SAH Blog

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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    Author’s Note


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


    Notes


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

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

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

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

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    Sep 6, 2013

    By SAH Metcalf Intern Christine Shang-Oak Lee

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

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

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

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

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


    Ed. Pinaud’s Cologne, Paris.

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

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

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  • The Right Textbook

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    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)

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