Oral History and Architectural History: Theory, Politics, Method 

SAH 2021 Virtual Conference

Oral History and Architectural History: Theory, Politics, Method
Tuesday, May 25, 2021
12:00–1:30 PM CDT

Free and open to the public. Registration is required for this event. 

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Organizers: Brian Goldstein, Swarthmore College, and Wanda Liebermann, Florida Atlantic University

Architectural historians have responded to the political and social demands of our time by seeking to remedy the underrepresentation of marginalized voices in our work. Growing conversations concerning diversity and representation (sparked by the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Architecture Lobby, among others) compel architectural history—a facet of architectural education and practice—to ask the same questions of itself. In this context, it is crucial that historians not just chronicle the overlooked makers or users of the built environment but also understand how different people experience spaces and gain meaning from them. Yet this task presents particular challenges: many such voices are elusive in the archive, with their presence (or absence) tied to social power and existing disparities of wealth, race, gender, and ability. Moreover, users’ experiences are often simply more fleeting than visual material or project records. 

This roundtable considers one compelling method for addressing this need: oral history and other interview-based approaches. Oral history uniquely can bring subjectivities of the user into analysis of designed forms, incorporating the perspectives and experiences of those traditionally absent, if not excluded, from historical accounts. This method shifts architectural history away from a preoccupation with style, aesthetics, and elite value systems, towards an anthropology and sociology paradigm. Such expansion of research sources not only adds layers of interpretation and meaning that visual or formal analysis cannot accomplish alone, but also democratizes and humanizes architectural history. 

While offering many possibilities, oral history as a method for architectural and urban history also includes distinct drawbacks. Some are typical: researchers are limited to living subjects and memories are often both partial and fallible. Others are unique to architectural history: Can words ever adequately record experiences that are fundamentally spatial? Can oral history capture the iterative, collaborative nature of architectural practice? With these strengths and drawbacks in mind, roundtable participants will offer attendees a range of methodological and historiographical perspectives on the use of oral history in the context of architectural history. 

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SAH thanks The Richard H. Driehaus Foundation
for its operating support.
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