SAH Blog

  • The Right Textbook

    Aug 22, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Architectural History: College Prep 2013

    Aug 7, 2013

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Go comment!
  • DIANNE HARRIS: Race, Space, and Trayvon Martin

    Jul 25, 2013


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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