SAH Blog

  • Chandigarh Day: 9 & 10

    Jan 7, 2012
    by Gretta Tritch Roman on January 7, 2012

    Our morning began with a short walk into the capitol complex of Chandigarh. Though we reached the Secretariat fairly quickly after passing through the guarded gate, we had to wait quite a long time to get permission to enter the building. By the end of the day, we all became fairly accustomed to such waits as we soon found out that security in the capitol complex was tightly restrictive and for good reason it seemed. A decade (or more) earlier, a bomb was detonated in the plaza between the Assembly and High Court. Now the plaza was closed to pedestrian access and a large fence had been erected between the two across the immense distance.

    Le Corbusier: Secretariat (1951-56)

    The complex demonstrates the intensity of the intersection of cultures as it now serves as the capital for two states: both Haryana and Punjab. Though the representation of two provincial states was a more recent development, the city of Chandigarh had always, it seemed, been premised on the difficulty of differences and the negotiation of those differences. From its post-independence conception as a new capital of Punjab (after Partition and Lahore, the capital of the region, was then a part of Pakistan) to the formation of Haryana in the mid-1960s and the division of the buildings into two halves to serve both of the states, the capitol complex illustrates those negotiations. Interestingly, Chandigarh was conceived of by the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, as a nation building tool for the new country. (I won’t go into the long history of the choice of Le Corbusier for the complex’s architect here. To read more about this choice, see Vikramaditya Prakash, Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India [Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002].)

    Standing at the front of the Secretariat, the building felt massive and overpowering, but the facade was nicely broken up by the balcony railings and the brise soleil, especially looking at it obliquely. Functioning as the seat of bureaucracy for both states, the Secretariat is divided with the Punjab Secretariat on the left and Haryana’s Secretariat to the right of the entrance.

    The entire complex was conceived by Le Corbusier in his master plan of the city as the head of the new capital. Looking behind us, though, I could not see any of the city. In fact, we seemed to be surrounded on all sides by lush trees and extensive landscape with no buildings. This was confirmed to me as we ascended the large interior ramp that forms a sculptural appendage on the exterior of the building. In fact, I could even begin to see the sculptural hill that Le Corbusier designed at the southern most part of the complex that divides the city from the capitol complex. The ramp was an experience of color and movement that allowed the landscape of the complex to unfold in small pieces through the square punctures of the wall until we reached the roof and the whole of Chandigarh stretched out, never really revealing its gridded plan interestingly (perhaps because the trees had matured).

    Next we visited the Assembly building. (We could not photograph the interior.) Entering through the basement (since the glazed enamel doors at the plaza level are reserved for ceremonial occasions only), we ascended within the vast interior up the ramps to reach the central cone of the assembly chamber. I was unsure of what to expect in this room since photographs are almost always deceptive in conveying scale and size. It was certainly a narrowing space, but the height of the room was most impressive, made so by the skylight; nonetheless, it was an incredibly dark room, making it difficult to understand the space very well. Regardless, there was no doubt that the space itself felt unique, unlike any other I had experienced, and I felt extraordinarily honored to be allowed there. This larger chamber was reserved for the Punjab Assemblies (both High and Low), while the smaller pyramidal chamber was used by the Haryana High and Low Assemblies. We visited this room as well, which proved to be lighter (though admittedly it is difficult to remember from our short time in the room whether this is because the sun came out or the space was easier to light naturally).

    Le Corbusier: Assembly Building (1951-56)

    Moving to the exterior, the parasol canopy was stunning in the golden light. (The sun finally broke through the fog and clouds!) We were free to move around in the portico space, and I found the changing views through cut-outs in the concrete piers animated the modernist concrete box. In fact, it felt almost playful; strange considering the solemness that we had just experienced being inside. Turning around, I could see the Open Hand Monument across the plaza, but we had to get back on the bus and drive to it. The center of the plaza had a large barbed-wire fence across it that prevented any use of the space.

    After visiting the Open Hand Monument and the pit of contemplation that surrounds it, we walked to the High Court hopeful that we could see the interior. Following long conversations and requests (which I can’t even imagine what they had to endure!), Adnan and Anubha returned to our group waiting outside. Turned out that the High Court was actually in session, so we could either enter two at a time (with nearly 40 people that could have been forever) or come back tomorrow. We chose the latter, and departed the capitol complex for other sites in Chandigarh.

    Le Corbusier: Open Hand Monument

    We visited the Le Corbusier Center, which, as the site office for the architects of Chandigarh, it was the first building in the new city. Meeting us at the site, Sangeet Sharma gave us a tour through the building designed by Pierre Jeanneret. Mr. Sharma, an architect practicing in Chandigarh, offered an interesting perspective as he is the son of one of the architects on the project with Corb, M. N. Sharma (and who also became the first chief architect of the city).

    Pierre Jeanneret: Old Architect Site Building

    We finished yesterday visiting Nek Chand’s wonderful, whimsical rock garden. Wandering through alone, I was quite lost for some time. The narrow paths and various follies were packed with people visiting the sculpture garden. Started by Nek Chand, a government worker, in the late 1950s, the garden was kept secret for 18 years.  It was only discovered by authorities in 1975, after it had grown to cover nearly a dozen acres. Public outcry to save the complex prevented its destruction, and it was obvious how significant it has become as a public space just by the extensive use we witnessed on this Friday.

    Nek Chand's Rock Garden

    This morning, on our way back to the High Court we drove through various sectors (15 and 16), noticing that the houses face away from the street, “inward” toward more pedestrian-friendly paths — the modernist mega-block. Taking our turns in groups of ten or so, we were allowed to see several of the courtrooms along the front of the building. We also walked up the ramp behind the large pillars to reach the roof garden. Though it was a windy, rainy day, I could imagine that the thick canopy of the roof would make a nice space in the summer. Also more evident when on the roof, I could see how the shape of the roof canopy funneled the wind, even if it wasn’t entirely pleasant on this particular day! As we moved up the ramp, the Assembly building came into view, and we noticed that the colors of the large pillars on the High Court were in dialogue with the colors of the enamel doors on the Assembly.

    Le Corbusier: High Court (1951-56)

    Next, we visited the College of Art, a building designed by Le Corbusier in the early 1960s. It serves now as the only art school in Punjab. Within walking distance was the City Museum, housing much of the history of the planning and building of the new capital city.

    Le Corbusier: College of Arts

    City Museum

    Our last stop in Chandigarh was the College of Architecture where we were met by Vikramaditya Prakash, who was in Chandigarh with his students from University of Washington for the Chandigarh Urban Lab. He gave a presentation on Chandigarh and some of the work that he and the students had been working on. The focus of his discussion centered on the unbuilt Governor’s House, its proposed replacement with the Museum of Knowledge, and options for other kinds of buildings that might be more suited to Chandigarh in the age of globalization. We were joined later by Sumit Kaur, the current chief architect of Chandigarh, who shared her views of the direction of growth and preservation in Chandigarh. It was a lively discussion cut only too short by our tight schedule and an early evening flight back to Delhi.

    College of Architecture

    Sumit Kaur and Vikramaditya Prakash

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  • Delhi: Day 8

    Gretta Tritch Roman
    Jan 5, 2012
    Today our group was light in number as several of us had fallen sick to some bug that moved its way through our group with a vengeance! Our morning began at the bottom of Raisina Hill between India Gate to our east and the Secretariats immediately to our west. Again, the fog prevented us from seeing the disappearing and reappearing Viceroy’s Palace (Rashtrapati Bhavan) behind the rise of Raisina Hill along the axis of Rajpath (formerly Kingsway) — a wonderful contentious story of competitiveness between Edwin Lutyens (master planner of New Delhi and architect of the Viceroy’s Palace and India Gate) and Herbert Baker (architect of the Secretariats). It is worth a read in Robert Irving’s Indian Summer: Lutyens, Baker, and Imperial Delhi (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981). We walked up the hill to see the Secretariats closer, and though we were not allowed to tour them, we could walk into the entrance to stand under the main dome of the North Block.

    Raisina Hill and Secretariat

    Herbert Baker: Secretariat North Block (1928)

    After a lovely outdoor lunch at the Lodhi Gardens, we drove to the diplomatic area to visit the United States Embassy and Ambassador’s House (1959-62) designed by Edward Durell Stone. We could not photograph the buildings, leaving our cameras on the bus. The buildings were beautifully maintained. We toured the Ambassador’s house finding that the interior had been modified to enclose the dining room and side rooms, previously open across the double-height interior hall. The Embassy’s interior was a wonderful surprise with a large courtyard pool surrounded by offices on all sides. It had a playful feel with the stepping stones across the pool and the wooden doors to the offices. In fact, it gave me more of a sense of a resort than an office building.

    We departed the Embassy for the train station. Our group of forty must have been quite a difficult task for our Delhi administrator, Piyush, to move us through the massive crowds of people meeting arriving passengers and departing for all parts of India. The train station was immense, or so it felt. And, we thought we wouldn’t have to wait long for our train, but again, the fog descended onto Delhi. Our train and every other train moving through the capital was delayed by hours. We finally reached Chandigarh after midnight.

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  • Delhi: Day 7

    Gretta Tritch Roman
    Jan 4, 2012
    Our morning started in New Delhi at the India Gate, the prominent monumental arch that stands on the great axis of the Rajpath (known as Kingsway in Lutyen’s master plan) with the Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s House, previously called the Viceroy’s Palace) at the opposite end.

    Edwin Lutyens: Rajpath and India Gate (1931)

    Anubha explained that the monument was built to commemorate the 90,000 Indian Army soldiers that died in World War I and the Third Angl0-Afghan War, and as we moved closer, the names that are inscribed on the bricks became apparent.

    It is an interesting monument, more so than I realized in studying it in photographs, as it is much thicker than I had imagined it to be. In fact, it seems also cubic in form as we moved around it. Anubha also pointed out the large sculpture motifs on either side of the gate, which I had not seen in photographs or noticed. At first glance, they appeared to be similar to the ancient Roman bronze pinecone in the Cortile del Belvedere in the Vatican. However, Anubha explained that from an Indian cultural standpoint, this elongated object in a short vase was reminiscent of the Purna Kalasha, a short vase with an arrangement of mango leaves and a coconut on top. At Qutb Minar yesterday, Tapan pointed out the recurring motif of the pot at the base of several of the columns, noting that it is often used as a decorative motif in South Asian architecture. On the India Gate, it was, as Anubha observed, a meeting of two cultures where recognizable motifs overlap in layers of meanings and references.

    We could not walk through the arch because it now serves as the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier for the Indian Army and is guarded and roped off. Also on axis and very near the India Gate is the chattri (or small canopy) that once held a statue of King George V. The statue was removed following independence (now in Coronation Park), and the chattri remains empty. It now serves as only a visual marker along the axis to the Rashtrapati Bhavan which we couldn’t see for the early morning fog from India Gate but was our next stop.

    Raisina Hill and Secretariat

    Photography was not allowed inside the President’s house, so here I can only post my exterior images. Our guided tour led us through mostly the central part of the building where we saw the Marble Hall, once the primary reception area of the palace but now housing statues and paintings formerly in the British Raj collection. Next, we saw the gift room where gifts received by the President from various distinguished visitors were displayed. Also on exhibit were some wonderful etchings by Thomas and William Daniel, images that once served as the lens for most Britons onto this distant country. My favorite room of the visit was unfailingly Durbar Hall, an enormous ceremonial space that served as the British Throne Room during the colonial period. On the way to the gardens, we visited Ashoka Hall (State Ball Room), the dining room, and the west courtyard. (To see a glimpse of these rooms on the tour at theRashtrapati Bhavan website)

    Edwin Lutyens: Viceroy's Palace (1912-31)

    In the afternoon, we visited the Parliament Building (1921-26), designed by Herbert Baker some years after the Viceroy’s Palace and the Secretariats were completed but continuing some of the same motifs as seen on the earlier buildings such as the bell and chain on the columns (a motif that can also be found on columns at the 16th-century site of Fatehpur Sikri built by Mughal emperor Akbar).

    After lunch we visited the British Council designed by Charles Correa and completed in 1993. Leading a tour through the courtyard and ground level spaces of the building, Anubha explained that Correa had designed it as a journey through Indian civilization. Beginning at the back of the courtyard at the fountain, we moved from early civilizations through the pergola into the “char bagh” (literally “four garden” — the Persian garden layout used by the Mughals prominently in their tomb designs) of the courtyard’s tiles and fountain. Moving to the interior, we saw the floor patterning that recalled the pattern of the piazza of the Campidoglio in Rome (read as the era of European influence) to the exterior front facade representing contemporary India in a mural designed by Howard Hodgkin.

    Charles Correa: British Council (1993)

    In the evening we gathered at the India International Centre (designed by Joseph Allen Stein) for a presentation on the efforts to establish Delhi as a Heritage City through UNESCO. There was an interesting discussion following the presentation where questions of whether the guidelines for world heritage sites were too Euro-centric to apply to Delhi. For instance, many people would have to be displaced in order for the sites to have the amount of area around them required. Also, the presenter noted that there is a different perception of time that does not align with notions of linearity but rather time as cyclical.

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  • Delhi: Day 5 & 6

    Gretta Tritch Roman
    Jan 3, 2012
    We arrived in Delhi after the longest two hour flight! Northern India is notorious for fog in the winter, and yesterday was only exceptional in that it was foggy enough to make our plane’s pilot circle for an hour before landing briefly in Lucknow to refuel and try to re-land in Delhi. Eventually, though, we arrived, loaded our new tour bus, and joined Piyush, our local tour administrator. In a race against sunset, we rushed to Humayun’s Tomb (1570).

    Humayun's Tomb Gate

    It was a most ethereal experience to walk through the gateway into the garden. The light in the foggy sunset glowed orange almost, and it seemed like a magical introduction to Delhi. Here, we were visiting the beginning of the Mughal tomb garden, the model for the Taj Mahal.

    We were privileged to have Ratish Nanda (the Projects Director for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the preservationist at both Humayun’s Tomb as well as Babur’s tomb in Kabul) join us to discuss the site and the conservation philosophy followed in its restoration/preservation. The idea is to replicate what was there before employing craftsmen of traditional techniques of building. For instance, the lower level surround had been covered in concrete, but it was now restored using materials such as lime mortar mixed with egg whites to give the whitewashed surface.

    We began this morning driving through Lutyen’s New Delhi, seeing India Gate and the princely or maharaja palaces nearby. We continued driving north toward Shahjahanabad — now considered to be Old Delhi, though this was in fact only the most recent “Old Delhi” of six others before the British colonial New Delhi of the twentieth century. Driving through one of the thirteen original gates of Shahjahanabad, we reached the Jama Masjid, built by Shah Jahan between 1644-58. It remains the largest mosque in India. Again, we had a lovely foggy morning so that the tips of the minarets sometimes disappeared, and the building had a pleasant quietness about it.

    Jama Masjid (1656)

    From the mosque we descended the large staircase to wind our way through the narrow streets of Shahjahanabad that smelled pleasantly of incense and cooking food. Much of this area had been rebuilt since the first Indian War of Independence in 1857 after which the British cleared much of this area surrounding the Red Fort. Along the way through this area, we visited an alley that appeared to be separated and more quiet than the more commercial narrow streets, learning that it was known as jeweler’s row with nine households of jewelers and a Jain temple at the end of these street.

    Jeweler's Alley, Old Delhi

    Exiting the denser areas, we arrived at Chandni Chowk or “Moonlight Square,” the central street of Shahjahanabad that leads to the main gateway of the Red Fort. Before reaching the fort, we stopped briefly to see the courtyard of an abandonedhaveli or urban palace, such as those discussed by Jyoti Hosagrahar in her book Indigenous Modernities: Negotiating Architecture and Urbanism (London: Routledge, 2005).

    Chandni Chowk

    19th-century Haveli, Chandni Chowk

    We continued along Chandni Chowk to the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort, built by Shah Jahan after he returned to Delhi from Agra in the mid-seventeenth century. Anubha led us through the various buildings of the fort, discussing each building’s function and significance in courtly life.

    Red Fort, Lahori Gate (1639-48)

    Departing Old Delhi, we ended our tours for the day at Qutb Minar, the oldest city in Delhi, established during the late twelfth century by some of the first Muslim conquerers in India. Led by Mahmud Ghurid from central Asia, this ruler established the area but did not stay in Delhi, leaving his “slaves” to rule these new territories. Joining us at this site, Tapan Chakravarty (Professor of Interior Architecture and Design at Pearl Academy of Fashion in Delhi) led us through the ruins from the Quwwat-al-Islam (Might of Islam) mosque to the enormous Qutb Minar and the madrasa on the edges of the complex. It was a site that I had been looking forward to enormously, and I was not disappointed in seeing the semi-erased faces on the re-used Hindu-temple capitals in the mosque. It was the epitome of intersection of cultures that draws my interest so intently.

    Qutb Minar and Quwwat al-Islam Mosque (begun 1199)

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  • Dhaka: Day 4

    Jan 1, 2012
    by Gretta Tritch Roman on January 1, 2012

    What an extraordinary way to spend the first day of a new year: at the Parliament Building designed by Louis I. Kahn. We began the tour at the bottom of the grand, expansive stair that extends southward toward the old city, looking up to that singular iconic form that each of us already knew well from photographs.

    Louis I. Kahn: Parliament Building (1962-84)

    However, its austerity belies the tumultuous history that both marks and forms its making over the more than twenty years of construction (1962-84). In fact, there is little in Bangladesh that isn’t both marked and formed by the same circumstances and consequences of Partition in 1947. Before we ascended toward the building, Adnan discussed the beginning of this complex and the imbalance of power between West Pakistan (where the new nation’s capital was located) and East Pakistan. In attempting to placate brewing nationalist sentiment in Bengal, the government, located in West Pakistan, the provincial capital complex was proposed for Dhaka. Of course, within the next decade, East Pakistan did gain independence and the complex became the center of the new democracy and an emblem of the region’s struggle to nationhood. Adnan also discussed the choice of Louis Khan as architect, noting the earlier invitations to both Le Corbusier and Aalto.

    Looking south toward the city from the Parliament Building

    Front entrance, public basement entrance below

    Professor Shamsul Wares joined us on the tour as we entered the building from the basement since the front doors of the building remained closed. We began the tour of the interior in the library, a space that is supported by a single column reminiscent of the Diwan-i-Khas at Fatehpur Sikri.


    As we moved through the ambulatory spaces around the assembly chamber, the walls continued to animate with the formal plays of shapes and light. Throughout the building, we were surprisingly allowed to photograph — a treat none of us really expected (I think) and an allowance made only very rarely if ever in the past twenty years! (To our ambassador, Dan Mozena, and Adnan we have to thank for their requests and charm!)

    The only space we could not photograph was the assembly chamber. The height of the room was certainly impressive, and only made more so by the dramatic winter sun that came through the hidden windows under the umbrella concrete canopy. Professor Zainab Faruquin Ali who had given a presentation on the climatic efficiency of the building two nights earlier joined us on the tour as well and, also a praised singer, sang the national anthem demonstrating the clarity of the acoustics in the room. After a visiting the prayer room, we were treated to a quick snack and chai in the canteen area of the building.

    Prayer Space

    We spent most of the early afternoon exploring the remainder of the building’s spaces, moving to the exterior at the rear and at the water level looking onto the red-brick Parliament Hostels.

    We ended the tour at the entrance hall which is soon to become the museum and gift shop, once the building is reopened for public tours, and we were especially surprised when our hosts offered to open the front doors for us to exit — another allowance that I believe is extraordinarily rare!

    After lunch we toured the hospital designed by Kahn and within the master plan of the capital complex. Like the Parliament building, the exterior is composed of layers of walls with geometric openings that change as you move by and through them. The interior spaces were organized around courtyards that offered respite from the traffic and noise of the streets.

    Louis I. Kahn: Suhrawardi Hospital, Sher-e-Bangla Nagar

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  • Dhaka: Day 3

    Dec 31, 2011
    by Gretta Tritch Roman on December 31, 2011

    Today we left the city to drive north. Our destination was about 75 miles from Dhaka, and as we drove through the diplomatic zone toward the edges, the landscape continuously changed. We moved from the density of north-central Dhaka to the more open but also walled compounds of embassies and diplomat residences. It was difficult to determine when we actually left Dhaka (as it is in most cities). The height of buildings certainly decreased, and the shops, packed closely together, were noticeably directed at the construction industry that was booming on the edges. The focus of building appeared to be mostly garment factories that rose anywhere from four to ten stories. As buildings gave way to fields, I began to get a sense of the agricultural backbone of Bangladesh that I had heard about but could hardly experience within Dhaka. Interspersed among the fisheries and the rice fields were brick kilns with massive amounts of bricks set out on the flat plain to dry before firing. We passed through several small villages along the way narrowly dodging both cycle and auto rickshaws, carts, other tour busses, and tractors.

    Upon arriving in Mymensingh, we disembarked the bus on the Bangladesh Agricultural University campus at the Academic Building designed by Paul Rudolph between 1965-75. After meeting several faculty members in the atrium of the building, Adnan discussed the history of the university and its role in the development of higher education in Bangladesh after Partition in 1947. The building of the university campus interestingly occurred just before, during, and after the independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. In the context of a what Adnan described as the “diplomatic theatrics of the Cold War” the Bangladesh Agricultural University at Mymensingh was one among many institutional projects in East Pakistan that received aid from the United States (mostly to counter any potential influence from the USSR). In Bangladesh, such institutions were seen more as a part of a nationalist project that promoted education in the region.

    Paul Rudolph: Academic Building, Bangladesh Agricultural University (1965-75)

    The Academic Building demonstrated Rudolph’s sense of modernism translated to tropical climates. Organized around a large central courtyard, the building’s classrooms and offices all opened to this space. The stairs served as circulation and connection across the courtyard as well as sculptural bookends of sorts to the long outdoor space.

    Academic Building, Atrium

    The faculty we met discussed the building in terms of its climatic considerations, noting that many of the devices designed by Rudolph worked well such as the orientation of the building to the prevailing north/south breezes for continuous airflow and the louvres on the classroom windows that allowed cross-ventilation. But, they also noted that it was nearly uninhabitable during the monsoon season when the courtyard’s central circulation offered little protection from the heavy rains. Additionally, the salinity in this rain water tended to cause the exposed bricks of the building to disintegrate and break apart. (The interior of the courtyard had obviously been painted a bright yellow to counter this problem as well as to promote more light.)

    Academic Building

    We walked from the Academic Building to the nearby Library Building, designed by Richard Neutra a couple of years before Rudolph was invited to design the larger master plan of the campus and some of the more prominent buildings.

    Richard Neutra: Library, Bangladesh Agricultural University (1965-75)

    The building was a more orthodox modernism, and in discussing the facility with some of the library patrons we learned that many people preferred this building, especially in the monsoon season. Since we were there at the most pleasurable time of the year with neither extensive heat or rain, all of these observations seemed hard to imagine. Nonetheless, it became apparent that Rudolph’s sense of tropical adaptation was suited best for only a short time of the year.

    Library, Central Stair

    After a very interesting meeting with the vice-chancellor of the university with whom members of our group discussed preservation and significance of the campus buildings, we visited a student dormitory, also designed by Rudolph. The primary organizational feature of these buildings were, too, the courtyard.

    Paul Rudolph: Dormitory, Bangladesh Agricultural University

    Dormitory Courtyard

    The last building we visited before leaving Mymensingh was the Auditorium (designed by Rudolph) which was designed to hold around 1700 people, making it one of the largest in Bangladesh.

    Paul Rudolph: Auditorium, Bangladesh Agricultural University (1965-75)

    The drive back to Dhaka began very pleasant as we watched the sun set over the fields and Marc Goldstein shared some of his personal experiences as a student and friend of Louis Kahn in New Haven. Tomorrow is our day to see the Parliament building, but that seemed to be nearly unattainable as we sat in the notorious traffic outside Dhaka for hours. Finally reaching the hotel, we (somewhat exhausted but nevertheless in good spirits) toasted in the new year over a much anticipated and tasty dinner.

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  • Dhaka: Day 2

    Dec 30, 2011
    by Gretta Tritch Roman on December 30, 2011

    We began the morning on a bridge crossing the Buriganga River, the birthplace of Dhaka. The city, once a small Mughal trade outpost in the seventeenth century, expanded dramatically as Adnan explained, when the Mughal governor, Islam Khan Chishti, made Dhaka the new provincial capital of Bengal in 1610.

    Buriganga River

    The subahdar, Chishti, came to the area likely to establish landholdings in the richly fertile region and, following Richard Eaton’s thesis, the establishment of Islam as the predominant religion flourished on this frontier of the Mughal empire. Without becoming too mired in the debate, Eaton dismisses many of the reasons put forward to explain the phenomenon of a largely Muslim population that is surrounded on all sides by Hindu and Buddhist regions. Suffice it to say, according to Eaton, Islam grew in the region as an integral part of an agriculturally developing Bengal rather than a product of forced conversion or mass migration. [See Richard Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier, 1204-1760 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996)]

    Old Dhaka

    Throughout the following centuries the city grew northward from the river, a trend that continues, but remnants of Old Dhaka remain in the narrow, twisted corridors of buildings near the river. As it was a Friday in a predominantly Muslim city, most of the shops had not opened, and the streets were quiet with only a few people moving about on early morning errands. It was most likely a false impression of the normal weekday in old Dhaka, but nonetheless we could gain a sense of the layers of residential living, commercial activities, and religious shrines, temples and mosques that are so common. Although the capital of the Bengal province shifted to Murshidabad in the early eighteenth century, trade continued to be a vital part of Dhaka’s economy. Evidence of its global nature remains in some of the French and Portuguese street names spotting the old city as well as monuments such as the Armenian Church we visited. Begun in 1791, the church remains in use behind the low walls that separate the cemetery from the street.

    Armenian Church (begun 1781)

    Armenian Church Cemetery and Gate

    Next, we walked back toward the river to Ahsan Manzil, built by Nawab Khwaja Abdul Goni in 1872 and named after his son. Though the building was closed because it was Friday, we were allowed to enter the grounds and see the exterior of the palace complex. Most striking was the sprawling staircase that extended toward the river from the main building.

    Nawab Khwaja Abdul Goni: Ahsan Manzil (1872)

    After some difficulty but with an enormous amount of skill, our bus driver wove through the old streets, taking us farther north in the city to Dhaka University. Our first stop was Curzon Hall (1904), an interesting comparison to Ahsan Manzil. Built by the British as a town hall for the Viceroy (though this is debated by some who claim the building was originally the library for Dhaka University), the building of Curzon Hall marks the reaction to the growing nationalist sentiments in Bengal at the turn of the twentieth century.

    Curzon Hall, Dhaka University (1904)

    Adnan explained that the decision to partition Bengal into West Bengal and East Bengal/Assam (1905-11) was a strategic administrative tool both to divide the region and to monitor such growing nationalism. He pointed out the symmetry of the plan combined with the popular Indo-Saracenic aesthetic that culled from various Mughal elements. And, here again, we see the Bengali elements, such as the verandah, once imported by Mughal emperors to North India, now returned to Bengal translated and overlaid with political and cultural subtexts.

    We continued on to the Teacher-Student Center (1962) by Constantinos Doxiadis to find an alumni reception that spilled into the wonderful interior green mall of the complex. Surrounded by a cafeteria and guest house, an auditorium, and multi-storied student union, this mall was a welcomed relaxing space in the bustling city outside its walls. Most impressive about the complex was how Doxiadis responded to the climatic conditions of the region within the aesthetics of modernism.

    Teacher Student Center, Dhaka University

    The relationship between interior and exterior, however, was even more pronounced and fluid in Muzaharul Islam’s College of Arts and Crafts (1953-55). The language of modernism here was certainly more poignant after learning Islam’s expectations of it. Islam went to the University of Oregon only a few years after the India/Pakistan Partition in 1947. Like Gandhi, he did not agree that religion should be the basis of separation and promoted the austerity of modernism as an architectural language free of any such associations. The underlying assumption, as Adnan so rightly pointed out, is the belief that architecture can influence society. Islam is a powerful figure in Bengali modern architecture whose buildings and influence are everywhere in the city.

    Muzaharul Islam: College of Arts and Crafts, Dhaka University (1953-55)

    After lunch, we visited the National Museum, which was packed on this Friday afternoon with families and teenagers. In the evening, we were treated to a variety of presentations at BRAC University. The President of the Institute of Architects Bangladesh, Mobasher Hussein, welcomed us both to the reception and more largely to the country of Bangladesh. SAH Representative, Ken Breisch, responded with gratitude and kind words. The US Ambassador, Dan Mozena, talked about the magic of Bangladesh and why the country is important to the US. Vice-Chancellor of BRAC University, Anin Shah, spoke about water issues the country faces. Professor Abu Sayeed M. Ahmed (who had joined us earlier in the day) gave an overview of Bengal architectural history, and Professor Parween Hassan followed with a discussion of the architectural language that has developed in Bengal. Professor Shamsul Wares (recognizable to our audience from the movie, My Architect) discussed contemporary architecture in Bangladesh. Professor Zainab Faruquin Ali ended the presentations with her discussion of the environmental point of view of Louis Kahn’s Assembly Building, which we are to visit the day after tomorrow.

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  • Three Capitals Study Tour — Dhaka: Day 1

    Dec 29, 2011
    by Gretta Tritch Roman on December 29, 2011

    I arrived in Dhaka in the early evening welcomed by hearty mosquitoes and a beautifully foggy purple and orange sky. On the short (distance-wise) ride from the airport to the hotel, I immediately had a sense of the density that composed the city. Dhaka’s population, stated officially to be around 15 million people within 618 square miles (that is roughly 24,272 people per square mile), is nearly unfathomable, and the traffic that is an inevitable result was a succinct introduction to the city. Superficially, the street seemed like madness, chaos, a planner’s nightmare. But, as we inched along beside every imaginable mode of transport, I realized: I was experiencing a sort of order that was entirely unfamiliar. Vehicles were within centimeters of one another, and yet drivers and pedestrians seemed to trust one another that nothing would touch. There were no scrapes or dents near us (though I am sure that can’t be too uncommon of a circumstance in such traffic), and I witnessed no road-rage. Perhaps this sort of traffic is so common, it isn’t worth the energy expended to yell or slam fists on the steering wheel.

    We arrived at the hotel a few hours later, missing the welcome dinner. Introductions among the group would have to wait until tomorrow. But, to quickly introduce myself here, I am a second-year Ph.D. student in Art History at the Pennsylvania State University. With the generous award of the Scott Opler Travel Fellowship by the SAH, I was able to join this incredible tour to Bangladesh and India organized and masterfully led by Adnan Morshed (Associate Professor, School of Architecture and Planning at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC) and Anubha Kakroo (Architect and Design Consultant, New Delhi). My research interests have focused on issues surrounding eclecticism in architecture, from commercial buildings in nineteenth-century America to imperial palaces of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century South Asia. Most intriguing about this research has been exploring the cultural exchanges demonstrated in such design choices, and it was this factor that prompted my interest in this particular study tour. The designs of the three capitals — Dhaka, New Delhi, and Chandigarh — all point to often delicate and contentious issues evident in the intersections of culture. Though I have had the fortune to study these cities as a part of my graduate education, little will compare to actually visiting them, walking the streets and boulevards, and standing inside these iconic buildings.

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  • 48 Hours in Detroit

    Nov 17, 2011

     Last weekend SAH staff members Alexandra  MarkiewiczKara Elliott-Ortega, and frequent SAH  photographer David Schalliol ventured to Detroit.  Though  Kara and David have frequently visited the  city since they lived there in the summer of 2009, they  were excited to explore the new community and  economic  developments they had heard about.  Alexandra had spent time in the Detroit area when  she was younger, but this was her first trip dedicated  to the city. It certainly  did not disappoint, as the crew  happened upon exciting cultural, economic, and  architectural projects both new and old!

    Upon arrival late Friday night, we stopped at Motor City Brewing Works for some delicious oven baked pizzas and home brewed beers. MCBW anchors the Cass Corridor, a small commercial and cultural district comprised of local businesses fueled by its proximity to Wayne State. After dinner stopping briefly to see the historic homes tucked away on the cobble stoned West Canfield Avenue. Just like Astor Street in Chicago, the homes on this charming block have been intact since the 19th century. In 1970 this block became the first designated historic district in the city.

    Left: MCBW pizzas, Right: another Cass Corridor business is City Bird, a made-in-Detroit store

    The following morning we returned to the Cass Corridor to pick up some baked treats at  Avalon International Breads, a well-known Detroit bakery that advocates sustainable economics by utilizing the local food market. After enjoying our grown in Detroit breakfast we headed to Eastern Market , a historic farmers market that attracts as many as 40,000 a week from the greater Detroit area. In existence since 1891, the market serves as a hub for local farmers to sell their produce and products, including Grown in Detroit , a part of the  Garden Resource Program Collaborative that cultivates urban agriculture on eighty acres of personal and community gardens. Next we headed to Lafayette Park , a beautiful example of Mies van der Rohe town houses, built between 1961 and 1965, situated within a nineteen acre landscaped park.

    Left: Historic Shed 2 at Eastern Market, Right: Lafayette Park

    We left the more revitalized neighborhoods surrounding Wayne State and the Cass Corridor to visit the East side neighborhoods . Even though the East side is more blighted, we saw signs of community action and activity rather than the stereotypical emptiness that is typically portrayed. For example, the Hope District  is a community organization focused on providing resources, space for alternative economies, and land for urban agriculture. Located nearby the Hope District, the Heidelberg Project , founded by artist Tyree Guyton, creates an artistic environment using found objects to transform vacant lots into sites of community engagement. We ventured back to the near southwest side to see  Corktown , a neighborhood settled in the mid 1800s by Irish immigrants. We stopped at an early workers' row house, built in 1850. In the past ten years many Corktown homes have been restored and more recently a small commercial strip on Michigan Avenue has been redeveloped Slow's Bar BQ  restaurant, cocktail bar Sugar House, and Astro's  coffee shop.


                       Left: Astro's

                       Below: The Heidelberg Project 

    After lunch at the Woodbridge Pub , we headed north passing the Henry Ford Hospital (1912), designed by a number of famous Detroit architects, and parking garage (1959) designed by Albert Kahn and Associates. After passing the nearby Motown Museum (Hitsville USA) , established in 1959 as the recording studio and office for Motown Records, we visited New Center , the complex built as a secondary commercial and business center north of downtown during the population boom in the 1920s. We visited the lobby of the Fisher Building  (1928-29), an impressive skyscraper designed by Albert Kahn . The three story barrel vaulted lobby features elaborate Art Deco decoration and detailing. 


    Above: Fisher Building, GM Building (1919-23, Albert Kahn)  

    Next we visited Hamtramck , a city within Detroit originally settled by German and then Polish immigrants. Through there are still signs in Polish, the current population is only 20% Polish, with a growing influx of South and Central Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants. Later in the evening we drove through Southwest Detroit , an area with both a growing Hispanic population and a number of working industrial sites. 

    Left: Hamtramck Disneyland is a backyard art project by local Dmytro Szylak, Right: Ford Hospital Parking Garage 

    On Sunday we visited the Yamasaki buildings at Wayne State and the Detroit Cultural Center, which includes the Detroit Public LibraryDetroit Institute of Arts (1923-27) designed by Paul Philippe Cret, and the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit (MOCAD). After we visited "Detroit Revealed," a photography exhibit at the DIA and the new exhibits at MOCAD, we stopped in Leopold's, an independent book store located near the DIA. 

    After a great exploratory weekend we are looking forward to returning to Detroit for the Annual Meeting! Feel free post any questions about visiting Detroit in the comments.

    Above, the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA), The McGregor Memorial Conference Center (1958, Minoru Yamasaki

    Visit some of these locations at the Annual Meeting:

    Lafayette Park featured in Lafayette Park Tour

    Saturday, April 21, 2012, 1:00-4:00 pm

    Corktown featured in Corktown Tour
    Thursday, April 19, 12:00-1:30pm 

    New Center/Fisher Building< featured in Art Deco in Detroit Tour
    Saturday, April 21, 1:00-4:00pm

    Wayne State Yamasaki Buildings< featured in Minoru Yamasaki Tour 
    Saturday, April 21, 1:00-5:00pm

    Detroit Cultural Center (Detroit Public Library/ Detroit Institute of Arts) featured in Cultural Center Historic District Tour ,  Thursday, April 19, 12:00-1:30pm 

    SAH Awards Reception hosted at the McGregor Center
    Thursday, April 19, 6:30-7:30pm
    SAH Awards Ceremony hosted at the Detroit Public Library
    Thursday, April 19, 7:45- 8:30pm

    This trip was made possible thanks to SAH, David Schalliol, and a car - if you want to visit some of these sites that are not on the Annual Meeting tours, we recommend renting a vehicle!

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  • No More Plan B by Anthony T. Grafton and Jim Grossman

    Oct 11, 2011

     New graduate students file in. They're nervous, they're  eager, they don't know quite what to expect. If the director  of graduate studies does the job well, the annual  orientation ritual will nourish their anticipation while  allaying their anxieties. Still, out of a sense of  responsibility, faculty members should keep one source  of reasonable trepidation on the table: the job market. It  is what it is, and new students need to enter with their  eyes open to it.

     But open to what? And what is the "it" that is the job  market for historians? Academe alone? That is what we say when we offer statistics on placement. That is what we say when the department placement officer proffers the annual warning that ye who enter here do so at your own peril. Most orientations include a reference-in the best cases even some focus-on "alternative" careers. But the default, the hope, the gold ring, is the tenure-track position.

    A curious irony. On the one hand, the intellectual experience that awaits our students is probably richer now than it has ever been. Traditional core fields like political and diplomatic history are experiencing revivals, new fields like transnational history are expanding, and new methods are being forged and honed. The old economy of scarcity that limited research in the early years of graduate school to the stacks of one's own university library has made way for a digital Land of Cockaigne. Verbal, visual, and aural sources from dozens of cultures crowd the screen of anyone enrolled at a university.

    Read the rest of this article at The Chronicle for Higher Education website

    photo of Henry Ford Museum by David Schalliol

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  • Do 'the Risky Thing' in Digital Humanities by Kathleen Fitzpatrick

    Sep 27, 2011

    Last spring, I gave a talk on the digital future of scholarly publishing at the humanities center of a large research university. The crowd was small but engaged, and the discussion afterward was challenging and thoughtful. Near the end, however, a young woman asked a question that threw me for a second. "I'm a grad student and starting my dissertation," she said, "and while I want to do a digital project that would make my argument in an innovative form, I know the safe thing to do is to be conservative, to write something traditional and leave experimentation for later. What would you advise?"

    "Do the risky thing," I blurted, before my scruples intervened in the split second between phrases. My concerns went like this: I'm not her dissertation director; I don't want to create conflict in her progress toward her degree; I don't want to set up unreasonable expectations about what her department will actually support. And so my immediate qualification: "Make sure that someone's got your back, but do the risky thing."

    New forms of digital scholarship have received a great deal of attention across the humanities in the last few years, and from the coverage-in The Chronicle, The New York Times, and elsewhere-you would think the work had become prominent enough that it would no longer be necessary for a junior scholar to ask about the need to defend it. Digital humanities seem to have reached a critical mass of acceptance within academe, helped in no small part by groups like the Modern Language Association, whose past president, Sidonie Smith, is leading an investigation of future forms of the dissertation, and whose Committee on Information Technology is working on issues surrounding the review of digital scholarship for tenure and promotion. Yet such working groups are still working for a reason.

    Read the rest of this article as it originally appeared on The Chronicle of Higher Education (

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  • The Art of Advocacy: The Museum as Design Laboratory by Barry Bergdoll

    Sep 16, 2011

     Since 2007, when I ventured out of the academy to take  the reins of the Department of Architecture and Design at  the Museum of Modern Art, we have traversed an  unexpected set of economic, social and environmental  challenges in which the centrality of the design  professions has become manifestly clear, even as  larger forces - in which designers are too often complicit  - act to marginalize the disciplines of architecture,  landscape architecture, urban planning, design and the  fine arts. Having worked side-by-side with diverse  professionals, I am more than ever convinced that a  cooperative, multidisciplinary approach is fundamental to the future vitality of the field - and essential if designers are to contribute to solving the enormous problems of our day. At MoMA we have been trying to discover meaningful positions and prospects even as practitioners have been jolted into discussion of just where the moral compass should be set.

    The horizon of socioeconomic expectations - the matrix in which decisions were made and values assessed - of the early years of the new millennium seems distant today; new uncertainties prevail in the second decade of this now not-so-new century. What seemed a few years ago to be the emerging paradigms - the rapid maturation of digital fabrication, an explosion of new materials, a widespread acceptance of the priority of sustainability, a slowly reawakening ethos of social responsibility - are being submitted to intensive questioning from perspectives that are gaining daily in urgency.

    Continue reading "The Art of Advocacy: The Museum as Design Laboratory" on Places [at] Design Observer.

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  • European Heritage Days by Stephane Kirkland

    Sep 8, 2011

    In the early 1980s, the newly-arrived Socialist government, under the impetus of its Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, launched two events for mass access to culture. The first, in 1982, was the Fête de la Musique - since then, every year on June 21st, all sorts of people of various musical ability hit the streets and do their thing. The second, in 1984, was the Open House Days in France's historical monuments. This has gone on to be an extraordinarily successful event, now expanded to all of Europe and called the European Heritage Days, or Journées Européennes du Patrimoine.

    The JEP are a superb opportunity to raise awareness of our heritage and to visit many places that are ordinarily off limits. It is always impressive to see the enthusiasm with which people take part in this, with long lines in many locations and small groups trecking to visit some truly unusual locations in others.

    If you happen to be in France on the date (this year it will be September 17th and 18th) you should absolutely make it a point to do something special. You can search the fill list of locations, but here are some ideas:

    Fondation Eugène Napoléon
    : created at the initiative of Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie, designed by Jacques-Ignace Hittorff, it is usually not accessible. There is a chapel and gardens that are hidden from the street. 

    The Hôtel de Lauzun
     on the Île Saint-Louis is a place you would ordinarily not even notice, much less visit. Despite its discrete entrance, it is a seventeenth century residence designed by the great architect Louis Le Vau. The interiors are famous - there is a reproduction among the period rooms at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the nineteenth century, Baudelaire and Gautier lived in this house - there will be readings of texts by Gautier for those waiting in line. 

    The Suez House was the property of the Suez company, which merged with Gaz de France a few years ago. It houses collections relating to the creation of the Suez Canal in 1869 and the visionary behind the canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps. Visitors will have access to the grand staircase, library, and board room and to the collections. There will be screenings of films about the canal and readings and games for kids. 

    In Paris, the Cité de Chaillot, the architecture museum, is organizing many activities, including a full schedule of events and screening.

    If you are elsewhere in France, you can visit the baths of Plombières-le-Bains, the villa of Achille Fould in Tarbes, or many other interesting - and ordinarily inaccessible - places.

    This concept has proven extraordinarily successful elsewhere: the English Heritage Trust organizes the immensely popular Heritage Open Days; the Tag des offenen Denkmals was the opportunity for 4.5 million people to visit Germany's monuments last year; and the Dutch Open Monumentendag is celebrating its 25th edition. It would be wonderful to see a similar large-scale celebration of our shared cultural heritage in the United States.


    This post originally appeared on

    Want to see your blog post on SAH Communities? Email Kara Elliott-Ortega at

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  • Learned Society 2.0 by Dianne Harris

    Sep 1, 2011

     When I was nominated by my peers in 2006 to  become an executive officer for the Society of  Architectural Historians (SAH), I entered into a six-  year commitment that would culminate in serving a  two-year term as president. At the time of my  nomination, I agreed to assist in the myriad  operations of a medium-sized learned society that  was founded in 1940, had approximately 2,300 i  individual members, and another 900 institutions that  joined primarily to subscribe to our journal, the  Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians  (JSAH). With headquarters in a historic Chicago  house, and a full-time staff of five people, I imagined  myself helping to direct the intellectual course of the  field to which I was then, and remain now,  passionately devoted: the study of the history of the  helping to direct and oversee what were then the  major initiatives of the society: production of the leading scholarly journal in our field and a book series, the management of our study tour program, and oversight for our annual meeting. Although the SAH had been running a listserv for its members for many years, it was still in 2006 pretty much what we might call a "Learned Society 1.0," which is to say that the society was not engaging with its members or the public through any kind of interactive social networking tools or interactive web technologies, and we still imagined our publications as we had for decades. The only major adjustment our journal had seen up to that point was its availability in pdf format through JSTOR, but only issues that were more than three years old could be accessed as pdf files through JSTOR.

    What I didn't quite imagine in 2006 was that I would become immersed, along with many of my colleagues, in the development of a set of online academic resources designed to enhance and revolutionize the ways scholars in my field conduct research, teach, and produce scholarship. At that time, I had only recently become aware of the field of digital humanities. By 2011, I-along with some of my colleagues--had become a full-fledged digital humanist. How did this happen, and what has it meant for my scholarly society? More broadly, what has been, and what will be, the impact of the digital revolution in the humanities for scholarly and learned societies whose missions support the humanities and arts-related disciplines? What I hope to highlight here is that digital capacities have been in alignment with and have allowed the SAH to fulfill and to further its mission. Indeed, the SAH has become a leading scholarly society in digital humanities innovation. But it is also important to note that there are sometimes significant gaps that exists between the experiential backgrounds, skill sets, and resources of scholarly societies and their members who engage in these projects, and in the ability to attain productive outcomes when engaging in digital humanities projects of varying types. My point is that these gaps can be overcome, but it is important to acknowledge the challenges they can present if one begins such projects unaware.

    Before I begin recounting the SAH's involvement in digital humanities project development, I should note that learned societies face specific challenges that are unlike those posed to individual scholars located in universities who serve as principal investigators on funded research projects. Learned societies typically do not employ librarians, archivists, or computer programmers; they tend not to be able to house and maintain multiple computer servers that can host a significant digital project; as non-profits, they tend to run on lean budgets. If they have paid staff, it is generally a small staff. If they have endowment funds, they tend to be earmarked for fellowship support and traditional forms of publication support. Their journals tend to be run by academic editors whose work is largely subsidized by their home institution rather than by the learned society. In the humanities, they tend not to have large numbers of members who have knowledge of or keep current with developments in digital technologies. So learned societies that engage in these projects face very specific sets of conditions, just as they may also be well-positioned to lead the way in digital innovation. For SAH, all these conditions applied seven years ago, but as I will explain, much has changed as we have become a learned society 2.0.

    The entrée for the SAH into the digital world came in 1994 when one of our members from Bryn Mawr College, Jeffrey Cohen, initiated a digital image exchange program that he launched on the society's website. Since all architectural historians heavily rely on images for teaching and research, Cohen's idea was to create a shared, if informal repository, for digital images that could be used by anyone who accessed the site. The SAH Image Exchange (as it came to be known) existed essentially as a bucket into which anyone could contribute an image with limited metadata that could then be retrieved and downloaded from the site. It existed without any outside financial support, and was produced without the assistance of librarians or programmers. In hindsight, Cohen's idea was truly visionary. The creation of the Image Exchange was also a mammoth task because he digitized and uploaded hundreds of images and their metadata individually, all by himself . As an early adopter of digital image technology, he saw the potentials it held for scholars in a range of fields, including our own, when many others did not yet share that same vision.

    Cohen's SAH Image Exchange eventually captured the attention of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. As Don Waters, the Digital Humanities Program Officer for the Mellon Foundation commented in a meeting in May, Cohen's SAH Image Exchange served as the basis for the initial development of what has become one of the Foundation's most successful (and now independently operating) incubated projects: ARTstor, a rich digital image library available by subscription to institutions.[1] ARTstor quickly became a substantial and useful archive for those who teach and study painting, drawing, and sculpture. But by 2005, it was far less useful for architectural, urban, and landscape historians, despite its origins in architectural history. At the same time, the Image Exchange lived on the SAH website, a relatively small collection of small image files that were not easily searchable, and not easily controlled for image quality or metadata. In its original form, theSAH Image Exchange simply wasn't sustainable because it was built before issues of scalability, searchability, and interoperability could be developed.

    Between 2006 and 2008, the SAH received four Mellon Foundation grants to develop two projects. The first two grants were for development of a multi-media online platform for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, a project led by Hilary Ballon (then Columbia University) and Mariët Westermann (then NYU) and led to fruition by Hilary Ballon (now NYU at Abu Dhabi) and David Brownlee (University of Pennsylvania). First published by the University of California Press, the JSAH Online launched in March of 2010, supporting the publication of high-resolution zoom-able color images, video clips, audio files, QTVR panoramas, and the integration of 3D models with Google Earth maps. As the very first of its kind, it was adopted (within one year's time!) by JSTOR and is now widely available in their Current Scholarship Program as a platform that can be adopted for use by other scholarly journals that rely on comparative images and multi-media content to convey an argument.

    The third and fourth Mellon grants had an even more ambitious charge: to develop a 21st century SAH Image Exchange--a robust digital image archive that would allow members of the Society to upload and share their images but in a controlled environment and with detailed metadata. The goal was to produce a new collaborative model that partnered scholars with visual resource and architecture librarians, initially from three universities (Brown, MIT, and UVA). Working with ARTstor as our technology host and partner, SAH crossed a new threshold, entering a world of which we knew relatively little, to create what has become known as SAHARA: the Society of Architectural Historians Architecture Resources Archive. The core of the SAH development team now includes Pauline Saliga and Dietrich Neumann (Co-PIs), Dianne Harris (Editor-in-Chief), Anne Whiteside (Project Director), Allison Benedetti (Project Manager), Jeffrey Cohen, Sandy Isenstadt, Jolene de Verges ,and Jackie Spafford (Editorial Executive Committee Members).

    The creation of SAHARA took place over several years-indeed that work continues-- and resulted from the collaborative efforts of a team of SAH members, university librarians, and the ARTstor staff. Together, we created a specialized tool (called IMATA) that would allow SAH members to upload and catalog their own images. The resultant metadata is especially rich, allowing searches tailored specifically to the needs of scholars in our fields. It also includes a field that permits the entry of a scholarly essay that can be written to address a specific aspect or aspects of an image. Once the images are uploaded, they appear in the Members Collection of SAHARA, but they are also sorted behind the scenes into editor's "buckets" that were designed as part of an editorial tool (called SPOT). SAHARA area editors-pairs of scholars and librarians with subject area expertise-then review the metadata, the image quality, and any accompanying commentary (the essays). If they pass this peer-review process, the images are elevated and published to the SAHARA Editor's Choice collection. That content is also shared with the ARTstor Digital Library.

    In creating this tool, the SAH forged a new model of collaboration between scholars and librarians; it created a new form of peer-reviewed, digital scholarly publication; and it created a useful resource for its members. The new model encouraged SAH members and librarians at multiple institutions to participate, furthering the collaborative aspects of collection building. It also created the beta version for ARTstor's emerging platform known as Shared Shelf, which uses a revised version of the SAHARA ingest tool (IMATA) to allow ARTstor Shared Shelf subscribers to upload and share their images across a campus and potentially across institutional boundaries.

    What began as projects for a medium-sized scholarly society then, ended up becoming the beta versions for a new multi-media publishing platform that can now serve scholars across academe, and a new form of image archive that can also potentially serve faculty and students in universities around the world. And SAH is now in the process of developing a third digital resource that is funded by NEH and is being created in collaboration with the University of Virginia Press, one that builds on our successful print series, the Buildings of the United States and that will launch next year as SAH Archipedia. We've also created a network of online communities for our members known as "SAH Communities" using the social networking tool "Groupsites," and we have used Microsoft QR tags at our annual meetings to allow members using their web-enabled cell phones to take self-guided architectural tours of the cities in which we meet.

    All of this has been very exciting, and there is evidence that our digital projects have invigorated our members. The projects have dramatically increased the society's ability to reach out to the general public and to make more visible the intellectual work of the society and its members. But the projects also require the allocation of various kinds of resources that include large amounts of time that must be given by our very small paid staff and by ranks of devoted SAH members and librarians who volunteer their time as editors, as contributors, and as key actors in the creative team. They require the acquisition of new language skills (a few of us at the SAH now possess increasing, if still limited, fluency in the language of computer programming), the ability to communicate with people who work in the technology/digital world, particular kinds of business skills, creative/design skills, and the ability to work across new disciplinary terrains. But mostly, they require time and money, two things that are often in limited supply within scholarly societies. It takes time and money to create these new digital tools, but it also takes time and money to sustain them. Ideally, they are or will rapidly become self-sustaining, but making them so presents still more challenges to the learned societies who choose this digital path. If we examine each of these in some detail, it becomes clear that engagement in the digital world comes at a price for learned societies, one they will have to weigh before seriously considering engagement with digital tool-building. But it also brings significant benefits to learned society members and positions those societies differently than in the past.


    Read the rest of this post as originally published on the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) website:

    Dianne Harris is the President of the Society of Architectural Historians, the Director of Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities, and a professor at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

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  • Buildings of Hawaii by Don Hibbard

    Jul 22, 2011

    SAH's most recent addition to the Buildings of the United States series, Don Hibbard's Buildings of Hawaii, provides an in-depth examination of Hawaii's built environment against the background of the state's unique historical context. Hibbard examines the melding of architectural styles including Japanese temples, Chinese society halls, and western styled buildings. An excerpt about the development of Hawaiian Roofs:

    "The 1920s and 1930s were a time when consideration of Hawaii's strong sense of place- its environment, local materials, and multicultural traditions- coalesced in a regional architectural movement. Hawaii- raised architect C. W. "Pop" Dickey helped develop this special architecture along with members of Honolulu's design community who designed such buildings as Hart Wood's First Chinese Church of Christ and First Church of Christ Scientist, Betram Goodhue and Associates' Honolulu Academy of Arts, Claude Stiehl's Church of the Crossroads, and Harry Bent's Pineapple Research Institute.

    In 1926, Dickey had returned home after a twenty-year hiatus in California. He reestablished his architectural partnership with Hart Wood and obtained as one of his first commissions three now demolished cottages on the grounds of the Halekulani Hotel. With the construction of these modest buildings, Dickey introduced to Hawaii a new, regionally appropriate architectural design. At the time, he noted in the Honolulu Advertiser on March 14, 1926, "I believe that I have achieved a distinctive Hawaiian type of architecture. The cottages seem to fit the landscape. They are simply designed, gathering character from the roof." These simple, wood cottages featured screened lanai, lava-rock footings and columns, and double-pitched hipped roofs. The last, with their characteristic break at the eave line, provided protection from the sun and rain while allowing for convenient openings of casement windows. Dickey would use this form on many subsequent buildings, and it became known in the Islands as the "Dickey" or "Hawaiian-style" roof. He claimed the roof was inspired by Hawaiian thatched houses, but a more direct prototype may have been the Waioli Mission Hall on the island of Kauai, built by Dickey's grandfather William P. Alexander and restored by Dickey and Wood in 1921.

    The style introduced by Dickey in the Halekulani cottages caught on quickly, as witnessed by the similar styling of the Niumalu Hotel (demolished) as early as 1927. Over the next ten to fifteen years, the form was used for libraries, government offices, commercial enterprises, and houses. Dickey utilized the picturesque roofline in a number of his buildings including the Wailuku Library, the Territorial Building in Wailuku, the Alexander and Baldwin Building, and U.S. Immigration Station. In addition, the building supply firm Lewers and Cooke helped popularize the form, with its building catalogue expounding the appropriateness of the roof for Hawaii's tropical climate. The high center hip allowed for ample air space to insulate the interior from the heat of the sun. Wide overhangs shielded the windows from the sun and rain while allowing them to open to the trade winds. In an article in the February 12, 1938, edition of the Honolulu Star Bulletin, Ray Morris, Lewers, and Cooke's in-house architect, noted that "The small house... does not present many opportunities for architectural embellishment. The roof design is the only place where originality can be exercised without being obvious." With their simplicity and openness, the Hawaiian-style houses of the 1920s and 1930s are gracious reminders of this earlier time's unpretentious lifestyle and hospitality."

    From UVA Press:

    Included are Japanese temples, Chinese society halls, the only royal palaces in the United States, and vernacular single-wall building traditions of the plantation period. Not only are masterworks by Vladimir Ossipoff and Hart Wood included, but also such mainland architects as Bertram Goodhue, Julia Morgan, Ralph Adams Cram, SOM, Edward Killingsworth, and I. M. Pei. More than 250 illustrations-including photographs, maps, and drawings-give further detail to the more than 400 entries.

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  • Moral Exhibitionism and the Maison de Verre

    Robert Wiesenberger
    Jun 22, 2011

    Mr. Robert Rubin, who so generously opened his home to us this past Saturday, has asked that we not make interior photography of the Maison de Verre (MdV) freely available online. So, this blog post will be light on images. On the one hand, this is too bad: I was surprised to discover that, as much as the MdV interior has been beautifully documented in photographs, the wealth of ingenious details that abound—from the spring-loaded closures of the cabinetry, to the tiered bookshelves, to the removable chromed treads of the stairs—exceeds all the published photography I have seen.

    On the other hand, photography (and certainly not mine) would not capture the subtlety of these details, and no still medium could capture their animation— the lively way they swing, articulate and pivot along their prescribed planes and arcs. Nor could photographs suggest their remarkable feel— the close tolerances, precise weighting and positive click that the furniture and cabinetry still have after 80 years; the way the doors close slowly by themselves. And the MdV is as much a house of grand, spatial gestures, as it is of minute, artisanal details. These too escape my photographs. So it really is for the best: I will try to describe here how the MdV feels.

    The only photographs that I am able to post are of the facade, which is the aspect of the house I least want to illustrate. This is not because it is uninteresting, but rather because the MdV’s titular feature is so widely exposed. It does give me an opportunity, however, to discuss how the house has been represented photographically. Here it is, for example, as shot by François Halard, and included in Nicolai Ouroussoff’s New York Times review, “The Best House in Paris”:[1]

    Maison de Verre facade (François Halard)

    This lovely image is typical of recent representations of the home: a dead-on elevation of a monumental, glowing lantern. Yet my experience approaching the MdV that Saturday morning belied the expectations set by heroic images like these.  Passing through the unassuming street entrance to 31 Rue-St. Guillaume, and into the small courtyard, the view surprised me. It is cropped out of these photos (even more by the NYT than in Halard’s original), but the MdV only occupies about two thirds of the vertical real estate of the masonry structure into which it is inserted. Its scale feels like an almost humble intervention— except, of course, for its formal audacity.

    Facade (author)

    The dead-on treatment also collapses perspective on a house one might expect to project into the courtyard. Yet on foot it becomes clear how much the MdV is truly built into its 19th century host, complicating the narrative of a monumental modern icon. (It should be noted that the upstairs neighbors, whose refusal to vacate introduced the peculiar constructional challenge of the MdV, some years ago renovated their facade to widen the windows and jettison a mansard roof, slightly lessening the starkness of the original stylistic disparity, and bowing to the modern character of the new construction they had resisted.)

    Perhaps the greatest surprise in approaching the presumably luminous “House of Glass” is that, by the light of an overcast Parisian morning, the glass facade appears quite dull, even muddy— not far off, tonally, from the gray plaster of the adjacent wall. This quality changed with exposure to high sunlight, which emphasized the geometry of the circles inscribed within the glass brick lenses. These bricks have been replaced, after some cracking, with an approximation of the original sand-cast Nevada blocks produced by Saint-Gobain, which remain on the better-protected rear facade. The original glass has a slightly greener cast, thanks to its iron content, and creates a more intense dappling effect across a concave surface dimpled like a hammered metal bowl.

    Flood light track on facade (author)

    It is by night that the MdV famously glows. Light from within meets large floodlights attached to tracks projecting from the facade. Our tour leader, Mary Vaughn Johnson switched these lights on during the afternoon of our visit, so we could see their yellow-gold effect inside and out. Elevations of the facade foreshorten this scaffolding. In person, the projection of these tracks flanking the entry is hard to ignore, and creates the impression of approaching from behind-the-scenes of a stage set. Critics have observed not just the choreography of circulation in the MdV, but also the cinematic character of its interior.[2] It is striking, then, that even after seeing the apparatus of this home’s cinematic effects as one approaches, its immersive, dematerializing quality and intoxicating cinematic glamour are undiminished once we have set foot inside.[3]

    Entry doorbells (author)

    After ringing one of the doorbells to adapt the home’s programmatic function to the visitor (patient, guest or service call), all entrants pass down a narrow hall walled in glass to a secretary, who provides another sorting function. I will not attempt to describe the circulation of patients through Dr. Dalsace’s ground-floor medical practice in detail (he was a preeminent gynecologist, later nationally recognized for championing birth control), as it is better seen in plans. Yet I would like to comment on the remarkable choreography of privacy, professionalism and respect staged on this floor. A series of sliding doors, metal screens and different treatments of glass work as layers and veils to balance privacy and openness. Dr. Dalsace’s consultation room—backed by a double-height glass brick wall that telegraphs transparency and trust—has a desk with a rolling leaf on casters, so that he could maintain professional distance or lean in to hear patients’ privileged information, whispered in confidence. Seeing his patients out of the room, Dr. Dalsace was forced to bow deeply, as he ran the lock from high to low down its arc-shaped track.

    The most dramatic experience of the home begins when social visitors turn a sharp left down the entry hall. An ostentatiously delicate hinge mounted on the ceiling slides a semicircular screen away, and leads to the grand, ship-ladder staircase, which faces the main facade’s double-height wall of glass. Mrs. Dalsace was said to receive visitors from the landing, silhouetted before a wall of glass, as her guests climbed the wide, railing-less stairs, which drop off vertiginously to either side— cinematic to be sure. Walking up myself, and convinced no one was looking, I had the urge to throw my arms out to either side while climbing these stairs— probing the space, and perhaps mimicking a tightrope walker, as one thinks keenly of balance.

    Grand salon (Todd Eberle)

    I was not able to capture the quality of light in the grand salon, though some very fine photographs do justice to the space. Analogies to a massive cinema screen are not far off, and the diffuse yet intense quality of light made me squint by midday. The effect is of natural daylight, albeit severed from the cues or distractions of nature—”a world within a world,” as Kenneth Frampton put it. The house feels clean, with light playing off every surface, and a sense of crisp clarity even affects the acoustic space. Mary Vaughn Johnson analogized the interior atmosphere by night to a casino, as it becomes difficult to note the passage of time. We took lunch in the grand salon, sitting on Mr. Rubin’s newer furniture (most of the originals are now in the collection of the Pompidou), but still resting our drinks on Chareau’s handmade brass fan table (I searched desperately for a coaster).

    Mary urged us, during her excellent slideshow in the introduction, to resist coldly aestheticizing the house— seeing only line, light, shadow, and the industrial quality of the materials. This is surely the nature of most representations of the house, such as those of architectural photographer Todd Eberle.[4]

    Electrical detail (Todd Eberle)

    I have to confess, though, that it is difficult not to aestheticize the house in this way. The module of the glass bricks in the facade corresponds to the proportions in the furniture and even to the squares of round stud rubber flooring that resemble my childhood kitchen tiles— except these are now cracked like a rhino’s skin, with each tile progressing at a different rate of decay depending on its orginal batch of natural rubber. This geometry contributes to a sense of harmony in the house— that everything fits together in a certain way. This is what Chareau, Dalbet and Bijvoet were working out over the four-year, on-site design and construction process. The Maison de Verre reflects this precision, but never at the cost of warmth, lyricism, and even wit.

    * * *

    Before I conclude, I want to turn briefly to one significant reception of glass architecture in the modernist historiography that relates closely to the MdV, and with which I tried to square my own impressions while visiting the home.

    During the mid-1930s, Dr. Dalsace’s home served as a salon for Paris society members, Marxist intellectuals, and Surrealist artists and poets. In April of 1934 the German literary critic and philosopher Walter Benjamin, who had fled Nazi Germany for Paris, was to give a series of five talks at the MdV on German literature and the current politics of the left. The talks were canceled on short notice when Dr. Dalsace took ill, with only fragmentary notes remaining. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that Benjamin knew the MdV well, and that it contributed to his position on glass architecture.

    Shortly after fleeing Germany in 1933, Benjamin wrote the essay “Experience and Poverty.” Here he describes the social and cultural aftermath of the Great War, in which the value of experience had been destroyed in the face of unknown horror and new technology— for which man’s accumulated experience was wholly unprepared. This kind of “resetting” of experience has a virtue, he argues, in a “new, positive concept of barbarism,” for it forces the culture and its individuals to “start from scratch; to make a new start; to make a little go a long way.”

    Benjamin takes architecture as a prime example of this new start. Deeply influenced by Sigfried Giedion’s book Building in France, Building in Iron, Building in Ferroconcrete of 1928, Benjamin singles out the new “constructors,” like those at the Dessau Bauhaus, Le Corbusier, and Adolf Loos (or artists “modeling themselves on the engineering spirit” like Paul Klee) as addressing this new condition. Benjamin champions modern materials like iron and glass— crucially put to modern formal uses, and rejects the decorated, historicist, bourgeois styles of the 19th century.

    In particular, he celebrates the utopian writer Paul Scheerbart as a prophet of the new potential of glass architecture. Scheerbart dedicates his 1914 work Glass Architecture to the expressionist architect Bruno Taut, who in turn dedicates his 1914Glashaus pavilion in Cologne to Scheerbart. (Scheerbart’s prophecies, which rhyme better but are no less eccentric in German, are emblazoned on the frieze of Taut’s pavilion; e.g., “Colored glass destroys hate.”) Kenneth Frampton notes that no conscious link can be proven between Scheerbart’s work and the MdV, but he nevertheless argues that the house “curiously echoes, however unconsciously, Scheerbart’s vision,” and that it embodies “an altogether richer and more total realization of this vision than either he or his professional alter-ego Bruno Taut were to achieve.” Remarkably, between Taut’s 1914 pavilion and the MdV, begun in 1928, “no structure exists in which glass lenses were used as the primary protective skin.”[5]

    For Benjamin, the use of glass suggested by Scheerbart and realized at the MdV is a kind of cultural necessity. He writes in “Experience and Poverty”:

    It is no coincidence that glass is such a hard, smooth material to which nothing can be fixed…. Objects made of glass have no ‘aura.’ Glass is, in general, the enemy of secrets. It is also the enemy of possession.[6]

    Benjamin takes up the chorus of one of his artist/constructivist exemplars, Bertolt Brecht, when he declares “Erase the traces!” Such traces, Benjamin explains, typify the “cozy” bourgeois interiors of the 1880s, where “there is no spot on which the owner has not left his mark.

    And in a 1929 essay on surrealism Benjamin would write:

    Living in a glass house [like living with the doors open] would be a revolutionary virtue par excellence … an intoxication, a moral exhibitionism, that we badly need.[7]

    Detlef Mertins aptly traced Benjamin’s influences in glass architecture to the group surrounding G magazine, to which he contributed, and in whose pages, for example, Theo van Doesburg would praise modern uses of glass by Walter Gropius, Mies van der Rohe, Adolph Loos and Frederick Kiesler. In 1923 van Doesburg would describe his own program for a house for the artist Léonce Rosenberg in a letter to him as follows:

    Your atelier must be like a glass cover or like an empty crystal. It must have an absolute purity, a constant light, a clear atmosphere. It much also be white. The palette must be of glass. Your pencil sharp, rectangular and hard, always free of dust and as clean as an operating scalpel. One can certainly take a better lesson from doctor’s laboratories than from painters’ ateliers. The latter are cages that sting like sick apes.[8]

    The MdV of course has the qualities of both an operating room (which it includes on the ground floor), and an artist’s studio, in the light-flooded grand salon— capitalizing on both the hygienic and atmospheric properties of glass brick.

    As Maria Gough has noted, Benjamin’s reading of Scheerbart (influenced by figures like van Doesburg, who along with many Dadaists of the day, deeply revered Scheerbart) is much more interested in his constructive characteristics than his fanciful expressionistic ones (usually associated with Taut).[9] I would add that this is by no means a misreading of Scheerbart, whose 111 chapters on glass are as concerned with its phenomenal and spiritual effects as its functional properties and constructional requirements. The MdV thus embodies a vital, neglected side of Scheerbart. While he calls for colored glass, the thick translucent bricks of the MdV facade are still more for the atmospheric effect of diffuse light or “phenomenal transparency” that Scheerbart seems interested in than for any kind of literal transparency.[10] Similarly, Scheerbart’s focus on hygiene (he devotes a chapter to exterminating insects) was a central concern for Dr. Dalsace, in whose examination room microbes should leave no “traces” (to borrow Brecht’s term). Indeed, every surface of the examination roof is covered with glass, metal or tile— all non-porous, easily cleaned materials.

    The poignancy of Gough’s article, entitled “Paris, Capital of the Soviet Avant-Garde,” is to highlight Benjamin’s attempt to salvage a constructivist creative model in his new refuge of Paris that had just fallen to the right in Germany and to Party aesthetic policy in the Soviet Union. This is what he calls for in his April 1934 Paris speech-turned-essay, “The Author as Producer,” and perhaps what he might have suggested in the salon at the MdV, just six years before France would fall, and he would take his own life attempting to flee at the border to Spain.

    To conclude by returning to Benjamin’s observation that “Glass is… the enemy of secrets and possession,” it is indeed true that the MdV remains impervious to some kinds of traces. For one thing, it is a difficult place for art collectors like Dr. Dalsace and Mr. Rubin alike to hang two-dimensional works. In this sense perhaps, it is an enemy of possession.

    Nevertheless, a great paradox of the MdV is that it is in fact full of secrets— in many cases precisely about where to keep possessions (it is, after all, difficult to truly live without traces). One thinks of the full-height lacquered closets that appear as a wall along the second floor gallery; the plush lined drawers for silver, artfully concealed in the dining room; the separate, walled-off service staircase; and the small swinging door built into wall of the lady’s boudoir that allows a cup of tea to “appear” in her room without the service staff’s visible intervention. These last two are only as modern as the development of the corridor to separate and hide service functions in some of France’s great 18th century hôtels particuliers.

    The family’s life, too, is rendered mostly opaque to the outside world. Despite all the glass, the powerful floodlights provide privacy, such that only shadowy signs of life can be discerned from the outside. The “moral exhibitionism,” then, is not one of life, per se, but of lifestyle. To be sure, the Communist-Jewish Jean Dalsace was not an introvert: he made no secret of his left-wing affiliations, as a founding member of the legally-constituted French communist party (PCF), and he was outspoken on the causes of pacifism and birth control, then banned in France (opening a birth-control clinic in a Paris suburb cost him his job as laboratory head at a major hospital). Still, privacy was crucial to the Dalsaces. I could not help but wonder, too, if some high-level discussions within the Soviet-funded and directed PCF might not have occurred in the MdV as the political climate in Europe began to shift in the mid-1930s, though this is idle speculation. Nevertheless, there is a tension, not necessarily irreconcilable, I think, between the MdV as a house of secrets and as a place of moral exhibitionism.

    The MdV is a deeply contradictory house. It features modern materials assembled in the tradition of old-world craftsmanship, negotiating a way between the standardization of the German Werkbund and Le Corbusier, and the retrograde crafts tradition on display at the 1925 Paris Exposition (where the term “Art Deco” was born, and at which Chareau’s furniture appeared).

    And the MdV is also a house of secrets— such that a gaggle of architects and architectural historians could spend a day in the house conjecturing and debating about some of its more mysterious details, and our extremely knowledgeable guides Andrew Ayers and Ariela Katz could discover new facets of the home for the first time. After eighty years, the MdV remains fertile ground for new research.  And this—both its openness and coyness—is precisely the Maison de Verre’s charm. Thank you to the SAH, our able guides, and Mr. Rubin, for letting us in on the secret.

    [1] Nicolai Ouroussoff, “The Best House in Paris,” The New York Times, August 26, 2007.

    [2] Paul Nelson, “La Maison de la Rue Saint-Guillaume,” reprint of review inL’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui (November 1933) no. 9,  in Pierre Chareau, La Maison De Verre, 1928-1933: Un Objet Singulier, ed. Olivier Cinqualbre (Paris: J.-M. Place, 2001), 28.

    [3] Alice Friedman, who has given some architectural credence to the notion of “glamour” in mid-century American design (see American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture, Yale 2010) was also on the tour. She would occasionally turn to me and remark, with adulation, “glam,” as new details or vistas presented themselves.

    [4] Alastair Gordon, “The Court of Modernism,”, February 25, 2011

    [5] Kenneth Frampton, “Maison de Verre,” Perspecta 12 (January 1, 1969): 77.

    [6] Walter Benjamin, “Poverty and Experience,” in Selected Writings (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1999), 734.

    [7] Walter Benjamin, “Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia,” in Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings, ed. Peter Demetz, trans. Edmund Jephcott, 1st ed. (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978), 177-192.

    [8] Cited in Detlef Mertins, “The Enticing and Threatening Face of Prehistory: Walter Benjamin and the Utopia of Glass,” Assemblage, no. 29 (April 1, 1996): 14.

    [9] Maria Gough, “Paris, Capital of the Soviet Avant-Garde,” October 101 (July 1, 2002): 57 ff.

    [10] See Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky, “Transparency: Literal and Phenomenal,”Perspecta 8 (January 1, 1963): 45-54.

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  • Reflection on This Year's Plenary by Cynthia Hammond

    Jun 1, 2011

     This year's meeting in beautiful and resilient New  Orleans was my first as a SAH member. In addition to  an outstanding range of panels and presentations, Dr  Craig Wilkins' plenary was a special privilege to hear.  Presented in a spacious darkened theatre and  unaccompanied by images, his address was a  powerful reminder that architectural historians must  continue to question the content of our classes, the  decisions we make as researchers, and the scholarly  priorities to which we dedicate our energies. His  opening question was simple. "What if," he asked  quietly, "You didn't matter?"

     Wilkins used wit and critical insight in equal measure  to draw the audience into his primary concern, that  architectural history - the books published year to  year, the grants awarded, conference papers  presented - often reiterates rather than steps beyond  the familiar outlines of the architectural canon. If one  does not belong to the cultural traditions that are  produced or are represented within the canon, the  implication is that one's own cultural traditions and  production do not matter. This is a devastating  message for young architects and scholars who may  not fit cultural - and I would add, gendered - tropes  within these professions.

    At Concordia University in Montreal, where I teach courses in architectural history and art historical methodology, cultural diversity is one of our institution's most frequently touted attributes. And this diversity is indeed something that makes Concordia - and Montreal - wonderful. Yet I need not to reflect for long on the constitution of our classes in Art History to see that the majority of our students are white, English-speaking, middle-class women - like myself. The presence of female faculty in our Department is a testament to increasing gender inclusivity in Canadian institutions, which is something to celebrate. But Dr Wilkins' talk was a timely reminder that this advance is the thin edge of the wedge.

    Wilkins' plenary recalled the observations of cultural critic, Bell Hooks, who has often pointed out that the objects studied in the Humanities rarely reflect the diversity we want to see in our classrooms. So what is taught - still the Western tradition, despite a lot of critical questioning - has a direct relationship to the constituency that registers for our courses. Wilkins reminded me that if I want change, as an educator I have to reflect the great scope of what matters beyond the history of privileged, European and European-descended producers of culture. The 2011 plenary was an elegant and moving call to action, whose key question came at the perfect moment - just as the precious summer months of research, writing and course planning beckon.

    Cynthia Hammond
    Concordia University, Montreal

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  • Annual Meeting Online

    Apr 9, 2011

    At the annual meeting later this week, many of us will be in New Orleans giving and listening to papers; asking questions and making comments; discussing ideas over coffee, drinks, and food; reflecting on ideas during tours and site visits. This website offers a venue for continuing, consolidating, and expanding those conversations.  

    During and after the conference, please use the new Annual Meeting Discussion Group feature to post brief comments on and responses to the ideas circulating at the conference. If you have longer and more considered thoughts to share during or after the event, this blog is open to you as well. Get in touch!

    -- Jonathan Massey

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  • "Marcel Breuer and Postwar America" by Jonathan Massey

    Apr 5, 2011
    The Slocum Gallery at Syracuse Architecture recently hosted "Marcel Breuer and Postwar America," an exhibition of drawings and photographs from the archive of this key modernist. The show was curated by students in a seminar I taught last fall with Barry Bergdoll, the Phillip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at the Museum of Modern Art and former SAH President. The class was linked to a digital humanities initiative through which Syracuse University is creating a digital edition of part of the Breuer archive. The show has closed, but it is documented in an online gallery at the Design Observer website. 
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  • Digital research tools--another take by Gabrielle Esperdy

    Mar 7, 2011

    Just over a decade ago, my professional trajectory in architectural education took me from an art school (Pratt) to a tech school (NJIT), from a place that still privileged the pencil to a place that had eagerly embraced the mouse. Back in Y2K, architecture schools were so abuzz with a brave new world vibe that it mattered little whether CAD induced hype or hysteria within one’s NAAB accredited program. It seemed inevitable that the academy was about to boldly go, and if we were uncertain of the destination, Moore’s law guaranteed that we were going to get there fast. Still, as a professor of history and a practicing historian, I had not yet reckoned with what all of this meant for the future of studying and teaching architecture’s past.

    Even as the digital revolution was transforming practice and pedagogy in the studio, things were surprisingly status quo in the lecture hall and seminar room. Slide projectors did give way to XGAs, but the move from Kodachrome to jpeg, like the transition from glass lantern plates to 35 mm celluloid a half a century before, simply substituted one form of reproduction for another. In fact, given the preponderance of slide scanning in the early days of the oughts, in many cases we were just reproducing the reproductions. Although many academics were creatively exploiting the new presentation software, for most professors, the format was little more than a twenty-first century version of a carousel tray. It was true that you could show more images, or the same image repeatedly and you could add text, video, and sound, but the average PowerPoint presentation of the early 2000s barely departed from the side-by-side display of images that had been standard since the early 1900s.

    Today, image databases organize building plans, sections, interiors, and exteriors; screen capture software records lectures and converts them to MP4s that are downloaded to iPods and laptops; course web sites and virtual learning environments provide a convenient place to park all this information for the duration of the semester. Students now have 24/7 access to an astonishing array of history-related material via computers sitting on their increasingly obsolete drafting tables. But instantaneous access to course content is not all that different from a  Kostof  or  Trachtenberg  survey book sitting on a desk.

    In teaching architecture’s history, even with the most immersive, interactive, and collaborative learning platforms, we have used technology mainly to transform modes of presentation through and with new tools of representation. Our colleagues teaching architecture’s design, meanwhile, have used technology to transform methods of practice as well, from parametric modeling to CNC fabrication. Within the academy, this difference has produced a digital divide between history and design that is as pernicious as it is subtle. Dazzled by high-res and big gigs, we did not even realize this divide existed much less that it was reinforcing the tired master/servant design/history paradigm, to the detriment of architectural education as a whole. Unless architectural historians who are also architectural educators work to bridge this divide, history and design will move further apart as curricular concerns and as disciplinary correlates.

    During the 1990s, critical theory pointed towards new synergies between design and history and during the 2000s it seemed as if a generation of architecture academics, both designers and historians, spoke the same language and worked toward the same goal—using critical theory to analyze architecture as a form of cultural production. Today, digital technologies seem to offer comparable synergistic possibilities within the academy. But practice precedes pedagogy and historians must, therefore, make technology as much a part of their professional practice as designers have.

    We must master advanced visualization techniques to use 3-D rendering and even BIM to develop new ways of compiling and analyzing the buildings of the past. We must explore data mining, geographic information system, and computation for quantitative analysis of historic architecture. We must embrace new forms of collaboration, exploiting crowd sourcing, wikis, and the cloud to identify and utilize archival and ephemeral information. Such digital tools could provide us with more comprehensive data-based methods for tracing the diffusion of architectural ideas, materials, and motifs across media, time, and place. They could enable us to build information models of individual structures or landscapes to examine how they have evolved since they were completed or occupied. These digital tools could lead us to interpretive revelations we cannot even imagine. At the very least, they will enable designers and historians within the academy to move forward together to transform architectural education in the information age.

    --Gabrielle Esperdy

    This post first appeared as an "Op Arch" feature in Journal of Architectural Education 64:2, March 2011.

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