from afar in movies and magazines, Banham visited for the first time in 1961. Taken at the age of 39, this trip was, according to his wife, "the realisation of a longheld dream." [1] He returned to the U.S. regularly thereafter, notably to Los Angeles on a Graham Foundation Travel Grant in 1965, before moving to Buffalo in 1976 to teach at the State University of New York. (This was after having taught at the University College London for over a decade.) Four years later, he settled in Santa Cruz to teach at the University of California. At the time of his death, Banham was about to move across the country again, having accepted a professorship at New York University's Institute of Fine Arts.

    In addition to teaching, Banham produced a dozen scholarly books and a steady stream of criticism in publications ranging from Architectural Review and Design Book Review to the Times Literary Supplement and New Society, as well as a handful of radio and television broadcasts for the BBC (Reyner Banham Loves Los Angeles, available on YouTube, is the best known). As a critic, Banham is sometimes seen as a more learned (though less glib) practitioner of Tom Wolfe's pop New Journalism; as a scholar, he is viewed as a less staid (though more snarky) heir to Nikolaus Pevsner's partisan history of architecture's recent past. These assessments are on the mark: they usefully characterize Banham's approach to the full spectrum of design in his immediate present. Yet they overlook the relationship of Banham's work to another body of literature that elucidates not only his methodology but also his enduring value and relevance today: travel accounts of Europeans abroad in America.

    Read the rest of the article as it appears on Places - The Design Observer


    Gabrielle Esperdy is associate professor of architecture at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.

    Esperdy focuses on the intersection of architecture, consumerism and modernism in the urban and suburban landscape, especially in the U.S. in the 20th and 21st centuries. She is particularly interested in minor or everyday buildings and how social, economic and political issues shape the built environment. Her books include Modernizing Main Street, published in 2008, and the forthcoming Architecture's American Road Trip, which examines how architectural discourse absorbed the ideals and concerns of commercial sphere after World War II.

    Esperdy's work has appeared in the Journal of Architectural Education, the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Perspecta, Architectural Design, and Design Observer, among others. She is an associate editor of multi-volume series The Buildings of the United States, and the editor of the SAH Archipedia, an online resource scheduled to go live in 2012. She is a board member of DesignInquiry and a regular contributor to the DesignInquiry Journal.

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  • Housing Questions

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    Mar 12, 2012
    Fill the streets of New Jersey with a logjam of four-story bar buildings owned via portable mortgages. Suspend apartments and municipal offices within a shared tensegrity framework financed by a Florida real estate investment trust. Stack a former Illinois factory with modular bungalows to form a limited equity cooperative of multigenerational immigrant families. In Oregon, populate every other square in a superblock grid with a bestiary of idiosyncratic housing types. Overwrite the boundary between private and public in a California subdivision by misregistering the lines that separate inside from out, yard from street, yours from mine.

    These are the strategies through which five multidisciplinary teams reimagine United States suburbs in projects featured at the Museum of Modern Art exhibition “Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream.” Addressing the foreclosure crisis along with some of the other challenges facing suburbs and their residents, the proposals combine ideas from architecture, urbanism, ownership, and financing to model new scenarios for living, working, and investment.

    This investigation treats housing not only as a design problem but also as a medium of sociability, consumption, and governance—a biopolitical infrastructure. And just as they eschew modernist housing typologies, the teams avoid the model of direct public ownership and financing used for many of the housing projects constructed from the 1930s to the 1970s.

    One prompt for the work was a counterfactual scenario in which, after decades of subsidizing homeownership and affordable housing through market mechanisms and tax incentives, the federal government directed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds toward the construction of public housing. But none of the participating teams took up this invitation to imagine a reinvigorated welfare state. Instead, they crafted public-private development and financing strategies allowing residents to build equity through ownership of one kind or another.

    “Foreclosed” addresses some of the questions preoccupying policymakers and critics today. How to make housing more affordable? More sustainable? More broadly accessible? Can we still count on the thirty-year self-amortizing mortage to expand the middle class? Are there other ways that our structures of housing and finance can mitigate income inequality? Should we count on housing equity to provide social security? Or, following Friedrich Engels, should we reject public housing as a palliative that blocks more fundamental transformation?

    This conversation coincides with a new cycle of scholarship on housing and its history, evident in urban renewal sessions at the 2007 SAH annual meeting and recent JSAH articles on public housing, Jane Jacobs, Robert Moses, and other topics. What are some of the insights from this work? What models could we use to imagine new ways of housing ourselves and one another? What models from other times and places, or overlooked in U.S. history, suggest strategies that move beyond both LBJ liberalism and contemporary neoliberalism?

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  • Rise and Shine, Detroit by Andrew Nelson (National Geographic Traveler)

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    Mar 1, 2012
    It's not called a "tug" of memory for nothing: I'm outside Detroit's railroad station, and I instantly recall my mother's gloved hand pulling mine as we rushed through the vast atrium that was inspired by the imperial baths of ancient Rome. We are in a hurry to get somewhere, and Detroit is, too. Even a little boy in the mid-1960s notices the tempo. The Motor City is in motion. We build America's cars. Thanks to Berry Gordy's Motown, the world hums our songs. The city, fifth largest in the U.S. by population, is at the top of its game.

    Today, Michigan Central Station still looks Roman, but it's a Roman ruin. Closed since 1988 and stripped of valuables by vandals, or "scrappers," the empty hulk symbolizes my old hometown's decline, buckling beneath crime, corruption, and events such as the 1967 riots, the 1970s gas shortages, and the rise of Asian auto imports. My family, like others, moved away. A city of almost two million residents in 1950 shrank to 713,777 in 2010.

    To visitors, Detroit's attractions verged on the desperate: Three new casinos corralled gamblers inside windowless rooms; a desultory monorail circled downtown. The city's collapse actually created a new business in "ruin porn," as locals escorted tourists eager to experience the postapocalyptic atmosphere of decaying factories and abandoned offices.

    But Detroit has been down so long, any change would be up. And "up" is why I've returned. Something's happening in Michigan's southeast corner. Call it a rising, a revival, a new dawn-there's undeniable energy emanating from Detroit. America noticed it first at the 2011 Super Bowl. Chrysler debuted a TV commercial with rapper Eminem, star of the film 8 Mile (named after the road that serves as Detroit's northern border). The ad crystallized the city's spiky, muscular pride and won an Emmy, but Detroit was the real winner.

    Read the full story on travel.nationalgeographic.com for a great description of Detroit's architecture, including the Guardian Building where the SAH Benefit will be held on April 21. Story includes a great review of Roast, a popular restaurant in the SAH Conference Hotel.

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