SAH Blog


  • Architectural History: College Prep 2013

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    Aug 7, 2013

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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  • DIANNE HARRIS: Race, Space, and Trayvon Martin

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    Jul 25, 2013

    By DIANNE HARRIS * 

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

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

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

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

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

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

    We owe it to our students and their peers to bring these issues of racial justice into the core of design education. And into our courses in architectural history and theory. As a starting point, perhaps SAH members would like to join me in starting a syllabus exchange for courses that engage with the subject of race and space. I am happy to make the syllabus for my seminar available to anyone who would like a copy (for now, just send me an email request: harris3@illinois.edu). By confronting racism in its many forms, architects, planners, and landscape architects can do their part in the work for racial justice and equality. Hopefully, young black men of the future will have no limits placed on their freedom of spatial mobility, and on their sense of where they belong.  

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


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

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    Jul 17, 2013

    by SAH Metcalf Intern Christine Shang-Oak Lee

    C H I C A G O

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

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

      

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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