Manuel "Saga" Sánchez García is a PhD candidate at Politecnico di Torino and Universidad de Granada, and an appointed 2022–2023 Junior Fellow on Garden and Landscape Studies at Dumbarton Oaks. He lives between Italy and Spain (although that is about to change) and has been a member of SAH since 2019.
Can you tell us about your career path?
I started my studies in architecture at Universidad de Granada, under the shadow of the Alhambra. There I met my mentor Juan Calatrava, director of Granada’s architecture school at the time, who had just coordinated the facsimile reedition of Le poeme de l’angle droit by Le Corbusier (1955). That book blew my mind and encouraged me to explore a career in writing, publishing my first digital book in 2009 thanks to an EU Euroeditions grant, and participating in national conferences with small independent works before acquiring the architect license in 2013. Right after that, I moved to Bogotá, Colombia, where I pursued a two-year master’s in architecture and worked first as a research assistant and later as a lecturer, researcher, and consultant until 2018. Those were lovely years full of exciting projects, including my graduate thesis ”Granada Des-Granada” published in 2018 by Universidad de los Andes. I also worked with the team in charge of creating a new school of art, acting, architecture, and design in Bogotá named ”Facultad de Creación” and led by the architect Juan Pablo Aschner. Supporting the birth of a new higher education institution is a fantastic adventure.
Finally, I moved to Turin (Italy) in 2018 as a PhD fellow in the program “Architettura: Storia e Progetto,” under the supervision of Professor Sergio Pace. Eventually, we achieved a co-tutelle agreement with the PhD program on Art History at Universidad de Granada under the supervision of Prof. Juan Calatrava. It could be said that we closed the circle in some way. I started participating more often during the pandemic in SAH activities and with EAHN, the European Architectural History Network. In January 2021, I became the Editorial Assistant of Architectural Histories, the Journal of the EAHN, working closely with its Editor-in-chief, Samantha L. Martin.
Today I am just weeks ahead of my PhD defense. It’s an exciting moment. After that is finished (fingers crossed), I will be moving to Washington, DC, for a research stay at Dumbarton Oaks. It is one of the most important academic achievements I have ever earned, and I feel immensely thankful. They also happen to be welcoming and kind people. I got to meet a sizable group of Dumbarton Oaks current and former scholars in Pittsburgh during the SAH Annual International Conference, and I must tell you: They are really great.
What interests you most about architectural history?
My research topics are kind of split into two big sides. Two faces of the same medal. My main line of work deals with medieval and early modern urban history, including Christian/Andalusian cities in Spain, colonial urbanism in the Spanish Archipelagos and Latin America (mainly in Colombia), 16th-century atlases, etc. As it happens with most Granadan architectural historians, my work is also connected to Nasrid architecture and the Alhambra, which largely impacted later Christian buildings in the region and their romanticist reimaginations during the 19th century, as well as many 20th-century and contemporary architects across the world. In 2020 I developed a GAHTC module of six lectures on these topics with Juan Calatrava and Eva Amate. It is freely available on GAHTC’s website.
Parallelly, I am very interested in the intersection between the fields of architectural history and game studies. The area of game studies was born in the early 2000s to delve into the impacts of video games on our society. Even though plenty of architecture-related topics are being discussed at game studies conferences, not many specialized architectural historians are participating in them. Even fewer game-studies-related topics are dealt with in international meetings such as SAH’s or EAHN’s. However, this trend is changing as we speak. The call for papers for the 76th SAH Annual International Conference features two digital sessions dealing with software and “playfulness” in architecture, while one of the in-person sessions explicitly mentions their interest in the presence of Islamic architectural reimaginations in video games. The same is happening in other disciplines such as art history, sociology, and political studies, as it happened before with media like television, radio, magazines, and films when they were considered ‘emergent.’
What projects are you currently working on?
My projects are divided in the same way. My main endeavor right now is my PhD thesis titled “Siblings Overseas.” It deals with notarial documents and foundational registers of cities following the famous Spanish grid, which has been traditionally seen just as a morphological model without not so much regard for the political and legal nuances behind it. For example, I studied the foundational records of four new towns created in Andalusia in 1539 through the same principles as the colonial capitals settled in America in the same decade. I delve into the confrontations between a diversity of agents in favor and against the foundation of these new towns, which I analyzed in a comparative fashion with similar complaints and judicial processes that occurred in America between founders, settlers, native leaders, encomenderos, priests, and other groups. It is an amazing but difficult topic since these records are scattered in different archives and conserved through copies of copies made across five hundred years, often manuscripts in complex handwriting styles that are not easy to read for scholars not specialized in paleography.
My upcoming project for Dumbarton Oaks is a continuation of this line of research under the title “Uncovering colonial Lawscape.” In it, I will work further on the concept of Lawscape,1which refers to the times and spaces where the complex relationship between law and landscape is clearly visible. Of course, the landscape of actions and procedures leading to the foundational moment of a city are good example of lawscapes. I will focus on a selection of early colonial documents held at Dumbarton Oaks’ Rare Book Collection that present other lawscapes featuring native and mestizo leaders, comparing them with the manuscripts I have already studied in other countries.
Parallelly (always parallelly), I continue growing my research on architecture and game studies. A couple of years ago, I edited a special collection on this theme, published in Culture & History digital journal. In 2021 I co-supervised a fantastic group of students at Universidad de Granada in collaboration with Prof. Rafael de Lacour. They focused their undergraduate capstone project on games such as Assassin’s Creed, GRIS, and Calvino Noir. Their designs were included in the exhibition Gaming Through Architectural Drawing, which I curated myself, also including materials from other students and collaborators with whom I have been working since 2014. This exhibition was hosted by Meetaverse, a cultural center located and built in the metaverse, 100% virtual. It was an exhibition on video game buildings that was, quite literally, built inside a video game. I also continue writing on the topic, and right now I have a couple of manuscripts that will be published soon.
Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?
I think I always had some sort of connection with architecture. When I was a child, I used to play at Plaza Nueva and Plaza de Mariana Pineda, two of the most vibrant squares in Granada’s city center. There I met with other children to play together. We often walked uphill to the Alhambra and played at Plaza de los Algibes, an unpaved open space built over the water reservoirs of the royal medina between the Islamic castle and Charles V Palace. Playing there was natural for us as there were not as many tourists as today. There was even a small kiosk, designed in the 1950s and still standing today, where we bought ice cream in the summer.
Later on I decided to be a writer, so I considered studying journalism even though it was considered a “lesser” career in Spain. A relative of mine who works as a journalist said to me, “If you want to write, you will write. Focus your studies on what you want to write about.” I wanted to write about my city, so I ended up studying architecture. Almost 18 years have passed from that moment, and here I am, once more, writing stuff about Granada and its architecture. My relative’s prediction was incredibly accurate.
Who has influenced your work or career?
Many people, of course! As it is usually said, I stand on the shoulders of giants. I was fortunate to find professors Juan Calatrava and Rafael de Lacour early in my undergraduate studies. While Prof. De Lacour has always been very supportive and involved me in all kinds of activities, Prof. Calatrava is the most central mentor in my career as an architectural historian. They maintained contact after I moved to Colombia, so the Granadan connection never disappeared. That made it possible to “close the circle” in the PhD stage, as I mentioned before.
At Bogotá, I worked under the wing of Prof. Cristina Albornoz Rugeles, a Colombian architect who always pushed me to fly higher. During the last years, I have been a close collaborator of Prof. Sergio Pace, my Italian PhD supervisor, taking his courses on historiography and assisting his lectures on history of the material culture. He was a student of Profs. Carlo Olmo at Turin and Paolo Portoghesi at Rome so, through him, I feel kind of connected with the Italian “line” of baroque architectural history. Finally, I have been incredibly gifted by the opportunity of collaborating with Prof. Samantha L. Martin and the Editorial Board of Architectural Histories. They are not only an incredibly group to work with, the kind of conversations and debates at the journal's core have brought my intellectual horizon to a whole new level.
Finally, if I may mention two influences I never met personally, I would like to name the Swiss art historian Titus Burckhardt and the Polish architectural historian Joseph Rykwert. Their writings introduced me to the kind of symbolic, political, and ritual connections I seek in the architectures I study, may they be built materially or digitally. It is true that today we approach research and writing in a totally different fashion, but I always keep in mind the level of clarity of their arguments and the kind of seduction they inspire through their narrative.
What is your biggest professional challenge?
After almost a decade of changing countries/continents, I would say my biggest challenge right now is to find a more stable position in academia without renouncing good job conditions or to the fantastic international experiences I get to live right now. A symptom of this longing is that my library is scattered in boxes (many boxes) stored in different places. Putting it together for the first time is something I look forward to.
When and how did you become involved with SAH?
I knew about SAH when I was in Bogotá, mainly because of JSAH. When I moved to Italy in 2018, I became more involved in academic associations, including SAH, EAHN, and RSA. Near that point, I also became a member of national associations like AhAU in Spain, AISU and AISTARCH in Italy, RedCHU and SCA in Colombia. Then something special happened: I got to attend the 2019 GAHTC Member’s Conference in Miami, where I met a lot of the people that make SAH and EAHN what they are. Amazing experience. That trip moved me to a closer engagement with SAH activities.
How has SAH enriched your experience in architectural history?
So, after that experience in Miami, I told myself, “Manuel, here there is a long and interesting path to be walked. You just need to take the first step.” That year I applied to SAH Annual International Conference (including the graduate students fellowship) and GAHTC’s targeted acquisition grants. I had been rejected several times before in US-based competitions, but this time was my time, and I got both of them!
Even though the 2020 in-person conference was transformed into a digital one, the chair of my session, Prof. Jeffrey Klee, made the change smooth and productive. It served as an academic engine, boosting digital relationships with people like former SAH President Victoria Young, my fellow Spaniard Macarena de la Vega, and colleagues from Colombia like Ingrid Quintana, among others I got to meet in person for the very first time at Pittsburgh’s conference. For me, SAH operates as the center of a triangle connecting my research interests in the Mediterranean basin, Latin America, and North America. Being continuously exposed to its influence forces me to connect the local aspects of my research and my cultural roots to the global debate on architectural history, diversity, and social justice.
Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future?
I appreciate very much the work SAH does for all of us. It is one of the most caring and participative communities I know, and I am in no position to say or decide how it should be in the future. This being said, I feel that while SAH presents itself as an international network and many of its programs are effectively geared towards supporting international projects and emergent scholars, most of the debates at its core are heavily framed by the North American academic context, only extensible at some points to the rest of the English-speaking world.
At the SAH IDEAS Committee Listening Session in Pittsburgh I argued that, while I understand the necessity of these debates and connections between scholars based in the US and Canada, there should be room for more horizontal discussions where it is assumed that all scholars come from different contexts with diverse systems, hierarchies, and rules. The issues affecting research funding, career development, survey teaching, and unions, among others, are totally different from what we experience in other places. Those coming from outside force ourselves to learn about the problems you care most about so we are able to participate, which is very enriching but eventually extenuating. When I get back home (wherever that may be) after some nice and intense days with SAH, I often find myself trying to explain to my colleagues the ideas and values that were in discussion. Their conclusion is usually the same: “That would never happen here” or “We live in a different world.” In my opinion, we are not.
If SAH, while being led from the US, aims to represent the global community of architectural history, it needs to incorporate these other international issues and support the connection with national institutions outside of the English-speaking world. That is the vision I would propose.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to enter your field?
Let me approach this question as the early millennial that I am:
THREE THINGS YOU SHOULD HAVE IN MIND TO ENTER THE FIELD OF ARCHITECTURAL HISTORY:
- “It is not about you; it is about your community.” In academia, as in life, nobody gets anywhere alone. If you want to grow and advance, you need to collaborate with people and listen to them while also making them listen to you. Care as much as you can for others, and do not be shy when granting small favors. Academic relationships fluctuate in intensity but they never disappear completely, and since the world is a small place, the good you did in the past will eventually become worthwhile. It is a matter of time.
- “It is not about your work; it is about how it fits.” Rejection is a close companion of every academic. Regardless of our skills and achievements, we are all rejected many times before achieving any worthy grant, prestigious conference, or ambitious position. It doesn’t matter how high or low you aim because, once your application is sent, it lives its own life. There will always be many circumstances affecting your chances of success other than your work’s “objective” quality, if such thing even exists. You can spend endless hours strategizing and even then, there will be things escaping your control. So, learn to flow and always aim high. Produce ideas and proposals that are innovative and engaging but without getting too attached to them. Train your “application muscle.” If you persevere, your time will come.
- “It is not about them helping you; it is about you asking for help.” During the many stages of your academic career, you will meet plenty of people who are supposed to mentor you and help you grow. Many of them won’t. Others will try, but you will not be the better fit for each other. So, seek the people you feel more aligned with, and do not be shy: ask for their support. They may be experts in the topics you are interested in. Perhaps you happen to work together on some random project, or maybe you just like how they navigate their academic life. Arm yourself with your best smile and seek their help. Not always will they be able to do so, but it is worth trying. Worst case scenario: they will know that you exist and that you are ambitious. That is an investment. Best case: you will receive good advice. Maybe you will gain a mentor. Perhaps a long-life friend.
1 As defined by Andreas Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos: Philippopoulos-Mihalopoulos, Andreas. “Lawscape.” In International Lexicon of Aesthetics, Vol. 3. Milano: Mimesis, 2020. https://dx.doi.org/10.7413/18258630100.
SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.