SAH Blog

  • Black Lives Matter

    By
    Meredith TenHoor and Jonathan Massey (Organizers)
     |
    Mar 10, 2015

    The Black Lives Matter dossier, published by the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, is edited by SAH members Jonathan Massey and Meredith TenHoor and includes essays from SAH members Amber Wiley, Michael Abrahamson, Dianne Harris, and Charles David II. Excerpt from the Introduction republished here with permission.

    What does it mean to put black lives at the center of our thinking about architecture and its history? On the Aggregate website, thirteen new essays by scholars, designers, students, and citizens address the Black Lives Matter movement through architectural and urban research. The edited collection diagnoses sources of violence, identifies forms of resistance, and reimagines Black aesthetics.

    Introduction: Black Lives Matter

    Black Lives Matter is an ideological and political intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for demise. It is an affirmation of Black folks’ contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppression.

    —Alicia Garza, “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement”1

    What does it mean to put Black lives at the center of our thinking about architecture and its history? How do architecture and urban design contribute to violence against black people? How can the tools and knowledge of our disciplines prompt change? Inspired by the scholars, activists, and everyday citizens who have spoken out, marched, and protested against police killings of African-Americans, we present this collection of short essays that directs architectural research to the Black Lives Matter movement.2

    Racism fundamentally shapes architectural and urban spaces. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ devastating Case for Reparations outlines the ways in which Black Americans have been dispossessed of land, excluded from homeownership, and impoverished by redlining and predatory lending from the Jim Crow era to the recent Great Recession.3 As Darnell Moore has argued, in cities ravaged by both predatory lending and gentrification, “Black people will continue to be treated as something other than human as whiteness continues to function as a sign for possession and asset.”4 One hundred and fifty years after the end of the Civil War, houses and subdivisions remain architectural instruments in racialized practices of investment, financing, ownership, maintenance, monitoring, and tenancy. In these and other ways, architecture and urban design in the United States today too often support white supremacy, which we understand, following George Lipsitz, to include “a system for protecting the privileges of whites by denying communities of color opportunities for asset accumulation and upward mobility.”5

    These links between race and space have long been visible in lived experience, and they have been addressed in architectural scholarship.6 But as architect Mitch McEwen has argued, the necessity of an architectural critique of new forms of segregation became undeniably urgent after George Zimmerman killed Trayvon Martin in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated community in Sanford, Florida.7 Because they privatize formerly public functions and spaces, gated communities exemplify neoliberal approaches to housing, and some commentators were quick to identify their role in Martin’s death.8 Yet as McEwen and others have made clear, Martin’s death can not be pinned on form; rather, it must be understood as the result of intersecting spatial, legal, and social operations. Such violence against people of color requires architectural analysis, but architecture cannot account for it alone.

    After the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Kimani Gray, Tamir Rice, and too many others, the vulnerability long experienced by black people in public spaces challenged the legitimacy of the state, even for those protected by white privilege. Streets, sidewalks and playgrounds such as those where Brown, Garner, Gray, and Rice died are sites where racially-biased policing governs access to liberty and life itself. Over the past year, they have been reclaimed through demonstrations, die-ins, teach-ins, boycotts, Black brunches, and “Blackout Fridays.”9 These spaces have also become sites for design interventions that make sites of violence safe for people of all colors.

    While responses to this crisis of space and state can untangle, critique, and resist the conditions that have made Black life too precarious in the United States, recent protests and design projects make clear that architectural responses to the Black Lives Matter movement must also activate the aesthetic dimension of architecture, a dimension that offers resources to sustain alternative visions of Black life.10 This collection of brief essays thus comprise a mixture of aesthetic, critical, historical and theoretical analyses which we have grouped into three categories. The first essay group, Diagnosis: Policing and Incarceration, describes the architectural origins and human effects of racially-biased policing, the “school-to-prison pipeline,” and mass incarceration, identifying ways in which design has helped to create the present crisis. In Resistance: Rights to the City and Suburb, contributors outline forms of resistance developed by black people and their allies through activism, protest, research, and analysis. The third set of essays, Aesthetics: From Cities to Curricula, illuminates architectural practices that figure and reimagine Blackness through a variety of aesthetic, educational, and formal practices.

    When we put out our call for contributions, we aimed to highlight work underway on this topic, as well as to spur further scholarship and reflection on the biopolitical and architectural questions raised by the Black Lives Matter movement. Time was of the essence: We hoped that this writing might nourish political conversations, and that it could be used in seminars and teach-ins this spring semester. We are very grateful to all our contributors for putting this project on the front burner, and for writing and editing so quickly and diligently. As a result of their efforts, the work gathered here directs a wide range of scholarly and activist insights toward the present crisis. But it raises as many questions as it answers, and only begins to encompass the possible responses to the Black Lives Matter movement. We invite you to deepen the discussion by commenting on the work presented here using the links at the end of each essay. We also welcome further proposals for work in a variety of lengths and formats ranging from short photo, video, sound, or text essays to long-form scholarly articles for peer review.

    Continue reading at we-aggregate.org/project/black-lives-matter.

    1 Comment
  • Mighty Mumbai: Urbs Primus in Indus

    By
    Amber N. Wiley, 2013 Brooks Travelling Fellow
     |
    Mar 6, 2015

    Palimpsest. Microcosm. Hybrid. Pluralist. Diasporic. Cosmopolitan. Third world. Postindustrial. Postcolonial. Post-Independence. Global. Hypermodern. Slum. Polynuclear. Agglomeration. (Con)fusion. Bombay. Mumbai.

    “Mombay.” I kept typing it. “Mombay.” When I was looking for articles on Mumbai and had little luck typing “Mumbai” I decided to search instead for “Bombay.” The city only officially changed its name in 1996 after the Hindu nationalist party Shiv Sena won elections in the state of Maharashtra. Literary scholar Rashmi Varma characterizes this act as “provincializing the global city.”1 Much of the literature I read discussed architectural and urban trends in “Bombay.” Somewhere along the way, however, “Mombay” was all my brain could manage. Bollywood, a nickname for the Indian film industry, is a portmanteau of the words “Bombay” and “Hollywood.” Bollywood is still Bollywood almost twenty years after the city name changed. Most Indians I spoke to still referred to Mumbai as Bombay. I came across the keywords above in the literature on the city, and my research on Mumbai has led me to understand the city as all these things, but not just any one of these things.2 Most scholars I have consulted agree – more research must be undertaken to understand and analyze the city on its own terms. In many ways, the city I experienced was indeed “Mombay:” the hybrid provincial capital of Maharashtra and the global millennial city.

    Mumbai-Figure-1
    Figure 1. Null Bazaar in Bhuleshwar neighborhood of Mumbai.

    Roots of Mumbai

    The human occupation of the area we know as Mumbai dates back to prehistory. The region that forms metropolitan Mumbai was originally an archipelago of seven islands with fishing villages settled by the indigenous Koli. The patron goddess of the Koli fishermen was Mumba Devi. It is from this goddess that the city derives its current name. The area was successively ruled by separate Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim kingdoms until the Portuguese gained control in 1534. The architectural heritage from these various political and religious entities includes the Buddhist Kanheri and Mahakali caves, the Buddhist and Hindu Jogeshwari Caves, the Hindu Walkeshwar Temple, the Buddhist and Hindu Elephanta Caves, and Portuguese forts and churches. The name Bombay is a derivation of Bombaim, or “Good Bay,” the Portuguese name for the settlement.

     Mumbai-Figure-2
    Figure 2. Mumba Devi Temple in Bhuleshwar.

    Most of my reading, however, focused on the time period after Portuguese rule. Many architectural histories began with the Portuguese handing over Bombay as part of the wedding dowry for Catherine de Braganza to Charles II of England in 1661. The English East India Company leased the islands from 1668 until 1757 when the company took over rule in the region. The East India Company continued to expand into the subcontinent and gain further autonomy until the Indian Rebellion of 1857. From 1858 to 1947 Bombay was under control of the British Raj.

    On Hybridity and Pluralism

    After writing my preceding entry on Harar and Goa I realized “hybridity” might not be the word I needed to describe the conditions I experienced in both regions. “Pluralist” is. This is an important distinction, not just given over to semantics, because it helps encapsulate the architectural variety. There were aspects of various cultures that remained distinct and clearly identifiable as belonging different architectural traditions. Catholic churches of Goa. Egyptian mosque in Harar. Indian merchant houses in Harar. Portuguese villas in Goa. Italian municipal buildings in Harar. These carry the ambitions and messages of each cultural entity in architectural program, form, and function. Hybridity can only truly be found in the small decorative details – the woodwork in Goa, for instance, or the use of a certain color palette in Harar.

    Architectural pluralism is also central to the understanding of the urban fabric of Mumbai. This is a direct result of the city’s position as a “factory” in the English East India Company. The Company sought to bring merchants, traders, and artisans of high standing from various castes and religions to the city, and therefore offered a freedom of cultural and religious tradition. This included Armenians, Hindu and Jain Banias, Muslim Bohras and Khojas, Jews, Parsis, and Gujaratis.3 The architecture of Mumbai reflects the cultural autonomy of these various groups.

    Mumbai-Figure-3
    Figure 3. David Sassoon Library (1870), Army and Navy Building (1890), and Watson’s Hotel (1869) in Kala Ghoda.

    Sassoon was a Baghdadi Jew, businessman, and philanthropist responsible for funding many projects in Bombay, including the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. The expansive parking lot in front of this row of buildings is the former site of the statue of King Edward VII, the Prince of Wales (also financed by Sassoon). The statue was called “Kala Ghoda” or Black Horse. The neighborhood derived its name from the statue, which was removed to the Byculla Zoo.

    Mumbai-Figure-4
    Figure 4. Jain temple, Bhuleshwar.

    Mumbai-Figure-5
    Figure 5. Mosque, Bhuleshwar. This mosque has classical details, including double-height Corinthian-inspired pilasters along the main façade.

    I walked extensively throughout South Mumbai: 4 the Fort area, Kala Ghoda, Colaba, and Bhuleshwar. The Fort area and Kala Ghoda immediately took me back to London. The scale and uniformity of the structures, the cool, reserved face of classicism in the Fort and the dark, expressive Victorian Gothic spires. These were mixed in with the major Indo-Saracenic monuments erected at the end of the nineteenth century, and the Art Deco structures of the interwar years. The street scale in Bhuleshwar was much more intimate than that of other areas of South Mumbai. Part of this is due to the fact that Bhuleshwar is located in the high-density area previously known as “native town. As architectural historian Preeti Chopra notes: 

    The British viewed the city in terms of color and settlement pattern. In their eyes the Indians lived in what the British called the "native town" or "black town," characterized by its high population density and intricate network of streets. The Europeans lived in the "European quarter" or beyond the bazaars in spacious, low-density suburbs. In contrast, the complex mapping of the city by Indians included religious buildings, water tanks, statues, markets, and other localities inhabited by Bombay's diverse populations.5

    One can find deliberately hybrid architectural design in its truest form in Mumbai. British architects developed and popularized the Indo-Saracenic style in the late nineteenth century. George Wittet, a major proponent of the style, was the architect of the Prince of Wales Museum, now known as Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, and the Gateway of India. Both structures were erected to commemorate King George V and Queen Mary’s visit to India in 1911.

    Mumbai-Figure-6
    Figure 6. Interior view of Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (Prince of Wales Museum). The interior details of the central hall are inspired by architecture from across the country.

    British architects who traveled to India to find work in the late 1800s and early 1900s frequently wrote about the state of architecture in India and the need to create something at once traditional and modern. Articles appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architects with titles like “Characteristic Architecture for India: A Plea for the Saracenic Form,” (1909), “Government Architecture in the East: Indian Architects for India,” (1911), “Architects’ Difficulties in India: The Need of Trained Men,” (1912), “Indian Architecture, and Its Suitability for Modern Requirements,” (1913). These called for the study of traditional Indian architecture, and the necessity for training of architects on the subcontinent (as opposed to England) to promote a new and eclectic style of modern Indian architecture. Architects Magazine, a short-lived British periodical, featured articles on ventilating buildings in India and highlighted outstanding building design, such as the Grant Road residence of Parsi industrialist Jamsetji Nusserwanji (J. N.) Tata.6

    Parsi Patronage

    Parsi patronage of the building arts is one of the most fundamental points to understand the architectural heritage of late nineteenth and twentieth century Bombay. I spent all of my first day in Mumbai being whisked around the city in a cab trying to get technical support for my Apple products. Several of the stores and service centers that had what I needed were in the major shopping area near the Royal Opera House. When I pulled up to the Royal Opera House I oohed and awed. My cab driver stated the Parsis constructed the building. I was confused, as I never heard the term before. In my mind I decided he meant “Farsis,” and instead of saying Persian he accidentally said the language of Persians. I quickly learned of the small, well-connected community of Parsis who had migrated to Bombay from the Gujarati region, where they had settled after escaping persecution in Iran for the religious practice of Zoroastrianism.7 Initially traders, this community penetrated many aspects of commercial and industrial enterprise, and had a favored position in the British trade hegemony.

    Mumbai-Figure-7 
    Figure 7. Maneckji Seth Agiary (1733), second oldest surviving Parsi fire temple. Kala Ghoda neighborhood.

    The Parsi community was active in architectural patronage in Bombay due to the success of various business ventures. One of the most important was the involvement of Parsi entrepreneurs in the cotton production and export industry in the nineteenth century. The American Civil War and port blockades on the exportation of cotton from the South forced England to increase its importation of cotton produced in India. This cotton boom created great wealth and opportunity to turn economic capital into cultural capital. Members of the Parsi business community were some of the greatest patrons of British architects practicing in Bombay. As historian Christopher W. London notes, “The Parsis were not the only benefactors to contribute to the 19th century architectural fabric of the city, but they helped set the tone and they established the precedent.”8

    While London highlights Parsi involvement in building Victorian Bombay, architectural historian Michael Windover shows how Parsi architectural patronage continued in the interwar years. Windover examines patronage of Art Deco structures in general, and cinemas more specifically. While Mumbai is widely known for its amalgamation of Victorian Gothic, Indo-Saracenic, and Art Deco structures, particularly in the historic Fort Area, the Parsi connection to placemaking should be highlighted more. Perhaps it is not emphasized because the community has long been a minority population, and today it has considerably declined. When the nomination of the Victorian and Art Deco ensemble of Mumbai to the World Heritage List does not once mention the Parsi involvement in creating this varied and impressive heritage, something is amiss. 

    Mumbai-Figure-8
    Figure 8. Regal Cinema (1933) financed by Parsi film exhibitor Pramji Sidhwa and designed by Charles Stevens, whose father Frederick William Stevens designed Victoria Terminus (Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus) Station.

    Curating the City

    Mumbai has little in the way of heritage conservation of its industrial infrastructure. For a city that was built on trade and industry, this may seem surprising. Imagine Liverpool, Glasgow, Detroit, or Pittsburgh without an emphasis on their industrial heritage. It would be hard to truly understand the evolution of those cities. As architectural historian Jyoti Hosagrahar notes, the nineteenth century:

    Saw the rise of a new and broad category of institutional buildings, including courthouses, museums, libraries, banks, city halls, elite boarding schools, colleges, and post offices. Railway terminals, factories, bungalows, and a network of dak bungalows (inspection rest houses) were other types of buildings that transformed the landscape of the South Asian subcontinent in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Yet these buildings of the modern age did not find historians until recently and many still await them.9

    Perhaps this is because the areas in neighborhoods such as Girangaon and Parel surrounding former factories and cotton mills reveal the economic disparity that is modern Mumbai.10 It is at once the richest city in India, but more than half of its urban population lives in slums. These neighborhoods spread far beyond the boundaries of the Fort Area, upon which most of the architectural and heritage tourism is focused.

    It is exceedingly important for historians to understand these economic conditions and disparities when making decisions about what and how to conserve. Mumbai in the millennium has moved beyond its colonial and industrial past, yet so much of the urban fabric in the historic core reveals these pasts to us.

    Mumbai-Figure-9
    Figure 9. Beyond South Mumbai the city continues to grow.

    Bombay was the second most populous city in the British Empire after London. It was the “Urbs Primus in Indus.” As such historians have often tried to understand Mumbai in relation to both the history of British colonization and the rise of megacities in the Global South. Geographer Andrew Harris argues for new frameworks in understanding the city today, moving away from a Eurocentric approach to something more dynamic. He contends that we must:

    Challenge conceptions of Mumbai as only a replicator or mimic of urbanisms fashioned elsewhere, whether in 19th-century Manchester or London or 21st-century Shanghai or Singapore. This involves greater acknowledgement of, and engagement with, Bombay’s specific socio-spatial formations of urban modernity and with the fundamental disjunctions into social experience and urban form shaped by colonization.11

    I cannot say that I have succeeded in that attempt, as my frame of reference is mainly Western and therefore tied into the longer tradition that Harris maintains we most move away from. One way to think about this in a useful and theoretical way is to look at urban fabric of Mumbai – its past, present, and future, as parts of the kinetic and static city. Architect and urbanist Rahul Mehrotra put forth this proposition as a means to understanding and reconciling disparate aspects of the urban environment. Mehrotra asserts:

    Today in our urban areas there exist two cities – the static and kinetic – two completely different worlds that cohabit the same urban space. The static city is represented through its architecture and by monuments built in permanent materials. The kinetic city that occupies interstitial space is the city of motion – the kuttcha city, built of temporary material.

    In a way, Mehrotra’s conservation work in Mumbai through the Urban Design Research Institute speaks directly to the intellectual challenges put forth by Harris. Mehrotra is cognizant of two very important aspects of conservation in Mumbai. First, that the Victorian core represents the exclusion and repression of British colonization. Second, that while this is true, the cohesive face of the area is in fact a relief from the sprawling nature of the millennial megalopolis. He does not see these two points as contrary to the need for conservation, but as facts that need to be acknowledged in the planning process. This is the complexity of conservation in the post-colonial, post-industrial, post-Independence, millennial moment.

    Mumbai-Figure-10
    Figure 10. Souvenir coffee mugs at Starbucks in Kala Ghoda district, Mumbai. Image depicts Gate of India in New Delhi by Edwin Lutyens.

    H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Google Map

    Recommended Readings

    Arjun Appadurai, “Spectral Housing and Urban Cleansing: Notes on Millenial Mumbai,” Public Culture 12 no. 3 Fall 2000: 627-651

    Arjun Appadurai, “Burning Questions: Arson and Other Public Works in Bombay,” ANY: Architecture New York 18, Public Fear: WHAT'S SO SCARY ABOUT ARCHITECTURE? (1997): 44-47

    Bill Ashcroft, “Urbanism, Mobility and Bombay: Reading the Postcolonial City,” Journal of Postcolonial Writing 47 no. 5 (2011): 497-509

    Manish Chalana, “Slumdogs vs. Millionaires,” Journal of Architectural Education 63 no. 2 (2010): 25-37

    Sandip Hazareesingh, “Colonial Modernism and the Flawed Paradigms of Urban Renewal: Uneven Development in Bombay, 1900–25,” Urban History 28 no. 2 (August 2001): 235 - 255

    Meera Kosambi and John E. Brush, “Three Colonial Port Cities in India,” Geographical Review 78 no. 1 (January 1988): 32-47

    Rahul Mehrotra, “Constructing Cultural Significance: Looking at Bombay’s Historic Fort Area,” Future Anterior 1 no. 2 (2004): 25-31

    Kaiwan Mehta, Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood (New Delhi: Yoda Press, 2009)

    Radhika Savant Mohit and H. Detlef Kammeier, “The Fort: Opportunities for an Effective Urban Conservation Strategy in Bombay,” Cities 13 no. 6 (1996): 387-398

    Michael Pacione, “Mumbai,” Cities 23 no. 3 (2006): 229–238

    Howard Spodek, “Studying the History of Urbanization in India,” Journal of Urban History 6 no 3 (May 1980): 251-295

    Stuart Tappin, “The Early Use of Reinforced Concrete in India,” Construction History 18 (2002): 79-98

    Michael Windover, “Exchanging Looks: ‘Art Dekho’ Movie Theatres in Bombay,” Architectural History 52 (2009): 201-232



    1. See Rashmi Varma, “Provincializing the Global City: From Bombay to Mumbai,” Social Text 22 no. 4 (Winter 2004): 65-89.

    2. I will refer to the city as “Mumbai” when discussing present context and “Bombay” in the historical context.

    3. Partha Mitter, “The Early British Port Cities of India: Their Planning and Architecture Circa 1640-1757,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 45 no. 2 (June 1986): 102; Meera Kosambi, “Commerce, Conquest and the Colonial City: Role of Locational Factors in Rise of Bombay,” Economic and Political Weekly 20 no. 1 (January 5, 1985): 34. See also Frank Conlon, “Caste, Community, and Colonialism: "The Elements of Population Recruitment and Urban Rule in British Bombay: 1665-1830,” Journal of Urban History 11 no. 2 (February 1985): 181-208 and Amy Karafin, “Around Mumbai in 7 Faiths,” Lonely Planet September, 19 2012 http://www.lonelyplanet.com/india/mumbai-bombay/travel-tips-and-articles/77468.

    4. This is only possible due to nineteenth century land reclamation projects.

    5. Preeti Chopra, “Refiguring the Colonial City: Recovering the Role of Local Inhabitants in the Construction of Colonial Bombay, 1854-1918,” Buildings & Landscapes 14 (Fall 2007): 110.

    6. Tata financed the construction of the Taj Mahal Hotel (1903).

    7. See Gijsbert Oonk, “The Emergence of Indigenous Industrialists in Calcutta, Bombay, and Ahmedabad, 1850–1947,” Business History Review 88 (Spring 2014): 43–71 and Talinn Grigor, “Parsi Patronage of the Urheimat,” Getty Research Journal no. 2 (2010): 53-68.

    8. Christopher W. London, “High Victorian Bombay: Historic, Economic and Social Influences on Its Architectural Development,” South Asian Studies 13 no. 1 (1997): 101.

    9. Jyoti Hosagrahar, “South Asia: Looking Back, Moving Ahead-History and Modernization,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 61 no. 3 (September 2002): 358.

    10. The mills in particular have a rich connection to the labor and freedom movements in India. For research on their history and potential for adaptive reuse see INTBAU India, “Mumbai Mills Report, Analysis & Conclusions of INTBAU India Workshop,” March 2005 and Alain Bertaud, “The Formation of Urban Spatial Structures: Markets vs. Design,” Marron Institute of Urban Management http://marroninstitute.nyu.edu/content/working-papers/the-formation-of-urban-spatial-structures.

    11. Andrew Harris, “The Metonymic Urbanism of Twenty-first-century Mumbai,” Urban Studies 49 no. 13 (October 2012): 2966.

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  • Washington State Slept Here: SAH Archipedia and the Question of Significance

    By
    J. Philip Gruen
     |
    Feb 24, 2015

    A couple of months ago I was asked what seemed, to me, an interesting question. As many readers of this blog likely know, SAH is well on its way to completing the first major stage of its SAH Archipedia project, SAH Archipedia Classic Buildings, where all fifty states will feature online entries of its 100 most “representative” buildings. I’ve signed on, along with my former student and now-colleague Robert Franklin, to co-coordinate the SAH Archipedia project for the state of Washington. Hardly claiming to be authorities on the architecture of the state—we chose to marshal several scholars, preservation consultants, professors, graduate students, and even the state architectural historian to help draft most of the entries rather than attempting to do all of them ourselves. 

    Marcus Whitman Hotel, Walla Walla, Washington (photo courtesy of Robert Franklin)

    Marcus Whitman Hotel, Walla Walla, Washington (photo courtesy of Robert Franklin) 

    But that wasn’t the question. The question came about during an email exchange with a potential contributor recommended to me by a colleague.  Having asked the potential contributor whether s/he would be interested in crafting entries from a list of the state’s 100 most “significant” buildings (quotations in the original), I received the following question:

    Also, are there any particular project specific criteria for determining which candidates for inclusion are the most "significant?"

    The question took me somewhat by surprise. I put the notion of significance in quotes in my email largely because I assumed it was common knowledge that “significance” is hotly-contested terrain, and that even hard-line preservationists holding tightly to vestiges of the “fifty-year rule” would understand that the notion of significance can be sliced many different ways—nearly all of which make sense depending upon the narrative. I avoided the term “representative” because—perhaps mistakenly—I assumed that “representative buildings” would raise more immediate questions or concerns, especially because one could easily interpret a “representative” list to focus upon a “one of each” sort of thing, where all eras or styles would be represented no matter what.  

    Still, the question puzzled me. Maybe I assumed that we are well past the point where we need to explain why a single room occupancy hotel once housing Japanese immigrants prior to internment might be just as significant as a fancy, architecturally-detailed commercial building designed by a megafirm in the heart of a metropolis. Of course, to an SAH crowd or even most preservationists these days, the importance of a cultural landscape approach—which brings to the fore several oft-overlooked or understudied aspects that provide a far fuller picture of the built environment than one might have found in more conventional analyses of the previous century—goes without saying.  But to everyone else? 

    This is by no means intended to suggest that the writer of that question was unaware of such an approach or was critical of ours; indeed, s/he was simply asking the question.  As I had neither divulged our criteria for significance nor provided our working list of the 100 most significant buildings in the state of Washington in my initial email, perhaps s/he would have been less enthusiastic to join a growing cadre of writers had s/he known that the criteria was limited to buildings before 1950, or that all buildings had to be high-style affairs, or that a site needed to be immortalized by a significant event or person in the state’s history—the famous “George Washington Slept Here” mantra. I don’t know.  I never asked.

    But the question did give me pause. Maybe the notion of “significance” remains unclear. Maybe, as architectural historians, we are still talking mostly to ourselves, and the word isn’t getting “out” to a less specialized public that may adhere to other impressions of significance. Maybe we are still in the midst of a long paradigm shift towards a more catholic understanding of significance and a broader acceptance of all building types, periods, and design conditions as worthy of recognition—one that may have begun in the 1960s with the build-up to the National Historic Preservation Act of 1966.  

    So I decided to respond, and my response grew from one paragraph into a couple of pages. I’ve revised it slightly since my original response, but the gist remains. As I began crafting my response, I quickly realized I was probably writing something that could be applicable for any state—with some exceptions, of course (not every state features the mid-century modernist timber houses of the Pacific Northwest). But I have no authority to suggest it is a template—SAH Archipedia editors Gabrielle Esperdy and Catherine Erkkila would be the ones to consult for that, although their flexibility and wide-ranging perspectives on the built environment indicates that a similar approach elsewhere would not be unacceptable. 

    In the meantime, I remain curious. Do we need to explain what constitutes something such as “significance?” Are we dealing with a moment when such notions have shifted for academics, but not practitioners or the general public?Should we consider more succinct definitions? I don’t have an answer, but I’ve enjoyed contemplating these questions as I’ve ventured into the extraordinarily challenging task of selected the 100 most significant buildings in the state—a challenge I suspect I share with every other colleague coodinating SAH Archipedia projects across the country. Our working list of buildings is available here and our criteria for significance is below. We now send these to every new writer who joins our project. We realize they are problematic, potentially riddled with contradictions, and only partly representative of the types of structures on our current list. But perhaps that is just the point. 

    What do you think?

    -------------------------------------------

    Dear Washington SAH Archipedia writer:

    Thank you for your interest in contributing to this endeavor. As you have had the opportunity to peruse the list of 100 sites, logically you might have some questions. What are the criteria for “architectural significance?” Why did some sites make the list and not others? Why are some areas, building types, or architects represented and not others? 

    The truth is that we don’t have a perfectly satisfactory answer to that question, other than to say 1) the list is still somewhat in flux (every time we look at it, it seems, we remove one site and add in a different one) and 2) limiting this to just 100 sites is the most difficult thing about this project. But it’s also the most exciting and interesting aspect as well.

    As background, the first version of this list was compiled by Professor Jeffrey Ochsner of the University of Washington. He was initially—and logically—asked to coordinate the project (he has vastly more expertise than we do), but he was unable to oversee it. However, he did share his initial list with us and made a number of recommendations, and our current list of 100 builds upon his. One particular feature of Professor Ochsner’s initial list was an excellent geographical balance, as he worked to include a satisfactory number of sites from the far corners of the state. 

    There is some logic to the current list. We are not experts on any of these sites and many we have not yet seen in person, but at this point we’ve at least looked into all of them and tried to understand them within a broad picture of Washington’s history. In general, however, this 100 list (which is not numbered from best to worst—it’s just trying to keep track of how many we have) is trying to present a story, or several stories, of the state through the built environment. We are less interested in cherry-picking buildings simply for their form, accolades, or notable designers and trying to craft stories around them. 

    To that end, one could argue that there is more of a cultural landscape approach to the Washington SAH Archipedia—it is less a guidebook to spectacular works of architecture. We are hoping that the individual entries we receive—while always keeping the built environment as the centerpiece and, if necessary, telling interesting stories about the designers—will not be a “bird book” type of entry that one is likely find in most architectural guidebooks. One still needs to be careful—the architectural details must be incorporated into each entry, including names, dates, materials, and important additions and alterations. Admittedly, in some cases, the “significance” is mostly an architectural one. And, yes, there are a few targeted examples that might say more about architecture or style than about the state or its history.

    We are aware that the geographical distribution of sites is not perfect, but in general it mirrors a proportional population balance (perhaps more so prior to World War Two than today, when there was a larger rural to urban population). For a state list, too, one ought to try to cover the state. Still, we recognize that there are fewer examples on this list in eastern and central Washington than west of the Cascades. Granted, the examples from eastern Washington might not be considered as aesthetically extravagant as equivalent sites elsewhere, but we did wish to maintain a broad geographical coverage.

    There was also the effort to understand the built environment in its widest possible sense. This meant the inclusion of everything from historic districts; works of engineering; industry; landscape architecture; and building types associated with particular ethnic groups to ordinary and vernacular examples including a campsite, a lighthouse, coke ovens, and a grange hall. This meant that the “famous architect” would not always be a criteria for inclusion, despite this being an online architectural encyclopedia. The vast majority of Washington’s built environment is comprised of works not designed by famous architects—both today and in the past—so we wished to provide more ordinary and non-monumental examples than one might expect to find in a list such as this. Even so, we know this list tends to feature the more extraordinary examples of the ordinary and vernacular. And even more still, there isn’t enough of the vernacular! One easily could look at the list and find a majority of buildings designed by notable architects and well-known historic districts and not nearly enough housing types, barns, diners, drive-ins, or motels, for example. Or in some cases, any at all. But we are not adverse to altering the list should there be a compelling rationale to do so, and we have made several changes to the list since it began.

    Chuckanut Drive, near Bellingham, Washington (photo courtesy of Lynette Felber)

    Chuckanut Drive, near Bellingham, Washington (photo courtesy of Lynette Felber)

    We also tried to include buildings from a variety of different time periods, but to those of a more traditional persuasion there are perhaps more than the fair share of buildings from the recent past on the list. This has more to do with preference: we believe more people associate the Pacific Northwest with a particular architecture that has been best articulated from the mid-twentieth-century onward (although there are perhaps earlier precedents that led to this architecture). Put simply, this relates mostly to an aesthetic that features timber; free-flowing space (both interior and exterior); prominent roof-lines; an overall emphasis on structure; and an attention to the surrounding—usually natural—environment. This overall aesthetic or process can be found most prominently in residential design and perhaps broadly (if stereotypically) wrapped up in the term “sustainable” design. It’s a particular kind of sustainability, however—one that incorporates the various building systems within that Northwest look. And, I think, this is what people imagine when they think of the architecture of the Pacific Northwest—and perhaps that of Washington state more than anywhere else. If there is a theme that runs through the Washington SAH Archipedia, perhaps it is that. 

    But it’s hardly representative of the only type of architecture one will discover on the list. There is plenty here from 1870-1940, even if we might argue that one would be hard-pressed to define much unique about Washington architecture during the time period—save for some vernacular examples of barn types; perhaps more company towns than many states; and maybe the preponderance of big engineering works (although that was not necessarily unique, either). Much of the rest of the architecture seemed to be keeping up with national trends, but not necessarily providing their most spectacular or representative examples. (We recognize that this may engender some debate.) Yet we’ve included several examples of non-unique building types: there is the Carnegie Library, for example, as well as the New Deal-era courthouse, the Gothic Revival church, the Art Deco skyscraper, and the historic district notable for its many examples from the Victorian period. These continue to hold plenty of interest, and the public may raise considerable eyebrows if there were no examples of these types.

    But we are not intending the Washington SAH Archipedia to be a call-to-arms; we did not intentionally include those buildings that are threatened with development pressure or in desperate need of repair; if such examples are on this list, it is because we deemed them significant for other reasons (building type, designers, geographical balance, etc.) However, if SAH Archipedia has the spin-off effect of garnering more attention to help preserve some of these buildings and spaces, then certainly that would be a benefit. But it was not a criterion.

    On a related note, we do not intend this list to be a “memory” piece per se; while we certainly hope that our writers will include earlier versions or no-longer-visible histories of the sites they are assigned, we tried not to choose any sites that have been demolished, are slated for demolition, or are altered practically beyond recognition—unless we determined the alterations themselves to be significant. Thus, sites such as Northgate Mall and Yesler Terrace in Seattle—very significant for different reasons initially and both part of our original list—have been removed. Northgate Mall’s original design has been altered beyond recognition and Yesler Terrace is undergoing major changes to make it arguably less significant as an architectural ensemble (although it could certainly be argued that its significance was not “architectural” to begin with). The Alaskan Way Viaduct—one of the most significant aspects of the built environment in twentieth-century Seattle (albeit not one of the most beloved)—is slated for demolition and might be gone altogether within a few years of Washington SAH Archipedia’s projected “go live” date in 2016. Still, we hope that the Washington SAH Archipedia will have another effect of encouraging the public to go out and explore these sites and to be able to recapture some of the important stories the writers are discussing in their essays—hence the reason for coordinates and maps.     

    We also wanted to include a broad range of design styles—although we know we ended up leaving some out. Sometimes this can be accomplished by just covering a series of time periods, but not always. So if you are curious as to why we might have included something such as the Thurston County Courthouse in Olympia (New Deal era stripped-down classical), or the Lake Quinault Lodge near Olympic National Park (“rustic”-style lodge characteristic of national and state park development in the early part of the twentieth century), it’s because we really had few other examples of the style. Could they be switched out with other examples? Yes—if there is a compelling rationale for doing so.

    You might wonder why there seem to be few single-family residences on this list, save for a few well-known examples (Cutter’s Glover House in Spokane, for example, or those houses included within districts, such as the Hilltop neighborhood in Bellevue or the Alphabet Houses in Richland). Perhaps it’s particularly ironic given that we might consider the “Pacific Northwest” style to have emerged out of residential design more than anything. Beyond trying to balance the list, however, it is important for SAH Archipedia that these buildings be clearly visible from a public right-of-way—particularly for the purposes of photography. We are trying as best as possible to avoid any copyright challenges or hassles, and we should not be encouraging the public to illegally access these sites or trespass. This is certainly not to suggest that many houses are not worthy of making this list.    

    Finally, there are some works on here which are perhaps far more interesting because of their “landscapes” in a broad sense, be that landscape political, cultural, or geologic (Teapot Dome; Panama Hotel; Mt. St. Helens visitor centers).

    So… what is “architecturally significant” about this 100 list? That’s difficult to say. We could have made this a much tighter exercise: picking only works in Seattle, or only the top designers, or only eight or so works per decade, or even holding tight to the fifty-year rule and/or criteria A, B, or C on the secretary of the interior’s standards, but such boundaries might have been even more puzzling to folks later clicking through the site who may never venture to gain a broad sense of what is included and why. So if this list looks a little bit messy and seems to lack cohesion, well, that’s entirely intentional. 

    But it also means that the list is still malleable. Already it has been shaped by suggestions, and that too is representative of significance; obviously, we historians, writers, consultants, preservationists, architects, independent scholars, and critics are part of a larger community of folks who help shape “significance”—the buildings don’t have too much significance on their own.  Since everyone seems to have a different opinion about the notion of significance, to have a smattering of opinions represented here, I think, is representative of significance in the mid-2010s! 

    Another good thing is that because this will be online, the first 100 is just that:  the first 100. There will be room to expand over time—something much easier than publishing this in print. If you look at our list on page two, you’ll see the beginnings of the “next 100,” also divided by region. Some of these are sites that were initially on the list and then were removed from it. Some also have moved back, and might do so again as we continue to learn more about them, and as others continue to chime in.

    Thanks again for your interest in this project. We are looking forward to working with you.

    Yours,

    Phil and Robert

     

     

    Phil-web-bio-pic-300x300Phil Gruen is Associate Professor and Interim Director of the School of Design and Construction at Washington State University. Gruen’s principal research involves American architecture and urbanism. He is particularly interested in the tug-of-war between the presentation of the built environment and its experience in human action and memory. His book manuscript, Manifest Destinations: Tourist Encounters in the Late-Nineteenth Century Urban American West, published in September 2014 (University of Oklahoma Press), explores this issue with respect to boosters and visitors in San Francisco, Salt Lake City, Denver, and Chicago. Gruen’s work also has appeared in Montana: The Magazine of Western History (2011) as well as in textbooks, anthologies, and encyclopedias on subjects ranging from monumental urban architecture in the United States to the planning and design of Disneyland in Anaheim, California. He has provided the introductory essay for Architectura: Elements of Architectural Style (Barron’s Educational Series, 2008). He chaired a session on architectural tourism for the Society of Architectural Historians’ conference in 2014, led the “Legacy of Daniel Burnham; Architect and City Planner” study tour for SAH in August of 2009, and serves on the board of directors for the Marion Dean Ross/Pacific Northwest Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians.

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