SAH Blog

  • SAH Study Day Columbus Report

    Oct 30, 2013

    By Joss Kiely

    The SAH Study Day to Columbus, Indiana, led by Henry Kuehn, aimed to showcase a large cross section of modern and postmodern projects, all clustered in a small town an hour south of Indianapolis. Amid farm fields and silos, Columbus, a small town of 44,000 people, is home to as many important modern and contemporary architectural projects as a city one hundred times its size. The daylong tour was intensive and enlightening, and included a range of projects from the late 19th century to additions currently under construction. On entering the town, one thing that is immediately apparent is the attention to detail and to composition throughout, from fire stations, to residential neighborhoods, to major institutional buildings. The widespread focus on design makes it appear as if a world apart from the bucolic Midwest in which it is located.

    Our small group of seven, a mix of historians and architects, gathered at the visitors center for a brief introduction and short video explaining the reason behind Columbus’ unusual industrial prowess and impressive collection of architecture. The town was initially settled in the early 19th century, but began to flourish as a center for manufacturing in the 20th century with the rise of Cummins Engine, now a Fortune 500 company. The company and its owner were closely tied to the development of the city’s architecture program, which remains in place today.

    First Christian Church

    We began with a walking tour through a nearby neighborhood, peeking into the Irwin House and Gardens (1884), a mansion replete with verdant landscaping reminiscent of Italy. The first major visit of the day was I. M. Pei’s Bartholomew County Public Library (1969), sited with a significant relationship to Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church (1942) across the street. Both buildings were impressive in their own right; Pei’s library interior was warm and welcoming, and Saarinen’s church commanded a crisp, formal presence. As the first modern building commissioned by the town, the First Christian Church set the tone for the architectural agenda that continued thenceforth. I was particularly struck by the interior of the main sanctuary: the blend of materials and muted tones was soothing, and I found the use of natural lighting and a curvilinear brick wall to be particularly compelling. Yet another small detail not to go unnoticed was Eero Saarinen’s light fixtures that hung from the ceiling. These had an almost aerodynamic feel to them, which only added to the overall spatial composition and presence.

    Miller House Garden in Columbus 

    Other morning highlights included a pair of Gunnar Birkerts buildings: Lincoln Elementary (1967) and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (1988).

    At the conclusion of the morning walking tour, we headed back to the visitors center for another short video, this time introducing Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, recently opened to the public. When we arrived at the site, our bus pulled up into the landscaped parking area, and we disembarked, already amazed at the attention to detail right down to the terrazzo carport, which occupied most of a central bay. The Miller House, designed for J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, was completed in 1957 by Eero Saarinen in collaboration with interior designer Alexander Girard and landscape architect Dan Kiley. The plan, a nine-square grid, is focused around a central living area with a fireplace at the very center and features a sunken “conversation pit” situated near expansive glass windows that overlook Kiley’s carefully articulated landscape. One thing I noticed immediately was that despite the dark and gloomy day, the house glowed brightly, due to the expansive system of sky lighting; the entire nine-square grid is, in fact, a more or less continuous skylight. Throughout the house there was furniture designed by Girard and Saarinen, and of course, the requisite Tulip Table, which was initially designed with a fountain at its center. The exterior spaces of the house and landscape were carefully integrated, as Kiley’s allés continued the formal order of the interior outside. The flow of spaces between interior and exterior was evident, and the transitions seamless, almost as if there were no boundary. Throughout the house, one got the sense of a very Finnish touch; the children’s bedrooms were small and organized around a larger play area—much like the house itself. That the focus was rendered less on the individual and more on the collective also made the house an excellent one for entertaining, one of its core purposes for the Miller family.

    Millyer House conversation pit Columbus

    After a lively lunch discussing the morning’s events, we continued with a full afternoon walking tour around the east and west portions of the downtown area. For me, the highlight was by far the low-slung Irwin Union Bank (1972), also designed by Eero Saarinen and now in use as a conference center for Cummins Engine. Although formally the building was a departure from the downtown streetscape, its scale was deferential to its surroundings, and the landscaping, again by Dan Kiley, added to its overall presence. Once inside, the space was quite open and light, and a touch reminiscent of Mies’ Crown Hall. Our group then continued for a full tour of the current Cummins world headquarters, including the original Cerealine Building (1880s) and their adjacent facility, designed in 1984 by Kevin Roche. Other afternoon stops included projects by Fred Koetter, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Edward Charles Bassett, and concluded at J. Irwin Miller’s office, housed in the former dry goods store, built in 1881 for Joseph Irwin. The compact interior cleverly used sliding partitions to maximize space while maintaining privacy, and the modern office interior was designed by Alexander Girard, complete with custom produced Herman Miller furniture.

    Irwin Union Bank in Columbus

    Although this was the official conclusion of the tour, a number of us decided to rendezvous on the edge of town to visit Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church. As fortune would have it, the building was open and we were able to experience the vestibule and sanctuary firsthand. The asymmetrical plan placed a focus on both the altar as well as the oculus above it, lending a sense of place and a suggestion of more ethereal realms. To be sure, the most striking element of Saarinen’s design is the spire, which rises high above the flat Indiana landscape; any higher, in fact, would have required a flashing light to warn aircraft in the vicinity of its presence.

    The Study Day to Columbus, Indiana, was of particular interest to me for its focus on the work of Eero Saarinen, an architect who has become one of the core elements of my unfolding dissertation proposal and project. Thanks to the firsthand site visits, it seems increasingly likely that The North Christian Church and Miller House will be included in the project. Furthermore, I’m happy to report that I’ve already used photos from the day in the classroom during a recent lecture I gave to master of architecture students at the University of Michigan. As I move forward in my career as a scholar and teacher, this experience will continue to add to my growing repertoire of architectural experiences and knowledge.

    Joss Kiely is a Ph.D. candidate in architectural history and theory at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He received a B.A. in French and architectural studies from Connecticut College, as well as a Master of Architecture and an M.Sc. in architectural history and theory at the University of Michigan with a thesis entitled, Alternative Architectures of Italian Futurism: War, Lust, Flight, and Dance, 1909-39. His current research focuses on defining a latent "aerialism" that developed during the jet age of air travel in the 1950s and 1960s, specifically focusing on a handful of thin shell concrete structures designed by Minoru Yamasaki, Eero Saarinen, and Felix Candela.

    Go comment!
  • Alienation and Education: Massive Open Online Courseware and the Future of Architectural History Instruction

    Oct 8, 2013

    By Samuel Ray Jacobson

    With a team of administrators, programmers, video editors, and student interns I spent the summer developing the first ever massive open online course on the subject of architectural history. Offered on the edX platform beginning September 17, the MITx course “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1”—known to us at MIT by its course number, 4.605x—is intended to serve as a platform for thought about architecture throughout the world and the history of human society. Like most online courses entering the education marketplace today, 4.605x is constructed around a body of pre-existing material. The bulk of the course is derived from the spring 2013 offering of Dr. Mark Jarzombek’s recurring MIT architectural history survey, 4.605 “Introduction to the History and Theory of Architecture.”[i] This aspect of adaptation generated some of the most compelling pedagogical challenges to our creation of the online offering. It is because of the exemplary nature of these challenges to the field of architectural history and its instruction at the college level that I would like to share some of my experiences and thoughts with you, here on the SAH blog.

    4.605, the original course, was uniquely suited for an adaption of its kind because of the conceptual design of its learning objectives. The course’s overall structure is dependent upon the facilitation of a spirit of pluralism, for pedagogical effect. For example, Jarzombek’s first lecture begins with a rational and cautious conveyance of the limited theories and facts known about early civilizations. This includes a discussion of ochre, and its use in ancestral worship rituals; drawing a connection between the uses of this material in various societies, historically, without naturalizing this phenomenon within ostensibly trans-historical explanations, Jarzombek’s portrayal of the first societies imparts upon those groups a level of historical autonomy, whereby their cultural practices are represented as a cumulative instance, sitting at the end of an ongoing historical unfolding (rather than functioning as an antecedent of the present). Building upon this example, 4.605x can be rightly understood as a format for historical pluralism: it recounts the story of architecture and history in various instances as it moves through them, chronologically, in an attempt to foster a type of historical literacy. Presented in episodes, the history of architecture and society gradually accumulates, its instances receding form their particularity and towards their implication in a continuum. As a student, this revelation becomes ever-more seductive by virtue of the ignorance it produces: everything one learns reveals the possibility for learning that much more, as the unfolding of architectural history continues revealing itself as ever vaster and more complex than it seemed before. Embodying the curiosity of its self-selected student body, 4.605x creates for itself a new demographic of architectural historians: independent, global, and operating outside the normative boundaries of our field’s academe.

    That this should be so inherently pushes against the medium condition of MOOC development in its present, early iteration. In general terms the repackaging pre-recorded lectures as a free online course, while expanding availability to content, also highlights the elite privilege of access to today’s institutions of higher learning. In our case while 4.605x is making available, for free, to anyone with an internet connection, a simulacrum of an experience that up until this moment was only available to those with the ability to attend MIT classes, those who enroll in 4.605x will receive no official credit for the course and, since MIT retains copyright to its materials, enrolled students are not free to engage with course lectures, readings, or assessment outside the edX online environment. The experience is approximately analogous to auditing a traditional university course, with the added consideration that one cannot watch lectures live or interact personally with the professor. The necessary formatting of our recorded material heightens this potential alienation of the student from their online instructor, when compared to a traditional auditing situation: divided into segments, edited for length, and released en-masse, the lectures seen by 4.605x students will read unavoidably as a derivative product, awkwardly adapted for their online viewing and always feeling like a secondary sort of experience. Bearing these factors in mind, 4.605x is no more than the sum of what has been lost in translation; a teasing reminder of the world-class instruction offered by MIT, to individuals who will probably never be able to experience it.

    Such cynicism is misplaced. To view our MOOC as mere branding exercise misses the opportunities that the online medium provides for new forms of instruction and individualized learning, which are numerous and compelling. MOOC lectures, even those adapted from residential courses, differ from traditional lectures because students are free to absorb information at their own pace: with streaming online video, a student can watch when they please, with the ability to pause, rewind, and revisit portions they may not have understood the first time around. In our course, self-scrolling, time-stamped transcripts, displayed beside the lecture videos, enable better comprehension for the hard-of-hearing and English learners. Additionally, questions displayed beneath videos have been used to highlight salient points in our video segments; this simple gesture is of tremendous importance: by taking advantage the necessary fracturing of our video content as a pedagogical opportunity, 4.605x starts to utilize its digital nature as a value added opportunity for its global community of students.

    Snapshot of 4.605x, 9/17/2013

    There are many other ways in which the 4.605x course team attempted to capitalize on the edX platform, building on the learning objectives implied by the material available from the original MIT course. The content of Professor Jarzombek's course holds up the ideal of free, rational association between historical episodes. Paraphrasing his course abstract, 4.605/4.605x’s lectures give students grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts; analyzing particular architectural transformations, arising from various specific cultural situations, the course lectures answer questions like:

    • How did the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE impact regional politics and the development of architecture?
    • How did new religious formations, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, produce new architectural understandings?
    • What were the architectural consequences of the changing political landscape in northern Italy in the 14th century?
    • How did rock-cut architecture move across space and time from West Asia to India to Africa?


    • How did the emergence of corn impact the rise of religious and temple construction in Mexico? (Jarzombek)

    These questions coordinate very particular narratives about architecture and its role within the unfolding of social history. In a traditional lecture course, student concerns involving these narratives and their relationship to each other could be addressed in recitation sessions, but in the MOOC environment this is not possible. While technologies exist to facilitate personal interaction between instructors and online students, such as edX’s built in discussion form or products like Google Hangout, even with these tools it is not possible to address individualized concerns with the attention and care of graduate student teaching assistants. Building upon spring 2013 4.605 TA input, the 4.605x course team devised a moderated approach to facilitating student discussion that emphasized the course learning objectives without necessitating the input of additional resources.[ii]

    To discuss these strategies it is necessary to understand how 4.605x configures its narratives of architectural history. As an example, let’s consider the third question above, about early modern northern Italy. In his lecture on the topic, Jarzombek argues that the example of the emergence of the town square in Siena in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and concomitant consolidation of the medieval torre typology from its proliferation in family compounds to the singularity of town hall, signals the emergence of civil society in that region. Thus, the comparison between the later and earlier town-scape conditions, illustrated below, relates indexically to the creation of the concept of citizenship and the growing role of civic institutions during the Renaissance.

    View of Piazza del Campo with Torre del Mangia (Siena), Wikipedia Commons

    Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century, Wikipedia Commons

    In this and other incidents, 4.605 lectures enact an historical methodology, whereby architectural developments are seen as causally related to a wide variety of cultural factors, across related geographical and chronological contexts. With respect to the issue of fitting incidents together, it is important to note that there are other metanarratives that one might fit this event in Italian history in to, and that in 4.605/4.605x a student is not given an opportunity to choose, or even explore, such counterpoints. It should be stated that in offering an admittedly singular and sanctioned narrative among a broad variety of twenty-four related, but autonomous incidents, students are enabled if not forced to use their own reasoning to create a comprehensive understanding of global architectural history; therefore, despite operating on an inherent notion of propriety and sanctioned knowledge, 4.605x’s epistemic values nourish and encourage an individualized engagement with architectural history, and therefore history, writ large. It is with this directed encouragement in mind that we, in developing 4.605x, tried to facilitate a conversation that could be as open as possible, and that took maximum advantage of our online course’s large and diverse community of motivated students. Like most surveys, in 4.605x the fostering of intellectual connections between related materials is foregrounded at the expense of individualized exploration. That said, the global character of our course community offers an unprecedented opportunity for students of diverse backgrounds to connect with each other, and these connections offer opportunities for personalized reflection and exchange that the original MIT course cannot match. Indeed, we see the open-posting capability written into the edX discussion forum as a wonderful tool for students to get to know each other as they get to know the material—and to experience whatever benefit this may offer. To this end, simple policies have been devised such that the discussion can remain free without impinging upon comprehension of the class's radically inclusive historiographical methodology. Those policies, informed by previous edX courses, include:

    • Be polite. We have learners from all around the world and with different backgrounds. Something that is easy for you may be challenging for someone else. Let’s build an encouraging community.
    • Search before asking. The forum can become hard to use if there are too many threads, and good discussions happen when people participate in the same thread. Before asking a question, use the search feature by clicking on the magnifying glass on the left-hand side.
    • Be specific. Choose a descriptive title, and provide as much information as possible: Which part of what problem or video do you want to discuss? Why do you not understand the question? What have you tried doing?
    • Write clearly. We know that English is a second language for many of you but correct grammar will help others to respond. Avoid ALL CAPS, abbrv of wrds (abbreviating words), and excessive punctuation!!!!
    • Use discussion while working through the material. On many pages in the learning sequences and homework, there is a link at the bottom that says “Show Discussion”. Clicking on this link will show all discussion on the forum associated with this particular learning material.

    By foregrounding concerns of civility and legibility in our management of the discussion forum, we hope that our course community will develop itself into a vibrant forum of equal interlocutors, despite the centralizing epistemological tendencies of the survey format and sense of alienation imposed by the digital adaptation of an existing course.

    To get things moving, and emphasize certain salient aspects of course lectures, a small body of conversation topics, written by Dr. Jarzombek, have been pre-seeded. Released onto the discussion forum with each lecture, these directed prompts offer opportunities for personal reflection that is based on the material discussed. Emphasizing the living nature of architectural history, it is hoped these discussion questions help students to connect material together as they form associations between what they are learning about and their own lives. For the lecture on early modern Italy, for example, the discussion prompt includes the question “Have you ever visited an Italian city and had a coffee in a piazza?” By answering this question or responding to the experiences of others, students can start to understand how they have interacted with the contemporary legacy of the urban-political shift addressed in the course, even in something as everyday as having an espresso.

    We hope that this intentionally limited mode of fostering student engagement catalyzes additional ancillary benefits. It is true that, by not encouraging engagement with alternative philosophies of history, 4.605x often works to reinforce its epistemological authority, to the effect of performing as a vehicle for sanctioned facts and narratives. That said, given the specifically anti-hegemonic nature of Professor Jarzombek's architectural history—which engages the subject across traditional chronological and cultural boundaries—I am incredibly optimistic about 4.605x’s ability to enable new connections to the field of architectural history, conceived in the broadest possible form. These directed questions are one excellent example of how this could occur; there are many others. Ultimately, it is the global nature of the content developed for the course that will help an unprecedentedly diverse audience to relate to what has traditionally been a somewhat elite and generally Eurocentric subject. In catalyzing this novel opportunity to create a new community of persons interested in architectural history, allowing for personal reflection is of immense importance. It is in this sense that the discussion component of 4.605x is helping to build on the course’s pedagogical strategy, even if the online formatting of the course ambivalent about our inability to engage with students personally.

    My measured optimism comes with a wealth of caveats, predicated on uncertainty. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is helping to develop curricula for an emerging university outside the United States, and it is likely that 4.605x will be adapted as an instructional tool for use at that institution in the near future; it is also likely that the course will be used as an instrument in similar “flipped instruction” utilizations elsewhere, further in the future. The details about this were still developing as 4.605x was being put together, but the continuation and adaptation of 4.605x into new and different forms seems inevitable. The inherent problem with this dynamic is one of derivation. Not only is our online course inherently derivative—based, as it is, on recorded lectures from spring 2013—but it is also going to be used to develop derivative content—such as materials to facilitate residential instruction elsewhere. Here is my fear: 4.605x is a survey course, composed of relatively autonomous episodes, portrayed in lectures; I can see its content being easily misused, formulating connections that the course itself leaves ambiguous, to the detriment of students.

    The motivation of my fear is an attachment to 4.605x’s present and delicate neutrality, as a format for content, from the perspective of historiography. Having watched the course lectures out of order, a few times, I can say that all of them stand on their own easily. They are comprehensive, and entertaining. I can also say that no particular lecture is necessary to satisfy the overall pedagogical ambition of the course: the ambition of training students in an understanding of history and architecture can be achieved even without a unit on the Minoans and discussion of the impact of the collapse of the Indus River Valley civilization in 1500 BCE, for example. That said, 4.605x does not lend itself easily to historiographical agendas outside the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason. So, while 4.605x courseware can and should be used as a resource for teaching global architectural history—few exist, more should—I would hate to see it adapted in a manner that naturalizes secondary aspects of the course as overriding concerns. It would be an abuse of the course’s content to create a derivative from it which is centered on ideological critique (cf. Tafuri) or technical determinism (cf. Semper; Banham) for example, or to make an argument that architectural history is characterized by expressions of singularity (Frampton) or signification (Jencks)—all of which are possibilities, should one cherry-pick content to adapt based on ideological interest. To provide an extended example: bearing in mind my interest in sexuality and space, it would be entirely possible to utilize 4.605x lectures to create a limited course on the history of human sexuality and the architecture of domestic environments; this course could include clips about matriarchal societies in the pre-classical Mediterranean (Lecture 6), the relationship between the rise of farming and more dimorphic gender roles in the Holocene (Lecture 3), connections between the lack of public space and the culture of rape renaissance Italy (Lecture 22), among many others. While I am OK with the idea of using 4.605x videos in an external and unrelated environment, it is crucial that this adaptation not be presented as an abridgement of 4.605x. The absolute character of “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1” (covering the whole world, and the complete history of society) neutralizes its particular content such that its only agenda is that of conveying material, to foster the intellectual growth of a student audience. It is for this reason that the course can cover 100,000 years of human history with efficacy: none of its admittedly limited dives into particular subjects are inherently necessary to the overall integrity of the course. Once that neutrality is compromised, the course becomes a political instrument, using incomplete materials to enforce a set of propositions. Rather than learn to teach themselves, students are merely indoctrinated.

    The question facing 4.605x now, as future adaptations remain to be considered, is: can the course’s present ethos of facilitation be expanded to include a body of teachers? Stated another way: Can 4.605x become a platform for facilitating new and novel engagement with global architectural history instruction, in both senses of the phrase (instruction on the subject of “global architectural history;” and on architectural history, generally, around the world), in the same manner as it encourages new, global connections to the subject of architectural history? I don't know. What I would like to see is metamorphoses of 4.605x, not derivations, elicited in the same way that the course hopes to have an impact on student thinking about architecture and history, but not necessarily to shape it.

    I am able to present several informed judgments about the state of 4.605x with regards to the ambitions of its institutional stakeholders. Presently members of the MIT Office of Digital Learning (which also oversees MITx) are utilizing analytics to reconsider how MOOC courseware can be designed to maximize intended impact. One recent study, “Exploring the Relationship between Course Structure and etext Usage in Blended and Open Online Courses,” uses anonymous, aggregated, and chronologically analyzed student click data sets to understand when and how often students utilize certain resources. This research had a marked impact on our course, leading to the implementation of four regular exams rather than a mid-term and final, since research has found that students engage much more with eText when this format is used, and more engagement is assumed to be beneficial. The impact of this leveraging of analytics remains to be seen. In developing our course, research was used to short-circuit the traditional iterative refinements by which university courses are developed over the years. The intention was to improve 4.605x’s online learning experience based on scientific data, but it is just as possible that our creation of additional tests will work to over-emphasize an aspect of the courseware (eText), at the expense of the other possible developments obviated by the labor necessary the additional tests (for example peer reviewed essay assessments, or the beta testing live office hours analogues).

    The dynamic of derivation within which 4.605x presently sits involves a high degree of free play. It is my hope that future analytics data about, for example, what students click on the most, how this is reflected in assessment outcomes, and how demographic data might be implicated in such outcomes, can be leveraged to continue thinking pragmatically about improved learning outcomes. Put another way: it is my hope that those responsible for 4.605x in down the line will leverage gathered data to learn what there is for the architectural history community to learn, about learning, rather than to attempt to manipulate the structures we have created to conform to externally generated assumptions.

    Addressing the issue in this way might be too limited. From the perspective of architectural history as a subject and discipline, the ultimate question provoked by this course at present—and therefore by MOOCs, towards the future of architectural history instruction—is: what do we want? 4.605x proves that creating a high-quality massive open online course on the subject of architectural history is possible, and demonstrates that even following the simplest model for online courseware production (adaptation of existing materials) there is a lot to be gained pedagogically from a careful consideration of the capabilities of the format of content distribution. I personally think that 4.605x will help to fill a gap that exists at many professional programs, who lack the resources retain a dedicated, experienced PhD-level instructor of architectural history capable and motivated to teach a broad, undergraduate-level survey course, and for this reason the course is highly noteworthy. Your views on what qualifies an individual to teach the subject of architectural history and what should be taught to whom likely differ from mine but it is likely we agree that expanding access to college-level instruction in architectural history is a service to the field. What this service will mean, as the project evolves, can start to be evaluated by looking at the landscape of online education today. Compared to disciplines such as math, biology, or electrical engineering, architectural history is relatively unique in its limited size and scope, with only a few institutions able to maintain robust programs of study; 4.605x is an interesting case study in the early history of MOOC education since its licensing and re-distribution likely does not offer the threat of professional displacement that speculated about similar MOOC surveys in subjects with larger teaching communities, threatened by our current age of austerity.[iii] What these things mean, together, is that the relative value added by increasing access to and otherwise facilitating instruction on the subject of architectural history online is high, while the risks, at the level of administration and job security, are relatively low. Even if 4.605x fails to meet your best expectations for the first architectural survey online with regards to content I think you can concede that the precedent it sets with regards to the possibilities for architectural history instruction is a worthy one. It does not replace its traditional equivalent, but it allows greater access to its content, and this is a benefit. Given that, I ask you the members of the Society of Architectural Historians: where do you want to take this? Certainly some serious consideration of what we want the future of architectural history to look like is warranted. The fact of 4.605x occurring, now, and the prospect of its continued adaption brings to that consideration some urgency: massive open online education in architectural history is happening, and will continue. While it is unlikely that a competing MOOC on the subject of “global architectural history” will emerge soon, it is quite likely that similarly constructed offerings on the subject of architectural history—adapted, comprehensive, and lecture-driven—will proliferate over the coming years. I am content with how this course turned out, but not satisfied; to the effect that I remain insecure about its present iteration I worry about its future adaptation, and the design of other MOOCs on the subject of architectural history. In the translated words of Roland Barthes, “whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought.” Applying this maxim to 4.605x: our course is configured as it is as a result of its context and the resources available, future iterations will remain the same in that regard, and related courses will bear some resemblance in that concern. It is likely that other online courses on architectural history will resemble ours in terms of formant. Thus it bears asking: how do we want online education to benefit the field of architectural history, and how can the possibilities and capabilities of emerging online education platforms be utilized in the service of these goals?

    To begin this conversation, I would like to offer some interdisciplinary reflection. Many in the arena of Internet Studies have argued that the World Wide Web is a powerful, flattening force, capable of everything from radically decentralizing economies and reproduction (cf. Friedman, The World is Flat), to revolutionizing technological evolution (cf. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It), to transcending traditional boundaries of place and culture. In support of this last proposition, Canadian online education pioneer and activist Stephen Downes has argued that the internet is capable of functioning as a global public sphere, where people from around the world can talk to each other without regard to their social position. MOOCs are a fundamental vehicle for achieving this openness; as Downes stated in his EdgeX2012 presentation,

    Online, the Prime Minister of a country can have a conversation with people from all over the place; offline, that's a lot more difficult, because the Prime Minister's always surrounded by advisors, and then media, and then other media, and then a crowd of people, and that prevents the Prime Minister from talking to people directly. It is this directness, this immediacy of communication, that you can do online that allows a MOOC to be open, that is one of its defining features. The MOOC is structured as a network. And again, this is the sort of thing you can't really do offline. But online - I see people laughing at the diagram, that's a creative representation of a MOOC, by one of our students in a MOOC - and the idea here of a MOOC is that it's not one central entity that everybody goes to, it's not like a school or a classroom or a book where everybody would go to this one thing. It's distributed… it's the website of this student, this student, this student, it's the website of a person in Spain, a person in Brazil, a person in India, a person in Canada, the United States, wherever. (Downes)

    Despite this flattening aspect, like all public spheres, MOOCs are characterized by barriers to access. The most important one here is that of regular sustained access to an internet connection. Downes makes a note of this in his presentation:

    Anybody can enter a MOOC. Well, OK, I have to be a bit careful here: anybody with a computer and an internet connection, or access to one, can enter a MOOC. These are types of online learning. I'm going to emphasize this a little bit later as well, but what we built is a type of online learning. And it requires a certain infrastructure. (Downes)

    Here, the non-possession of prerequisites for participation (an internet connection) preemptively disqualifies a person from participation in the public sphere of the MOOC. This problem is negated, however, when it is turned into a question of taste; in this vein Downes continues the selection above...

    It takes advantage of that infrastructure to do things that we could not formerly do without the infrastructure. You might say, and you'd be very reasonable in saying, well what if you don't have that infrastructure? Well then probably you're not going to want to do a MOOC, because it's going to be a lot more difficult. (Downes)

    When one considers that this factor of preference might be motivated by other contingencies (including wealth) the narrative offered by Downes echoes those seen elsewhere. Consider Craig Watkins and Juliet Schor's recent report on connected learning, which argues that new educational approaches risk becoming an opportunity to reinforce already existing privileges of class and status. So they write,

    The trend for privileged young people and parents to mine the learning opportunities of networked and digital media is one more indicator of how differential supports in out-of-school learning can broaden the gap between those who have educational advantages and those who do not. When the public educational system lacks a proactive and well-resourced agenda for enriched and interest-driven learning, young people dependent on public institutions for learning are doubly disadvantaged. (Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design)

    To summarize: the societal value of MOOCs is moderated by limitations to their access. At the same time, the medium can be considered of incredible importance because of its ingenious operation between ideas and ideology: at this precise moment the MOOC remains both a pursuit of education content and its universal access, but its utopic promise remains precisely that. To these ends, while massive open online courseware can serve institutional and egotistical functions, covering elitism with a bad-faith gloss of equanimity, it can nonetheless also be leveraged as a means for identifying social and institutional conditions that foster autonomy and personal growth.

    The MOOC as described by Downes is not really free and available to all but it nonetheless serves as a means of resistance to established social orders; it is building on this compromise that I feel that the MOOC can function as a means towards broadening the availability of architectural history instruction at the college level while also facilitating the creation of a new diverse generation of independent, self-motivated architectural historians. Downes believes that the MOOC can be a democratic space capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and elitism, and I agree. I think that 4.605x has started to model what the space of the MOOC might be within architectural history. I invite you to improve on it.

    Samuel Ray Jacobson holds a Master’s degree in architectural history from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As MITx Fellow, Jacobson coordinated the production of the world’s first massive open online course in global architectural history. He is currently editing a book on sexuality and the ethos of architectural critique.


    [i] In producing the online course, lectures, recorded during the run of the class, were divided into eight to seventeen minute segments. Images and videos from lecturer PowerPoint presentations were spliced over the video feed where appropriate. In addition, four custom-coded, comprehensive exams were developed from the spring mid-term and final exams. As is typical for the massive open online course a.k.a. “MOOC” medium, videos are each accompanied by short multiple-choice exercises, and each lecture includes an opportunity for guided discussion. Some supplemental resources, such as a map of sites mentioned in the course, were also created, based on existing resources. Twenty-three of the twenty-four lectures are presented MIT Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture Mark Jarzombek, and one by Ana Maria Leon, PhD Candidate in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT. Six supplemental lectures are also offered with the course package, two by Jarzombek, two by Leon, and two by University of Washington Professor of Architecture Vikramāditya Prakāsh. These were recorded over the summer.

    [ii] Currently MITx estimates that managing their discussion forums requires approximately one hour per thousand students, per week, at a minimum; given limited resources it was necessary to devise strategies for discussion forum management that were as efficient as possible.

    [iii] See recent controversies involving JusticeX, a Harvard course offered to San Jose State University students, as well as Princeton sociology professor Mitchell Duneier’s decision to withdraw from his partnership with MOOC distributor Coursera, citing uneasiness over licensing his course to the University of Maryland and the University of Akron.;


    Downes, Stephen. "Education as Platform: The MOOC Experience and what we can do to make it better." EdgeX. Delhi, 2012. Keynote address.

    Ito, Mizuko, et al. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, 2013. Report.

    Jarzombek, Mark. Ed. Samuel Ray Jacobson. 6 June 2013. Online course description. 10 July 2013.

     Seaton, Daniel, Yoav Bergner and David Pritchard. "Exploring the Relationship Between Course Structure and etext Usage in Blended and Open Online Courses." 6th International Conference on Educational Data Mining. 2013. Conference Proceeding.


    Portions of this essay appeared in the blog of 4.605x,, in altered form, between June and August 2013.

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  • Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light and Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes

    Sep 25, 2013

    By Emily Morash

    For a brief period this spring, an unprecedented amount of temporary exhibition space at the Museum of Modern Art was simultaneously devoted to two seminal figures of modern architecture, Henri Labrouste and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret). As a recipient of the Society’s Scott Opler Endowment for New Scholars Study Tour Fellowship, I had the exceptional experience of touring the exhibits with their curators and a group of architectural historians and enthusiasts. Each exhibition presented a wealth of architectural drawings, models, photographs, and related ephemeral materials, including Labrouste’s silk laurel wreath from the École des Beaux-Arts and Le Corbusier’s glass bottles used in his Purist paintings. While our tour leaders presented the participants with great insights and historical background to many of the individual objects in the exhibitions, this report will focus on observations regarding the broader questions of exhibit conception, organization, and design, rather than individual objects or building projects.

    Our day began in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, where we met Barry Bergdoll, Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. After traversing the so-called “Bauhaus staircase” we arrived at the entrance to the Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light exhibition, curated by Prof. Bergdoll in association with Corinne Bélier and Marc Le Cœur. We toured the three sections of the exhibition and concluded with a brief tour of the Architecture and Design galleries. 

    Prof. Bergdoll began our tour with an answer to the seemingly fundamental question about the genesis of the exhibit: “Why Labrouste at MoMA?” While he presented many reasons for the exhibition including the importance placed on Labrouste by the early critics and historians of modern architecture and the desire to expose students and the general public to his work, Prof. Bergdoll also shared with us that a Labrouste exhibition was proposed in the early years of the department’s history – the Museum of Modern Art was long due for an exhibit devoted to this important nineteenth-century architect.

    We explored the three sections of the exhibition, beginning with the first gallery devoted to Labrouste’s development as a young architect and student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and his time in Rome as the recipient of the Grand Prix de Rome. Proceeding to the middle section of the exhibition, devoted to Labrouste’s two major library projects, one noticed the novel ways in which the exhibition presented architectural drawings and other materials. Specifically, exhibition designers created tables in the style of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève to display drawings of the building itself. An opening containing models of the two projects joined the two galleries and ingeniously drew a physical connection between the pair of Parisian libraries. The final gallery of the exhibit looked beyond Labrouste to his contemporaries, his later influences, and the historiography of his work including the landmark The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975.

    After a break for lunch, we began our tour of Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes with Jean-Louis Cohen, guest curator of the exhibit in association with Prof. Bergdoll and Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. I was particularly interested in this tour as I am teaching two concurrent advanced undergraduate seminars on the architecture, art, and writings of Le Corbusier at Connecticut College. 

    Our tour began with a discussion of the genesis of this exhibit—the first full retrospective of Le Corbusier’s work at the Museum of Modern Art—and the challenges that came with this exhibition. With so many exhibits devoted to his work, Prof. Cohen explained his desire to focus on Le Corbusier’s relationship with landscape. While this element of landscape is certainly a clear thread that runs throughout the exhibition—from Le Corbusier’s arrangement of objects in his paintings to the line drawings the exhibit designers employed in the windows of full-scale interior spaces to give the visitor a sense of the space beyond—the exhibition is also clearly a retrospective. This is in part due to the exceptional quality and quantity of objects displayed from the collection of the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris.    

    Prof. Cohen additionally discussed his vision for the exhibit, his choice to feature both well known and unfamiliar objects, and his goal to create something that would be compelling for both scholars and the general public alike. He also explained that there was a concerted effort to let Le Corbusier’s work speak for itself. Notably no digital reconstructions are included in the exhibition and almost all the architectural models displayed were produced by Le Corbusier and his atelier.

    One design consideration discussed during both tours was the use of color. For the Labrouste exhibition, Prof. Bergdoll noted the use of a gray stonelike color for the walls in the first two sections and white for the final section. The color choice was intended to highlight both Labrouste’s drawings and to mark a differentiation between the sections focused on his work and the final section, which looked to contemporary and comparative examples. While color in the Labrouste exhibit was subtle, in the Le Corbusier exhibition, it plays a major role in the visitor’s interaction with the gallery spaces and ultimately with the objects themselves. The curators drew directly from Le Corbusier’s so-called “color keyboard” to select a variety of subtle as well as vibrant colors to visually mark the development of Le Corbusier’s work from Purism to the postwar.

    The tour of both exhibits was an incredible experience. Rarely, if ever, have two architectural exhibitions of this importance been mounted simultaneously in the same city, let alone at the same institution. These exhibitions present a trove of exceptional objects that tell a compelling history of two the most important architects of the modern era.  The insights shared by Profs. Bergdoll and Cohen not only provided greater knowledge about these extraordinary artifacts, but also gave a deeper appreciation for the choices made in the process of curation. Learning this information about the Le Corbusier exhibition was especially valuable for me as it will directly shape the development and refinement of my fall undergraduate seminar.  While this course will only look at the postwar architecture of the Franco-Swiss architect, the exhibit has already transformed my understanding of his architectural production. I look forward to sharing much of this new insight with my students this fall both in the classroom and at the exhibition, which we will visit in September.  

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  • Building Data: Field Notes on the Future of Architectural History

    Sep 25, 2013
    This is an excerpt of an article by Gabrielle Esperdy that originally appeared in Places Journal on 9.23.13

    1. Wilderness in search of metadata
    After decades of lurking in the shadows of the digital realm, metadata is finally facing the glare of the media spotlight, from revelations about National Security Agency surveillance to disclosures of Wikipedia’s woman problem to discoveries of privacy breaches on Facebook. At first glance, these disparate scandals don’t seem to have a whole lot to do with metadata: at Facebook, the company was sharing member preferences and activities with advertisers; at Wikipedia, site editors were changing classifications for American novelists, separating out those who also happened to be women; at the NSA, analysts weretracking phone records, looking for patterns in who called whom. But in all cases, it was the use and abuse of metadata — structural metadata that describes how data is organized into hierarchies and categories, and descriptive metadata that describes the content of the data — that was at the heart of the controversy. In fact, structural and descriptive metadata —data about data, to put it simply — are critical to our networked lives. Searching without metadata would be like following Dr. Seuss on a dérive down a rabbit hole. It might be fun for a while, but when information is the quarry, seeking without finding has its limits (notwithstanding the allure of full text strings). Whether we are wondering which movie won the best picture Oscar in 1965, how frequently the Airtrain runs to JFK, or when the English edition of Vers une architecture first appeared, metadata helps to guide our search and to aid in discovery. And yet, though we spend an increasing amount of time searching for information, once we’ve got it, we rarely think about how we found it. Few of us contemplate the algorithms when what we’re after are the answers: The Sound of Music; every 3 minutes; 1927. 

    Yet while metadata is finally getting attention, it’s still not getting much respect. It remains the stepchild of authorship, a technicality we assume others will handle — namely, all those indexers, librarians and cataloguers who’ve been engaged in something akin to metadata creation for a couple of centuries (think Library of Congress Subject Headings, the New York Times Index, or the Avery Index to Architectural Periodicals). If in earlier centuries — in the print-only era — that division of labor made sense, today it is an obsolete holdover that should be challenged by every 21st-century author; for in the digital era the creation of metadata is essential authorial territory. Here, of course, the concept of authorshiprequires qualification: as Roland Barthes very nearly predicted (and numerous critics have observed), the author is now a producer of diverse content (clearly text is a wildly inadequate term) in diverse media and formats, distributed across diverse platforms. [1] To find all this rapidly proliferating content has become an ever more complex task, and for those of us who also produce content in order to generate knowledge, the task is even more fraught as we use our multiple devices to sift through tens of thousands of results that may or may not be authoritative, verifiable or even remotely useful, much less organized according to our own research interests or priorities. 

    Almost two decades ago — still early in the digital age — Nicholson Baker discovered thatfinding aids — like the index cards in a catalogue or the entries in a database — whether printed or computerized, were not neutral (though Barthes could have told him this two decades before that). Baker argued that cataloguing itself could, and should, be understood as a genuine contribution to scholarship; he also argued that the catalogue cards themselves contained information important in its own right, regardless of the content they directed us to, and taken together constituted a potentially significant historical record. [2] Back in the '90s most of us missed this crucial point (distracted as we were by Baker’s main narrative: the last days of the physical card catalogue); and most of us are still missing it today. Though many experts accept cataloguing and metadata as roughly synonymous, and though most of us engage in cataloging-cum-metadata when we categorize our blog posts, tag our photos on Flickr, and keyword our journal articles for scholarly databases like Academic Search Premier or JSTOR, rarely do we think about metadata or its creation as part of our intellectual practice. [3] But what if we did? We'd discover that metadata has been with us for far longer than we've realized, concealed in the taxonomies and classifications we’ve been using to structure disciplinary knowledge since at least the Enlightenment. Even if we've dedicated our intellectual practices to upending the canon — with its fusty taxonomies and rigid classifications — we still need the schema, if only to reject it. 

    In "The Great Gizmo," Reyner Banham offers a powerful evocation of a mythic pioneer: "The man who changed the face of America had a gizmo, a gadget, a gimmick — in his hand, in his back pocket, across the saddle, on his hip, in the trailer, round his neck, on his head, deep in a hardened silo." Almost half a century on, we prefer more nuanced portraits of frontier settlement and cold war brinksmanship, but Banham's image remains deeply appealing, and it’s tempting to carry it forward into the present digital/machine age of iPhones and Google Glass: a gizmo on her face, etc. But Banham understood that the gizmo’s true significance, and perhaps most lasting impact, had less to do with size and portability — though these were key gizmo attributes—than with the distributive culture the gizmo generated, and ultimately required. The Colt Revolver, the Franklin Stove, and the Evinrude Outboard Motor are undeniably great gizmos, but they achieved this greatness, at least in part, because folks in a "trackless country" knew how to find them. Which is why Banham calls the Sears Roebuck catalogue "one of the great and basic documents of U.S. civilization." [4]

    Banham isn't just interested in how gizmos make history; he’s also interested in using gizmos to do history, "gizmology" as discipline and method. What's key here is that Banham understood that it wasn't enough to study the gizmos themselves, no matter how satisfying they might be as objects or artifacts; nor was it enough to study their transformative effects, whether social, economic or technological. For Banham, it was also necessary to study the networks in which the gizmos existed. However much he appreciated the Sears catalogue as a compendium of gizmos, what really caught his attention was the gizmo information that Sears' "Big Book" contained: the categories, descriptions, prices, shipping weights, warehouse locations, and so on. 

    Continue Reading

    Author’s Note

    This article grew out of a paper delivered at the annual conference of the College Art Association in February 2013. My thanks to Craig Eliason for organizing the session, “Putting Design in Boxes,” and to David Shields for his useful commentary.


    1. Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author” (1967) in trans. Richard Howard, The Rustle of Language(New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1986), 49-55. See also Nicholas Rombes, “The Rebirth of the Author,” C THEORY (October 2005).

    2. Nicholson Baker, “Discards,” The New Yorker, 4 April 1994, 64-86. 

    3. See Karen Coyle, “Understanding Metadata and its Purpose,” Journal of Academic Librarianship 31 (March 2005), 160-163. Here, Coyle offers the quip that “metadata is cataloguing done by men.” See also Coyle’s InFormation

    4. Reyner Banham, “The Great Gizmo” (1965), reprinted in ed. Penny Sparke, Design by Choice (London: Academy Editions, 1981), 108 & 110. The Sears Catalogue from 1896–1993 is available in a digitized version at 
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  • Gold Coast’s Buried Relics: Artifacts from the Charnley-Persky House Dig

    Sep 6, 2013

    By SAH Metcalf Intern Christine Shang-Oak Lee

    Visitors to the Charnley-Persky House Museum in Chicago have a chance to peek into the butler’s pantry behind the dining room on the first floor. Displayed in the cabinets are rusted pots and pans, medicinal bottles and jars, and shards of broken china dishes. These artifacts were discovered when the historic house and current headquarters of the Society of Architectural Historians was undergoing extensive renovation work in 2002. Construction work on the foundation and vaulted sidewalk required digging an eight-foot deep trench along the foundation wall in order to install waterproofing material below grade. Beneath the driveway on the east (back) side of the house, the workmen discovered a late 19th-century midden with a variety of refuse left behind by the inhabitants of Gold Coast from about a hundred years ago.

    Beginning in the mid 2000s, staff members at SAH worked to categorize, document, and preserve materials from the area. In 2009, in the hopes that a professional excavation would uncover further insight into the development of the Gold Coast neighborhood and the lifestyles of the families that resided here, Pauline Saliga, executive director of SAH, contacted Rebecca S. Graff who had been a doctoral candidate in anthropology at the University of Chicago at the time. (Graff is now a visiting assistant professor of anthropology at the Michigan Technological University.) With experience in leading urban excavations of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition site in Chicago’s Jackson Park already under her belt, Graff led a field school for DePaul University students during the summer of 2010. The undergraduate students had the opportunity to learn the tenets and practices of historical archaeology including stratigraphic excavation and soil sampling.

    Most of the collection consists of glass bottles and jars that contained medicine, cosmetics, food and other condiments. Some of them were imported from across the pond, such as cologne from the Parisian perfumer Ed. Pinaud, attesting to the affluence of the families that lived in this neighborhood. A few of the bottles are local, such as from the Schiller Company, an apothecary that was just a few blocks away on the northeast corner of Clark and Schiller streets. Broken shards of fine china from France, Germany, England, and Asia were also found in the midden.

    This medicinal bottle is embossed with the name of the local Schiller Pharmacy whose store sat on the northeast corner of Clark and Schiller streets, just three blocks west of the Charnley-Persky House. As the embossing “Tel North 442” shows, the telephone numbering convention in 19th century Chicago was a name followed by three digits.

    The ownership of the garbage salvaged from the pit remains a mystery. It seems unlikely that a cultured family such as the Charnleys would have buried trash next to the house. Moreover, a graduated nursing bottle and a tiny clay toy in the shape of a pipe indicate that the artifacts of young children were in the midden. According to the 1900 census, however, the residents of the house were James and Helen Charnley, their 26-year-old son Douglas, a boarder the same age as the son, a brother-in-law, and two Swedish servants, Hannah Larson and Annie Carlson, with no evidence that a young child lived in the house. Rather, these items may have belonged to the Potter Palmer household whose grounds originally included the land on which the Charnley-Persky House was constructed. They also may have come from the 1890s apartment building immediately to the east of Charnley House. Although these items may or may not have belonged to the Charnleys, they do date to the period of the Charnley occupancy and are representative of the types of items that would have been used in their household.

    Ed. Pinaud’s Cologne, Paris.

    As part of my summer internship at SAH, I was able to photograph about 100 of these artifacts. The image gallery on the Charnley-Persky House Museum website highlights some of the retrieved items. From these buried relics, we can surmise fascinating stories of the Charnley House’s former occupants or their neighbors – someone was interested in photography and developed albumen prints, while another was occupied with perhaps filling in a bald spot with hair growth tonic – providing a retrospective glimpse into the daily lives of the Gold Coast’s well heeled society in the late 19th century.

    Christine Shang-Oak Lee is a 2013 Jeff Metcalf Fellow at the Society of Architectural Historians and a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying art history. She is currently researching Western-style architecture in Korea built during its colonial period. On campus, you can find her in the projectionist booth with her hands tangled in old film reels at the student-run Doc Films or drumming away infectious beats in the tradtitional Korean percussion group.

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  • The Right Textbook

    Aug 22, 2013

    It wouldn't be late August, if I weren't gripped by the annual anxiety that I have chosen the wrong textbook for the imminent architectural survey starting in a few days. The year-long survey (ancient to medieval in the Fall, Renaissance to late modern in the Spring) is a staple of our teaching whether in departments of art, architecture, or art history. This year's anxiety comes with the realization that I have taught a version of this survey continuously for a decade and in a range of public, private, small, and large universities. But I also realize that I have never used the same textbook two years in a row. Every April an inevitable sense of disappointment with the current textbook throws me into a crisis that translates into a different choice for next year's bookstore order. As the new academic year lurks around the corner from summer's pedagogical distance and scholarly satisfaction, the text book choice of April (the cruelest month) comes with a dose of self doubt. My seasonal anxiety was heightened this August after finding a new package in my departmental mailbox, a review copy of Richard Ingersoll's revised Spiro Kostof in World Architecture: A Cross-Cultural History (2013).

    Teaching architectural history is a complex enterprise with competing narratives, methodological styles, and philosophies. Like our fellow art historians, we face a finite set of options 
    (Gardner, Janson, Stokstad) established by publishing houses that contribute to our students' amassing of debt. Based on my own conflicted experiences, this is how I map out the textbook terrain for a general college-level introduction to architecture.

    The High Road
    . One classic approach to architectural history is to keep it elevated within the realm of high art. Educated in a Warburg School academic genealogy, Marvin Trachtenberg's Architecture: From Prehistory to Postmodernism (1986) was my point of entry. As a specialist in premodern architecture, in particular, I marveled at Trachtenberg's ability to animate the canon with the spirit of the liberal arts and the ideals of high culture. Although serving well advanced art history majors, Trachtenberg proved to become more and more unworkable with a general student pool. David Watkin's History of Western Architecture (1986) is another alternative, but its brevity on ancient architecture always discouraged me from adopting it. Built on the tradition of Nikolaus Pevsner's Outline of European Architecture (1943), the high road proudly asserts that architecture is a cultural expression superior to ordinary building, after all, "a bicycle shed is a building; Lincoln Cathedral is a piece of architecture." Thanks to the migration of Germany's prominent architectural historian, the high road flourished in the late 20th century, replacing older American models, such as Banister Fletcher's comparative method or the associationist tendencies of Ruskinian aestheticism.

    The Social Edge
    . For those trained in a more vernacular or anthropological approach, Spiro Kostof's A History of Architecture: Settings and Rituals (1985) has been an obvious choice. In spite of my scholarly anthropological affinities, I had always found Kostof more difficult to teach, as it failed to essentialize in ways that were expedient and necessary for the art-historical curriculum. Kostof seemed especially weak in Trachtenberg's periodic strengths and my own fields of interest in the Middle Ages. As Robert Ousterhout noted, Kostof's Byzantine chapter is one of the weakest, which is strange considering that he was a native Constantinopolitan. Ingersoll-Kostof's new World Architecture fills me with hope, although sadly the book came too late for this year's choices. Ingersoll has complemented Spirof's "democratic" approach with broad global strokes. Organized under 20 chronological periods that are defined by date alone, rather than by civilization, Ingersoll offers tackles three settings with its period. Although one fears that this might prove too complicated for a teleological schema, Ingersoll opens up the possibilities of selecting one's personal narrative from the 60 case-studies. So it is possible to tell the good old story of Romanesque begetting Gothic, the Renaissance begetting Baroque, etc.

    World Architecture
    . It has become increasingly difficult to teach western architecture in isolation. Nevertheless, western architecture is a tradition that, if diluted too much, fails to have a disciplinary force. Seeking to satisfy a global breadth, Building Across Time: An Introduction to World Architecture (2008) maintained the canonical western sequence but added substantive sections on Asia, Africa, and the Americas. Michael Fazio, Marian Moffett, and Lawrence Wodehouse have made the shift from western to global as easy as it can be. I have enjoyed their approach very much, although the non-western chapters struggle to fit with the western story of prominence. Bridging the divide of cultural versus social expression, Fazio, Moffett, and Wodehouse seemed to have succeeded in producing a well illustrated textbook. I would have staid more loyal to the enterprise had the later chapters been as strong as the earlier ones. The last section on late modernism and beyond seems to have disintegrated into a list of options.

    Building Language
    . What teachers of architectural history confront is an utter illiteracy among the students on how to read visual form in the built environment. Whether western, global, or sociological, the standard textbooks had assumed some kind of foundation in the virtual world. Since the survey of architectural history is commonly the only architecture class that students may take, building a linguistic basis for understanding the constructed world becomes an increasing need. This challenge had already been clear to historians teaching in schools of architecture, where the past offered the linguistic foundation for design. Francis Ching's Architecture: Space, Form, Order (1975), Steen Eiler Rasmussen's Experiencing Architecture (1959), and Christian Norberg-Schultz's Meaning in Western Architecture (1975) have all been wonderful primers to the phenomenology of architecture, but have not made good substitutes to the historian's discipline. Leland Roth's Understanding Architecture: Its Elements, History, and Meaning (2007) is the best alternative for an integrative linguistic approach. Roughly a third of this compact book is devoted to the Vitruvian architectural basics (utilitas, firmitas, venustas) before tackling the albeit short chronological sequence. I know that a few other architectural historians invested in "understanding" buildings have abandoned textbooks altogether. Others use Carol Strickland's sparse Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture (2001) that complements with original sources material and hands-on exercises.

    Thematic Entanglements
    . When the Oxford History of Art series adopted a thematic approach to its textbooks, I was very excited. Dell Upton's Architecture in the United States (1998) truly rocked my world and gave me countless hours of productive discussions in seminars geared to the American scene. Similarly, Barry Bergdoll's European Architecture 1750-1890 (2000) remains my favorite primer to that complicated century-and-a-half of proto-modernity. Unfortunately, the thematic approach is inconsistent in both chronological coverage and quality. Even in times where I have succeeded in weaving a tapestry of thematic readings, the students have become frustrated with the different voices confronting them with every turn. I have found it impossible to string along enough thematic textbooks for an extensive survey. The verdict is not out, of course, but  it seems that the students flounder in a thematic framework because most lack the rudimentary chronological foundation. I find that many students love architectural history because it gives them a primer in the sequential dialectic of cultural and social expression. Their architectural history might be their only college level history and they crave a coherent textbook.

    Perhaps I'm restless. Perhaps I expect wonders from a textbook. Perhaps I put too much value to these choices. But I don't find myself alone in lacking confidence when asked, "What is your standard textbook?" Even after ten years of trying, I am still searching for a stable textbook to partner with for the next decade. I need a book whose exorbitant cost I can at least justify to the students in good faith. By testing different books each year, I make my job harder, needing new images, new dates (which range wildly from textbook to textbook), and new assignments. At the same time, switching textbooks keeps me focused on some pedagogical concerns. I would like to think that one day, we'll have enough digital resources to make this nagging choice go away. Most likely, the choices will multiply and in their cheapness become more burdening. 

    I thank my students over the years for test-driving all these expensive choices. I am sure that they are all well served considering the chaotic alternatives. If you have a favorite textbook in your survey, please, tell us about it. I look forward to a permanent relationship. 

    "The Tree of Architecture" above, comes from Banister Fletcher's old classic, A History of Architecture on the Comparative Method for Students, Craftsmen & Amateurs (1st ed. 1896; last ed. 1986)

  • Architectural History: College Prep 2013

    Aug 7, 2013

    Can architectural history empower? John Ruskin answered affirmatively with pragmatic initiatives that challenged the obvious associations of architectural capital and hegemony. Ruskin made his students at Oxford strip to their waists and build roads, he published letters to working class readers (Fors Clavigera), established utopian NGOs (Guild of Saint George), and developed curricula for technical schools. As Dolores Hayden has shown, the "power of place" and social justice have been an integral component of architectural discourse in the U.S. In the spirit of Ruskin's, however, architectural history's engagement with the community needs constant reaffirmation, especially recently, when educational resources for the arts and humanities have been dwindling in secondary education.

    With Ruskin in mind, I decided to take up a challenge raised by Daniel Porterfield, President of Franklin & Marshall College where I teach. For three weeks, I taught a class for high-achieving high-school students from under-represented groups. Porterfield recognizes how the landscape of liberal arts education is changing and seeks new strategies like the College Prep Program (see here and here). For a pricey private college like mine, this is a critical conversation to have. So, I joined a group of seven fellow faculty members in teaching 72 students that came to our campus from 13 states, typically from extremely urban or extremely rural settings. The task of each class was to immerse the rising juniors into a college-level academic environment and inspire them to seriously consider the possibilities of college. The program hopes to inspire the students towards the necessary steps required for college planning during senior year, but also to help them decide what type of college fits them best. A few College Prep students end up applying to liberal arts colleges, which were previously not part of their familiar horizon.

    In this post, I would simply like to share some of my lessons from this experience of teaching architectural history to high-school students. The conceptual framework for my class was to teach the students a rudimentary framework (ancient, medieval, modern), as well as a crash-course in methods of historical analysis. The strategy can be summarized in a few points.

    • JSAH's Vitruvian motto "Utilitas, Firmitas, and Venustas"  provided the conceptual framework, guided by James O'Gorman's beloved textbook ABCs of Architecture. The Architecture Handbook developed by the Chicago Architecture Foundation was another alternative. With function, construction, and beauty as the core conceptual unities, the students learned how to produce the requisite plans, sections, and elevations. My history lessons were condensed and sought to produce a basic framework that moved across the conceptual triad.
    • Using our college campus as a virtual laboratory, the students learned how to make analytical drawings (measured and sketchy) as a way to substantiate observations about architectural meaning. We focused on four buildings, a Gothic Revival Main Building (1856), a Richardsonian seminary (1893), a Colonial Revival science building (by Charles Klauder, 1925), and a college center (by Minoru Yamasaki, 1972). Forced to distill all observations in a sketchbook, the students were able to see history in action as it unfolded across these four buildings. The classical, medieval, and modern traditions were recognized as coherent vocabularies with their own elaboration on the function-structure-beauty synthesis.
    • None of the students had any background in architectural drawing. Although rudimentary at first, the sketchbooks proved to be a good discipline (see examples below). At the end of the seminar, the students formed teams and measured the facades of two designated buildings. The objective was to produce a drafted final drawing.
    • Field trips provided additional inspiration. We visited our college's Archives to look at original architectural drawings produced by Klauder's and Yamasaki's offices. We also visited our college museum, where we analyzed architecture represented in paintings, and asked the question of what is the intended representational content of architecture in art. Our day-long field trip to Lancaster gave us a chance to talk about the American city from the Colonial period to urban blight and post-industrial revivals.
    • At the end of the seminar, the students presented their work to the rest of the students and faculty at a final Fair. A studio component taught by my colleague Carol Hickey concluded with the design of a primitive hut in the tradition of Vitruvius and Laugier. This pavilion was sited among the historical buildings that the students had already measured in my documentation exercises.

    What did I learn from this program? For one, it was a great pleasure to teach students from a diverse socio-economic background where architecture was not simply another item of consumption. It dawned on me that architectural history must serve under-represented social classes in different ways. If the upper social classes live in newly-created architectural fabrics (McMansions, suburbs, etc.), the lower social classes become the occupants of the abandoned older housing stock. Even if they share the dream of leaving the dilapidated inner city or rural farm behind, they are the rightful custodians of its heritage. Economic mobility translates into geographic mobility, which typically takes place across a historical journey from old discarded architecture to fancier, better maintained, newer architecture. But getting out of the old should not be the only form of empowerment. Understanding the old, which is now yours, offers a different kind of ownership, of intellectual rather than real-estate capital. Architectural heritage has an interesting class component. Poverty and historical residue coincide.

    With the social polarization of college education, architectural history is increasingly an interest to a social class uneasy with the architectural realities of American cities. The majority of my students come from the suburbs. They feel extremely uncomfortable in the city, unless it is the manicured commercial experience of Manhattan, or any other gentrified downtown. When we take trips into the cities-of-old to witness masterpieces of historical architecture, we must also confront social realities. Teaching to non-elite kids proved to be completely different. There were no touristic obstacles to be overcome. The old was part of home.

    I must confess that my foray into Ruskinian social justice has been new and novel. I know that many members of the SAH have been doing this for much longer than I. The experience has opened my eyes and introduced me to similar programs like the The Social Justice Research Academy at the University of Pennsylvania, where landscape architect Michael Nairn teaches on public space and urban sustainability. I also learned about tour classes offered by the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the initiatives by other universities to provide summer experiences on architecture: Career Explorations in Architecture at Tulane University, ArcStart at the University of Michigan, Experiment in Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, Career Discovery at Notre Dame,  Exploration of Architecture at University of Southern California, and others. Such programs are hosted by design schools and focus on the profession of architectural practice. An agenda in architectural history and interpretation has a slightly different trajectory and expectations.

    It would be interesting to hear from other architectural historians that have had similar experiences in reaching out to high school students. I would love to post your experiences on this blog, please send me an email at

    I conclude with a couple of drawings from the students; sketchbooks:

    Quick sketch exercise by Zachary Maneval comparing two 19th-century churches, Trinity Lutheran and James Episcopal in Lancaster. Although not professional or measured, the sketches illustrate the spatial and aesthetic difference between two radically different spaces and denominations.

    Quick sketch exercise by Lara Elizabeth Vera of interior facade of Central Market, Lancaster, investigating the relationship between structural material and visual order.

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  • SAH Study Day Los Angeles Report

    Aug 2, 2013


    On July 19th a group of 10 SAH members spent the day exploring two museum exhibitions on postwar architecture in Los Angeles, guided by the curators. The exhibitions were among a series of events this spring and summer associated with Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., an initiative of the Getty Foundation. The morning was spent at the Getty, where Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990, a survey of the period, was on display. The tour was co-led by the curators, Wim de Wit, head of architecture and contemporary art, the Getty Research Institute and Christopher Alexander, assistant curator of architecture and contemporary art, the Getty Research Institute. The afternoon was spent at the Hammer Museum exhibit A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living, curated by Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher, head of department and associate curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, with the tour by Ellen Donnelly, curatorial fellow. The event was coordinated by SAH board member Kenneth Breisch.


    Pacific Standard Time Presents: Modern Architecture in L.A., an initiative of the Getty Foundation, was a series of exhibitions and events in the spring and summer of 2013 at institutions throughout Southern California. Following up on 2012's Pacific Standard Time: Art in L.A. 1945–1980, a spectacular project with over 60 institutions participating, this year's was more narrowly focused on architecture and design and on a more modest scale, with eleven exhibitions at nine institutions. If last year's PST made clear the significance of Los Angeles in this period, especially in the 1960s and 1970s, architecture was somewhat underrepresented, with just one major show at LACMA and a few smaller exhibits on specialized topics. This year's PST remedies that with a variety of approaches to this productive period of architecture in Los Angeles.


    The Getty Museum's Overdrive: L.A. Constructs the Future, 1940-1990, a survey of this period in Los Angeles architecture, served as a useful orientation for the initiative as a whole. The SAH study day tour was led by curators Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander (and incidentally, the Getty equipped us with wireless headset gizmos which allowed wandering without missing any of their comments).

    The show was organized thematically rather than chronologically, the themes a mix of the urbanistic and the typological. The exhibition opened with
    Car Culture on the urbanism of the "strip" and the pop-modern architecture associated with it, and Urban Networks on the infastructures of the city -- including freeways of course, but also the now-lost streetcar system, the channelized L.A. river, and the airport. The remainder of the show focused more on buildings: Engines of Innovation, a bit of a catch-all for the high-growth industries of the postwar era: entertainment, aerospace, international trade, higher education; Community Magnets on cultural complexes, shopping centers, and churches, with a section dedicated to the 1984 Olympics; and Residential Fabric a survey-within-a-survey of housing in all its forms.

    The materials on view were mostly archival and from the Getty's own collection, including renderings, period photographs, and models, with some working drawings but an emphasis on accessible material. An unexpected highlight was the inclusion of a number of beautiful ink presentation renderings by Carlos Diniz, an independent artist who worked with many prominent architects in the 1960s in L.A., and later nationwide. Indeed it seemed to me one unstated theme of the show was the recognition of figures like Diniz, prolific and practice-oriented, who seldom appear in conventional surveys. The postwar "second generation" of Southern California like Gregory Ain and Pierre Koenig were here as well, but I thought it refreshing to see less familiar names alongside. While often considered derivative or second-tier, such designers were hugely influential in shaping the built environment -- precisely on account of their being mainstream and practical, and productive. Arguably they are as important historically as more prominent and stylistically-influential architects, just in a different way. The show was also inclusive in stylistic terms: beyond the familiar California modernism of glassy openness and indoor-outdoor living, we saw other trends of the day, the experiments in decorative ornament and historical reference that were still distinctly modern.

    Most of the period covered at the Getty was one of rapid economic growth, a period in which there was simply a lot of work for good architects (and bad ones too). During this boom Southern California led the way in producing the new American forms of automobile-based urbanism. Today the region is probably the best archive of how cities were built in this period, for better or worse. Not that L.A. was a blank slate, a point the show illustrated well in its presentation of infrastructure -- for example in highlighting the enormous scale of the streetcar system that was dismantled after WWII, yet had established urban patterns that remain today. Still, in the 1950s and even 60s, large swaths of undeveloped land remained, and this was a key condition of what L.A. became.

    The exhibition ventured into the later 1970s and 80s in some areas, notably the material on the Olympics and some houses of the 1980s "LA school." Considering the scale of the show, large but by no means sprawling, it succeeded remarkably well in presenting the trajectory from early postwar to postmodernism. But to cover the period up to 1990 was perhaps too ambitious, in that the final decade or so of that period saw the emergence of dramatically different conditions on many fronts: culturally, politically, in attitudes toward the city and toward growth, within the discipline of architecture and society in general.

    The most distinctive historical dimension that emerged from the material on display was the normative nature of modernism in the 50s and 60s, spanning the worlds of "high" architecture and fashion and the mass market. The curators were admirably inclusive: presenting googie coffee shops and tracts of single-family homes built by developers, even vernacular urbanisms of working class communities -- alongside the "high" architecture of downtown's music center and a section on "visionary houses." To my mind this approach was quite successful, and implied a redefinition of modernism in more expansive terms -- and in a manner true to the specific historical reality of Los Angeles rather than appealing to artificially-abstract universal "modernism."

    This is an important point given the non-specialist audience for a museum show like this, and the rather distressing distance between architectural discourses and popular ideas of architectural history. Architectural modernism is a case in point: cartoonish simplifications are common, whether the images are negative (prison-like housing projects) or positive (Mad Men glam). Closer to home, I was reminded of last year's LACMA show, California Design, 1930-1965: Living in a Modern Way, which was disappointingly uncritical and, in the end, blandly affirmative in the manner of a sales pitch for reproductions of "classic" modern furniture. This year the Getty presented a more complex picture. It touched on darker aspects of modern planning: the casual destruction of the Chavez Ravine community in order to build Dodgers Stadium, the transformation of the river into a concrete drainage channel. It illustrated political and social ideals of the period, the individualized every person's dream of a suburban home, but also the achievement of a racially-integrated community in the Aliso Village housing project. While the focus of the show remained on architecture, it resisted isolating design from the realities it is implicated in. I see no reason a general audience cannot engage with these questions; in fact I would argue the other way around, that the presentation of architecture as purely aesthetic and buildings as isolated objects is an approach that insults everyone's intelligence.


    The tour at the Hammer Museum of A. Quincy Jones: Building for Better Living was led by Ellen Donnelly, Curatorial Fellow, in lieu of the curator, Jennifer Dunlop Fletcher. A very different sort of exhibition than that at the Getty, this was a survey of one architect's career, a format which tends naturally toward a biographical narrative and an exploration of individual authorship, rather than sweeping historical conceptualizations. Interestingly I found the two shows touched on some of the same issues, and that the material at the Hammer added a provocative depth in its specificity and detail, especially in my thinking about periodization -- how we might define the postwar or "late modern" era.

    A. Quincy Jones (1913-1979) had a career that spanned the same decades covered in the Getty show, with his most vital work done in the 1950s and 60s. While best known for houses in a stylish postwar modern mode, his production was actually quite diverse, and included office buildings, churches, academic facilities, libraries. One can discern the typical career path of a successful practice, with more large-scale projects in later years, but Jones never abandoned the smaller scale, he continued designing houses. He also had a special interest in urban planning, and how that interest informed his residential designs is one of the most interesting aspects of his work.

    One highlight of the exhibit was the model and renderings of Case Study house #24 of 1961, produced in partnership with Frederick E. Emmons, as was much of his work. Meant as a prototype for a large suburban development, the house was half buried underground with a strip of clerestory windows and number of outdoor terraces, both open and covered, acting as light wells. A rather unusual design, but in fct a pragmatic solution to the environmental challenges of the hotter, more inland parts of Southern California, as well as to the provision of privacy in middle-class suburbs where lots were typically not all that spacious. The project was never realized, in part due to regulators' resistance to the proposed unconventional ownership structure, with large common areas -- a situation which highlights several important issues, about Jones as an architect, and about the discipline of architecture at this time in America.

    The project was unusual in another sense, in being a prototype for middle-class housing to be produced in series. In that it followed the original intent of the Arts & Architecture case study house program, which by this time had shifted toward luxurious one-off houses, and toward an aesthetic enabled by the use of expensive steel-frame construction. The resulting split personality of the program lends it a potent historical resonance, even if that complexity is lost in the popular view, dominated as it is by the familiar glamorous visuals of the later houses. The Jones exhibit brought this tension into focus in a particularly effective way.

    In the early postwar period, 1946 to 1950, Jones was a key figure in the collaborative Mutual Housing Association project, a housing cooperative in the hills on the west side of Los Angeles. While only partially realized, this was a milestone in translating the architectural ideas of modernism into an American context. The project was conceived in a spirit of idealism, in the provision of expansive common areas and shared facilities, and in the intent to be multi-racial, without restrictive covenants that were common at the time. This explicit leftist politics was in continuity with inter-war European modernism, while the planning engaged with the Southern California landscape, and the houses projected a vision of modern life that was distinctly American. If this was not mass housing, but more middle-class housing for a clientèle with an artistic bent, the project perhaps pointed toward the mass middle-class society that was emerging -- toward what that society might be. Later, Jones and Emmons would contribute more directly to this social imaginary with their prototype designs for Eichler housing developments in Northern and Southern California, today considered exemplars of quality design on a budget.

    This was only part of the material on display at the Hammer; Jones was a busy practitioner with a variety of clients, and projects that ran the gamut of programs, although generally not large in scale, and no really tall buildings. Some of his houses were large, notably the sprawling Annenberg estate, "Sunnylands." The exhibition presented such projects in their own gallery, "Living Large," which struck me as the right move, treating these as a different sort of architectural problem than Jones's more modest residential designs.

    Jones was a professional and pretty much everything on display was quality work, but for me his most compelling historical significance lies in how he sought to cultivate community and re-imagine residential norms, not only norms of formal design but even norms of property ownership. His path seems characteristic of the postwar trajectory of American modernism: truly engaged with a social mission for architecture, but in real projects rather than visionary plans (and in Jones's case even real prototypes not theoretical ones). In those terms his later work is somewhat ambiguous, but the explanation for that may be less biographical than disciplinary -- how his career spanned a period when the role of the architect in society changed, as did the economic conditions of architectural production.

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  • DIANNE HARRIS: Race, Space, and Trayvon Martin

    Jul 25, 2013


    In a few weeks, I’ll once again begin teaching my fall semester graduate seminar on “Race and Space” at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where I hold a faculty position. The seminar examines the relationship between the social construction of race and the construction of the built environment (architecture, urban space, landscapes), focusing primarily on the United States. It also examines the relationships that exist among property ownership, race, class, citizenship, justice, and notions of belonging. The course is meant to emphasize the material (read “built”) dimensions of race, and the ideological operations through which the construction of racial identities and the construction of the built environment are and have been intertwined. An interdisciplinary endeavor, the seminar includes writings by historians and theorists of the built environment and of race; and by anthropologists, geographers, and scholars from ethnic studies, American studies, cultural studies, and African-American studies, among others. The course carries the rubric of my departmental affiliation—Landscape Architecture—but it is open to graduate students from any department in the university. It fills each time I’ve offered it; graduate students from departments as diverse as English, History, Anthropology, Educational Policy, Library and Information Science, Art History, and Art Education have filled the course (far fewer students from the expected professional design degree majors have taken the course). In some instances, the seminar has shifted the direction of students’ thesis and dissertation topics. Notably, and perhaps predictably, the course also tends to attract a far more racially diverse group of students than do some of my other courses. Some of you may teach similar courses on your campuses. I hope so. Here’s why: 

    The events of the past week have demonstrated, tragically and again, that race and space are linked, and that they are matters of life and death. Trayvon Martin died on February 26, 2012, because he was a black youth wearing a hooded sweatshirt in a gated community in a United States that remains characterized by high levels of racism and housing segregation. The man who shot and killed him, George Zimmerman, decided that a 17-year-old black youth was literally and suspiciously out of place, even in what has been described as a multi-ethnic gated community. The case is neither simple, nor easily analyzed. It is surely about the laws surrounding gun control, and Florida’s “Stand your ground” law. It is about a legal and judicial system that overwhelmingly targets and incarcerates black men. It is very clearly about race, about the severely limited  and limiting set of representations of black youth that circulate in our culture today, and about our refusal to confront the most serious forms of racism that persist in the United States. All of these matters have been addressed, to varying degrees, by journalists, by scholars, and by rightfully-outraged citizens over the past week.

    But we’ve not heard or read nearly as much about the restricted spatial freedoms that severely limit and even threaten the lives of those not identified as white, restrictions that are among the most debilitating of the racist practices we need to address, but rarely discuss—restrictions that cost Trayvon Martin his life. We may no longer live in an era of sundown towns and lynchings, but Trayvon Martin’s death shows us that blacks and other people of color cannot move freely in parts of the United States without fearing they will be harmed—perhaps even by the very same police charged with offering protections—and/or that they will be entirely without the security of police protection should they be accosted or attacked.

    What do I mean by spatial freedom? I mean the freedom to travel anywhere at any time without being stopped by the police simply because of one’s appearance; I mean the freedom of access to retail environments and the ability to shop at leisure without being suspected of shop-lifting; I mean the equal ability to find housing in any neighborhood one can afford (and fair access to home loans to insure that possibility); I mean equal access to good schools, fresh food, and clean air and water. I mean the ability to go to a convenience store, purchase a snack, and then walk through a gated community where one’s family is a guest without being accosted or shot by someone who considers you a threat because of the color of your skin or the hooded sweatshirt you are wearing.  These are freedoms that involve the spaces we inhabit and our rights to them—cities, suburbs, houses—so I consider them relevant and important for those of us who study the built environment. And so, by the way, did at least one well-known spatial theorist, Henri Lefebvre.

    How might we work towards a greater level of engagement in professional degree curricula with these issues? What role do courses like my seminar on “Race and Space” play in the pedagogical work and praxis we perform as architectural, landscape, and urban historians? How might we shape educational cultures in design schools that permit a greater breadth and depth of intellectual conversation and debate about the connections that exist between structural racism and the built environment, both now and in the past? 

    I’ve been fortunate to teach this course as a graduate seminar, where students elect to engage in what can be difficult conversations. After all, race talk makes most white-identified folks in the United States very uncomfortable. The subject of white privilege is challenging and even disturbing for many students, especially for white students (the majority of the architecture students at Illinois are white—your demographics may vary). Our national conversations about race are ridiculously impoverished; It was a great relief, and perhaps one of the most important moments of his Presidency when Barack Obama finally spoke publicly about his own experiences with racism and spatial mobility on Friday, July 19th, noting that he, too has been followed in retail environments and treated with suspicion on urban streets. Students also may feel ill-prepared to engage in conversations about race since they’ve likely been asked to do so little of it in the years leading up to their graduate work. Moreover, the vast majority of those engaged in (and especially leading) professional practice in the United States are white. The vast majority of teaching faculty in design schools in the United States are categorized as white. The vast majority of students in professional schools of architecture and landscape architecture in the United States are white. Their white privilege allows them the freedom to ignore racism, to see it as something that is outside the realm of professional practice, and even (and more perniciously) to imagine that we now live in a so-called post-racial society. I am white, so I know this very well. I can decide not to think about race whenever I choose to do so, and I can walk through gated residential neighborhoods without having my presence questioned.  

    We owe it to our students and their peers to bring these issues of racial justice into the core of design education. And into our courses in architectural history and theory. As a starting point, perhaps SAH members would like to join me in starting a syllabus exchange for courses that engage with the subject of race and space. I am happy to make the syllabus for my seminar available to anyone who would like a copy (for now, just send me an email request: By confronting racism in its many forms, architects, planners, and landscape architects can do their part in the work for racial justice and equality. Hopefully, young black men of the future will have no limits placed on their freedom of spatial mobility, and on their sense of where they belong.  

    * My thanks to Dr. Sharon Irish and Dr. Michael Burns for commenting on drafts of this essay.

    Dianne Harris is professor in the Department of Landscape Architecture at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specializing in the history of housing and suburban development in postwar America. Her groundbreaking publications on "race and place" include Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (2012), and the collection of essays, Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania (2010). She is former editor of SAHARA, a regular contributor to JSAH, and the director of the Illinois Program for Research in Humanities.
  • The Revitalized and the Neglected: Rapp and Rapp's Movie Palaces in Chicago

    Jul 17, 2013

    by SAH Metcalf Intern Christine Shang-Oak Lee

    C H I C A G O

    The red and yellow neon letters of this instantly recognizable marquee sign that brighten up the corner of State and Lake are one of the defining landmarks of the city’s nightscape – immortalized on the posters for the popular musical film Chicago (2002).  The masterminds behind this Chicago emblem were Cornelius W. (1861-1927) and George L. (1878-1924) Rapp who established their own successful architectural firm Rapp and Rapp.  Trained at the University of Illinois School of Architecture, the brother-duo designed several hundreds movie palaces throughout the country in the early twentieth century.  By teaming up with the Balaban and Katz theater chain – the forerunner of today’s Paramount Pictures – the brothers constructed their most famous works in Chicago.

    Rapp and Rapp’s theaters reflect the rapidly changing forms of the movie-going experience in the twentieth century – not only in their initial designs but also, and perhaps more significantly, in what is done with these buildings after their inaugural years.  The exhibition of films originated in vaudeville houses, with the earliest films – which were only ten to fifteen minutes long – being shown as one of the vaudeville acts.  The present-day Bank of America Theatre (1906), which was designed by Edmund R. Krause aided by the young C. W. and George L. Rapp, was initially a vaudeville house.  The theater joined the Orpheum Circuit in the 1920s and later began screening movies in the early 1930s.  The Bryn Mawr Theatre (1914) also originally operated as a vaudeville theater, switching to functioning as a nickelodeon, a small storefront theater charging a nickel for admissions, in its later years before closing in the 1980s.  This modest two-story building which was built right next to the Bryn Mawr Stop of the elevated L tracks on the Red Line has surprisingly survived, currently being utilized as a retail store and storage space.


    With the advent of the feature film and innovations in sound cinema, bigger auditoriums were necessary to accommodate larger audiences – thus ushering in the era of grand movie palaces.  The theaters boasted of excessive ornamentation and utilized motifs of the royal palace, the Exotic, and the Atmospheric in order to fill the audience with awe and wonder.

    Rapp & Rapp’s theaters featured designs that relied heavily on historical references to the Old World.  The Chicago Theatre (1921) – the flagship of the Balaban & Katz chain, the State-Lake Theatre (1919) and Cadillac Palace Theatre (1926) of the Orpheum Circuit, as well as the Riviera Theatre (1918) in the North Side Uptown neighborhood all recall the lavishly ornate designs of the French Baroque style inspired by the Palace of Versailles.  Gold leaf ornamentation, crystal chandeliers, rose marbled walls, towering columns, and successions of lobbies and foyers characterized the interior of these theaters.  Another prominent Old World style was the Spanish Revival that characterizes the Central Park Theatre (1917) and the Uptown Theatre (1925) of the western and northern neighborhoods, respectively.  Despite these overt architectural references to the European royalty, it is interesting to note that the architects' philosophy included the democratization of the theater-going activity.  George Rapp said of one of his theaters, “Here is a shrine to democracy where the wealthy rub elbows with the poor.”


    The Oriental Theatre (1926), now called the Ford Center for the Performing Arts Oriental Theater, is an example of theaters that drew on exoticised motifs in order to satiate the cultural hunger for styles of faraway lands.  Inspired by the architecture of India and the Far East, lights consisted of elephant heads with tusks, the walls were adorned with soft silk and regal velvets, and the ceiling was  garishly decorated with plasterwork elephants and other exotic beasts.

    Another popular architectural style that characterized movie palaces was the Atmospheric.  Instead of decorating the ceiling with the standard ornate dome, the plaster ceiling of the Gateway Theatre (1930) was left bare, resembling an Italian outdoor garden complete with twinkling stars and floating clouds.  The open-air illusion reinforced the fantasy world that the architects wanted to create for the theater patrons.

    What the architects wanted to provide for the audience was an all-encompassing experience by creating a total environment.  The original architectural drawings and floor plans held at the Chicago History Museum reveals the elaborate designs with which the imaginative architects decorated every corner of these movie palaces.  What they had in mind was the experience of the moviegoers, carefully planning out the path that they would take as they first came upon the theater's facade, through the doors into the ticket lobby, then into the grand lobby and up the grand staircase, and past the ushers into their seats where they would be able to gaze up to the high ornate ceilings of the auditorium.  The minutest details of ladies' powder rooms and gentlemens’ smoking rooms to the water fountains and grills for the air conditioning vents were deliberated upon and lavishly decorated accordingly.

    With the introduction of personal television sets that brought entertainment for the masses into the home and the burgeoning growth of cinema complexes at the suburban mall, movie palaces experienced a decline of theatergoers in the 1950s.  Many of Rapp and Rapp’s theaters were closed and razed in the 1970s and 1980s.  Luckily, the theaters standing in the Loop have been able to go through major renovations costing hundreds of millions of dollars, due to Mayor Richard M. Daley’s revitalization efforts in developing the North Loop Theater District in the last decades of the twentieth century.  Today, Rapp & Rapp theaters downtown are still bustling hubs of entertainment with the capability of drawing in crowds from around the world for the performing arts (save for the State-Lake whose interior was gutted and converted into studios and offices for the ABC network in 1985).

    The extant theaters in the Northern and Western neighborhoods have been, however, in varying states of disrepair.  Even the Riviera Theatre, which is now a popular concert venue, is covered up with a white tarp across the top arches of its facade. Just down the street, the Uptown Theatre, which has gone through an unfortunate series of failed efforts of renovation, sits frozen in time with its windows and doors boarded up, the marquee baring its rusted metal grating, and its once beautiful arches covered up by a tarp.  The huge spaces inside these buildings have, however, given specific communities in Chicago a place for communal gatherings.  The Central Park Theatre, although it had lost the glitzy shine of its better days, was purchased by the House of Prayer, Church of God in Christ in 1971 and has since been used for congregations.  The Gateway Theatre, now called the Copernicus Center, was acquired by the Polish-American Congress in 1985 and subsequently restored as a place for community gatherings for the huge Polish population in Chicago.

    In the next several years, Rapp and Rapp's theaters will celebrate their hundred-year anniversaries. The active theaters in the Loop will undoubtedly take advantage of this milestone with celebratory events, but it will be important to keep an eye out for the next steps for these neglected theaters in the Northern and Western neighborhoods which have enormous architectural and historical value for the city of Chicago.

    Christine Shang-Oak Lee is a 2013 Jeff Metcalf Fellow at the Society of Architectural Historians, and a fourth-year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying art history.  She is currently researching Western-style architecture in Korea built during its colonial period.  On campus, you can find her in the projectionist booth with her hands tangled in old film reels at the student-run Doc Films, or drumming away infectious beats in the traditional Korean percussion group. 

    Use these photos for teaching or research! Hi-res versions of Christine's photos can be found in SAHARA:

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  • Links of the Week

    Jun 27, 2013

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  • Learning from Taksim Square: Architecture, State Power, and Public Space in Istanbul

    Jun 11, 2013


    In a matter of days, “Taksim Square” has become a household name akin to Tahrir Square, shorthand for a youthful protest movement against the brutality of state power in the Middle East. What began last week as a peaceful sit-in to protest the uprooting of trees from Gezi Park, one of Istanbul’s last open green spaces near Taksim Square, has morphed into a broader Occupy movement against the Turkish government, with massive demonstrations in many Turkish cities, as well as solidarity demonstrations throughout the world. The movement shows the deep discontent within a large cross section of Turkish society against the increasingly authoritarian government, and especially its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, of the ruling Islamist AKP party. People have reacted with shock at the Turkish police’s disproportionate, brutal repression of the protests, as well as Erdogan’s and other government officials’ apparent contempt for and vilification of the protestors, and their seeming indifference to their concerns. As the protest movement continues to unfold, there has been much analysis about the significance of the protests, the way they reflect class and identity divisions within Turkey and their possible repercussions, such as here, here and here.

    The protests in Istanbul began with public dissatisfaction with urban planning: they reacted against the city’s ambitious ongoing plans to remake the square and its surroundings, that proceeded last week with the attempted uprooting of trees in Gezi Park, one of the last remaining open spaces in bustling, sprawling Istanbul. These grand plans have unfolded with little consultation with the public or those who live and work in that area. Daniel Jost aptly and succinctly describes these plans as “awful,” while Gokhan Karakus likens them to "a neo-Ottoman Las Vegas in [a] 6,000-year-old city." 

    The area of Taksim Square and Gezi Park have always been politically charged for the residents of Istanbul, who are now re-asserting their right to their city. Orhan Pamuk reminisces about the significance of Taksim square, tied to many social movements and demonstrations of the past (see here). In its present form, designed in the 40’s by the French urban planner Henri Prost, the Taksim area is a vibrant section of the city and a symbol of modern Istanbul. When I lived nearby as a Ph.D. student, Taksim and its surroundings were endlessly fascinating and unexpected, where you encountered the wealthiest and poorest of the city, old cosmopolitan Istanbulites as well as immigrants from the Black Sea region, anarchist students and Islamist conservatives.

    For an architectural historian, it is no accident that both the great plans to remake Taksim, as well as the way protestors’ speeches and actions often invoke history and architectural memory to buttress their arguments in the present. Indeed, an interest in architectural history and the historical resonance of place is at the heart of the ambitious urban renewal plans as well  the protests. The centerpiece of the municipality’s ambitious new plans is a rather garish re-creation of the early 19th c Ottoman imperial military barracks (Topçu Kislasi) demolished in 1940 to make way for Prost’s modern vision. The recreated barracks were to house commercial ventures. The interest in reviving Ottoman architecture fits with the sensibilities of what some call the neo-Ottoman Muslim elite, even if it is completely updated to suit contemporary needs of global capitalism and consumerism. A similar vision of history also informs the naming of the planned third bridge over the Bosphorus after Sultan Selim the Grim (r. 1512-1520). 

    In direct opposition, protestors are invoking counter-memories and counter-histories. Protestors object to the glorification of a sultan whom they remember for his persecution and massacres of the Alevis, a non-Sunni Muslim group. Back On Taksim square, protestors are invoking the Armenian cemetery expropriated to make way for that area’s development in the early decades of the Turkish republic. Their slogan is: “you took our cemetery, you won’t be able to take our park.”

    Once at the edge of Istanbul’s urban conglomeration, the area was home to the Saint James Armenian cemetery, established in the 16th century, (in Turkish:  Surp Agop Ermeni Mezarligi), and the 19th century church of St. Gregory the Illuminator. By the early 20th century, the area was becoming one of the most valuable sections of real estate in the city. As detailed here and here through a series of highly contested lawsuits, the municipality managed to appropriate the cemetery from the Armenian community. This process illustrates the relentless power of the state to dispossess a minority community that had survived the Genocide of the Ottoman Armenians in 1915-1922, and unfolds like a series of acts of cruelty and humiliation. As this map shows, the cemetery once stood in the area occupied today by sections of Gezi Park, and surrounding properties, including the TRT Istanbul Radio building and major hotels like the Skidmore, Owings & Merrill-designed Istanbul Hilton (built in 1954). Marble headstones from the cemetery were used to build Gezi Park’s fountains and stairs. As Kerem Öktem clarifies (see here), further appropriations of property in this urban area, principally from non-Muslim (Armenian, Greek and Jewish) citizens continued to unfold over the 50s and 60s, producing the urban ensemble that stands today. (for more historical background on the area’s urbanism, see here)

    Some protestors are memorializing this history of erasure, state power, and the growth of big business by renaming a street in the park after Hrant Dink, the iconic Turkish-Armenian journalist and human rights activist whose 2007 assassination so shook Turkish society (see here).

    These are some of the many stories that are unfolding in Taksim, as the overwhelmingly youthful protestors seem to represent many different  political viewspoints, from right-wing supporters of Kemalism to leftists, “Muslim ant-capitalists,” LGBT groups, even soccer fans. Gezi Park has now become a spontaneous community,  a“festive village” in  Michael Kimmelman’s words, that includes a kitchen, clinic, and even a museum of the protest movement.

    Beyond a commentary against neoliberal urbanism, however, the protests have another crucial dimension: that of concern for environmental degradation and unsustainable urban policies, perhaps especially apparent in the debates surrounding the adverse impact of the planned bridge and canal on the ecosystem of the Marmara sea.

    Where the protest movement in Turkey will go, and what it will or will not achieve remains to be seen. So far, we have been reminded once again, of the resonance of urban history, and the powerful role that public spaces and spatial memories can play in political mobilization.

    Lady in a red dress. Protestor Ceyda Sungur was pepper sprayed at the start of the protests (Osman Orsal/Reuters); Protest Sign at Gezi Park (Nor Zartonk Istanbul)


    HEGHNAR WATENPAUGH is a historian of art and architecture of the Middle East at the University of California Davis. She is interested in cultural heritage, gender, and space. 

  • Links of the Week

    May 28, 2013

    • Slave cabin (above) finds a home as centerpiece of Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. 
    • MoMA feels the public outrage and reconsiders the demolition of the American Folk Museum
    • Constructivist icon, the Melnikov House under threat
    • Charles Correa, India's greatest architect, retrospective at RIBA London.
    • Koloman Moser: Designing Modern Vienna 1897-1907, at Neue Gallerie in New York
    • The architecture of gay desire at Fire Island Pines
    • Preserving colonialism, George Orwell house in Myanmar

    Go comment!
  • John Jager: Unknown Prairie Architect in Minnesota. Part 1

    May 15, 2013

    John Jager (1884-1947) was an artist, intellectual and Prairie School architect whose work has gone almost completely unrecognized, due in part to a career split between Europe and the United States, and in part to his own insistence on anonymity.  Jager was described by William Gray Purcell, his lifelong friend, as the “silent partner” in the firm of Purcell and Elmslie.  Purcell and Elmslie rivaled Frank Lloyd Wright in the number of Prairie School commissions completed, but Jager fell into self-chosen obscurity following the dissolution of Purcell and Elmslie in 1921 and the crash of 1929.  I was fortunate to encounter the work of Jager while working on a National Register of Historic Places Nomination for Wolf Island, MN.  Jager never abandoned the ideals of progressive and organic architecture, and spent well over twenty years of his life crafting Wolf Island into his vision of a perfect organic union of cabin and island, which will be the subject of part 2 of this essay.

    Jager was a Slovenian born in Carniola, Austria in 1871.  He graduated from the Vienna Polytechnicum in 1899 (the height of the Vienna Secession), and immediately went to work on city plan for the earthquake-ravaged Ljubljana. Jager was interested in the idea of a Slovenian national style in architecture, and his work was heavily influenced by Slovenian folk art and architecture. In 1901 as a captain in the Imperial Royal Government Service of Austria, he led the rebuilding of the Austro-Hungarian Legation which had been destroyed during the Boxer Rebellion.  During his time in China, he developed a fascination with Asian culture, and he began his extensive collection of Japanese handicrafts, with a focus on metalwork, textiles, and wood-block printing (not unlike the similar passion of Frank Lloyd Wright).

    Jager immigrated to the United States in 1902, where he married Selma Erhovnic, a Slovenian artist he knew from Austria.   Soon after his arrival, Jager published a booklet on church architecture, hoping to gain clients.  Jager designed the Church of St. Bernard in St. Paul, and the Church of St. Stephen, in Brockway Township, Minnesota (both NRHP properties).  St. Bernard's was one of the first reinforced concrete buildings in Minnesota. The structure is a unique with its Art Nouveau detailing, and is frequently referenced as an icon in a working-class district.  The church at St. Stephen was designed for a Slovenian community from Carniola, and Jager devoted endless hours to managing every detail of the design and construction of the church and its interior.

    In 1904 Jager built his home at 6 Red Cedar Lane, Minneapolis.  Jager, with assistance from Purcell, designed Red Cedar Lane as a subtle but definitively landscaped street above Minnehaha Falls. He personally planned and maintained the eponymous red cedars, and he carefully chose a mix of conifers and deciduous trees that insured Red Cedar Lane was always green.  Jager founded the Hiawatha Heights Improvement Association and encouraged all architecture in the area to achieve a harmony between structure and nature. In his design Jager was insistent that the neighborhood would preserve and enhance the natural beauty of the area, even to the point of presreving the natural contours of the land.  Historian Larry Millett has said, "It would be hard to find a more beautiful street in the Twin Cities."

    Following World War I, Jager went to Yugoslavia as a representative of the American Red Cross agricultural commission from Minnesota.  The commission was headed by his brother, Major Frances Jager, who was a Catholic priest and a respected authority on bees.  John Jager later received the Yugoslav Crown First Class as an award from Yugoslavian government.  The Western Architect (of which Jager was an editorial assistant), described his intended work in words that so well capture the Prairie Architecture ideal we may suspect Jager himself wrote them (1918):

    "Mr. Jager. whose professional abilities are varied and of a high order, will engage in a work unique in architectural accomplishment.  Going from a country where the people as a rule think that any carpenter can "design" a cottage and therefore are satisfied with the "free plans" furnished by lumber dealers . . . he will demonstrate that a wide architectural knowledge fittingly applied can improve the livable qualities of even fifteen-dollar mudhuts."

    Upon his return, Jager enjoyed a period of relative prosperity working for the conservative architectural firm of Hewitt and Brown, who has recently completed the Minneapolis Institute of Art as a staid Classical Revival structure . While working at Hewitt and Brown, Jager also was assisting Purcell and Elmslie in their work, largely out of his love of the progressive architecture designed by the firm.  Jager refused, however, to take credit for the work he did at either.  During these years, Jager formed a close friendship with William Purcell, and their voluminous correspondence reveals a dedication to Prairie School architecture and progressive ideals that continued strong well into the 1950s.  

    While Jager’s friendship with Purcell would last, his architectural career faltered.  In 1928, however, Jager was laid off from Hewitt and Brown, and the crash of 1929 devastated his personal finances.  Jager, under great financial distress, was forced to sell much of his personal art collection to his old employer and fellow Asian-art enthusiast Edwin Hewitt.  The fate of his collection is an excellent example of how his own zeal for anonymity combined with misfortune led to his being forgotten.  Upon his death, Hewitt himself donated his collection to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, including Jager's unmatched collection of 1700 tsuba (sword guards).  Subsequently the Hewitt collection has been on display, and formed the basis of special exhibits.  Largely forgotten is that Jager personally was responsible for the quality and scope of much of the collection.

    From the 1930s onward, Jager was never fully employed or able to exercise his skills and knowledge in a professional capacity.  From 1933 to 1942 he served as the Superintendent of Public Works under the CWA and WPA programs.  How he supported himself on the small salary of that job and through the years of underemployment remains unclear, although he received frequent and ongoing financial support from  Purcell, whose family fortunes weathered the depression.

    Jager occupied his time by participation in the intellectual community of Minneapolis, intense studies of linguistics, and as an editorial associate of the Northwest Architect.  From the 1930s until his death at the age of 88 in 1959, Jager spent innumerable hours organizing the papers of Purcell and Elmslie.  His near-obsessive attention to detail, matched by Purcell's similar organization of his papers, resulted in the spectacular Purcell collections of the Northwest Architectural Archive at the University of Minnesota.  The bulk of Jager’s creative energies, however, went into the design of the cabin, trails and landscape of Wolf Island, where he spent each summer alone.

    The breadth and depth of this intensely private man’s activities will, however, never be fully known.  His eclectic library, as well as his own voluminous writings have largely disappeared (another factor in his relative anonymity).  His widow Selma Jager tried to do some sorting, but in the end, most of his papers were burned on Selma's instructions.  His remaining papers as well as a collection folk arts and crafts are curated at the Slovene Academy of Sciences and Arts. 

    Acknowledgment: Barbara Bezat (Northwest Architectural Archives), Richard Kronick and Mark Hammons provided much need assistance in navigating the voluminous William GrayPurcell papers as well as direction in understanding Jager and Purcell.  Dr. Maja Lozar Štamcar, Senior Curator at the National Museum of Slovenia, has shared information about Jager’s work in

    Fig. 1. John Jager (1918), William Gray Purcell Papers (N3), Correspondence - John Jager, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries
    Fig. 2. Church of St Stephen, St. Stephen, MN (ChipCity/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
    Fig. 3. Church of St Bernard, St. Paul, MN (McGiever/Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA-3.0)
    Fig. 4. William Purcell (left) and John Jager (1928), William Gray Purcell Papers (N3), Correspondence - John Jager, Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota Libraries


    Brooks, H. Allen. The Prairie School.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2006.

    Gebhard, David, and Patricia Gebhard. Purcell & Elmslie: Prairie Progressive Architects. Salt Lake City: Gibbs Smith Publisher, 2006.

    Hammons, Mark.  Guide to the William Gray Purcell Papers. St. Paul, MN: Northwest Architectural Archives, University of Minnesota, 1985.

    Hammons, Mark. Purcell and Elmslie, Architects. In Minnesota 1900: Art and Life on the Upper Mississippi, 1890-1915, ed. Michael Conforti. Newark, DE: University of Delaware Press, 1984.

    Millett, Larry.  AIA Guide to the Twin Cities: The Essential Source on the Architecture of Minneapolis and St. Paul. Minnesota Historical Society, 2007.

    After a successful academic career at St Cloud State University (Assistant Vice President for Research and Faculty Development, Professor of History and Archaeology), Richard M. Rothaus founded Trefoil Cultural and Environmental, a cultural resource management firm with vast experience in historic preservation and archaeology in Minnesota, South and North Dakota, as well as the Mediterranean (Corinthia, Greece; Cilicia Turkey; etc). His work with the preservation of historic landmarks has led Rothaus to the discovery of John Jager.

  • This Week's Links

    May 7, 2013

    Go comment!
  • Syria’s Cultural Heritage: Another Casualty of War

    Heghnar Watenpaugh
    Apr 29, 2013

    As I lectured on the Great Mosque of Damascus in my Introduction to Islamic Art class a week ago, I thought: my students may not have a chance to see this masterpiece. It too could fall victim to the devastating violence underway in Syria. And just two days ago, on April 24, 2013, the early medieval minaret of the Great Mosque of Aleppo was reportedly collapsed due to shelling. (Before-and-after photo above from BBC.)

    For an architectural historian of the Middle East, the last couple of years have been both exhilarating and devastating. The Arab Spring continues to unfold, transforming societies and spaces in unpredictable ways. On the one hand, public spaces in cities like Cairo are more vibrant than ever. Tahrir Square has become a household term associated with revolution and youth movements. On the other hand, in Syria, the Arab Spring has devolved into a violent conflict with no end in sight. The human cost is shocking: over 70,000 Syrians dead, and counting.

    Why is it that cultural heritage is an inevitable target in any civil strife, war, or atrocity? As the human cost mounts in the conflict in Syria, cultural heritage has become collateral damage. Some sites have become theatres of war: like the citadel of Aleppo, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Some sites, deserted for centuries, are occupied again by refugees fleeing the conflict: The famous dead cities in Northern Syria, unique witnesses to the history of early Christianity. Late antique ruins and catacombs hardly provide the amenities of everyday life to traumatized displaced people. but they are a place to hide for a while.

    And looters, both professional and amateur, are taking advantage of the breakdown of law and order to conduct “informal excavations” in archaeological sites or taking objects from museums. They are harvesting artifacts to sell on the black market.The region includes well established neworks of artifact smugglers. Syria is experiencing a version of what happened in Iraq: museums looted, archaeological sites plundered, a thriving black market. It has been reported that groups are selling antiquities on the black market to buy weapons.

    It is very hard to document the damage to Syria’s cultural heritage accurately and comprehensively. Syrians are extremely proud of and attached to the ancient history of their country; many of them, amateur guerilla reporters and activists, have compiled a mass of raw data, video and information about the destruction of cultural heritage. Emma Cunliffe compiled a sobering report in May 2012. ICOM is in the process to compile a “Red List”, a list of artworks that have or may be looted, as a guide to Interpol.

    What will happen? I stubbornly cling to the hope that Syrians and Syria will get past this conflict, they will rebuild and repair lives and monuments and social bonds. I hope, but in fact, no one knows. 

    I dread the point in this Spring where we will discuss the Citadel of Aleppo, that astonishing masterpiece of medieval military architecture perched on a hill layered with monuments from the most ancient periods of human habitation. I want to show my students the raw footage of the destroyed gates of the citadel, with the now-smashed victory inscription of Al-Zahir Ghazi, one of Saladin’s sons. Our students need to know how fragile the built environment is in conflict and war. We cannot look away.

      HEGHNAR WATENPAUGH is a historian of art and architecture of the Middle East at the University of California Davis. She is interested in cultural heritage, gender, and space. 
  • This Week's Links

    Apr 22, 2013

    After a successful conference in Buffalo, SAH Blog links return with some amazing women:

    • Denise Scott Brown (above) deserves to share the 1991 Prtizker Prize with Robert Venturi. Almost everyone agrees. Sign the petition.
    • Phyllis Lambert changed American architecture just as much as Mies van der Rohe. Seagram Building documented.
    • Billie Tsien and Todd Williams's  American Folk Art Museum to be demolished only 12 years after its erection. Petitioners and designers respond.
    • Ellen DeGeneres has a passion for decorating.
    • Rafael Moneo may be the greatest living architect in Europe. What does it say about American taste that we've barely heard of him?
    • Where will Obama's presidential library be?
    • On Boston's citywide lockdown.
    • Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum (1885) reopens in all its renovated glory.
    Go comment!
  • SAH Study Day: "The Woolworth Building @ 100"

    Sarah Rovang
    Apr 18, 2013

    Our day began at the Skyscraper Museum, with about two dozen historians, architects, and passionate amateurs clustered in the museum’s bookstore. The only graduate student in the crowd, I was the fortunate recipient of the Scott Opler Endowment for New Scholars Fellowship, which allowed me to participate in this SAH Study Day. Though my primary dissertation research does not directly concern tall buildings, I am teaching a one-week intensive high school course this summer at Brown on the history of skyscrapers. I am hoping to take my students on a walking tour of downtown Providence as part of this class, so the SAH Study Day presented an excellent opportunity to observe how skyscraper scholars use physical buildings and material artifacts as teaching tools. 

    Although I’d visited the Skyscraper Museum before, founder Carol Willis’ introduction shed a whole new light on this unique institution. Processing up the ramp into the main space of the museum, Carol, Gail Fenske, Andrew Scott Dolkart, and consultant Susan Tunick of the Friends of Terra Cotta organization led us on a tour of the current exhibition “The Woolworth Building @ 100.” Featuring many of the original architectural drawings of the building through its various stages of development, the exhibition paints a nuanced and human portrait of collaborators F.W. Woolworth and Cass Gilbert. The exhibit also yields a very visceral understanding of the buildings’ structure and ornamentation, using photographs from the construction, close-ups of the terra cotta panels, and even a block of terra cotta meant to be touched by museum audiences.


    The next portion of our tour took us out into Lower Manhattan’s financial district to examine some essential precedents by Cass Gilbert and his contemporaries. As the winds whipped through Battery Park and temperatures plummeted, we were grateful for a lunchtime in respite of Gilbert’s United States Customs House (1902-1907; now the National Museum of the American Indian). The lush nautical iconography of both interior and exterior recall another age in the history of American commerce, and confirm Gilbert’s impressive command of the classical architectural language. We were particularly lucky to enjoy our lunch in the Collector’s Office, which continues of themes of maritime trade in richly carved wood rather than stone. 

    Ready to brave the cold again, we ventured up Broadway to explore such turn-of-the-century behemoths as the Standard Oil, the International Mercantile Marine Company Building, the Equitable Building, and the U.S. Realty and Trinity Buildings. I have taught many of these buildings in architecture courses before, but did not really have a sense of how the masses of Standard Oil stack together or how the Equitable Building hunkers so imposingly on its plot. 

    After a stop at Cass Gilbert’s West Street Building (the structure that initially caught the attention of Woolworth), we continued on to examine other contemporary structures such as the Liberty Tower and the AT&T Building. Eventually we found our way to the Woolworth Building, where Gail Fenske explained Gilbert’s subtle and evocative use of coloration in the intricate terra cotta cladding. The Woolworth’s massing is undoubtedly more elegant and well-proportioned than many of its predecessors. The turreted facade with its medieval detailing demonstrates that Gilbert was quite at home working in a Gothic idiom as well as a classical one. The proverbial and literal pinnacle of the day was the climb to the Woolworth’s observation tower, soon to be off-limits due to new construction in the upper floors. 15 flights up and 30 back down to reach the service elevator, this was not an ascent for the faint of heart. By some divine providence, the clouds lifted as we emerged onto the deck, revealing radiant views of Midtown. The Lower Manhattan buildings we had just seen from the ground were now visible from above, dwarfed by the (still) impressive height of the Woolworth. Dazzled by the view and still a bit dizzy from the spiral stairs, I ended the day with a glass of wine enjoyed in the resplendent barrel-vaulted lobby with its glittering mosaics and medieval iconography.

    Having worked primarily on the 1920s and 1930s as background research for my work on the New Deal, the turn-of-the-century buildings we toured were somewhat of a revelation to me. Carol, Gail, Andrew, and Susan did a marvelous job of not only conveying the development of skyscraper design in the early twentieth-century but also of evoking the socio-cultural context of the time with its burgeoning monopolies and cut-throat speculative development. One of the other highlights of the day was just seeing how proud Manhattanites are of these buildings. Besides the occasional security guard who objected to twenty-some historians loitering in a historical lobby, most locals we encountered were more than happy to show off the buildings they live and work in. In the lobby of Standard Oil, an attorney stopped to impart some information about the building in the age of the Rockefellers. After this rewarding opportunity to interact with both Lower Manhattan and its people, I feel much more prepared to craft a similar experience on a smaller scale for my high school class this summer.

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  • The Loss of a Major Monument at Gettysburg

    Apr 3, 2013

    by Richard Longstreth

    In late February and early March, the former Visitor Center and Cyclorama Building at Gettysburg National Military Park was unceremoniously demolished. Designed in 1959 and constructed over the next three years, the edifice was the most ambitious work of its kind in the National Park Service’s ten-year, $1+ billion Mission 66 program, which sought to address the needs of soaring visitation. The building was also the only Mission 66 project designed by an architectural firm that enjoyed international renown at that time, Neutra & Alexander. Richard Neutra considered the commission one of the most significant in his long career and fully immersed himself in all aspects of conceptualization and bringing the scheme to execution. Until its destruction, it was arguably the most important non-residential design Neutra realized and among the most accomplished of his buildings generally.

    photo by Matthew Amster

    Neutra’s devotion to the project stemmed not merely from creating a work at one of the nation’s most hallowed historical sites that would draw many thousands of people annually, but foremost from the opportunity to honor his hero, Abraham Lincoln. Just as Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, delivered a short distance away, pleaded for national reconciliation, so Neutra saw his building as a place where leaders from the developing world could offer their visions of global peace. The building was intended not just as a facility where visitors could get oriented, peruse historic artifacts, and view Paul Philippoteaux immense cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge, but also as a commemorative monument, where people could draw connections between lessons learned from the battle and the Civil War more broadly and the imperative of co-existence at the height of the Cold War.

    By the 1990s, Park Service officials had cultivated a very different perspective. Spearheaded by the park’s then-superintendent, plans were developed to remove what he regarded as an offensive intrusion on a key site, close to what has often been called the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” The fact that Park Service historians had determined some decades earlier that the site was ideal for the visitor center because of that proximity was summarily dismissed. Plans called for a new, much larger visitor center away from important portions of the battlefield and a “restoration” of the “High Water Mark” site to its 1863 state. Even with the building’s removal, the battlefield’s historic landscape can never be so restored, however, as it holds a rich array of hundreds of monuments, to which more continue to be added, and one of the park’s early drives – it is far more a memorial landscape than a raw battlefield. The superintendent made no effort to evaluate the building’s significance; instead he secured the astounding determination from the then-Pennsylvania state historic preservation officer that it was not eligible for the National Register of Historic Places – a determination quickly supported by the then-president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

    In 1997, SAH took the initiative for a more objective and informed assessment, requesting that the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation pursue a determination of eligibility opinion by the keeper of the National Register. After the keeper found the building met applicable criteria in September 1998, SAH sponsored a nomination (written by Christine Madrid French and me) of the building as a national historic landmark. The following May the Advisory Council refuted the superintendent’s contention that the building lacked historical significance, but argued that it was a matter of degree. Neutra’s architecture did not match the transcendent importance of the battlefield as a historic site. This either-or line of reasoning ignored the role of the building as a major, mid-twentieth-century component of the park’s commemorative landscape continuum. At the end of the year, the Park Service’s National Historic Landmark Committee (the professional reviewing body) was nearly unanimous that the building should be so designated. However, in a very rare move, the committee’s recommendation was rejected by the National Park Service Advisory Board, the deciding body. The unstated, but apparently central, reason was fear that retaining the building might impede progress on a pioneering venture to raise private-sector funds for the new visitor center. An appeal to reconsider the decision was made in 2004, but was turned down, again the victim of politics.

    During the past decade the Recent Past Preservation Network sued the Park Service over failure to prepare an adequate environmental impact assessment of the demolition. After years of legal maneuvering, a new assessment was completed in 2012, although it offered far from a evaluation of options. Once the report was issued, the loss of the Neutra building seemed imminent. The fact that the building was an intrusion in the park had become codified within the Park Service hierarchy. Unfortunately, RPPN never pursued the contrary view that demolition would constitute an impairment, an act in direct opposition to the Park Service’s mandate in its founding legislation.

    Many Park Service personnel have long disagreed with their agency’s prevailing view, and some of their concerns have resulted in positive actions. Several other important visitor centers have been saved, including one designed by a then unknown Romaldo Giurgola at Wright Brothers National memorial in Kitty Hawk as well as Neutra’s Painted Desert Visitor Center at Petrified Forest National park in Arizona. Mounting inconsistencies in assessment of Mission 66 projects for compliance purposes led to the commission of a major study of the program’s legacy, resulting in a definitive scholarly volume (Ethan Carr, Mission 66: Modernism and the National Park Dilemma (2007). The understanding of and respect for the mid-twentieth century’s contribution to the parks is far greater that it was fifteen years ago. Still the loss of the Neutra building, especially under the auspices of an agency long considered as a national leader in historic preservation practice, and the condoning of that decision by others then associated with the National Trust, Advisory Council, and Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Office underscores the fragility of work from the post-World War II era even as its popularity is on the ascent.

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  • Former U.S. Embassy in Pakistan Saved as Heritage Building

    Barbara Lamprecht
    Apr 3, 2013
    Designed by the partnership of Richard Neutra and Robert Alexander, the former U.S. Embassy in Karachi, Pakistan, has much in common with the Cyclorama. Both were prestigious commissions acquitting complex briefs scrutinized by powerful branches of government. Both were designed in the 1950s and completed in the early 1960s.

    They shared the same structural engineers, Parker and Zehnder. The strong forms of the Cyclorama and the Embassy, intended as monumental expressions of mid-century American confidence and prowess, were both eventually emptied, their functions moved elsewhere, to await an uncertain fate.

    However, in contrast to the actions of the National Park Service, a group of Karachi citizens led by the Institute of Architects, Pakistan (IAP) succeeded in having the property listed on December 17, 2012 as a heritage building by the Department of Culture, Government of Sindh. Under the Sindh Cultural Heritage (Preservation) Act, 1994, the structure is protected from demolition and any external alteration. It will be sold, rehabilitated and adaptively re-used.

    The embassy complex is located on a pivotal corner in a smart area of downtown Karachi, opposite leafy Frere Park, Frere Hall, and the Sind Club, all developed by the British in the 19th century. The east-facing building servicing main embassy duties comprises a large sleek rectangular glass and concrete four-story structure, its horizontality underscored by bands of louver-clad clerestory windows. Its full-height glass entry façade expressed a transparent democracy, a characteristic typical of Cold War Embassy design. The north façade features a series of louvers fronting glass windows, a strategy Neutra began employing in the late 1940s.

    To the west, a broad lawn fronts a one-story masonry warehouse linked to the main building by an interstitial two-story building. The warehouse is roofed with an array of nine thin-shell barrel vaults. The foot of the eastern most vault curves into the large reflecting pool terminating the angled main lobby, symbolically integrating the warehouse to the larger composition. The team’s careful distribution of landscape elements included reflecting pools, areas for prayer, water channels, and ablution basins for Islamic employees that percolated throughout the compound, even reappearing at the curved entrance driveway. While reflecting pools are a well-known Neutra trademark, seen to great effect at the Cyclorama, here they were even more important because Neutra well understood the significance of water in Islamic architecture and the need for ritual cleansing.

    There was a tortured path through planning and completion. On the heels of the “Red Plot” of the unrealized Eylsian Park Height housing project, Neutra had to defend his loyalty to his adopted land. Alexander’s protest at learning that payment would be tied to the unstable rupee almost lost them the commission. Construction was no easier, in part undertaken by local Pakistani workers unaccustomed to American methods and materials, which were hard to procure in any case. The concrete mix was so erratic that Alexander feared structural failure. Yet a terrible irony awaited the Embassy. During its construction, Pakistan moved its capital inland to Islamabad, 700 miles to the north, away from the vulnerable coast and Raj associations. In 1966, the Embassy was reclassified as a Consulate. Though “hardened” with new security measures, the building could not sufficiently withstand the terrorist attacks that began in 2002. It was vacated in 2011.

    While the U.S. demolished, Pakistan preserved.

    Barbara Lamprecht, Lamprecht ArchiTEXTural

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