Gabrielle Esperdy, a professor of architectural and urban history who finds revelatory themes in what she calls the “everyday, unextraordinary” buildings that dominate the American built landscape, is also a pioneer in the digital humanities who has devised new methods for finding, aggregating and organizing architectural data to pursue historical research.
Her first book, Modernizing Main Street (2008), examined efforts to use modernist architecture to transform shopping districts and commercial strips in the 1930s as an antidote to the Great Depression. The book challenged two standard historical narratives: that modernism did not exist in the United States in a significant way until after World War II, and that the 1929 stock market crash caused the near cessation of all private building activity in the subsequent decade.
“Everyday buildings tell us about ourselves in ways that monuments, which are like our ‘Sunday best,’ don’t,” notes Esperdy, who hunts for and digitizes images and relevant information in publications and archives kept by diverse corporations and industries, including movie theater and grocery store chains and oil and gas companies, among others.
She also examines the social, economic, and political factors that inform architectural production and urban development, as well as the formation of critical opinion to describe it.
Her recent book, American Autopia, which focuses on car culture and urban and suburban development from the earliest days of the auto industry to the aftermath of the 1970s oil crisis, considers how designers, planners, critics and theorists constructed “an automobile utopia” as a place and an idea. Decades later, she notes, electric and autonomous vehicles stand to reinforce rather than disrupt the settlement patterns in those sprawling, car-centric commercial landscapes.
Esperdy is a project researcher working with the Getty Research Institute’s Ed Ruscha’s Streets of Los Angeles archive, a partly digitized collection of photographs of midcentury buildings the pop artist captured from a moving vehicle. She collaborates with a data scientist at Yale to comprehend stasis and change along noted commercial thoroughfares, including Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards.
She is the founding editor of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) Archipedia, an open-access encyclopedia on the history of the built environment in the U.S., which to date contains histories, photographs and maps for more than 20,000 structures and places, including buildings, landscapes, infrastructure and monuments.
The foundation content for SAH Archipedia was collected from the book series, Buildings of the United States, which Esperdy and her team converted into a dynamic web-based resource, a task that entailed transforming 20 years of text-based historical interpretation and analysis into a dynamic data structure.
Since 2013, she has supervised teams of scholars across the country who are producing new digital content that leverages the database she and her collaborators constructed. The new scholarship it has engendered, examining buildings, landscapes, infrastructure and urban sites, is roughly the equivalent of twenty full-length monographs. That work includes her own scholarship on buildings, landscapes, and infrastructure in the state of New Jersey.
View an interview with Gabrielle Esperdy here
Gabrielle Esperdy joined SAH in 1992 and is editor in chief of SAH Archipedia/BUS. She currently serves as the co-chair of the SAH Digital Advisory Committee and has served on the SAH Mellon Author Awards jury, on the BUS Editorial Advisory Committee, and as Coordinator for Classic Buildings NJ.