SAH Blog

  • “Nothing is Transmissible but Thought”: Le Corbusier’s Radiant Farm Made Real

    by User Not Found | Jul 31, 2014

    As a participant in the Graduate Student Lightening Talks at the 2014 SAH Annual Conference, I used my five-minute slot to sketch, per the title of my paper, the transmission of Le Corbusier’s “thoughts”—specifically, on his Radiant City as it was appropriated by young Californian architects between 1936-41. To my delight, Dr. Esra Akcan was the panel respondent. Her recent book, Architecture in Translation, was a touchstone as I prepared my dissertation proposal last fall. What follows is an abbreviated version of my talk and, I hope, the initial investigations that will form the second chapter of my dissertation.

    Shortly before his death in August 1965, Le Corbusier began to collate two decades of his writings, which resulted in Mise au point (1966). The architect outlines what Charles Jencks later characterized as the “tragic view” of his career, lamenting a life devoted to the study of housing that was, in Le Corbusier’s eyes, underappreciated by the French government and the wider public.[1] Shunned in the postwar rebuilding of Paris, Le Corbusier only ever partially achieved his Radiant City in the form of the controversial Unité d’Habitation housing block at Marseilles (1947-52). Reflecting on the fact that this was his first and only French governmental commission, granted at the age of sixty, the architect begins and ends Mise au point by noting that in the end “nothing is transmissible but thought, the fruit of our labors.”[2] This is a prescient epitaph given that Le Corbusier’s thoughts concerning standardized high-density housing and urban planning were often more influential than were any of his built projects.

    My dissertation focuses on the legacy of Le Corbusier’s unbuilt Radiant City plans (first pub. in 1935 as Ville Radieuse) through their piecemeal translation and realization by other architects and local administrations in California, Great Britain, and Poland.[3] Rejecting polarizing accounts repeated over the last five decades that fashion the architect as either a twentieth century visionary, or as a scapegoat for the perceived failures of the Modern Movement, I propose an alternative method of analyzing Le Corbusier’s legacy—through the work of others who chose to adapt, translate, and realize certain parts of this key urban planning project. I argue this approach offers a newly multifaceted reading of the project’s—and, to some degree, its author’s—contested place in the history of twentieth century architecture and urban planning. Prof. Akcan went further, offering provocations for my continuing research. In her response to my paper, she asked questions I will need to fully investigate in my dissertation chapter: “Where do these translations stand in the spectrum that may range from excessive domestication to abrupt intervention, from appropriating to foreignizing translations? How do the multiple agents that set them into motion differ from each other in their opinions about the translatability or untranslatability of architecture, in their ethical and political positions about how or whether to open themselves to what were hitherto foreign ideas? What were the tensions during these processes?”

    The Radiant City published as Ville Radieuse (1935) & included in Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Les Logis … S.V.P. (1938)

    At SAH, I focused on the translation of one element of the larger Radiant City plan, the Radiant Farm, to the west coast of the United States between 1936-41. Le Corbusier’s unrealized rural plans were developed alongside “peasant-activist” Norbert Bézard during the architect’s association with French regional syndicalist groups in the 1930s, presented at CIAM 5 in Paris in 1937 and, along with the wider results of this international conference, were showcased in Corbusier’s Pavilion Des Temps Nouveaux that opened in July 1937 at the Paris International Exhibition. The Radiant Farm (and City) reflected the architect’s broader philosophical shift in urban planning proposals, from the radical, sky-high utopianism of the Ville Contemporaine (1922) and the Plan Voisin (1925) to a more humanist approach, a “second machine age.”[4]

    Le Corbusier. Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Les Logis … S.V.P (1938)

    Leaf from Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Les Logis … S.V.P (1938)

    Young Californian architects Vernon DeMars, and colleagues Garrett Eckbo and T.J. Kent, took up Le Corbusier’s exhortation in Des Canons, Des Munitions? Merci! Des Logis ... S.V.P. (1938) to turn from bombs to homes. Vernon DeMars identified the Radiant Farm as offering, if not an already-tested solution, a modern and avant-garde philosophy that he adapted in over forty projects for rural communities during his tenure as San Francisco district architect for the FSA, including Yuba City and Woodville (both in California, 1939-41), and the earlier Chandler, Arizona (1936-37). On farmland bought by the government, usually well outside existing town limits, FSA architects built tent platforms, single cabins, and ancillary community spaces. Weedpatch (1936), made famous by its inclusion in John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (1939), was the first such camp, built south of Bakersfield, California, initially using tents, then wood frame houses to shelter the workers, with wood frame buildings for the communal facilities such as the post office and the local hall.[5]

    Where Le Corbusier was often politically and historically hamstrung, the locally governed Farm Securities Administration satellite offices were conducive to practical experimentation. In FSA Camp Chandler, a project that preceded DeMars’ formative travel to Europe, and in Yuba City, directly after his return, DeMars referenced the Radiant Farm as the inspiration for the internal logic of the farmhouses he built for Dust Bowl migrants. Indeed, DeMars later saw Yuba City as “our opportunity to do something that he [Corbusier] wasn’t able to build … [the Farm house and the Cooperative Farm] were things we were doing. I knew Corbu’s hadn’t been built … Supposing he were given this job, what would he do? He might have done this thing we did at Yuba City, I thought.”[6]

    FSA Chandler, illustrated in Elizabeth Mock’s/MoMA’s Built in USA: a survey of Contemporary American Architecture (1945)

    FSA Chandler, illustrated in Elizabeth Mock’s/MoMA’s Built in USA: a survey of Contemporary American Architecture (1945)

    Further—and to be explored in much greater depth in my dissertation chapter—the inaugural 1940 exhibition of the San Francisco-based planning group, Telesis, founded by, among others, FSA architects Vernon DeMars, T.J. Kent, Garrett Eckbo and Fran Violich after the FSA was disbanded was closely based on Le Corbusier’s Temps Nouveau Pavilion.[7]  DeMars returned from six months travel to Europe in the fall of 1938 with a copy of Des canons, des munitions, the catalogue for the 1937 pavilion, and explicitly based the Telesis exhibition—the foundation for the later San Francisco Department of Planning—on Le Corbusier’s conceptual framework for the 1937 pavilion.[8]

    Entry to the "A Space for Living" Telesis exhibition. Fran Violich Collection, Visual Resources Center, College of Environmental Design, UC Berkeley

    Day-care center at Woodville, Ca., by Vernon DeMars, from the Museum of Modern Art catalogue, Wartime Housing

    The Telesis exhibition demonstrated perhaps even more so than the FSA work that it wasn’t merely, or perhaps even primarily, form, I think, that DeMars was interested in in his one-sided dialogue with Le Corbusier—he could find those forms anywhere he looked. Instead, DeMars honed in on Le Corbusier’s validation of agrarian planning as a purposeful and CIAM-endorsed activity. He used Le Corbusier’s site-less utopian dream—the Radiant farm—to legitimize his own very real work as a young architect at the FSA. The FSA localized and radically adapted the utopian Radiant Farm, sensitizing Le Corbsuier’s untested cipher for CIAM-endorsed modern architecture to the needs of America’s displaced during a time of local and national crisis—and to the needs of a small group of young architects looking for meaning in their Depression-era work.

    In the recent MoMA exhibition on Le Corbusier (Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes, 2013), curators Jean Louis Cohen and Barry Bergdoll argued that Le Corbusier’s engagement with landscapes and geographies was, in contrast to the often-unforgiving stereotypes, subtle and precise. They connected their reconsideration of the architect to “the major realignment currently underway in the study of masters of modern architecture [as] one in which place, cultural specificity, and attention to landscape have displaced the idea of modern universals.”[9] Their impulse is not so new. In 1948, Lewis Mumford suggested that mid-century architecture in California was “universal” precisely because it allowed “regional adaptation and modifications.” MoMA's curatorial thesis was perhaps most compelling realized in the exhibition catalogue rather than the galleries. Its methodological provocation is relevant: how does displacing the idea of universals—not least the entrenched narratives that often suffocate analyses of Le Corbusier’s work—allow for a richer reading of landscapes and the built environment? I suggest that tracing the history of the reception of Le Corbusier’s ideas, and the way they were used by (often very anonymous) others is a process that recovers points of contact between Le Corbusier and architects working in a geographic location not usually foregrounded in Corbusian scholarship, and interrogates modern architecture’s “conviction about its own translatability.” In this way, we may reconsider the claims for universal applicability that have been made for Le Corbusier’s grand plans, in this case from the perspective of the “Radiant Farm made real.”[10]

    Michelle Millar Fisher is a doctoral candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Curatorial Assistant in the Architecture + Design department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Her research centers on social histories of architecture, contemporary art, museums, and pedagogy. She is currently at work co-editing a book on collaboration in the visual arts and architecture, to be published by Courtauld Books Online in early 2015.

    [1] See Charles Jencks, Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1973).

    [2] Le Corbusier. Mise au point. (Paris: Éditions Forces-vives, 1966).

    [3] Although never built, the Radiant City stemmed from Le Corbusier’s broader communications with and travel to Russia, beginning in 1928 and his “Reply to Moscow” of June 1930. However, the rural farm component was developed once he was fully immersed in French regional syndicalist journals Plans, Prelude and L’Homme Reel from 1931 to 1936, with issues devoted to Agrarian Reorganization plans and their implementation. Le Corbusier’s writings from all three of these syndicalist journals would become the foundation of the Radiant City, Village, and Farm published as Ville Radieuse in 1933, and Des Canons in 1938. Mary Caroline McLeod. Urbanism and Utopia: Le Corbusier from Regional Syndicalism to Vichy. (Princeton, NJ: Unpublished Dissertation, 1985). 213.

    [4] See McLeod, 111-115. Le Corbusier’s stance in the 1930s was not so much a rejection of technocracy and function as a humanizing of them and a rejection of the capitalist systems that underpinned them. Planning simply extended technocracy. As McLeod states, “the Plans members endorsed Taylorism and Fordism, but like their peers, they condemned the system that had engendered such methods.”

    [5] For a review of FSA origins see Suzanne B Reiss., comp. A Life In Architecture: Indian Dancing, Migrant Housing, Telesis, Design for Urban Living, Theater, Teaching. Oral History Transcript. (University of California, Berkeley: Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, 1989), 124 – 127. See also Greg Hise. "From Roadside Camps to Garden Homes: Housing and Community Planning for California's Migrant Workforce, 1935- 1941." Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Gender, Class, and Shelter, no. 5 (1995): 243-58. Hise states that the FSA “planned and managed thirteen labor camps for California’s seasonal agricultural workers between 1936 and 1941.” 243. California was unique in the relief housing it provided because it not only built permanent farmsteads but addressed the needs of a laboring population that fluctuated in number depending on the season.

    [6] Reiss, 140. Chandler appeared as one of only two American examples in Alfred Roth’s 1940 Die Neu Architektur under the names of DeMars and Burton Cairns, and Chandler and Woodville in Elizabeth Mock’s 1945 Built in USA. In less than a decade Catherine Bauer Wurster, now a friend of DeMars’, had her call for modern American social housing answered.

    [7] Le Corbusier’s work became widely disseminated in the US through his 1935 lecture tour (concentrated on the East Coast, although he had intended to come to San Francisco), the discussion and publication of these travels and lectures in the architectural press, and an exhibition of his work at MoMA in the same year which later traveled to, among other places, the de Young Museum in San Francisco in October 1937. See Mardges Bacon. Le Corbusier in America: Travels in the Land of the Timid. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2001). 29. See also Bacon appendix B for full lecture and exhibition tour details. Interestingly, the exhibition that preceded Le Corbusier’s at MoMA was Contemporary Architecture in California [MoMA Exh. #42c, September 30-October 24, 1935]. Recent Work of Le Corbusier, held between October 1 and 22, 1937 at SFMoMA originated at MoMA in New York in 1935 and traveled to a total of fourteen venues between 1935 and 38, including Yale and Wesleyan universities.

    [8] The Telesis exhibition, A Space for Living, was held at the San Francisco Museum of (Modern) Art, opening on June 29, 1940. It was the museum’s first architecture exhibition and projected a brighter future for the city under the slogan “progress intelligently planned” – the West Coast version of the syndicalist slogan action directe.

    [9] Jean Louis Cohen, Barry Bergdoll et al. Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2013), 20. “Le Corbusier was engaged not with the ways in which things are similar around the world but rather with the ways in which they are distinct, with layers of culture that resonate even in worlds in mutation from the forces of modernization.” Sarah Williams Goldhagen re-evaluated the work of Louis I. Kahn as “culturally contingent” and a “situated modernism.” Caroline Constant argues that Le Corbusier “carefully calibrated his building designs to their specific locales” despite his often militant tone. Cohen, Bergdoll, 21.

    [10] Influenced by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s The Politics of Translation (1998), scholar Esra Ackan has recently suggested translation in architecture as “a contested zone where geopolitical tensions and psychological anxieties are exposed,” arguing persuasively for translation as a productive methodology for “an architectural culture better equipped for a global future.” Ezra Akcan. Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey, & the Modern House. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012). 4. 

  • Mexico City: From Mexica Past to Modernism and Beyond

    by User Not Found | Jul 07, 2014

    Cinco de Mayo is not Mexican Independence Day.

    Since I am addressing a forum of intellectuals with a keen interest in history and culture, many of you might already know this fact.  I might have heard it a time or two in life, only to forget, and then be reminded again in Mexico City. I am not ashamed to admit that.  Why is this tidbit of information important to the history of architecture and urbanism in Mexico City, you ask?  It has everything to do with memory of place, transnational dialogues, regional differences, and most immediately, place names. 

    Place names

    My first week in Mexico City I went to the heart of it all, Zócalo, and walked many miles exploring the city, getting a feel for its historic center.  I was surprised to find that one of its major arteries, one that embraces Zócalo on the western periphery was named 16 de Septiembre.  While studying a map of Centro Histórico the significance street placement was apparent, but the meaning was lost on me, until I began a minor investigation into the significance of the date.  Modern Mexico City place names are reflective of its long, eclectic, troubled, and triumphant past, embracing a mixture of indigenous, independence, and revolutionary figures.  Alameda Central, for instance, is cradled by streets named for Miguel Hidalgo and Benito Juárez, meant to pay homage to historic figures of independence and reform.  Delving into the meaning behind the names of a place is often one of the most enlightening activities one can pursue.  Each name is consequential and is a snapshot of the past.  In a capital city, place names are the epitome of patriotism, nation building, and myth making, a la Roland Barthes.

    Figure 1. View of Alameda Central from Torre Latinoamericano

    Pre-Hispanic past in contemporary city

    In this capital city there are urban and architectural achievements that, by virtue of design, harken back to the pre-Hispanic Mexican past.  The Zócalo, historic center of the city, is a nodal point from which all understanding of the orientation and layout of the city can be derived.  This is because the Aztecs founded their ancient city of Tenochtitlán in the same space now occupied by the grand plaza, national palace, and cathedral.  When the Spanish conquered the great city, they admired its aqueducts and engineering. They chose to build their outpost in New Spain on what remained of the Aztec achievements (after, of course, they burned and ravaged the city first).  As scholar Jacqueline Holler argues in her article “Conquered Spaces, Colonial Skirmishes: Spatial Contestation in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City,” part of the power of the Spanish conquest was the fact that the Spaniards effectively cannibalized the space and materials of the Aztec city:

    The revision of Tenochtitlan as a colonial capital, moreover, was an attempt to usurp rather than deny indigenous sovereignty. This usurpation demanded physical change on a grand scale, rather than intellectual sleight of hand. The dismantling of an indigenous urban complex and its reassembly in an altered form were the products of tremendous indigenous labor, itself an object lesson in domination.

    Also in the historic center are the ruins of Templo Mayor just east of the Metropolitan Cathedral, as well as the Palacio Nacional erected on the ruins of Moctezuma’s “New Houses.”  In the historic center the Mexica and Spanish colonial pasts sit in complex juxtaposition to each other, illustrating clearly the significance of the space layered with history.

    Figure 2. View of Metropolitan Cathedral over ruins of Templo Mayor

    European Influences

    Mexico City felt more European to me than I imagined it would.  I had tried desperately to figure out why this was the case.  What qualities of the city gave me this feeling?  One of the most outstanding qualities I would argue is the vitality of life in the public sphere.  The city has an embarrassment of riches in regards to the proliferation of public parks within its boundaries.  The city has taken a renewed interest and invested in its public spaces recently.  From the grand public parks of national significance like Alameda Central to the small pocket plazas and gardens in the various neighborhoods like Jardín Pushkin and Parque las Americas, residents of Mexico City pass much of their free time in the presence of others, beneath the shade of los árboles en las parques.  Mexico City is green, but not in the trendy way we talk about “being green” today (although it has begun countless initiatives to reduce the impact of pollution in the city).  The tree canopy is noteworthy, and lessens the blinding quality of light on a sunny day.  Two of the most recent places I have lived battle the problem of a disappearing or deficient tree canopy – Washington, D.C., and New Orleans.  The incessant heat and humidity in those cities during the summer months make living in both places nearly unbearable.  Walking the streets of Mexico City this June I have thought about how the quality of life in places like Washington and New Orleans would be improved tremendously with a far-reaching and widespread tree canopy.  Granted, New Orleans has its live oaks on major thoroughfares, but these prized trees are not evenly dispersed throughout the city.

    Figure 3.  Images of daily life in parks taken within the span of a few hours on one day.  Clockwise from top left:  Plaza Morelia, Parque México, El Foro Lindbergh in Parque México, Parque España, Jardín Pushkin, and Plaza Río de Janeiro

    Revolution and social reform

    Politics. Passion. Poisonous liaisons. Perseverance. 

    These are issues I was confronted with during the week I dedicated to touring sites associated with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Leon Trotsky. The way those messages are intertwined in the art produced in the middle of the twentieth century in Mexico City is raw, emotional, and nuanced. The artwork of Kahlo and Rivera, as well as their friendship with Trotsky during his last days in Mexico continue to define post-revolution politics for scholars across various disciplines.  Kahlo’s brand of feminism, Trotsky’s appeal to a sympathetic Socialist Mexico, Rivera’s many interpretations of Mexican history and warnings about the pro-capitalist future are topics accessible to scholars who are intrigued by intersectionality. The spaces in which conversations took place among these three, some of Mexico’s most celebrated and discussed historic figures, continue to be pilgrimage sites today.

    Figure 4. Interior views of Casa Azul, Trotsky’s House, Diego Rivera’s Studio, and Anahuacalli Museum

    Struggle, revolution, and social reform are major themes in Mexican history, and world history at large, and that narrative was evident at the Tlatelolco site.  I was advised to visit this site by Leslie Moody Castro, an art curator who works between Texas and Mexico.  I had no idea what to expect, I just knew I had to go.  Aztec ruins?  Student protests?  A massacre?  The Olympics?  I was confused and intrigued at the same time.

    I started my journey at Tlatelolco walking from the bus station through the housing complex designed by architect Mario Pani.  I eventually found my way to the university and museums.  What the Tlatelolco site lacks in cohesiveness it makes up for in content.  The Centro Cultural Universitario Tlatelolco runs the museum section of the site, and the four various exhibits that are on display in the center are disjointed in their relationship to each other and are counterintuitive in circulation patterns.  None of that matters, however, once you enter into the space itself.

    Figure 5. Conjunto Urbano Nonoalco Tlatelolco

    The first place I visited was the Museo del Tlatelolco, which told the story of the pre-Hispanic city that existed just north of, but separate from, Technotitlán. The exhibit space was so well curated that it would appeal to children and adults alike.  There were numerous moments for multi-media activity to engage visitors, and the exhibit productions and displays were thoughtful and tasteful.  After being thoroughly wowed by the Museo del Tlatelolco I visited the Colección Stavenhagen, which hosted a beautiful array of pre-Hispanic objects, from the everyday to the highly sacred.  I finished my visit at the utterly poignant Memorial del 68, a space that provided opportunity to reflect on the student protests of 1968 in Mexico, and the terrible massacre that happened shortly before the opening games of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

    Figure 6. Looking out onto Aztec ruins of Tlatelolco from inside the museum.  Temple of Santiago Tlatelolco seen on right.  A stark contrast of indigenous and colonial constructions

    The Memorial del 68 situated the Mexico City student movement within an international trend of revolution and reform in the 1960s.  The opening video, “El laboratoria de la libertad,” is a montage of popular culture – music and imagery – of the world that captures the spirit of the 1960s.  It is followed by a timeline that illustrates major shifts in social and cultural politics.  It ends in a quiet, dark space of reflection where images of the plaza and events of 1968 are reproduced in an abstract, haunting manner.  In all, this museum is a moving encapsulation of a moment in Mexican history that changed its trajectory in a profound way.  Tlatelolco from the pre-Hispanic city, the site of Spanish conquest, the housing complex, the student massacre, and the ramifications of the 1985 earthquake, is a often-overlooked (by tourists) space in the city that truly captures the long history of the region.

    Figure 7. Memorial del 68

    Preservation and interpretation

    Besides Tlatelolco, two of the most noteworthy places I visited in the Mexico City metropolitan area were Teotihuacan and the “Arquitectura en México 1900-2010” exhibit.  Perhaps I found them notable because of their success in preservation and interpretation.  I use the word success carefully, (some would argue loosely) since I am very aware that conservative preservationists consider Teotihuacan a Disneyfication of Mexican history.  I measure the success of both the historic site and the exhibit in two different ways.

    Teotihuacan is an architectural historian's delight and disappointment.  The delight comes from one’s ability to get swallowed up in the overwhelming scale of structures that make up the Ciudadela, Avenue of the Dead, Palace of Quetzalpapalotl, the Pyramid of the Sun and the Pyramid of the Moon.  The disappointment would afflict any preservation and conservation purist.  Most of what one sees today at the site has been reconstructed, and historical evidence proves now that earlier reconstructions, done in haste by Leopoldo Batres for the Centenario, were incorrect.  UNESCO takes a fairly judicious stance about this condition, noting:

    While some of the earlier reconstruction work, dating from the early years of the last century, is questionable in contemporary terms, it may be considered to have a historicity of its own now. In general terms, it can be said that the condition of authenticity of the expressions of the Outstanding Universal Values of Teotihuacan, which can be found in its urban layout, monuments and art, has been preserved until today.2

    Scholar Gillian Newell does a very thorough job of describing the way various groups – local, national, international, tourist and indigenous alike – create a culture of consumption that support identity-formation at Teotihuacan.  Her article, “Rhyming Culture, Heritage, and Identity: The ‘Total Site’ of Teotihuacan, Mexico,” takes into account the different motivations people have for visiting the site, and argues that we must understand all of these various meanings and practices, both historical and contemporary, to grasp the “total site” of Teotihuacan.  I would agree with her conclusion.

    Figure 8.  Teotihuacan selfie

    The highly acclaimed “Arquitectura en México 1900-2010. La construcción de la modernidad. Obras, diseño, arte y pensamiento” exhibit deserves all the praise it has received in the international press.  Situated in the Palacio de Cultura Banamex - Palacio de Iturbide, this far-reaching show is divided into easily digestible themes that illustrate the evolving country’s architectural ambitions, from the Porfirian era to the twenty-first century.  The exhibit took advantage of the spacious site, with a beautiful array of models, furniture, architectural drawings, paintings, sculpture, and video.  The exhibit was even more successful than the “official” museum of architecture in Mexico, the Museo Nacional de Arquitectura.  Poorly organized because of space constraints, the lonely national museum of architecture sits in the top floor of the Palacio de Bellas Artes, and is hardly visited by a soul (its blog is worth a visit).

    Figure 9. Arquitectura en México exhibit

    One the one hand, Teotihuacan is successful because it remains open to interpretation.  Little is known about its original residents.  The spirituality of the space, however, speaks to the masses.  It is a sample of pre-Hispanic Mexico that various people derive meaning from, and it is also part of a larger lore about pyramids, outer space, and extraterrestrials.  Indeed, there is something for everyone, even the “believers,” so the meaning of what it is to be “authentic” is drowned out in the voices that proclaim the site to be both authentic and universal.

    On the other hand, the “Arquitectura en México 1900-2010” exhibit is successful because it does exactly what the site of Teotihuacan does not.  It is directive, illustrating how political and social ideologies informed various periods of growth and design in Mexico.  Whether highlighting Porfirian elite design, or modernization efforts in anticipation of the 1968 Olympics, the textual information and visual aids of the exhibit create an enlightening experience for visitors.

    Mexico City present and future

    Mexico City’s past – Mexica, Spanish colonial, Porfirian, revolutionary – and the reclamation of and tension between these identities are at the forefront of how Mexico interprets and understands itself.  There is no consensus on what it means to be Mexican, as far as I can tell, and like any major country the interpretations vary by region, vocation, place of origin. I don’t know how these various identities affect the current state of affairs in the city and nation.  One thing is for sure – Mexico City does not try to hide any of it.  At least not anymore.

    As I ended my time in Mexico City and arrived in the Yucatán, I tried to find the words to sum up the major takeaways from spending a month in this capital city, this global city.  In many ways, the national presence is felt so very strongly, with the richness of the heritage of the country at one’s fingertips.  In other ways, the city’s position on the global radar is also poignant, as I have had the opportunity to meet people from the States, Argentina, France, Spain, and other countries during my time here. 

    The Mexican past is as long and complicated as a Diego Rivera mural, and in the twenty-first century, it includes narratives about hope and disillusionment that move beyond the time frame represented in the famous murals in the Palacio Nacional.  It has been over 60 years since that piece was finished, and the story of the city is far from complete.  Mexico City’s standing and trajectory for the twenty-first century is an enigma for someone new to the city, such as myself.  Clearly it is a thriving global city, one that has unparalleled human capital in population alone, and additionally has a wealth of foreign trade and investment.  The Brookings Institution noted in 2010:

    Over 20 million people live in the Metropolitan Area of Mexico City (MAMC), making in the largest urban agglomeration in the Western Hemisphere, the largest Spanish-speaking metro globally, and the third largest metropolitan area in the world. Mexico City’s GDP stood at $411.4 billion in 2012, making it the eighth largest urban economy in the world.3

    These factors are clear to anyone who has spent time in the city recently. The Brookings Institution warns, however that despite creating a place for itself in the international economy, “Mexico City’s international stature is not as stable and its global brand not yet as recognizable as other prominent emerging market cities like Istanbul, Mumbai, Shanghai, and São Paulo.”4

    While in Mexico City I was introduced to two organizations that represent the future of Mexico City’s cultural politics and help us understand the country in new and profound ways.  The missions of the organizations are quite different.  Their strengths are that they are headed by young people – in their 20s and 30s – and depend on a serious understanding of the social, political, and cultural state of Mexico.  The first organization, ArtraversARTE, is a contemporary art tourism company that “weave[s] in historical context, cultural perspective, and urban life to create an unforgettable experience” of the city.5 Atravesar means “to cross over, to break through, to pierce.” AtraversARTE was created to provide art professionals and aficionados an opportunity to have transnational dialogue about the state of contemporary art in Mexico, with an eye on the future.  Since the art is deeply embedded within the genius loci, the urban condition is part and parcel of what one takes away from their AtraversARTE experience.  I was very much impressed with the organization’s mission, and it reminded me of another organization, Afrikanation Artists Organization, that works to promote cultural exchange between America and Africa – particularly east Africa: Somalia and Ethiopia.

    The second organization I learned about in while in Mexico City is TECHO, an NGO that depends on “the collaborative work of families living in extreme poverty with youth volunteers … [to] overcome poverty in slums.”6 The TECHO mission is the epitome of what it means “to build:” edificar.  The Spanish translation of the word is closer to its true meaning and essence, its Latin roots: aedificium (building) + facio (make).  TECHO consists of political advocates who believe in the art of building, not just in the physical sense, but also in framing, constructing, and providing a foundation for an idea that all people should live without poverty.  Their work spans Latin America and the United States.

    Despite the fact that Mexico City is one of the largest and most populous cities in the world, so many aspects of the city remain part of the quotidian, time-tested local traditions.  I started this blog talking about place names. I will end doing the same. On my penultimate day in Mexico City I made a trip to the El Museo de la Ciudad de México for personal and professional reasons.  Personally, I wanted an official body representing the city to tell me exactly what it wanted me to come away with on my trip.  Professionally, I’ve done research on city museums in Washington, D.C. and London and wanted to see how Mexico City approached this concept. I arrived at the museum and was about to pay my money for a ticket when the woman at the counter said, “You are here for an exhibit about Mexico City?  We don’t do that any more.” I was flustered, checked to make sure I was in the right place, and then walked out.  A guard who saw me walk up asked me why I was leaving.

    Me: Esté es El Museo de la Ciudad de México, pero... no es el museo de la ciudad de México?

    Guard: Sí.

    Me: Por qué no cambia el nombre?

    Guard: La gente lo conoce como "El Museo de la Ciudad de México."

    Esto es la belleza de lo cotidiano.

    Figure 10. El Museo de la Ciudad de México

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    Learn more about the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship

    Recommended reading:

    Enrique X. de Anda Alanís, “The Preservation of Historic Architecture and the Beliefs of the Modern Movement in Mexico: 1914–1963,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 6 no. 2 (Winter 2009): 58-73

    Luis Castañeda, “Beyond Tlatelolco: Design, Media, and Politics at Mexico ’68, Grey Room (Summer 2010) 40: 100-126

    Keith L. Eggener, “Juan O'Gorman versus the International Style: An Unpublished Submission to the JSAH,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 68 no. 3 (September 2009): 301-307

    Keith L. Eggener “Placing Resistance: A Critique of Critical Regionalism” Journal of Architectural Education 55 no. 4 (May, 2002): 228-237

    George F. Flaherty, "Uncanny Tlatelolco, Uncomfortable Juxtapositions,” Defying Stability: Artistic Processes in Mexico, 1952-1967, ed. Rita Eder (Mexico: MUAC, 2014), 400-417

    José Villagrán García, Jorge Otero-Pailos and Ingrid Olivo, “Architecture and Monument Restoration (1967),” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 6 no. 2 (Winter 2009): 88-103

    Jorge Tárrago Mingo, “Preserving Rivera and Kahlo: Photography and

    Reconstruction,” Future Anterior: Journal of Historic Preservation, History, Theory, and Criticism 6 no. 1 (Summer 2009): 50-67

    Jacqueline Holler, “Conquered Spaces, Colonial Skirmishes: Spatial Contestation in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City,” Radical History Review no. 99 (Fall 2007): 107-120

    Kathryn E. O'Rourke, “Guardians of Their Own Health: Tuberculosis, Rationalism, and Reform in Modern Mexico,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 71 no. 1 (March 2012): 60-77

    Kathryn E. O'Rourke, “Mies and Bacardi: Mixing Modernism,” Journal of Architectural Education 66 no. 1 (2012): 57-71

    Susie S. Porter, “‘And That It Is Custom Makes It Law:’ Class Conflict and Gender Ideology in the Public Sphere, Mexico City, 1880-1910,” Social Science History 24 no. 1 (Spring 2000) 111-148

    Mauricio Tenorio Trillo, “1910 Mexico City: Space and Nation in the City of the Centenario,” Journal of Latin American Studies, 28 no. 1 (February 1996): 75-104

    Steven S. Volka, “Frida Kahlo Remaps the Nation,” Social Identities: Journal for the Study of Race, Nation and Culture 6 no. 2 (2000): 165-188

    Adriana Zavala, “Mexico City in Juan O’Gorman’s Imagination,” Hispanic Research Journal 8, no. 5 (December 2007): 491–506


    [1] Jacqueline Holler, “Conquered Spaces, Colonial Skirmishes: Spatial Contestation in Sixteenth-Century Mexico City,” Radical History Review no. 99 (Fall 2007): 107

    [2] UNESCO, “Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan,”

    [3] Brookings Institution, “The 10 Traits of Globally Fluent Metro Areas: Mexico City,” Global Cities Initiative, a Joint Project of Brookings and JPMorgan


    [4] Ibid.

    [5] Tanya Diaz, “AtravesARTE Brings Experiential Travel to Mexico City’s Contemporary Art World,” AtravesARTE Launch Press Release April 2, 2014.

    [6] TECHO, “What is TECHO/History,”

  • Architectural History and Architectural Humanities

    by User Not Found | Jun 23, 2014

    Note: This essay is a revised version of the plenary address delivered at the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, on April 14, 2014.

    In June of 2013, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences released a report that is or should by now be well-known to many of you: “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation.”[1]  I attended “The Heart of the Matter” launch on June 19th at the Capital Building in Washington, DC, where the project’s leaders delivered brief declarations about the importance of the humanities for their own lives, and especially for the nation’s health. It was a distinguished group that included Duke University President Richard Broadhead, former CEO of Exelon Energy John Rowe, ACLS President Pauline Yu, and the actor John Lithgow, among others. The launch event included the screening of a beautifully produced short film created by Ken Burns and George Lucas.[2] It was inspiring.

    The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation

    But the truly exceptional moment—the spectacularly memorable piece that seldom receives adequate attention in conversations about the report—occurred when two Republican members of Congress (Senator Lamar Alexander from Tennessee and Representative Tom Petri from Wisconsin) joined two Democratic members of Congress  (Senator Mark Warner from Virginia and Representative David Price from North Carolina) on a single stage and spoke about the reasons they commissioned this study and report.  This is no small feat, and it bears repeating:  The “Heart of the Matter” was commissioned by a bi-partisan congressional committee: two republicans and two democrats sat together on the stage, shook hands, and joined in common cause to support the humanities. Seeing them take the stage together was in many respects the most impressive thing about the entire project, because their appearance at the launch coincided with congressional proposals to either drastically cut the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) budget by nearly 50%, or to entirely eliminate NEH and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) as federal programs. And of course, that bi-partisan handshake predated the government shut-down that would occur in October of 2013 by only a few months, and appears even more extraordinary in its aftermath.

    The report’s appearance generated significant buzz in both the national and the higher education press, the reception was both positive and negative, and much of it was cynical. Indeed, it is not a perfect document; few such reports can claim to be so. But the report successfully brought public attention back to the humanities in some important and widely seen venues—the New York Times, but also through Duke University President Richard Broadhead’s appearance on the Colbert Report (where he more than held his own while engaging in witty banter about the humanities), and in conversations that continue around the country at universities and in public venues like the Chicago Humanities Summit that took place in early January, 2014.[3] It stimulated and continues to stimulate conversations about our national commitment to the humanities and arts. Despite the sometimes loud and inflammatory publicity generated by some politicians and journalists who seek to blame various modes of scholarship and the application of theories related to questions of race, class, and gender for the imagined demise or crisis in public education and the humanities, the bi-partisan committee that commissioned the report demonstrated that such views are those of a few, and not of the many.  The report is out there, widely circulated, waiting for our consideration and—more importantly—for our action.

    It is my belief that the report has fulfilled some very important objectives, and that  it has done some consequential work in its rather brief public life. The report helps us see that this is a time for taking action, for making changes, for speaking out, and for staking new or renewed claims to a public life for the humanities—and it usefully provides at least one set of approaches for doing just that.

    So how should or might we as architectural historians—how can all of us who daily study the built environment and its past—regard this report? How can we use it as a way to critically assess the work we are doing as scholars, and even the work we do together, gathered as members of a learned society that is near and dear to our hearts? What kind of report card can we give ourselves in consideration of our own work to sustain a vibrant life of the humanities as global citizens? The “Heart of the Matter,” it seems to me, aims to provide a road map and a measuring device for the collective actions we might take as scholars and as members of a learned society to think anew about the ways in which we might better exploit the built environment's centrality in everyday life for the creation of a new conception of our work in the expanded field of the public humanities.

    Like many of you, I’ve watched our field change and grow in exciting ways over the 25 years in which I’ve been an SAH member. But for all our growth, for all the exciting ways in which architectural history has become a complex, varied, and intellectually rewarding field, many of our colleagues across the humanities retain a somewhat outdated understanding of our endeavor. Even our colleagues in History departments—scholars with whom we should share many intellectual and methodological affinities—frequently regard our work as relatively unchanged from its shape in the 19th century. It surprises me each time I discover how many historians still imagine that we narrowly focus our studies on the form and style of buildings, or as exclusively preoccupied with writing biographies of particular designers and the histories of their careers. If we are having trouble reaching some of our most closely-affiliated university colleagues, we are surely facing some challenges in our efforts to engage the public in a more sophisticated, sustained, and robust set of dialogues. We have so much more to offer the humanities and the interested general public than we are currently understood to offer. If architectural historians are frequently among the first to discover new methods and approaches to historical inquiry that are of signal importance, we are often the last to be acknowledged for those discoveries, and this is important not as a matter of credit-where-credit-is-due, but of intellectual engagement.

    If our work is not as visible as it could or should be to our university peers and to members of the public, it seems also not to have been much on the minds of the authors who produced the “Heart of the Matter” report. The word “architecture” appears only once in the report: “…public art, architecture projects, and discussion groups strengthen communities and enhance local economies.”[4] The report’s authors included architecture because they saw it as offering “an opportunity for lifelong education,” a kind of everyday, embodied encounter with the humanities and arts. The words “architectural history” never appear, nor does “art history.” “History” and the broad rubric of “the arts” are included. But committee member Richard Broadhead specifically mentioned architecture as among the most public and visible components of the humanities in an address he delivered in Chicago just prior to the January Humanities Summit—how could one not do so when speaking from a podium in Chicago?![5]

    So although we might like to imagine the architectural historian as lurking in the unarticulated shadows of the report, we are not actually present; buildings are imagined as central, but our significance as scholars who study and interpret the built environment is absent. If buildings are central, but the central role of those who study them remains either an assumption or an oversight, how might we consider this report’s recommendations, and how might they matter for our fields?

    The report essentially offers recommendations to advance three goals:

    1. To Educate Americans in the knowledge, skills, and understanding they will need to thrive in a twenty-first-century democracy.
    2. To Foster a society that is innovative, competitive, and strong.
    3. To Equip a nation for leadership in an interconnected world.[6]

    The roughly sixty pages of the printed report include a further set of recommendations for achieving these goals, but I’d like to focus on just a few that may be of greatest relevance to those of us here tonight:“ Engaging the public;” “Communicating the importance of research to the public (and they emphasize the importance of K-12 engagement for this); and encouraging all disciplines to address “Grand Challenges.”[7] The language used to articulate these goals makes clear the report’s intentions to link the production of future good citizens to assuring the strength of the arts, humanities, and social sciences in the United States. If we agree that the goals of the report are important to the health of us all as human beings, then how might we, as architectural historians, advance those goals? To get at this, I want to address two aspects of the report’s recommendations: Its exhortation that we engage the public, and that we increasingly engage with what they call “Grand Challenges” in our research.

    1. Engage the Public

    Let’s start with the commission’s recommendation that we engage the public.

    On a most basic and self-interested level, we must certainly do this if we want  federal support for NEH and NEA to continue, along with anything else we do that relies on tax payer support, like work as humanists in large public universities as I currently do. The simple fact is that taxpayers have to better understand what we do and how it matters, and we should spend more time thinking about how to engage the tax-paying public. As the report states, we have to “Connect with them to make the funding case.. . .If scholars in the broad humanistic disciplines expect the public to be more financially supportive, they must make the case for the public value of their work much more effectively than they have in recent years…Everything scholars do to connect with the broader public advances their case for support, and everything they neglect to do weakens that case.  Top scholars should embrace the chance to connect with the larger community and help it feel the interest of their subjects and the power of their analyses.”[8]

    Both NEA and NEH have long required this of their grantees, but our efforts as scholars have frequently been inadequate. As individual scholars, we need to work harder at engaging a wider variety of audiences and we need to do so on a more sustained basis. And we, as architectural historians, are lucky—our subject is inherently interesting to people, and accessible to them in a way many subjects are not—it literally surrounds everyone everyday. Buildings, landscapes, city spaces are inescapable daily realities, foreground and background, essential if often unnoticed.  But we tend to write about our subject for each other more often than we probably should. Bloggers are changing this; our participation in events like the Chicago Humanities Festival is changing this; In fact, I believe SAH is in many respects leading in this area.

    How else are we doing so? One of the commission’s recommendations is to “expand the number of high-quality digital resources available to the general public” as a way to bring humanities and arts scholarship to the public, to broaden the scope of engagement with a community of public intellectuals, and to reach general audiences. Indeed, the report specifically mentions the benefits of the digital for presenting “historic buildings that are reconstructed” along with the ways classic texts and manuscripts can be made accessible.[9]  SAH excels in this category—we are way out in front, and SAH has been leading the way now for nearly a decade. SAH Archipedia is especially laudable, and it holds tremendous potential to expand our work to an even broader public audience—it is already doing so, with the Archipedia site averaging now about 1,000 visitors per day, nearly 30,000 visits for the month of March, 2014 alone, and with usage statistics climbing dramatically over the course of a single year. Ninety percent of Archipedia’s users now come from within the United States, but users from 29 other countries accessed the site as well, just in the month of March. This, it seems to me, is an astonishing example of successful work in the public humanities, one with the potential to grow, change, and attract ever larger audiences from around the globe. 

    Our journal, the JSAH, is another interesting example. It is a scholarly journal, intended for an audience of specialists, but it has already changed significantly over the past decade in both its content and format, and it will continue to do so. More than 2.7 million viewers accessed the JSAH Online in the past 3.5 years by readers in every country on the planet—circulation statistics we could not have dreamed about even a decade ago. Those statistics will likely shift again according to the demands of and legislation attendant to the open access movement. But open annotation is also going to change the ways the public engages with the scholarship produced in our journal and other online publications. Whether we like it or not,  new and increasingly sophisticated forms of commentary creation will be available for all web content, so that anyone can annotate our scholarship directly, in place, and on the open web. To many, this is an unsettling prospect, but it is, nevertheless, inevitable. Are we not then, better off inviting it into our world? Computational models of trust and reputation that are being designed for use with platforms like the open annotation tool means  (at least theoretically) that the days of uncivil and useless commentary attached as conversational threads that appear below online essays are likely to eventually disappear in favor of a higher-quality discussion that aims to elevate the most useful and reputable commentary attached to any particular content.[10] Our readers will be talking to us, arguing with us, contributing their knowledge to our work in ways we had not previously imagined. This is scary. This is also good, and we would do well to welcome this as early adopters considering the public nature of our subject matter. Rather than rejecting this technology, we might instead consider inviting the discussion that open annotation permits into our scholarly lives, and as authors we might also consider ourselves moderators of future online conversations with the capability to lead debates and shape a new realm of public discourse about the built environment with potentially enormous audiences.[11]

    Having our work on the open web where anyone can read it has the potential to change our field more than almost anything else we might do. It will expand the audience for our work exponentially. And new forms of publication are now emerging that will permit this model to exist within the framework of the university library (which is increasingly becoming a publisher) and the university press. It also has the potential to create serious financial challenges for the SAH and many other smaller learned societies.  There may well be a cost then, to learned societies, that is attached to the greater levels of public engagement called for in the report--more on that, in a moment.

    We can, of course, think of many other SAH initiatives that are bringing forms of our scholarship into the public realm. The increasingly active SAH Blog under the editorial stewardship of Kostis Kourelis, for example, seems to be attracting an ever-widening audience of readers from a range of fields with over 19,000 page visits this year; the SAH twitter account now has more than 1,200 followers; SAH has been generating K-12 lesson plans that are now integrated into the Archipedia website  where you can find lesson plans on complicated subjects like Civil Rights Memorials in Mississippi by clicking on “teacher resources” on the free Archipedia site; and our community outreach in annual conference cities has dramatically increased since the New Orleans meeting in 2011. This is all truly laudable work of which we can and should be very proud.

    And yet, there is much to be done, despite the successes I just cited. These high-quality digital products are just one, very specific form of the kind of public engagement we must seek—a form that relies on particular modes of content access and on imagined forms of content uptake and intellectual engagement.  What remains for us to ask is how else we might engage the public in dialogues about our work, how else might we expand not just access to the high-quality historical studies we share with each other here and in the books we publish, but how might we also expand the realm of sophistication, of expectation, of inquiry about the built environment at the public scale by continuing to expand our audience, and their sense of the significance of our endeavor to their everyday lives?

    Clearly, our specialization is one of our finest achievements, but it is perhaps also our biggest problem. Architectural historians possess analytical skills that are not easily achieved and that lead us in specific research directions that can be highly intellectually productive. But that same specialization can, as we know, become so inwardly or narrowly focused that we lose the ability to reach the wider audiences with whom we might profitably engage—both within the university and without (and I’m as guilty of this as anyone in the field). Has our specialization become “too extreme” so that we are no longer the contributors we might be in various public and even in various academic disciplinary spheres?[12] Writing for specialized, scholarly audiences is part of our work and it is among our obligations—one we must balance with greater attention directed to multiple, varied, and (hopefully) broader audiences. This is not to say that we should be “dumbing down” our content. Instead, I’m interested in exploring ways to present our work that invite larger groups of specialists and non-specialists alike to participate, to engage, to listen, and to help us formulate new questions. The rise of public humanities festivals around the country demonstrates the public’s interest in our subject matter and their desire to listen to thoughtful, sophisticated conversations about the built environment; so do websites like, which is devoted to “stimulating vigorous debate about works and ideas...” written by “scholars who write accessibly without sacrificing sophistication or depth…”for “…the brainy, bookish, or insatiably curious, who share our passion for connecting to the world through ideas.”[13] We have yet to engage that larger population, but I predict it won’t be difficult to do once we make it a priority. We just have to make conversations with broader publics a central goal, as “The Heart of the Matter” urges us to do.

    2. Address Grand Challenges:

    The Heart of the Matter report asserts that “The public valuation of the humanities will be strengthened by every step that takes this knowledge out of academic self-enclosure and connects it to the world. As scholars in these fields seek bigger and more varied audiences, so, too, should they seek a new range of intellectual partners… Researchers in the humanities and social sciences should be encouraged to apply their work to the great challenges of the era as well as pursuing basic, curiosity-driven research.” Each enhances the other.[14]

    I am especially aware that the language of the “Grand Challenge” can make a lot of humanities scholars very nervous. I know this because we included a Grand Challenge on the Global Midwest as a major initiative in the Mellon Foundation grant I recently received to form a consortium of 15 humanities centers at as many universities called the “Humanities Without Walls.”[15] Although scholars in the consortium are embracing the initiative and the opportunities for cross-institutional collaboration it supports, the “grand challenge” language has stimulated a variety of reactions including puzzlement, disdain, anxiety (worry that humanities subjects are not somehow “grand” enough?), along with a range of more sanguine reactions. The disdain in particular, I’m learning, derives from fears that the humanities can only be valued when they speak the language of the sciences. The “grand challenge” language, after all, derives from the sciences, primarily from  the National Science Foundation and other funding agencies who have sought academic research responses to the fundamental problems of our time. Typically, those challenges have been imagined as solvable through the applications of new technologies and scientifically formulated solutions created by research teams working in laboratories. The White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy, for instance, defines Grand Challenges as “ambitious but achievable goals that harness science, technology, and innovation to solve important national or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination…. Grand Challenges Can:

    • Help create the industries and jobs of the future;
    • Expand the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and the world around us;
    • Help tackle important problems related to energy, health, education, the environment, national security, and global development; and
    • Serve as a “North Star” for collaboration between the public and private sectors.”[16] 

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t immediately recognize my work in some of these bullet points. Creating industries and jobs is just not part of the way I imagine my work’s impact, nor, I suspect, does that resonate with many humanists. Our work does, however, expand the frontiers of human knowledge about ourselves and the world around us; Our studies can and do contribute to our understanding of important problems related to the environment and global development; If we serve as any kind of “north star,” it might be in our considerations of our own, collective collaboration with the public through the SAH, but also through our individual work in preservation activism; as historians working in State Historic Preservation Offices; as scholars and citizens serving on local housing boards; as national and public parks consultants and advocates; in public schools; as participants in prison education programs; and much more.

    We are particularly well positioned to engage with grand challenges because architectural histories can and often do address questions at a range of scales: that of the building, a neighborhood, a city, a territory, a nation, the global. What I want to suggest is that we need to more frequently articulate our work in grander terms. Rather than shying away from the language of the grand challenge because it may seem to devalue the humanities in favor of a language better accepted in the sciences, I want to suggest, as does “The Heart of the Matter” report, that we embrace that language, that in fact nearly everything we do in the humanities addresses a grand challenge and that architectural, landscape, and urban histories are no exception. But again, we’ll have to be conscious of the scope and breadth of our inquiry so that we are not, in the words of David Armitage and Jo Guldi, “just contributing another brick to the wall of knowledge without formulating a turning-point of consequence to the rest of the field or explaining (its) significance to general readers and citizens.”[17]

    Must we always orient our work to a large audience, or address such grand challenges? No. But there are stakes involved in this decision. There is no question in my mind that we bear some obligation to engage with the most pressing issues of our time, but it is equally clear to me that we can do so—have long been doing so---in ways that are not immediately instrumental to those challenges and that are extremely important. In some respects, our fields have led others, particularly with respect to the construction of histories of the everyday, and in our often nimble facility with multiple and complex forms of material and visual evidence as well as with the textual. But we’ve done so quietly, often unselfconsciously, and without outward engagement across the humanities.  Neoliberalism, globalization, imperialism—these are the topics consuming our colleagues in other humanities disciplines. And quite frankly, we may be learning about the same story of neoliberalism, globalization, and imperialism, told again about a lesser known location because the place, the site itself, is not enough part of the story. Scholars in every area of specialization from classicists, byzantinists, and medievalists, to early modernists, all contribute equally to these questions and the resultant conversations. But if we are afraid to claim our work as grand and challenging, if we shy away from that language, we do our scholarly endeavor an injustice.

    3. Doctoral Education

    Finally, we might profitably also ask how doctoral education in our fields prepares future historians to address such questions. “The Heart of the Matter” does not explicitly take up this topic, but it is of great relevance for nearly everyone in the SAH.[18] Our expectations for the dissertation are not yet significantly different than they’ve been for decades, but the pre- and post-doctoral landscape of our disciplines is shifting as it is for doctoral students across the humanities. As tenure-track jobs become increasingly scarce, and as so-called “alt-ac” careers become an increasing focus of graduate programs nationwide, we may see the emergence of a greater number of scholars in architectural history who possess a Ph.D. and who are seeking opportunities for the production of scholarship in the public realm. We are seeing a slight increase in public fellows programs and opportunities across the country, but the doctoral programs in which architectural, urban, and landscape historians are trained remain largely fixed to the same traditions and curricula by which they were governed in a previous era. How might we rethink the dissertation, for example, so that it can be better molded to suit various emerging opportunities in the public realm? What levels of public history work or public engagement would be acceptable in a dissertation? What kinds of questions might we accept that have not previously been seen as acceptable? What scope of time? What sorts of evidence? What sorts of new questions? What sorts of new products or analytical tools (which will almost certainly involve digital components)? What forms of collaboration? How can we teach our students to engage in the production of public writing, public histories that are both full of rich historical detail and delightful to read, that open up conversations among broader audiences about the ways space matters in and to everyday life? These are issues we need to address—and soon—to better prepare future architectural historians for a broader set of prospects that will necessarily include the levels of public engagement demanded by “The Heart of the Matter.” Those students are also and always the future of our fields.

    We need to find ways to continue to invite people in—to engage diverse members of the public to join us in our curiosity about and study of the built environment, to make them part of our worlds. We have to do a better job as historians of demonstrating the myriad, complex, and fascinating connections that exist between the built environment of the past and present to many of the key issues of our time and of times past: environmental change, the exercise of political authority, the impact of religious beliefs on societies, immigration, identity construction, and much more. To some extent, architectural critics have embraced this rather more quickly and robustly than we have done, and I would again point to the Chicago Tribune’s Blair Kamin as a model of someone who himself endeavors with his writing to “build a bridge between the public and the public realm,” helping, as he puts it, to generate public conversation about “our common destiny.”[19]

    To some extent, it might be helpful for us to reconsider Manfredo Tafuri’s notions of the historian-critic, particularly his insistence on the notion of architectural histories as frameworks and catalysts for public debate.[20] I’m not arguing for the destruction of the boundaries that delineate the work of critics and historians, but I am urging us as scholars to learn from the ways architectural critics manage increasingly and through various new forms of media and the conversations they afford, to engage the wider public in a more sophisticated set of dialogues about the built environment. 

    Finally—and importantly given the shifting role of the learned society that I’ve alluded to above: Ask not what your learned society can do for you, but ask instead what you can do to help raise the visibility of the work that is done within your learned society. We have to think about learned societies in new and fresh ways, and we have to understand them as a crucial part of a triad that includes the work of universities, and individual scholars—that they are our working partners with the potential for making scholarship publicly visible in ways that the university of the present often surprisingly lacks. We are used to thinking about the payment of membership fees in exchange for specific sets of society services and privileges, but that model is rapidly shifting. For example, as open access begins to be the rule instead of the exception, our journals will no longer be tied to our membership and while that erodes our present business model, it also means, as I noted earlier, that our scholarship will be on the open web where people can actually read it. Our ways of gathering for intellectual exchange may also change away from the traditional conference format in the coming decades if a variety of economic shifts continue to hold sway in the academy and if climate change makes the traditional conference model both environmentally irresponsible and locally untenable. So instead of thinking about membership fees as purchasing specific goods and services, we might instead consider them as the purchase of a certificate of commitment to the public good of our profession and of our realm of study; that membership in a society like SAH is a declaration of faith in and obligation to our collective responsibility to the advancement of a public branch of our intellectual work; that to be a member of the SAH of the future may be primarily about considerations related to the advancement of a publicly engaged scholarship that begins with K-12 education but does not end at universities, and that instead advances our work as a continuous effort to further sophisticated dialogues in public and in private domains and across the multiple and varied spaces in between.

    What we see when we use “The Heart of the Matter” as a measuring device is an SAH that has been quietly leading the way—perhaps too quietly—towards a greater engagement with the public and charting paths for raising the visibility of the humanities through its digital projects. But for that work to become less quiet—and I believe it deserves to be both more well-known and still more widely accessed—we need to see that work as belonging to all of us, to everyone who is able to support it, engage in it, and produce more of it. A public architectural humanities has to become a priority rather than a hobby. To be a participant in that emerging realm of the public humanities is, for me, an exciting prospect—one for which I may be poorly prepared, but for which I am entirely game. For me, that engagement is at the heart of the matter.

    [1] The full “Heart of the Matter” report can be accessed here:

    [2] The film can be viewed here:

    [3] The Chicago Humanities Summit took place on January 9, 2014, and was co-sponsored by the Chicago Humanities Festival, the Modern Language Association, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. 

    [4] “Heart of the Matter,” p. 50

    [5] Broadhead made these comments at a dinner in Chicago sponsored by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the MLA, and the Chicago Humanities Festival on January 8, 2014.

    [6] “Heart of the Matter,” pp. 10-12.

    [7] “Heart of the Matter, pp. 10-12, and passim.

    [8] “Heart of the Matter,” p. 39.

    [9] “Heart of the Matter,” p. 52

    [10] For more on, see the following website:  Additional information on Open Annotation can be found here:

    [11] These thoughts about curating public debates about the built environment were stimulated by a lecture titled “Architecture Criticism: Dead or Alive?” delivered by Blair Kamin at the School of Architecture, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, March 10, 2014. Kamin has an outstanding record of stimulating and curating such public debates in the digital version of the The Chicago Tribune.

    [12] R. R. Palmer, “A Century of French History in America,” French Historical Studies, 14, 1985, pp. 173-174. This is also cited in Armitage and Gouldi, p. 12.

    [13] The Chicago Humanities Festival is an outstanding example. See For the quotes, see

    [14] “Heart of the Matter, pp. 43, 45.

    [15] The Humanities Without Walls consortium is based at the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities (IPRH) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and it is funded by a substantial grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. For more information, see

    [17] David Armitage and Jo Guldi, “The Return of the Longue Duree: An Anglo-American Perspective,”, (2014, p.5).

    [18] Doctoral education is also the subject of an important new report released in June, 2014, by the Modern Language Association, “Report of the MLA Task Force on Doctoral Study in Modern Language and Literature.” The report is available here:

    [19] Blair Kamin lecture, March 10, 2014.

    [20] On the Tafurian critic-historian, see “There Is No Criticism, Only History: An Interview with Manfredo Tafuri” conducted in Italian and translated into English by Richard Ingersoll, in Design Book Review, no. 9, Spring 1986, pp. 8–11.

  • A Broken Silhouette

    by User Not Found | Apr 30, 2014

    This article originally appeared on the blog Stambouline and has been republished here with permission. Stambouline is dedicated to exploring the art and architecture of the Ottoman Empire, looking at the stories behind the buildings and objects that have been left behind. Each post introduces a new place or object. The main contributor to the blog, Emily Neumeier, is a graduate student studying the history of art at the University of Pennsylvania. 

    Istanbul's new Metro Bridge and the political battle over the city's historic panorama

    [1] Different profiles of the new Metro Bridge across Istanbul's Golden Horn, showing how the bridge would affect the different silhouettes of the surrounding site. Adapted from a graphic by the Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality, 2009. 

    On February 15th, Istanbul's new metro line officially went into service. The project, initiated by the Greater Istanbul Municipality in 2005, unites the city's various metro lines, extending trains in Taksim Square directly into the old city, with connections to Atatürk Airport and the opposite Anatolian shore. [Fig. 2] While the majority of this new extension runs unseen underground, the most visibly prominent feature of the line is a bridge extending across the waters of the Golden Horn (Trk. Haliç). This past autumn, residents watched as the two 65-meter-tall pylons, supporting the bridge in a cable-stay system, slowly rose into the sky. At the opening ceremony last month, Turkey's Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan was quoted saying "for this metro line, we constructed a bridge on the Haliç that will enhance Istanbul's beauty." The Prime Minister was also careful throughout his speech to stress that every precaution was taken so as not to harm any of the monuments "in an area harboring a history spanning thousands of years." These platitudes about the importance of protecting Istanbul's cultural patrimony were no doubt crafted in direct response to the backlash of scathing criticism that the bridge design faced from not only the local press and academic community, but also a UNESCO mission whose findings threatened to land Istanbul on the list of "World Heritage Monuments at Risk." The main concern lodged against the new Metro Bridge is that certain features (particularly the tall pylons, suspension cables, and rail station in the center of the bridge) block the view from the north towards the historic peninsula of the old city, especially the 16th-century Süleymaniye Mosque Complex. [Fig. 3] Erdoğan would call this addition to the old city's skyline an enhancement; others, an obstruction. As one of the major projects that the city's top brass rushed to completion to meet the deadline of the March 30 municipal elections, the Haliç Metro Bridge and Istanbul's historic skyline are a case study in how the current government's massive infrastructure projects have become a tense political battleground.

    [2] Map Showing the new metro extension from Taksim to Yenikapı. Drawn in Google Earth.

    [3] The Haliç Metro Bridge, March 2014. Looking from the shore of Beyoğlu onto the historic peninsula, the bridge partially obstructs the view to the Süleymaniyye Mosque. Photo by Emily Neumeier. 

    [4] Original design proposed for the Haliç Bridge, 2007. Istanbul Metropolitan Municipality.

    In 2007, the original designs for the bridge by Hakan Kiran Architecture were revealed. [Fig. 4] The plans proposed two gilded 82-meter-tall pylons, which curved at the top into "horns" (Get it? Because the bridge is crossing the Golden Horn). Unfortunately for the Greater Istanbul Municipality, UNESCO does not seem to have a similar sense of humor when it comes to visual puns. The city's historic peninsula, which is clearly defined by the old land and sea walls, was inscribed on the register of UNESCO's "World Heritage Sites" in 1985. Because the new bridge would impact the view to the peninsula from the north, and construction would require the demolition of several historic buildings within the core area, the organization decided to step in. UNESCO made it clear that if significant changes were not made in the proposed bridge design, this project could demote Istanbul to the similarly-named but decidedly less-fun list of "World Heritage Sites in Danger," joining the illustrious company of Bamiyan and Damascus. So, the architects on the project scaled down the plans, most notably lowering the height of the bridge's pylons by about 20 meters, and changing their color from a golden yellow to a grey-white tone. With a few other minor alterations, this is basically what we see built on the ground today. The report from a joint UNESCO/ICOMOS monitoring mission to Istanbul in 2009 gives a sense of the farcical proceedings. When the investigators inquired after the cable-stay design, curious if any other options had been considered:

    The mission was informed that 11 alternative designs [for the bridge] had been presented to the Conservation Council, but the alternatives were produced 10 years ago and were not studied proposals – they were only suggestions. Some of the suggestions were just copied and pasted from books on bridges. It seems clear that no alternative design has so far been seriously considered and, with regard to the design of the current proposal for a cable-stay bridge, during the meeting it was stated that the intention was to 'introduce a new work of art – a new contemporary element in the area.' [34]
    In 2011, UNESCO finally approved the construction of the Metro Bridge, lending legitimacy to the project's backers. (Congratulating themselves on a job well done, the organization proceeded to be completely out to lunch on the destruction of the Yedikule gardens and the lightning-fast construction of a 270,000 square meter platform protruding into the Marmara Sea, which was inaugurated with an 1.5 million-person rally on March 23.) Many local critics, however, still felt that the changes in the design did not adequately address the primary concern of blocking the northern view to Istanbul's peninsula [Fig. 5], again summed up in the 2009 report: 
    The overall design of the bridge, with pylons and cable stays and the thickening of the deck through the incorporation of a station, will have a significant visual impact on key attributes of the property such as the silhouette of the Historic Peninsula...the design of the bridge is inappropriate for this position, both because it will impede irreversibly on many important views of the World Heritage Site and because the bridge, presented as a 'work of art,' will compete with the Süleymaniye Mosque, identified at the time of inscription as a work of human genius, designed by Sinan. [34-35]

    [5] View of Istanbul's historic peninsula, looking from Galata. Abdullah Fréres, ca. 1880-93, Library of Congress.

    [6] View of the Inner Courtyard of the Süleymaniye Mosque. Photo by Michael Polczynsky, 2014.

    The Turkish press and local academics expressed outrage about the bridge's potential to impede on the visual integrity of the peninsula's skyline. There has been no shortage of colorful metaphors; according to various critics, the bridge threatens to "break", "stab", and "violate" the silhouette of the old city. In the eyes of many, the pointed tops of the pylons are not horns, but daggers, slicing the panorama into two. This visceral imagery characterizing the landscape as a prone body vulnerable to violent attack is a familiar leitmotif, especially in the wake of modern warfare and the large-scale urban planning projects of the 20th century. In her article on the "ideology of preservation" in Istanbul, Nur Altınyıldız traces how in the 19th century the large mosque complexes dotting the hills of the peninsula [Fig. 6], which originally were service-oriented institutions and themselves agents of urban growth and renewal, were increasingly divorced from this service context and re-classified as "historic" monuments whose preservation stood at odds with the modern signifiers of progress such as opening new roads (or new metro bridges). [234] 

    [7] View from the Süleymaniye Mosque Complex to the Golden Horn. Photo by Michael Polczynsky, 2014.

    As the UNESCO report alludes, and commentators frequently point out, the silhouette under question is an Ottoman contribution to the city. When Sultan Süleyman commissioned the Süleymaniye (c. 1550-1558) on the top of Istanbul's third hill, he was following the precedent established by his predecessors Sultan Mehmed II and Bayezid II, who had constructed their own mosque complexes along the ridges of the peninsula in the 15th century. Significantly, the Süleymaniye complex was originally designed so that the auxiliary buildings flanking the mosque on its northern side, towards the Golden Horn, were constructed on a lower terrace so that the monument would have an unobstructed view of Galata, Üsküdar, and the Bosphorus [Necipoğlu, 106]. [Fig. 7] In this unmistakable declaration of power, the mosque, as a stand-in for its sultanic patron, commanded a wide gaze and likewise demanded to be seen. It is certainly no coincidence that the "audience" on the opposite shore of the Golden Horn was largely composed of foreigners and non-Muslim communities, who from their perch in Galata were always to some extent on the outside looking in to the city proper. Throughout the centuries, European cartographers and artists endlessly recorded this view, the Golden Horn panorama becoming its own veritable genre in the imagery of Istanbul. Now that the heart of the modern city has shifted to the area around Taksim Square, it could be argued that what was once the purview of foreigners, and Ottoman elites in the 19th century, has now been democratized (or, more cynically, commodified), becoming a monument deserving preservation in its own right. 

    [8] A sign advertising the opening of the Haliç Metro Bridge. The slogan reads "The Metro Everywhere, the Metro to Every Place." Under the slogan is the name and signature of the Istanbul Mayor, Kadir Topbaş. Photo by Emily Neumeier.

    Some people are wondering what the fuss is all about. The Mayor of the Greater Istanbul Municipality Kadir Topbaş points out that, in truth, the view of the Süleymaniye is only obstructed from specific vantages, primarily the Beyoğlu neighborhoods just west of the new bridge. (read: tourists don't go there, so why is everyone getting upset?) On the other hand, Edhem Eldem wonders at the public outcry when the Süleymaniye or the starchitect Sinan's genius is threatened, but the relative silence to the arguably much more egregious destruction of Byzantine-era material. The controversy is reminiscent of the frequent criticism lobbed at Santiago Calatrava's distinctive bridge designs, which are often cited for not taking the local context or geography into account, and, on top of that, being needlessly expensive and poorly-built. Almost a full month after the official opening, the Vezneciler stop on Istanbul's new metro line was still being completed. During such time, passengers traveling from Taksim over the Haliç Bridge were treated to a creepy view of the unfinished station, complete with flickering lights and tubes hanging from the ceiling.

    [9] A view approaching the station on the bridge. Photo by Emily Neumeier.

    A 2013 petition signed by faculty members of Istanbul's Boğaziçi University lists the Haliç Bridge as only one of many recent infrastructure projects that, the faculty argues, are being completed at such a fast rate and with so little public participation or accountability that the damage being done will be "irreversible." And that is precisely the point. It is the sincere wish of the bridge's designers (including Topbaş himself, trained as an architect) that this project will endure the test of time. Aiming to create a work of art that could rival the Süleymaniye, the current municipal government has done its best to insert their own contribution to the historic skyline, evidently full-aware of the site's significance to the public imagination of Istanbul. In hopes of finding some kind of press release on the opening of the bridge, I looked on the official website promoting the new bridge project. The website, unlike the bridge itself, was still under construction.

    EMILY NEUMEIER is a doctoral candidate in the History of Art at the University of Pennsylvania.

    **The report of the joint UNESCO/ICOMOS 2009 visit to Istanbul can be found here.

    ALTINYILDIZ, Nur. "The Architectural Heritage of Istanbul and the Ideology of Preservation."Muqarnas 24 (2007), pp. 281-305.

    GUIDONI, Enrico. "Sinan's Construction of the Urban Panorama." Environmental Design: Journal of the Islamic Environmental Design Research Centre 1-2 (1987): pp. 20-41.

    KORKUT, Sevgi. "Istanbul's silhouette to change as metro line comes into view." Today's Zaman, 12 November 2012.

    NECİPOĞLU, Gülrü. "The Süleymaniye Complex in Istanbul: ِAn Interpretation." Muqarnas 3 (1985), pp. 92-117.

    VARDAR, Nilay. "Tüm İtirazların Ardından Haliç Köprüsü." Bianet, 24 January 2014.
  • Good Night: A Dazzling New Era of Metropolitan Light

    by User Not Found | Apr 22, 2014
    Article via Places Journal

    The Bay Lights, San Francisco, project by Leo Villareal for the Bay Bridge, test run, January 2013. [Photograph: Leo Villareal, via Wikimedia]

    Great White Way
    The lights of New York dazzled Vladimir Mayakovski when he came to visit in 1925. The revolutionary poet of modernism felt “a constant electrical breeze” in the great city, powering trains to the horizon and elevators to the stars, igniting the metropolitan elements; "the buildings are glowing with electricity,” he wrote. Bewitched, he stared hard into the dizzying views, his vision racing down the vanishing streets netted with wires and lights. [1] For Mayakovski, New York in the early 20th century was the frenzied heart of modernity, the new world metropolis where the self-conscious avant-garde aesthetic experiment of the old world was eclipsed by the unblinking gaze of blazing lamps, as if the white-hot heart of human consciousness itself were on display. 

    The invention of the infrastructures of artificial light, first gas, then electric, was as fundamental to modernization as was any system of transportation, communication or energy, and as momentous as urbanization itself. But for Mayakovski electric light was more than a technology of modernization; it pointed toward a certain kind of modernism, an emerging way of understanding and expressing the world. Mayakovski, along with such contemporary artists as Marcel Duchamp and Sergei Eisenstein, saw in electric lighting the end of one way of life and the advent of another. Self-mandated to see beyond the horizon, the poet, he wrote, was indebted to the harbingers of new life and, as result, always “paying out exorbitant fines and interest." "I am in debt to Broadway’s dazzling streetlamps,” he declared, as he traveled in his eager search for emotional insolvency. Urban street lighting was, for Mayakovski, nothing less than a locus of modernism. 

    Continue reading on Places Journal

  • Team-Based Learning for Art Historians

    by User Not Found | Apr 15, 2014

    The post features ART HISTORY TEACHING RESOURCES (AHTR), a website aimed at supporting the teaching of art and architectural history. It is peer-populated with teaching content, including syllabi, assignments and lesson plans, as well as blog entries about pedagogy. It was co-founded in 2011 by Michelle Millar Fisher, doctoral candidate in Art History at the Graduate Center, CUNY and Karen Shelby, Assistant Professor of Art History at Baruch College, CUNY and a graduate of the Graduate Center. AHTR has been awarded a Kress Grant for Digital Resources and will be undergoing an upgrade by the same people who have designed award-winning projects for the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

    Recently we participated in a workshop on Team-Based Learning (TBL) at Brooklyn College, a process where your students are divided into permanent teams for the entire semester. The teams work during class on activities based on readings. You can read more about it in a short article in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Also take a look at the TBL website. Similar to the ‘Flipped Classroom’ students do the reading (yes! they actually do it) BEFORE the subject is taught in class and are quizzed on that material before each unit of study (typically 4-7 units a semester). Classroom time, then, is spent on active learning activities in teams that are meant to promote deeper learning than a typical lecture. Team-based learning was developed by professors working with Business and Marketing majors with large lecture classes. While we were both attracted to the idea that students reportedly read and engage more, we wondered ‘Can this be applied to an art history class?’ Beginning in the Fall 2013 we began to experiment teaching our classes using this method, fully implementing it this semester. The conversation that follows is our take on using TBL in an art history class.

    Chart for survey activity

    Screen Shot 2014-03-31 at 6.51.28 PM

    Jenn: I have used TBL in two upper-level art history classes – Foundations of Islamic Art and Romanesque Art and in general it has been a positive experience! But the way it was taught in the workshops needs some tweaking for art history. Perhaps a good place for us to start is on what works well in TBL.

    Lauren: I have used TBL in two courses – a one semester, global survey (50 students) and an upper level Mesoamerican Art course (25 students). Overall, I think students enjoyed the experience, even if some students expressed their concern of working in teams. Personally, I found it rewarding and challenging, particularly because of the unique nature of teaching Art History. So, yes, let’s focus on what works well.

    Jenn: The teams work on what are called “Application Activities” in TBL jargon. My most successful one so far has been on monasteries, and it took three class periods. Students had 6 primary source readings to do in advance. Each reading was about the monastic life, for example we read Benedict and Peter the Venerable. They also had to do a reading on monasteries, learning to identify three monasteries: Cluny, Fontenay, and Monte Cassino. Students had to fill out a grid on the reading asking them to list the ideal behaviors and ideal environments that each writer espoused. In class, the teams then created one grid, discussing the readings and fleshing out what they had done on their own. Following that, each team had to glean the three biggest problems facing abbotts in the Middle Ages and post them for the whole class. We had a great discussion! Students were able to say so much about other team’s lists because they knew the material so well at this point. During the second class, they were asked to create their own ideal monastery with a drawn plan, a page on what was included and why, and a list of 10 rules for their monks. It was so exciting listening to their conversations. I heard one woman arguing why her group needed to include a chapter house for their monastery. Another group ran a hostel for pilgrims and carefully designed their monastery to separate the laity from the monks, without having seen a medieval example of this. During the final class, each team hung up their beautifully drawn monasteries and rules. Teams were then asked to go around and evaluate the other teams’ monasteries. With post-its, they wrote questions on the other projects and put a star on their favorite monastery. The class ended with a really in-depth discussion and they got so much more out of it than they would have, had I simply lectured on monasteries.

    Lauren: One of my successful application activities for my art-history survey focused on the subject of power and patronage. Prior to class, students read four Smarthistory entries about patronage, an Ashokan pillar, the Merode Altarpiece, and Bernini’s St. Teresa in Ecstasy. I asked students to complete a chart that helped them list important points from the reading and organize their ideas. In class, I delivered a mini-lecture about patronage in general. In teams, they engaged in 5-10 minute activities that asked them why patronage is important for studying the history of art. For the remainder of class and for most of the following one, teams created a poster that addressed the following: “Which of the objects best endorses the political ambitions, social position, or prestige of the patron(s)? State your specific choice and explain why you selected it in 1-2 sentences. Then, provide and discuss at least 5 pieces of evidence (stylistic, iconographic, contextual, etc.) to support your claim.” After each team completed their poster, they taped it to a wall to engage in a gallery walk (more TBL jargon). All teams had to decide which team produced the best claim and evidence, and which team did not defend their claim sufficiently. They used a green and red post-it (with their team name and a comment) to designate the “best” and “needs improvement.” They couldn’t vote for themselves.

    The results were wonderful. As I walked around the room, students asked me questions about the readings or specific follow-up questions about the artworks. One team exclaimed that the chart was so useful because they could organize their ideas before discussing them as a team. Another team mentioned that choosing one object was challenging, specifically because all three offered excellent case studies. Listening to their discussion as they narrowed it to one object was exciting, as well as insightful. I was able to see them working as art historians, rather than listen to me give them information.

    Once each team finished their posters and commented on other teams’ end products, we engaged in a class-wide discussion about those posters that received green or red post-its. This allowed us to discuss as a group how to make an effective claim and support it. One team even decided to rate themselves as the least effective; they noted that in the process of reading other teams’ posters they realized their claim was too general and their evidence vague. This same team mentioned to the class the steps they would take to develop a better argument. It was wonderful to see members of other teams realize how they could improve their own poster (several students even jumped up to mark additional data on posters). Three teams presented excellent posters, and we discussed why these examples were most effective.

    If we skip ahead to the midterm, students used this application activity as a model for writing effective comparative essays. The midterm essays were the best I’ve ever received in a survey class.

    For my upper division art history class, I had a wonderful team activity focused on the Postclassic international style and symbol set (PISSS) in Mesoamerica. Students read a short article prior to class that discussed what the style and symbol set entailed. Near the beginning of class, I asked students to decide which of the following the PISSS related to most: hipsters, traffic signs, cartoons, videogames, or corporate branding (e.g., Coca-Cola). I initially thought this discussion would be brief, but as I walked around the room I overheard the most exciting discussions about the topic and so extended it to 30-minutes. Each team then simultaneously reported using stock cards (labeled with A, B, etc.). This allowed us all to know instantly how each team responded. We then discussed the answers, and teams articulated why they felt their answer addressed the question best. One team chose hipsters and had a very creative answer that perfectly captured how the PISSS parallels aspects of the contemporary moment. And we fulfilled my dream of discussing hipsters in Art History.

    Jenn: Any downsides Lauren?

    Lauren: One drawback of TBL is that it focuses heavily on multiple-choice questions for the quizzes (the Readiness Assurance Tests, or RATs). I have realized that I need much improvement in writing questions, as well as providing answers that are not too easy or too difficult. I also have noticed that students take longer on these quizzes than I expected. I originally gave a 20 question quiz for the first unit. I quickly realized that 20 questions took almost 2 hours because they took it individually first and then again as a team. I’ve changed these quizzes to be 10 questions, and I feel they are just as effective—if not more so.

    Another potential weakness of TBL is that we don’t look in as much detail at images on the screen. Jenn and I have requested iPads to use in our TBL classes because we hope that this will allow teams to look more closely at specific images in color rather than the black-and-white images in a reading or textbook. It also allows students to look at images in any order they choose rather than in a linear fashion (like Powerpoint).

    Jenn: Lauren, I completely agree—I need to take a workshop in multiple choice! I’m not sure I will stick with that—the first semester I gave short-answer quizzes and I think that works better for me.

    I would add that group dynamics are challenging at times. The teams have to evaluate each other, which counts toward their grade. Nevertheless, some people are not team players. The team tends to bring most people into the fold eventually but I’ve had a few hold outs and their grade suffers. I wonder how fairly that assesses their work. But, working in a group is a skill like any other.

    I’m pretty happy with TBL and want to do more, though I never thought I’d be bringing scissors, poster board and markers into my college classroom! We’re making guidebooks for pilgrims this week.

    Lauren: I agree; I think TBL has some amazing benefits—and I love having the lights on more often. I actually get to see my students.

    Jennifer Ball is Associate Professor of Byzantine Art at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center. She publishes on Byzantine textiles, dress and portraits, and this fall will begin a fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for her project, Habit Forming: Representations of Byzantine Monastics, 9th–15th Centuries.

    Lauren G. Kilroy-Ewbank is Assistant Professor of Latin American Art at Brooklyn College. She specializes in the Colonial Spanish Americas, publishing primarily on body parts, religious icons, and death-related arts. She has a forthcoming book on images of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in colonial Mexico.

  • Louis Kahn's African-American Vernacular

    by User Not Found | Mar 26, 2014

    Carver Court

    When the telephone rang in my office at Franklin & Marshall College, I was surprised to learn that the caller on the other line was a resident of a Louis Kahn house and, most strikingly, a Louis Kahn house that has been largely forgotten. In 1942, Kahn, Oscar Storonov, and George Howe reconfigured the traditional row house to serve a community of African-American steel workers returning from World War II. Known to just a handful of architectural historians, Carver Court in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, had receded from public attention. And for that very reason, the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia had placed it on its 2012 Endangered Properties List. Thanks to the stewardship of Ben Leech and the research of Allee Berger, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission determined Carver Court eligible for listing in the National Register of HIstoric Places in March 2013.

    As the local architectural historian, I was invited to meet with civic and community leaders of Caln Township to brainstorm on the future of this housing complex and to strategize on celebrating its unique role in the history of African-American labor. Although I am not a Kahn expert, I had worked in Louis Kahn's archives as a student, and wanted to seize the moment that William Whitaker and Ben Marcus have set into motion with their spectacular new book, The Houses of Louis Kahn, and accompanying exhibition at the University of Pennsylvania Architectural Archives.

    Carver Court

    Carver Court is no ordinary house by virtue of its users, some of which are the original African-American steelworkers. Most of the better-known Kahn houses were commissioned by Philadelphia’s professional class and are located in the suburbs, while Carver Court engages Kahn’s early commitment to social and economic justice. If it were up to Kahn, Carver Court would not have been segregated. Race politics at this Pennsylvania mill town necessitated the residential division between black and white workers, even though both groups worked for the same Lukens Steel factory. The lynching of Zachariah Walker in 1911 underscored such ethnic tensions. Caln Township was initially settled by William Penn in 1714. Ironically, the white and black housing projects were separated by the Gardner-Beale farm, which had strong Quaker roots and served in the Underground Railroad. A farmhouse from 1811 survives and is now surrounded by Coatesville High School completed in 1968.

    Louis Kahn was a housing activist as early as 1931, when he founded the Architecture Research Group. His partner, Oscar Storonov (and Alfred Kastner), had designed the first Modernist housing project in America, the Carl Mackley Houses for the hosiery workers union (1932). Kahn’s activism helped fight Philadelphia’s resistance to public housing and led into the foundation of the Philadelphia Housing Authority. Carver Court is the greatest physical manifestation of Kahn’s labor union vernacular.

    Coatesville is located half way between Philadelphia and Lancaster at the intersection of the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line and the Brandywine River. Coatesville’s steel mills, that produced the beams for the World Trade Center, are of great historical significance and, like Kahn’s housing, continue to operate (under new global management). Carver Court’s remoteness from Philadelphia and the general economic decline of manufacturing have contributed in a slow forgetting of both Pennsylvania’s labor movement and Philadelphia’s architectural engagement. Six decades after its original completion, Carver Court asks some important questions. It is only one of five housing projects designed by Kahn, Storonov, and Howe, and it the single specimen of their African-American architecture. Carver Court has slipped the radar of preservationists and historians because it looks nondescript and lacks the telltale signs of high modernist distinction. Its ordinariness, however, is what makes it exemplary. Taking cues from Le Corbusier’s elevated piloti, Kahn invented a scheme of adoptive design that reinterpreted the traditional row house. His “ground-freed” housing form elevated living quarters to the second floor and left the first floor open to the owner’s specific interpretation. Rather than limiting what the owners did with their allotted housing unit, Kahn wanted the occupants to exercise some freedom in how to use the first floor. It could function as a garage, a workshop, or added living space. The architect’s agency could be supplemented by the occupant’s agency, giving the community a sense of ownership and design engagement. Thus, the very indeterminacy of Carver Court that makes it a specimen of democratic design has also caused its progressive neglect by scholarship.

    The phone call from Carver Court and the meeting with Caln Township precipitated a series of questions on both the original significance of the monument as well as the pedagogical opportunities in its rediscovery. A call from a grassroots community generates a research opportunity beyond the obvious scholarly needs. Involving undergraduate students in the documentation of Carver Court’s story seems one of those rare opportunities to engage students with artifacts. First, it is astounding how much work remains to be done even on America’s most important modernist architect. Understanding the afterlife of Carver Court is one immediate challenge, but one of great potential in teaching what Delores Hayden called “the power of place.”

  • Study Day: Miami and Miami Beach

    by User Not Found | Mar 07, 2014

    Miami is a cross-section of multiple cultures and environmental factors, which has a profound impact on the built landscape. As such, there have been unique opportunities of urban interventions created by the juxtaposition of place, people and the production of culture.  The 2014 Miami Study Tour engages two of the most notable installations on the Miami cultural landscape. Designed by the same architect, Herzog & de Meuron, they act as commentaries on architecture in Miami and Miami Beach. The 11 11 Lincoln Road building has shifted the cultural thinking of the aesthetic of a parking garage and the recently completed Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) is a negotiation of cultural, social and urban space in Miami.


    Figure 1  Folly on Lincoln Road (Architect: Morris Lapidus)

    The day began with a stroll along the pedestrian mall called Lincoln Road Mall in Miami Beach, which stretches across several blocks from Washington Avenue to Alton Road. Once considered the Fifth Ave Avenue of the South, it is reminiscent of Miami’s Art Deco architectural style, preserved in buildings such as the Colony Theatre and detailed in façades of the shops of Lincoln Road. With vivid descriptions of Art Deco, to the architectural follies designed by architect, Morris Lapidus, our tour guide, David Rifkind, led us through the architectural narrative of Miami Beach. As we travelled along Lincoln Road, he illustrated the cultural transformation until we arrived to the newly developed movie theatre and the 11 11 parking garage on Alton Road.

    Figure 2- 11 11 Lincoln Road (Architect: Herzog & de Meuron)

    Jeff Weinstein, our guide to 11 11 Lincoln Road, introduced us to the vision of the building and gave us detailed aspects of the building’s program, materiality and architect’s commentary of retail space’s interaction with urban space. 11 11 Lincoln Road is a seven layered car park for 300 cars combined with unique retail space, luxury housing and sandwiched parking space. Each level can be transformed into gallery space, event space and a viewing platform to Lincoln Road and Miami Beach. 

    Figure 3- Art Installation by Monica Sosnowska under stairs at 11 11 Lincoln Road

    Figure 3- Art Installation by Monica Sosnowska under stairs at 11 11 Lincoln Road

    This was the Swiss architect’s, Herzog & de Meuron, first architectural introduction to Miami, who used the car park as a discourse, an architectural commentary on Miami, which they later continued in the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM). It was an anti-Miami Beach statement located on one of the more famous streets with its starkness and smooth concrete finish standing tall against the detailed stucco of the walls of Art Deco era. It was also a comment on permeability and accessibility, giving both visual and physical access to the views of the city and its tropical environment which was lacking in the air-conditioned retail and hotel spaces. Even though the main program of the project was to service to the neighboring building, it provided more than simply parking. 

    A typical parking garage is a monotone of planes erected as cheaply and as quickly as possible, however the 11 11 building, defied that notion. Herzog & de Meuron framed a new space not just in Miami Beach but also in architecture by subverting the architectural typology of the parking garage. Architectural details from varying floor heights, the inconsistent floor planes to inlaid visible piping and atypical programs are interwoven within the building’s function. The sculptural element of the angled columns, thin planes of the floors angled at the edges, customized lighting and signage highlight the luxury of space and experience. With visual shifting planes and façades, each level has varying heights with integrated retail space primarily on the ground floor and an exclusive location on the fifth floor. The ground floor has black and white paving, reminiscent of the follies of Morris Lapidus, and an angled façade canopied by the second floor large providing Lincoln Road’s most luxurious treat, shade. 

    Figure 4 - Ground Floor of the 11 11 Lincoln Road

    After lunch on Lincoln Road, we headed to the Perez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) located in the city of Miami. Completed in 2013, PAMM is reminiscent of the southern great houses of old with its wide elevated porch or veranda encompassing the main building and above the garage underneath. It has a vantage point to the port of Miami and serves a beacon within the cultural landscape of Miami, with its unique vertical gardens combining with the breeze to fragrance the air. 

    Figure 5- View from the highway, Perez Art Museum Miami. Architect: Herzog & de Meuron

    Terry Riley, our guide to PAMM, said “to the modernist the building is modern, to the classicist, the building is classical and to the regionalist, the building is regional”. Framed views of the city of Miami is seen either through full length windows or transparent walls and physically accessed via the porches at varied levels. As you explore the artwork in the galleries located on the main and second floor, you walk around the multi-stored void which houses the central auditorium. The auditorium also acts as a transitional space as you ascend and descend the beautifully inlaid wooden stairs which are integrated with the room’s seating and are the main connector between the floors.

    Figure 6 - SAH tour group touring PAMM in front of window with view to Bayfront Park and the Port of Miami

    By inviting light and unique views to the city, Herzog & de Meuron continue this discourse on architecture in Miami. They centered on the notion of permeability and accessibility, both visual access and physical access, to the city and its environment. The building is a distinct blurring of the solid and void, of inside and outside and constant negotiation of wanting to experience the artwork hung in the gallery or enjoy the new vistas framed by the architectural details and the vantage points as you move through the building. There are three types of gallery space; the anchor gallery, focus gallery and the overview gallery which currently houses collections of art, sculpture, installations and a socially charged commentary by notable artists such as Ai Weiwei. 

    7- “For Those in Peril on the Sea”, Hew Locke, 79 boats suspended in an anchor gallery in PAMM on main floor with windowed walls and views to Miami

    The material language of the three-storied building is reinforced concrete, wood, metal and lush greenery combined with art. It is not just visual art but the art of life and the art of being Miami. The exterior of the building is a layered experience enveloped by the huge canopy of the building creating a transition between outdoor space and indoor space. The porch which wrapped around the building, acts as an open room with access to shading, and a unique vertical garden by Patrick Blanc. The roof is a filtering system made of wood arrange in a network to create a permeable canopy form which the vertical planters are hung.  The generosity of the porch echoed an invitation to the city to sit and enjoy its tropical climate, a truly priceless luxury.

    Figure 8- Facade of PAMM facing the Port of Miami with stairs and seating covering the parking underneath the elevated building

    The place specificity of PAMM, also responses to its location on the waterfront by being elevated above ground so that the water, wind and sky are invited to interact. The regional aspect of the building is layered in the formalist notion of cubes, space and linear elements. However the details of materials, connections, finishes and new building technologies are additives to define and refine the architecture, as the building negotiates with the city. PAMM reflects the differing notions of the cultural identity of the city in its multicultural state, by translated into architecture as an example of what the urban space in Miami could be.

    Figure 9-View of American Airlines Arena and the Freedom Tower from PAA with a vertical garden in the foreground

    (All Images Source: Marsha McDonald taken on Feb 6, 2014) 

    Marsha J. McDonald, Florida International University

    Marsha is currently completing her post-professional architectural studies at Florida International University. She is investigating the translation of culture and cultural identity in the built environment, particularly in the regions of the Caribbean and Latin America.  Marsha also completed her professional architectural education which resulted in a Master’s of Architecture degree, from Florida International University.

    As a critical voice in the areas of Cultural Architecture and Spatial Design, her research investigates how an individual’s sense of identity affect their interiors and on a macro scale, how newly formed nations of the Caribbean and Latin America shape their cultural landscapes, in the early to mid-twentieth century. Her investigations focuses on how these Caribbean and Latin American nations go through the process of decolonization, as a part of nation-building, by either maintaining or rejecting their relationship with the past. This process is the basis of the emergence of new meanings and a modern narrative which facilitates new spatial representations in their cultural landscapes.  She is recently presented a paper on “Decolonized Spaces: New Spatial Representation in the Post-Colonial British Caribbean” at a local conference. 

  • Saint Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church: Modernity and Continuity

    by User Not Found | Feb 20, 2014

    Note: This article originally appeared in the Docomomo US newsletter.

    Robert Mather brought an impressive Modernist pedigree to the design of St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas (1958-1960). This Mid-century abstraction of the primitive Christian basilica represents a synthesis of international movements in architecture and liturgy uncovering archetypal models of inhabitation and ritual. The church will be featured on the upcoming tour “Modernity and Continuity in Austin's Religious Architecture” during the Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference in Austin, Texas, April 9-13, 2014.
    St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. 
    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: PICA 25856, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
    The Problem of the Modern Church
    Even the most consciously Modern church struggles to escape some reference to precedent.[1] Religion is too steeped in tradition and encodes images too essential to escape in the interpretation even if absent from the design concept. For example, the highly functional a-frame structure famously employed by architects such as Frank Lloyd WrightEero Saarinen, and A. Quincy Jones[2] drew comparisons to scripture-based formal archetypes of tent and boat regardless of the architects' intentions. As countless congregations across the country replicated the form in the 1950s–70s, they described it in the more evocative impressions of praying hands or, according to Architectural Forum in 1954, "the warm, neighborly personality, the humble aspiration and some of the medieval magic" of the old north country village Gothic.[3]
    Such evocations of tradition and magic, social rejections of religion, and the secularization of the movement’s predominantly commercial-industrial building programs illustrate that the Modern church proved problematic for both the Moderns and the Church. What becomes of functionalism in a program that includes symbolism? And yet for all the incongruities there were also timely confluences. The canon of Modern religious architecture reveals precisely the numinous potential of formal abstraction and of purity of space, light, and material. Meanwhile, movements among Christian denominations led to analogous refinements in worship, buildings, and theology based in ancient practice.
    Saint Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church
    Changes surrounded the design for St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin, Texas. In 1957, St. Martin’s occupied a neo-Gothic stone-clad concrete structure that stood out proudly as the most prominent building between the dome of the State Capitol and the tower of the University of Texas Main Building. The congregation hired the local firm Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven (later Jessen Associates) to expand their campus to meet the needs of the growing church.

    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. George Louis Walling. 1929.
    Credit: C01129, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
    In January the congregation approved the architects’ plans for an education wing, offices and fellowship hall designed to continue the traditional Gothic flavor of the church. But less than three months later, the state announced plans to extend the Capitol Complex and take over the church property despite previously agreeing to a parking-sharing arrangement that enabled the church’s plans to proceed with city.[4] The congregation and their architects found themselves suddenly building from the ground up instead of extending an established traditional language. They made the bold decision to pursue a modern abstraction of the early Christian basilica. The church celebrated a ground breaking service in September 1958 and dedicated the church on March 27, 1960.
    The Dedication service used for St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in Austin reflects changes underway in the structure and worship of the Lutheran Church in the United States. Amidst a liturgical transition, the service included a unique populist variation: the congregation assumed what was typically the Pastor’s action of the dedication prayer itself, repeating the response, “we dedicate this house.”[5] On a national level, a Commission on the Liturgy and Hymnal representing the cooperation of eight Lutheran bodies published a new Common Liturgy in 1958. Two years later, three of these bodies merged to form The American Lutheran Church. Whereas the nineteenth century saw Lutheran churches in the United States splitting into smaller factions and divided by national origins, the movement of the twentieth century was toward unity based at least in part on their liturgical retour aux sources.
    Liturgy & Architecture
    The new Common Liturgy was rooted in “deepened scholarship and broader fellowship, the rich treasury of ecumenical liturgy, … the ancient and medieval Christian Church, both East and West, and grounded on the historic German, Scandinavian and American uses,” and “a vision clearer than was sometimes possible in the turmoil of the Reformation controversy.”[6] Such scholarship was part of a larger movement among many Christian denominations where the desire to strip away the cultural accretions and excesses of the preceding centuries—but not to start tabula rasa—allowed for the rediscovery of essential forms.[7]
    A similar rediscovery of essential forms followed in the church's architecture. German Roman Catholic architect Rudolph Schwarz worked closely with liturgical theologians to develop his Vom Bau de Kirche (1938; translated in English as The Church Incarnate in 1958) with its seven plans. Each of the plans represents an archetypal spatial metaphor of the church a rediscovery of not only diverse ancient practices but the very gesture of the Body of Christ assembled. However, Schwarz demonstrated that each plan on its own is insufficient and suggested with the final plan a juxtaposition of their diversity.[8]
    Robert George Mather
    The synthesis of the liturgical, denominational, and architectural changes at St. Martin’s was predominantly the work of the principal designer, Robert George Mather (1921-1984), who brought an impressive Modernist pedigree and an international perspective to the project. During his studies at IIT under Mies van der Rohe, he "certainly learned discipline in drawing, creativity in graphics, integrity and efficiency of structure, and could apply his already acquired care for details in joinery with reward, as it was so fundamental to Mies' teaching" who fostered “the notion of huge, bare efficiently structured, and rationally proportioned edifices as being the architectural ideal, even beautiful.”[9]
    Mather worked for Walter Gropius and partners at The Architects Collaborative in Cambridge for six months before embarking with his wife Jean on an exploration of the Middle East, Pakistan and India, East and North Africa, and Europe. When their money ran out in Stockholm, they worked in architecture and planning offices there until earning enough to return to the states. Robert Mather turned down a position as planner with Caudill Rowlett and Scott, opting to move to Austin for more architectural experience. He worked in the Jessens’ office for only one year, which was dedicated to the development and detailing of St. Martin’s, before transitioning to a long academic career at the University of Texas.
    These experiences coalesced into a design at the forefront of the world-wide movements of modern architecture and ecclesiology. The IIT influence manifested in the structural integrity and techtonic detail of the exposed steel structure and free façade.

    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013.
    The design relates more to the more contemporary post-war reconstruction underway in Germany than the American suburban expansion. The continental connection was appropriate for a church founded as a German Lutheran congregation. Archival materials from the design process reference a book of new churches in the Archdiocese of Cologne[10] featuring the work of Rudolph & Maria Schwarz, Dominikus & Gottfried Böhm, and others.
    Mather likely knew of The Church Incarnate, with its foreword written by Mies van der Rohe. But whether through direct influence or parallel confluence, St. Martin's Evangelical Lutheran church successfully juxtaposes the diverse principles represented by multiple Schwarz plans. It combines the linearity of the Sacred Way with the inward movement of enclosure toward the altar / outward expansion into the world of the Dark Chalice without a formal dependence on their diagrams. Its sense of outward expansion comes not only from the increase in stained glass moving from the altar to the door but also from the decomposition of its planes and outward motion of its composition.
    Historical Continuity in Post-war Modernism
    As in the liturgical movement, the Modern movement in architecture rediscovered essential forms as represented by Sigfried Giedion’s emphasis on “constituent facts” against “transitory facts" in establishing a new tradition.[11] But Modern architects began to increasingly reintroduce certain components of tradition when—after the tragedies of the Second World War and the apparent failures of implementation of CIAM Athens Charter—some of the appeal of the utopian tabula rasa had worn off.[12] But they drew from traditions in which they recognized the universal principles of the earlier Modernist manifestos. For example, some recognized their principles in the North American vernaculars.[13] Christian architects looked to the recently unearthed pre-Constantinian churches, such as that at Duras-Europos.

    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013. The apse wall behind the altarpiece in this photo replaced the original curtain and tester as part of a 1990s renovation.
    Likewise the mode of the continuity was not the figural ornamentation or stylistic references of the preceding centuries; it was through spatial metaphor or social action. Rather than reflecting the primitive Christian basilica in style, the design of St. Martin’s builds on its ritual action of processional linearity. An austere brick planarity juxtaposed with the retained Gothic altarpiece replaces the inward focus of the apse with its mosaic depiction of the exterior other of heaven. The cellular structure of vaulted naves and aisles gives way to a tripartite plate folded into a planar barrel vault crowning the basilica. The geometric purity of the hemispherical vault with its impossible thinness embodied a structural minimalism further accentuated by the slipping past of floating planes.[14] Modern military vernacular reminiscent of so many nomadic dwellings made possible its efficiency: it was built from an off-the-shelf mass-produced Stran-Steel Quonset hut. Truly swords into plowshares.[15]
    A Modern Symbology in Stained Glass
    The stained glass windows in St. Martin's Evangelical church are figural, but they are modern insomuch as their symbols emphasize universally recognizable objects abstracted to the essential geometric form of their use and manufacture. Many are traditional Christian symbols, but their particular meaning is not dependent upon a closed historic system. In this way they are like Le Corbusier's objets types in his early still life paintings and architectural photographs which grew into the more explicitly spiritual La Poème de lAngle Droit or projections for the Philips Pavilion.

    Image: St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas. Robert Mather of Jessen Jessen Millhouse and Greeven. 1960.
    Credit: Jason John Paul Haskins, 2013.
    These distinct symbols were set in abstract flowing patterns modeled on the windows of the Dominikus Böhm-designed Maria-Koenigin Kirche, Köln-Marienburg (1953) and executed by the Botz-Miesen Stained Glass Studio of Cologne.[16] When the original intention to re-set the stained glass symbols from the 1929 Gothic church became technically impossible, the new suite of 57 symbols were designed with input from the pastors "to conform with the liturgy of St. Martin’s Evangelical Church.”[17] In this liturgical context and with content derived from Christ's teachings and social ministry, the objets types recall the familiarity and fundamental simplicity of the illustrative objects of the parables.
    St. Martin’s Evangelical Lutheran Church is an excellent example of the nascent post-war modernism that sought to reincorporate traditions sharing in its constituent facts. By balancing distinctly modern developments and a commitment to retaining continuity with tradition, it was able to fully satisfy the complicated brief of the modern church with its symbolic functions, liturgical movements, and social changes.
    Jason John Paul Haskins, Assoc. AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a church-building researcher and design consultant who writes about liturgy, architecture and history on the blog Locus Iste (

    [1] Ludwig Mies van der Rohe provided a notable exception in the Robert F. Carr Memorial Chapel of St. Savior on the campus of IIT (1952) where its uniformity with the rest of the campus buildings—regardless of type—reinforces the concept of universal space, but ultimately compromises its function as a religious space.
    [2] First Unitarian Society, Madison, WI, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1951; Kramer Chapel at Concordia Senior College, Ft Wayne, IN, Eero Saarinen, 1953-58; St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Pacific Palisades, CA, A. Quincy Jones, 1953.
    [3] “The Tent Form–A Village Gothic for Today.” (Dec. 1954). Architectural Forum 101(6), 128-131). For further discussion of this form in the Midwest, see Gretchen Buggeln’s lecture, “The Rise and Fall of the Postwar A-Frame Church” available online.
    [4] Danforth, F. M. (1984). Gods Century at St. Martins: A Pictorial History of St. Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church. Austin, TX.
    [5] St. Martins Evangelical Lutheran Church Dedication. Pamphlet. (1960, March 27).
    [6] Preface to the Liturgy. In Service Book and Hymnal. (1974). Minneapolis,MN: Ausburg Publishing House.
    [7] This was at the heart of Dom Gregory Dix’s monumental work The Shape of the Liturgy (1945), which traced the shared frameworks in the primitive development of Christian worship.
    [8] Despite this, The Church Incarnate was employed as a form book, even, it has been argued, by Schwarz himself. A notable examples in the United States of the most recognizable plan, the parabolic “Dark Chalice,” is Resurrection of the Lord, St. Louis, Murphy & Mackey, 1952.
    [9] Swallow R. P. (1987). Robert George Mather: In Memoriam 1921-1984. MATHR Box 1. Robert G. Mather Papers. The Alexander Architectural Archive. The University of Texas Libraries. The University of Texas at Austin. An abbreviated version of the memorial is available online.
    [10] Weyres, W. Neue Kirchen Im Erzbistum Köln, 1945-1956. Du?sseldorf: Verlag L. Schwann.
    [11] Giedion, S. (1967). Space, Time and Architecture: The Growth of a New Tradition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. First publication in 1941.
    [12] Proctor, R. (2005). Churches for a Changing Liturgy: Gillespie, Kidd & Coia and the Second Vatican Council. Architectural History, 48, 291-322.
    [13] Sibyl Moholy-Nagy’s Native Genius in Anonymous Architecture (1957), Aldo van Eyk’s inclusion of pueblos in his foundational Otterlo Circles (1959), and the 1964 MOMA exhibit ‘Architecture without Architects.’
    [14] A thicker steel frame was as used in place of the quonset ribs in the later Jessen Associates project for St. Ignatius Martyr, Austin, which has a similar roof profile but little of the finesse of St. Martin’s.
    [15] Decker, J., Chiei, C. (Ed.), (2005). Quonset Hut: Metal Living for a Modern Age. New York, NY: Princeton Architectural Press. When the Great Lakes Steel Corporation took over the quonset hut construction from the Navy in 1942, they introduced an innovate design that allowed the roof deck to be nailed into the steel rib. They also began marketing for civilian uses immediately. Bruce Goff pushed the architectural applications of quonset huts. For other churches built from the structures, see Our Lady of the Holy Trinity Abbey in Hunstville, UT or Our Lady of the Way, Haines Junction, Yukon Territory.
    [16] Botz-Miesen also executed stained glass windows with a very similar design for St. Dominic, New Orleans, Irving Kohler, 1961.
    [17] Vandeveerdonk, H. J. (1958, December 18). Letter to Wolf Jessen. Box 10, Folder 17. Jessen Associates Inc. Records and Drawings. Austin History Center. Austin, TX.
  • Denys Peter Myers, Monuments Man

    by User Not Found | Feb 07, 2014

    Denys Peter Myers, a Harvard Fine Arts graduate and one of the founding members—and a Fellow—of SAH, was working as director of exhibitions at the New York Public Library when he was drafted into the Army in 1943. Through a chance meeting with one of its officers, Peter was transferred in to the Army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the subject of the book The Monuments Men by Robert Edsel and now a movie. The Monuments Men movie focuses on the most dramatic work of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section, the recovery of the priceless plundered patrimony of the countries overrun by the war. But, much of the work of the section simply helped those countries stitch back together their culture and heritage. Peter was listed in official reports as “T/5 D. P. Myers – Monuments Specialist Assistant,” a rank equivalent to a Corporal. He was first stationed in Versailles, then in and around Wurzburg in occupied Bavaria after the German surrender. Peter saved onionskin copies of the dry military “Monthly Consolidated Field Reports” (which he entrusted to Pamela Scott, who graciously shared them with me), evidence of his pride in the work that he and the other Monuments Men accomplished.

    MFAA Officer James Rorimer supervises U.S. soldiers recovering looted paintings from Neuschwanstein Castle (image via Wikimedia)

    The city of Wurzburg had been devastated by Allied incendiary bombs on March 16, 1945, which destroyed ninety percent of the old town. Among the casualties was Balthasar Neumann’s Wurzburg Residenz, which was mostly gutted by the fires except for its core, where the stone vaults below the attics prevented its total loss when the roofs burned and collapsed. Peter played a critical role in saving Giovanni Battista Tiepolo's frescoes of the Four Continents on the vaulted ceiling of the Kaisersaal by requisitioning hydraulic cement from the Army to coat the exterior of the exposed vaults, which he then had tarred. He recalled in 2002, "That stop-gap kept the Tiepolos dry until the roofs could be reconstructed. Among the few accomplishments for which I would like to be remembered, certainly helping save two of the greatest works of art in Europe ranks high." A subsequent field report for February 1946 stated, “. . . completed slate covering to the newly constructed roof over the Kaisersaal, also boarded all windows and skylights to the hall.” The eventual restoration of the entire Residenz was not completed until 1987. It is now a World Heritage Site.

    Many of the reports Peter saved detail weekly inspections, conditions assessments, security assessments, and recommendations for protecting the myriad art and jewelry collections, books, and archives, which had been dispersed to locations around the region during the war, seemingly for their protection more so than for plunder, although there are accounts of returning objects to “rightful owners.” Regarding protection, one report stated, “It is recommended by this office that the Castle Triefenstein, owned by Prince Löwenstein-Wertheim-Freudenberg in Kreuzwertheim (L50/N23) RB Mainfranken be converted into a central museum for all the art objects belonging to the Cologne Museum which are at present improperly stored thruout the various small repositories in Mainfranken.” Regarding salvage and restoration, another report, about Castle Veitshöcheim, stated that, “Bomb craters in the gardens have been leveled off. Fragments of damaged statues in the gardens have been collected and safed for future reconstruction.” Not only objects were displaced, as this report entry notes, “Castle Kleinheubach (L5C/NO2), owner Prince Löwenstein-Wertheim-Rosenberg, visited 7 February

    1946 by T/5 Myers and Dr. Berger. The 650 Estonian D.Ps. [displaced persons] on the premises maintain the best order possible under the circumstances. The owners have no complaints against the present occupants.” And, as evidence that the efforts of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section were succeeding in helping the residents of Wurzburg recover their lives and culture among the post-war chaos was the report entry that, “Request has been received by this office for permission to use certain rooms in the Festung Marienberg for the purpose of an art school.”


    Watch video of how the real Monuments Men rescued artwork from the Nazis (from BBC News). 
    An exhibition of their personal papers, photographs, maps and memoirs is on display at the Archives of American Art in Washington.

  • TEDification versus Edification

    by User Not Found | Jan 29, 2014
    Via Places Journal
    By SAH member Simon Sadler

    I. TED is the new counterculture. 
    Stewart Brand, meet Russell Brand: Two provocateurs of conferences and consciences to which the design disciplines might pay heed. Readers in the United States are likely familiar with Stewart Brand; he is the intellectual entrepreneur who in the mid-1960s dropped acid and thus had revealed to him a vision of a Buckminster Fuller-inspired new globalism, and who then enshrined this vision in the epochal Whole Earth Catalog. U.S. readers may be less familiar with Russell Brand; he is the comedian from the United Kingdom who by his own admission drank a tad too much before addressing the recent GQ awards ceremony in London, prompting him to deliver, to a cringing audience, revelations about the event’s sponsors and attendees and the parlous state of the entire world. We would not need to pay any more attention to this stunt, except that Russell Brand has followed up with a series of coruscating interviews (in one of which he gleefully trounces the U.K.’s leading political interviewer, Jeremy Paxman [1]) and op-ed pieces, culminating in an essay for the highbrow, left-leaning weekly The New Statesman in which he asks: "Is utopian revolution possible? The freethinking social architect Buckminster Fuller said humanity now faces a choice: oblivion or utopia. We're inertly ambling towards oblivion, is utopia really an option?" 

    Read More
  • Destruction Looms for Arthur Erickson-designed Bank of Canada Atrium Garden

    by User Not Found | Jan 22, 2014
    Via The Cultural Landscape Foundation

    The Bank of Canada’s garden and atrium in Ottawa, situated in a building between Canada’s first retail pedestrian mall and the federal institutional landscape, provide a welcoming public space in Canada’s capital city and exemplify architect Arthur Erickson’s skill as a maker of interior and exterior landscapes. The 12,749 square-foot atrium is now at risk of privatization and the garden threatened with destruction.


    Bank of Canada, photo by Taxiarchos 228 via Wikimedia Commons.Located across from Parliament Hill, the Bank of Canada’s head office occupies a prominent site on Wellington Street, an address it shares with the Supreme Court of Canada, the Library and Archives of Canada, and until 1999, the Embassy of the United States. It is “one of Canada’s best 20th century buildings and a great example of the creative integration of old and new,” says Natalie Bull, executive director of the Heritage Canada Foundation. The centerpiece of the bank is an Art Deco granite building, constructed in the 1930s, flanked by symmetrical glass-and-copper-clad East and West Towers. The three buildings are connected by an atrium. The atrium and towers were designed by Arthur Erickson in collaboration with the firm Marani, Rounthwaite & Dick in the late 1960s and completed in 1979. A lush tropical garden, incorporating a reflecting pool, runs almost the length of the atrium. The green slate floor gently dips down toward the water which sits beneath a trellis of long wood beams. The result is a human-scaled and intimate experience within a 262-foot-high space.
    Read More.

  • Nonprofit Leadership, the Gender Gap, and Architect Barbie: A Conversation with Wanda Bubriski

    by User Not Found | Jan 02, 2014

    In the fall of 2012, SAH formed its first Professional Development Committee, and charged the group with the task of exploring how SAH might support the diverse professional needs and ambitions of its members. The following exchange between committee members Victoria Solan, an independent historian, and Wanda Bubriski, founding executive director of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation, is intended to start a conversation about how different career paths can unfold within the realm of architectural history. This blog post is also intended to draw attention to the varied professional roles available to our members, and to explore how one’s workplace expectations can change over time.

    Architect Barbie
    From Bauhaus to Dreamhaus—Architect Barbie on a recent site visit. Photo credit: Wanda Bubriski.

    Let’s start by talking about how you became a member of the Society of Architectural Historians. When did you join and what roles have you played in the organization?

    I’m a member of SAH’s Quarter-Century Club—meaning I’ve been a member for over 25 years—and joined when I was, well, in grade school obviously. I just finished a three-year term on the Board during which I served on the membership committee, and now on the Professional Development Committee. At Annual Meetings, I’ve given papers and co-chaired a session. On behalf of the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation (BWAF), I hosted several receptions and a film screening of A Girl is a Fellow Here” ~ 100 Women Architects in the Studio of Frank Lloyd Wright.

    From 2004 through 2012, you were the founding director of the BWAF, a nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing the visibility of women’s contributions to the building industry. Where did you gain the skills to lead such an organization? Is this the kind of position that you envisioned you would be in when you finished your graduate education? What kind of adjustments did you make along the way?

    My formal education never included something like “Introduction to Running a Nonprofit” —perhaps the closest thing was a graduate seminar in museum studies. My experience with advocacy and organizing started in high school, which developed into a deep commitment to public education and outreach. While working with the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C., I learned some effective strategies for leading campaigns and came to understand how a nonprofit functions. A big adjustment from the academic world to that of the nonprofit realm is moving from individual scholarship to a collective goal. Nonprofit leadership involves both inspiring and enabling others to realize the organization’s mission.

    Many SAH members, each at different stages in their careers, are trying to figure out how to navigate an imperfect world and forge something new for themselves or for others. One of the goals of this interview series is have SAH members share their concerns at different stages in their careers. May I ask how your professional priorities changed over the years? Have some of the concerns and challenges from the outset of your career eased, or intensified? 

    My concerns have intensified. It seems like an endless loop: the more learned reveals how much more we need to learn about the gender challenges facing us all. “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” the memorable and apt title of the recent essay by Despina Stratigakos published in the online journal Places, reminds us why we forget—including access to primary material and perhaps not enough of what Gwendolyn Wright calls “hubristic self-affirmation.”1 Stratigakos cites an incident this spring on the German Wikipedia site—where a post about Thekla Schild, one of the first women trained as an architect in Germany, was entered on the site, yet within minutes was erased by a male editor, denying her existence. Stratigakos ends her piece on the value of online databases by correctly asserting that “as the long and rich history of women in architecture becomes more broadly known, it will become that much harder to ignore them.”2

    We could say the same for architectural historians as well. SAH has the potential to fill a huge gap. For example, there are three glaring issues that I believe are pertinent to SAH members and point to a need for SAH to collect data:

    1. Publishing – It’s key to career success, but works by women comprise less than one-third of scholarly publishing.3 Let’s count up the articles and reviews published in JSAH from the past 10 years based on gender—is the female-male percentage equal, and does it reflect the same gender distribution of SAH membership?  
    2. Chronic Wage Gap between Men and Women – A female full professor at a doctoral institution makes 90.3% of what her male colleague earns, or 87.3% when aggregated into all institutions with academic rank.4
    3. The SAH Leaky Pipeline – Collect gender data on recent graduates over the past 10 years—who gets academic jobs, and who doesn’t? Is there a parallel here with architectural practice—which is fraught with variables that have little to do with design talent but a lot of other things including access to power such as clients and patrons?

    What if SAH helped to Divert the Pipeline toward career options outside of academia? I am hoping that the SAH Professional Development Committee will embrace such a diversion, which the approximately 20% of SAH members who are independent scholars will surely appreciate.

    Much of the mainstream media, as well as a well-meaning world of career advice, deploys the word ‘balance’ to describe the placing of an appropriate boundary between work and personal responsibilities. This word doesn’t ring true for me — it seems to veil a much more difficult conflict than one might reasonably resolve with a kitchen scale. Does it work for you, or should there be another word?

    I agree with you that “balance,” while desirable, is problematic—the problem being that the term invariably refers to women, not men. Do we ever hear about Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos struggling with a work-life balance? Why are men exempt from personal responsibilities? (Within the public discourse/ mainstream media that is, not necessarily within our personal domestic realms.) I believe that we have yet to understand the real questions to ask: what do the words “women” and “men” really mean? Not all women or all men are alike. If we pull apart the stereotypical generalities of the words in both academia and public discussion, how will that change the nature of the conversation?

    We can’t finish this conversation without a few words from Architect Barbie. How old is she now? Where has she been lately?

    I do not doubt for a second that Architect Barbie is, deep down, a closeted historian.  Since her debut at the AIA National Convention in 2011, she has attended two SAH Annual Conferences (Detroit and Buffalo). Her co-creators, historian Despina Stratigakos and architect Kelly Hayes McAlonie, infused her with a sense of the past and made sure she was a feminist. She’s been influenced by her global travels with me, and by her exposure to that eminence blanche, Beverly Willis. She has joined the women’s movement that is sweeping the country, but confesses that she’d prefer a pair of boots for walking, not teetering. Her only other worry is that historians have not proposed papers that qualify them for SAH’s annual Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation travel fellowship.

    Thank you for your time. I wish you and Architect Barbie many exciting adventures, and I hope this conversation can be the beginning of a productive dialogue about professional development among SAH members.

    1 Gwendolyn Wright in “Symposium Discussion: Architecture of Writing,” at Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2009, included with A Girl is a Fellow Here, directed by Beverly Willis, (New York: BWAF, 2009), DVD.

    2 Despina Stratigakos, “Unforgetting Women Architects: From the Pritzker to Wikipedia,” Places Journal at the Design Observer, 11/26/13.

    3 Based on data from 1991 to 2010, as cited in “Scholarly Publishing’s Gender Gap,” in The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 26, 2012. The article highlights an analysis of six fields and 24 subfields between 1991 and 2010—itself a subset of a huge investigation of gender and publishing based on about two million papers published since 1665 in nearly 1,800 fields and drawn from the collection of JSTOR. Within the field of history, from a total of 14,733 authors, 69.2% were male and 30.8% female.

    4 As cited in The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/12/2013, p. A27; source: American Association of University Professors ( Salary Survey Tables and Figures/Table 5.pdf). Link to the full report:

  • Recent News on the Conversion into Mosques of Byzantine Churches in Turkey

    by User Not Found | Dec 12, 2013
    I have been asked to write a report for the International Center of Medieval Art newsletter concerning recent events in Turkey whereby Byzantine churches that long have held the status of state museums and cultural heritage sites are being converted into mosques. It is crucial to raise awareness about this very critical issue. The examples include the church of the Hagia Sophia in Iznik (Nicea), the church of the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon (Trebizond), and the plans for the church and associated monastic complex of St. John Stoudios in Istanbul (Constantinople). Although these events have been ongoing for quite some time, the world started watching more closely in recent months when certain representatives of the Turkish government publicly called for the conversion of THE Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. For every example, the original Byzantine church building testifies to the vast contribution of Byzantine culture and civilization to the history of medieval art and architecture and world architecture more broadly. These churches were converted into mosques under Ottoman rule and subsequently into museums under the Turkish Republic.

    Hagia Sophia
    Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (photo credit: Veronica Kalas)

    Although it has been reported that right-wing Turkish politicians and political parties introduced these ideas since the 1950s, in the last year or so the trend has been implemented and seems to be gaining momentum. The political background, individuals, and organizations involved in the issue is intricate and sensitive, as Andrew Finkel has discussed in “Mosque conversion raises alarm: Christian art in Byzantine church-turned-museum is at risk after controversial court ruling,” The Art Newspaper 245 (April 2013). The peg on which to hang the legality of these conversions stems from a multifarious set of maneuvers that includes the transfer of the right to care for the monuments from the Ministry of Culture and Tourism to the Directorate General of Pious Foundations. This transfer is highly significant in the Turkish context as the two organizations adhere to separate rules, regulations, and approaches to historic monuments and museums that are often at odds with one another. In some ways these buildings embody a kind of secular state being taken over or occupied by a religious state within Turkey, although in essence the Directorate of Pious Foundations always had jurisdiction over the monuments, which technically have been leased to the Ministry to run as museums. The situation is very complicated, not entirely transparent, and is not the same for every case. Claims that some consider dubious are circulating by an MHP party member who introduced the bill in parliament to make legal the conversion of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul on the basis that the original document legalizing its conversion to a museum in the 1930s was a forgery, and therefore the building has maintained its status as a mosque since its initial conversion in the fifteenth century.

    Analysts have considered the issue from a variety of angles, from the attempt of some politicians within the current government to garner votes from the religiously conservative majority population in Turkey, to the wish to reclaim Turkey’s Ottoman past, to a direct antagonism toward Eastern Christianity for which these buildings are immensely symbolic. Largely left out of the news reports is a significant discussion of the damage these priceless structures face in the process of conversion, and their subsequent use as mosques from an archaeological and historic preservation point of view as Amberin Zaman has reported in The Economist, Al Monitor, and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the examples cited are only a fraction of a larger issue of the destruction of culturally and historically significant monuments worldwide.

    Hagia Sophia
    Hagia Sophia, Istanbul (photo credit: Veronica Kalas)

    Among many alterations to the building’s fabric, all religious imagery must be covered-- a process that inevitably leads to damage as has been demonstrated in the past. In the case of St. John Studios, the fifth-century church building would have to be rebuilt as a mosque as it is currently roofless. It has been reported that the proposed plan is to reconstruct the monument with a dome, which is entirely incongruous with the original design of the structure as a three-aisled basilica. Although individual academics and archaeologists from both within Turkey and internationally are openly opposed to this, thus far there has been no concerted effort put forth from any angle to voice an effective objection to these events. Particularly absent so far is any statement by international bodies concerned with cultural heritage preservation, such as UNESCO, ICOMOS, ICOM, and WMF among other organizations either from within Turkey or globally, to address the grave concerns about the fate of these invaluable buildings. Most likely the general perception is that there is no adequate way to deal with the complexity of the problem and any criticism from the outside would be perceived of as imposed from the ‘west’ and therefore ineffectual. I include below an archive of links to recent news items in English worthy of note to help anyone wishing to follow the events as they unravel.

    Dr. Veronica Kalas, Ph.D.
    December 7, 2013

    Articles about the conversion of Byzantine churches to mosques in Turkey:

    On Hagia Sophia, Istanbul: On Hagia Sophia, Trabzon: On Hagia Sophia, Iznik

    On St. John Studios, Istanbul On the trend in general:
  • Podcasting Architecture

    by User Not Found | Nov 25, 2013

    99% Invisible

    This week marks the anniversary of Swann's Way, the first installment of Marcel Proust's In Search of Lost Time. Ira Glass, creator of This American Life, begins a marathon reading of the novel from a hotel room in Brooklyn. After constructing a replica of Proust's own room, Yale's French Department embarks on a similar marathon. With Proust, the modern self encountered a subjective re-awakening through architectural memory. Recent experiments in the medium of Podcasts genealogically connect with Proust's narrative stream, where, “I was more destitute than a cave dweller; but then the memory—not yet of the place where I was, but of several of those where I had lived and where I might have been—would come to me like help from on high to pull me out of the void from which I could not have got out on my own.”

    The soothing voices of radio theater have long disappeared from the airwaves, but a new medium, radio podcasts, have taken their place. The discipline of architectural history seems to have finally exerted some creative real estate in this medium. Radio nonfiction has became a dominant form of narrative, beginning with WBEZ's This American Life in 1995. Its creator, Ira Glass, went as far as to herald a new era when in 2007 he published The New Kings of Nonfiction. “We're living in an age of great nonfiction writing,” writes Glass, “in the same way that the 1920s and '30s were a golden age of American popular song. Giants walk among us. Cole Porters and George Gershwins and Duke Ellingtons of nonfiction storytelling. They're trying new things and doing pirouettes with the form. But nobody talks about it that way.” The success of such alternative voices morphed further into podcast radio shows, seriated online rather than the syndicated radio waves. July 2013 seems to have marked a watershed moment for podcasts, when Welcome to the NIght Vale became the most downloadable podcast from iTunes. Another marker of success came, when 99% Invisible, the premier architectural podcast, raised double the amounts it had pledged on Kickstarter for Season Four. With Proust and the podcast in mind, I review the podcasts that I have found to be most relevant to architectural history.

    This is the most exciting podcast on architecture and design. It was created by Roman Mars in San Francisco and produced by KALW and the San Francisco American Institute of Architects. Roman Mars has been called the Ira Glass of architecture. Although he commands an increasing presence in the podcast universe, Mars is interested in the deflated, the historical detail and its traction daily life. In a recent interview in Mother Jones, he noted,  “I really wanted to focus on the everyday, even the mundane, and not the things that were shiny and new and exciting.” This month's fundraising success on Kickstarter means that the fourth season of 99% Invisible will be aired weekly.

    STUDIO 360
    Kurt Andersen's Studio 360, produced by WNYC in New York, is the oldest and most respected podcast on arts and culture with a Peabody Award under its belt. Although not devoted exclusively to architectural history, it often addresses issues of history and design. Its series, Design for the Real World and Redesigns, focus on issues of design, but the most useful series for architectural historians is the award-winning American Icons. So far, five episodes focus on architectural monuments: the Lincoln Memorial, Monticello, Falling Water, the Vietnam Memorial and Disneyland. Typically about 45 minutes long, these episodes have been excellent for teaching.

    Hosted by Frances Anderton, this KCRW production centers on architecture and design with a focus on the Los Angeles area. Anderton is a seasoned architectural journalist (The Architectural Review, L.A. Architect) who has become the voice of design in southern California. (See an Anderton interview here.) DnA's perspective balances the other geographic anchors (New York, Chicago, and San Francisco).

    The National Building Museum in Washington, D.C., produces a different kind of podcast that distributes audio recordings of its programming. Typically based on lectures given at the museum, this podcast is exclusively dedicated to architectural history and is a MUST in the cadre of architecture listening. Two recent episodes by historian Elizabeth Hope Cushing and landscape architect Laurie Olin, for example, bring to the general audience the museum's symposium on Frederic Law Olmstead that took place on October 10.

    Like the National Building Museum, the Architectural League of New York podcasts all of its events and makes them available to general readers. 

    Similarly, the American Institute of Architects aggregates podcasts that relate to practicing architecture. "Architecture Knowledge Review is a podcast series for design professionals, featuring interviews, discussions, and best practices by architects and other design professionals who are at the forefront of the profession."

    One way to remain adrift with what Britain's cultural conversation is to listen to Arts and Ideas, a podcast that weekly aggregates the best interviews by BBC Radio 3's Night Waves. Literature, fine arts, theater, and music predominate, but there is a strong architectural presence. New buildings are discussed and old buildings are reconsidered. A recent favorite is the discussion of zoo architecture. Here one can also learn about new buildings, such as Zaha Hadid's Aquatics Centre. Based entirely on interviews and conversations, this is one of the most intellectually charged podcasts. What makes British journalism interesting is the tradition of correspondents pushing their interviewers critically, rather than simply asking polite questions. Night Wave's correspondents (Matthew Sweet, Philip Dodd, Rana Mitter, and Anne McElvoy) press their interviewers with a critical edge.

    Hosted by Melvyn Bragg, In Our Times is another highlight of British cultural journalism. The podcast's premise is simple. Bragg chooses a topic every week and invites three notable academics to discuss it. The topics are broad and rarely target individual monuments. As in other programs on arts and culture, architectural coverage is episodic. Programs include Architecture and Power (with architectural historians Adrian Tinniswood, Gavin Stamp, and Gillian Darley), Archaeology and Imperialism, the Gothic, Architecture in the 20th Century, Modernist Utopias, John Ruskin, and the Baroque.  

    Although most tangentially related to architectural history, Welcome to Night Vale is by far the most ambitious podcast. Narrated as a series of community announcements, Welcome to Night Vale transports the listener to an imaginary American town in the southwest. In its indeterminate subject, it touches on some fundamental issues of architecture and meaning. This podcast is impossible to describe, it must be experienced. In July 2013, it became the most downloaded podcast, surpassing the pioneering This American Life.

    Given the rising number of podcasts and radio shows targeting architectural issues, it becomes increasingly apparent that certain other culture shows shy away from architecture. One of my favorite podcasts, Slate's CULTURE GABFEST, for instance, is pathetically poor on design. Similarly, the best Canadian culture show, Q,with Jian Ghomeshi, rarely tackles the built environment. Different productions have different strengths, and it makes no sense to DEMAND for venues greater architectural coverage. But it is disconcerting how certain articulations of cultural journalism do not see architecture in the same level as text or media creations. A different podcast genre is dedicated to traditional histories, such as Mike Duncan's THoR (The History of Rome) or Robin Pierson's HISTORY OF BYZANTIUM. These, too, spare little audio space for architecture. 

    To conclude, architectural podcasts fit into four categories that, for convenience, we might categorize as: 1. Story Driven, 2. Interview Driven, 3. Lecture Driven, and 4. Fantastical. The Story-Driven podcasts (99% Invisible) experiment with the journalistic voice by pursuing a story or a theme from the ground (replicating the experimental journalism of This American Life). The Interview-Driven podcasts take their cue from the radio interview show (Fresh Air, Radio Times, etc.) but target architectural guests. Lecture-Driven podcasts are simple translations of a live event that is recorded and made available on the internet. These proliferate across museums and organizations and are typically the least interesting in form. Finally, the Fantastical podcasts (Welcome to Night Vale) open new grounds to speak about architectural experience in unexpected ways.

    In an era of digital uncertainties, architectural historians worry that their subject matter resists the digital translation. Its very physicality and three-dimensionality precluded the digital flatness. Podcasts offer one avenue of dreamy materialization.

  • Integrating Architecture into Digital and Public Humanities: Sites and Sounds + MediaNOLA

    by User Not Found | Oct 30, 2013
    Article via Journal of Digital Humanities, Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 2013

    By Amber N. Wiley

    “Did you know @Tipitinas building has been a gym, radio station, juice bar, restaurant, & brothel? Not all at the same time, of course…”

    In the fall of 2012, I taught an experimental and exploratory upper-level seminar at the Tulane School of Architecture entitled “Sites and Sounds: Public History.” The course grew out of an independent, applied research project that I am conducting through the Tulane City Center, which investigates the cultural geography of New Orleans’ musical landscape. I began the seminar’s conversation on spatial and digital humanities with the above quote, tweeted by Tipitina’s — a music venue in the Uptown neighborhood of New ­Orleans — on August 16, 2012. Embodied in that quote of 140 characters (or less) is a nuanced and layered understanding of how the site has served the New Orleans community in multiple capacities. My students’ task in the course was to uncover the hidden histories of place at musical sites and to share them through new media techniques with a larger public audience. By presenting their research through MediaNOLA, a “portal for histories of culture and cultural production in New Orleans,” my students foregrounded and contextualized architecture as a central type of culture production.

    Continue Reading

  • Study Day: Columbus, IN

    by User Not Found | Oct 30, 2013

    The SAH Study Day to Columbus, Indiana, led by Henry Kuehn, aimed to showcase a large cross section of modern and postmodern projects, all clustered in a small town an hour south of Indianapolis. Amid farm fields and silos, Columbus, a small town of 44,000 people, is home to as many important modern and contemporary architectural projects as a city one hundred times its size. The daylong tour was intensive and enlightening, and included a range of projects from the late 19th century to additions currently under construction. On entering the town, one thing that is immediately apparent is the attention to detail and to composition throughout, from fire stations, to residential neighborhoods, to major institutional buildings. The widespread focus on design makes it appear as if a world apart from the bucolic Midwest in which it is located.

    Our small group of seven, a mix of historians and architects, gathered at the visitors center for a brief introduction and short video explaining the reason behind Columbus’ unusual industrial prowess and impressive collection of architecture. The town was initially settled in the early 19th century, but began to flourish as a center for manufacturing in the 20th century with the rise of Cummins Engine, now a Fortune 500 company. The company and its owner were closely tied to the development of the city’s architecture program, which remains in place today.

    First Christian Church

    We began with a walking tour through a nearby neighborhood, peeking into the Irwin House and Gardens (1884), a mansion replete with verdant landscaping reminiscent of Italy. The first major visit of the day was I. M. Pei’s Bartholomew County Public Library (1969), sited with a significant relationship to Eliel Saarinen’s First Christian Church (1942) across the street. Both buildings were impressive in their own right; Pei’s library interior was warm and welcoming, and Saarinen’s church commanded a crisp, formal presence. As the first modern building commissioned by the town, the First Christian Church set the tone for the architectural agenda that continued thenceforth. I was particularly struck by the interior of the main sanctuary: the blend of materials and muted tones was soothing, and I found the use of natural lighting and a curvilinear brick wall to be particularly compelling. Yet another small detail not to go unnoticed was Eero Saarinen’s light fixtures that hung from the ceiling. These had an almost aerodynamic feel to them, which only added to the overall spatial composition and presence.

    Miller House Garden in Columbus 

    Other morning highlights included a pair of Gunnar Birkerts buildings: Lincoln Elementary (1967) and St. Peter’s Lutheran Church (1988).

    At the conclusion of the morning walking tour, we headed back to the visitors center for another short video, this time introducing Eero Saarinen’s Miller House, recently opened to the public. When we arrived at the site, our bus pulled up into the landscaped parking area, and we disembarked, already amazed at the attention to detail right down to the terrazzo carport, which occupied most of a central bay. The Miller House, designed for J. Irwin and Xenia Miller, was completed in 1957 by Eero Saarinen in collaboration with interior designer Alexander Girard and landscape architect Dan Kiley. The plan, a nine-square grid, is focused around a central living area with a fireplace at the very center and features a sunken “conversation pit” situated near expansive glass windows that overlook Kiley’s carefully articulated landscape. One thing I noticed immediately was that despite the dark and gloomy day, the house glowed brightly, due to the expansive system of sky lighting; the entire nine-square grid is, in fact, a more or less continuous skylight. Throughout the house there was furniture designed by Girard and Saarinen, and of course, the requisite Tulip Table, which was initially designed with a fountain at its center. The exterior spaces of the house and landscape were carefully integrated, as Kiley’s allés continued the formal order of the interior outside. The flow of spaces between interior and exterior was evident, and the transitions seamless, almost as if there were no boundary. Throughout the house, one got the sense of a very Finnish touch; the children’s bedrooms were small and organized around a larger play area—much like the house itself. That the focus was rendered less on the individual and more on the collective also made the house an excellent one for entertaining, one of its core purposes for the Miller family.

    Millyer House conversation pit Columbus

    After a lively lunch discussing the morning’s events, we continued with a full afternoon walking tour around the east and west portions of the downtown area. For me, the highlight was by far the low-slung Irwin Union Bank (1972), also designed by Eero Saarinen and now in use as a conference center for Cummins Engine. Although formally the building was a departure from the downtown streetscape, its scale was deferential to its surroundings, and the landscaping, again by Dan Kiley, added to its overall presence. Once inside, the space was quite open and light, and a touch reminiscent of Mies’ Crown Hall. Our group then continued for a full tour of the current Cummins world headquarters, including the original Cerealine Building (1880s) and their adjacent facility, designed in 1984 by Kevin Roche. Other afternoon stops included projects by Fred Koetter, Michael Van Valkenburgh, and Edward Charles Bassett, and concluded at J. Irwin Miller’s office, housed in the former dry goods store, built in 1881 for Joseph Irwin. The compact interior cleverly used sliding partitions to maximize space while maintaining privacy, and the modern office interior was designed by Alexander Girard, complete with custom produced Herman Miller furniture.

    Irwin Union Bank in Columbus

    Although this was the official conclusion of the tour, a number of us decided to rendezvous on the edge of town to visit Eero Saarinen’s North Christian Church. As fortune would have it, the building was open and we were able to experience the vestibule and sanctuary firsthand. The asymmetrical plan placed a focus on both the altar as well as the oculus above it, lending a sense of place and a suggestion of more ethereal realms. To be sure, the most striking element of Saarinen’s design is the spire, which rises high above the flat Indiana landscape; any higher, in fact, would have required a flashing light to warn aircraft in the vicinity of its presence.

    The Study Day to Columbus, Indiana, was of particular interest to me for its focus on the work of Eero Saarinen, an architect who has become one of the core elements of my unfolding dissertation proposal and project. Thanks to the firsthand site visits, it seems increasingly likely that The North Christian Church and Miller House will be included in the project. Furthermore, I’m happy to report that I’ve already used photos from the day in the classroom during a recent lecture I gave to master of architecture students at the University of Michigan. As I move forward in my career as a scholar and teacher, this experience will continue to add to my growing repertoire of architectural experiences and knowledge.

    Joss Kiely, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Michigan
    Joss Kiely is a Ph.D. candidate in architectural history and theory at Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He received a B.A. in French and architectural studies from Connecticut College, as well as a Master of Architecture and an M.Sc. in architectural history and theory at the University of Michigan with a thesis entitled, Alternative Architectures of Italian Futurism: War, Lust, Flight, and Dance, 1909-39. His current research focuses on defining a latent "aerialism" that developed during the jet age of air travel in the 1950s and 1960s, specifically focusing on a handful of thin shell concrete structures designed by Minoru Yamasaki, Eero Saarinen, and Felix Candela.

  • Alienation and Education: Massive Open Online Courseware and the Future of Architectural History Instruction

    by User Not Found | Oct 08, 2013

    With a team of administrators, programmers, video editors, and student interns I spent the summer developing the first ever massive open online course on the subject of architectural history. Offered on the edX platform beginning September 17, the MITx course “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1”—known to us at MIT by its course number, 4.605x—is intended to serve as a platform for thought about architecture throughout the world and the history of human society. Like most online courses entering the education marketplace today, 4.605x is constructed around a body of pre-existing material. The bulk of the course is derived from the spring 2013 offering of Dr. Mark Jarzombek’s recurring MIT architectural history survey, 4.605 “Introduction to the History and Theory of Architecture.”[i] This aspect of adaptation generated some of the most compelling pedagogical challenges to our creation of the online offering. It is because of the exemplary nature of these challenges to the field of architectural history and its instruction at the college level that I would like to share some of my experiences and thoughts with you, here on the SAH blog.

    4.605, the original course, was uniquely suited for an adaption of its kind because of the conceptual design of its learning objectives. The course’s overall structure is dependent upon the facilitation of a spirit of pluralism, for pedagogical effect. For example, Jarzombek’s first lecture begins with a rational and cautious conveyance of the limited theories and facts known about early civilizations. This includes a discussion of ochre, and its use in ancestral worship rituals; drawing a connection between the uses of this material in various societies, historically, without naturalizing this phenomenon within ostensibly trans-historical explanations, Jarzombek’s portrayal of the first societies imparts upon those groups a level of historical autonomy, whereby their cultural practices are represented as a cumulative instance, sitting at the end of an ongoing historical unfolding (rather than functioning as an antecedent of the present). Building upon this example, 4.605x can be rightly understood as a format for historical pluralism: it recounts the story of architecture and history in various instances as it moves through them, chronologically, in an attempt to foster a type of historical literacy. Presented in episodes, the history of architecture and society gradually accumulates, its instances receding form their particularity and towards their implication in a continuum. As a student, this revelation becomes ever-more seductive by virtue of the ignorance it produces: everything one learns reveals the possibility for learning that much more, as the unfolding of architectural history continues revealing itself as ever vaster and more complex than it seemed before. Embodying the curiosity of its self-selected student body, 4.605x creates for itself a new demographic of architectural historians: independent, global, and operating outside the normative boundaries of our field’s academe.

    That this should be so inherently pushes against the medium condition of MOOC development in its present, early iteration. In general terms the repackaging pre-recorded lectures as a free online course, while expanding availability to content, also highlights the elite privilege of access to today’s institutions of higher learning. In our case while 4.605x is making available, for free, to anyone with an internet connection, a simulacrum of an experience that up until this moment was only available to those with the ability to attend MIT classes, those who enroll in 4.605x will receive no official credit for the course and, since MIT retains copyright to its materials, enrolled students are not free to engage with course lectures, readings, or assessment outside the edX online environment. The experience is approximately analogous to auditing a traditional university course, with the added consideration that one cannot watch lectures live or interact personally with the professor. The necessary formatting of our recorded material heightens this potential alienation of the student from their online instructor, when compared to a traditional auditing situation: divided into segments, edited for length, and released en-masse, the lectures seen by 4.605x students will read unavoidably as a derivative product, awkwardly adapted for their online viewing and always feeling like a secondary sort of experience. Bearing these factors in mind, 4.605x is no more than the sum of what has been lost in translation; a teasing reminder of the world-class instruction offered by MIT, to individuals who will probably never be able to experience it.

    Such cynicism is misplaced. To view our MOOC as mere branding exercise misses the opportunities that the online medium provides for new forms of instruction and individualized learning, which are numerous and compelling. MOOC lectures, even those adapted from residential courses, differ from traditional lectures because students are free to absorb information at their own pace: with streaming online video, a student can watch when they please, with the ability to pause, rewind, and revisit portions they may not have understood the first time around. In our course, self-scrolling, time-stamped transcripts, displayed beside the lecture videos, enable better comprehension for the hard-of-hearing and English learners. Additionally, questions displayed beneath videos have been used to highlight salient points in our video segments; this simple gesture is of tremendous importance: by taking advantage the necessary fracturing of our video content as a pedagogical opportunity, 4.605x starts to utilize its digital nature as a value added opportunity for its global community of students.

    Snapshot of 4.605x, 9/17/2013

    There are many other ways in which the 4.605x course team attempted to capitalize on the edX platform, building on the learning objectives implied by the material available from the original MIT course. The content of Professor Jarzombek's course holds up the ideal of free, rational association between historical episodes. Paraphrasing his course abstract, 4.605/4.605x’s lectures give students grounding for understanding a range of buildings and contexts; analyzing particular architectural transformations, arising from various specific cultural situations, the course lectures answer questions like:

    • How did the introduction of iron in the ninth century BCE impact regional politics and the development of architecture?
    • How did new religious formations, such as Buddhism and Hinduism, produce new architectural understandings?
    • What were the architectural consequences of the changing political landscape in northern Italy in the 14th century?
    • How did rock-cut architecture move across space and time from West Asia to India to Africa?


    • How did the emergence of corn impact the rise of religious and temple construction in Mexico? (Jarzombek)

    These questions coordinate very particular narratives about architecture and its role within the unfolding of social history. In a traditional lecture course, student concerns involving these narratives and their relationship to each other could be addressed in recitation sessions, but in the MOOC environment this is not possible. While technologies exist to facilitate personal interaction between instructors and online students, such as edX’s built in discussion form or products like Google Hangout, even with these tools it is not possible to address individualized concerns with the attention and care of graduate student teaching assistants. Building upon spring 2013 4.605 TA input, the 4.605x course team devised a moderated approach to facilitating student discussion that emphasized the course learning objectives without necessitating the input of additional resources.[ii]

    To discuss these strategies it is necessary to understand how 4.605x configures its narratives of architectural history. As an example, let’s consider the third question above, about early modern northern Italy. In his lecture on the topic, Jarzombek argues that the example of the emergence of the town square in Siena in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, and concomitant consolidation of the medieval torre typology from its proliferation in family compounds to the singularity of town hall, signals the emergence of civil society in that region. Thus, the comparison between the later and earlier town-scape conditions, illustrated below, relates indexically to the creation of the concept of citizenship and the growing role of civic institutions during the Renaissance.

    View of Piazza del Campo with Torre del Mangia (Siena), Wikipedia Commons

    Reconstruction of Bologna in the early middle ages about 12th century, Wikipedia Commons

    In this and other incidents, 4.605 lectures enact an historical methodology, whereby architectural developments are seen as causally related to a wide variety of cultural factors, across related geographical and chronological contexts. With respect to the issue of fitting incidents together, it is important to note that there are other metanarratives that one might fit this event in Italian history in to, and that in 4.605/4.605x a student is not given an opportunity to choose, or even explore, such counterpoints. It should be stated that in offering an admittedly singular and sanctioned narrative among a broad variety of twenty-four related, but autonomous incidents, students are enabled if not forced to use their own reasoning to create a comprehensive understanding of global architectural history; therefore, despite operating on an inherent notion of propriety and sanctioned knowledge, 4.605x’s epistemic values nourish and encourage an individualized engagement with architectural history, and therefore history, writ large. It is with this directed encouragement in mind that we, in developing 4.605x, tried to facilitate a conversation that could be as open as possible, and that took maximum advantage of our online course’s large and diverse community of motivated students. Like most surveys, in 4.605x the fostering of intellectual connections between related materials is foregrounded at the expense of individualized exploration. That said, the global character of our course community offers an unprecedented opportunity for students of diverse backgrounds to connect with each other, and these connections offer opportunities for personalized reflection and exchange that the original MIT course cannot match. Indeed, we see the open-posting capability written into the edX discussion forum as a wonderful tool for students to get to know each other as they get to know the material—and to experience whatever benefit this may offer. To this end, simple policies have been devised such that the discussion can remain free without impinging upon comprehension of the class's radically inclusive historiographical methodology. Those policies, informed by previous edX courses, include:

    • Be polite. We have learners from all around the world and with different backgrounds. Something that is easy for you may be challenging for someone else. Let’s build an encouraging community.
    • Search before asking. The forum can become hard to use if there are too many threads, and good discussions happen when people participate in the same thread. Before asking a question, use the search feature by clicking on the magnifying glass on the left-hand side.
    • Be specific. Choose a descriptive title, and provide as much information as possible: Which part of what problem or video do you want to discuss? Why do you not understand the question? What have you tried doing?
    • Write clearly. We know that English is a second language for many of you but correct grammar will help others to respond. Avoid ALL CAPS, abbrv of wrds (abbreviating words), and excessive punctuation!!!!
    • Use discussion while working through the material. On many pages in the learning sequences and homework, there is a link at the bottom that says “Show Discussion”. Clicking on this link will show all discussion on the forum associated with this particular learning material.

    By foregrounding concerns of civility and legibility in our management of the discussion forum, we hope that our course community will develop itself into a vibrant forum of equal interlocutors, despite the centralizing epistemological tendencies of the survey format and sense of alienation imposed by the digital adaptation of an existing course.

    To get things moving, and emphasize certain salient aspects of course lectures, a small body of conversation topics, written by Dr. Jarzombek, have been pre-seeded. Released onto the discussion forum with each lecture, these directed prompts offer opportunities for personal reflection that is based on the material discussed. Emphasizing the living nature of architectural history, it is hoped these discussion questions help students to connect material together as they form associations between what they are learning about and their own lives. For the lecture on early modern Italy, for example, the discussion prompt includes the question “Have you ever visited an Italian city and had a coffee in a piazza?” By answering this question or responding to the experiences of others, students can start to understand how they have interacted with the contemporary legacy of the urban-political shift addressed in the course, even in something as everyday as having an espresso.

    We hope that this intentionally limited mode of fostering student engagement catalyzes additional ancillary benefits. It is true that, by not encouraging engagement with alternative philosophies of history, 4.605x often works to reinforce its epistemological authority, to the effect of performing as a vehicle for sanctioned facts and narratives. That said, given the specifically anti-hegemonic nature of Professor Jarzombek's architectural history—which engages the subject across traditional chronological and cultural boundaries—I am incredibly optimistic about 4.605x’s ability to enable new connections to the field of architectural history, conceived in the broadest possible form. These directed questions are one excellent example of how this could occur; there are many others. Ultimately, it is the global nature of the content developed for the course that will help an unprecedentedly diverse audience to relate to what has traditionally been a somewhat elite and generally Eurocentric subject. In catalyzing this novel opportunity to create a new community of persons interested in architectural history, allowing for personal reflection is of immense importance. It is in this sense that the discussion component of 4.605x is helping to build on the course’s pedagogical strategy, even if the online formatting of the course ambivalent about our inability to engage with students personally.

    My measured optimism comes with a wealth of caveats, predicated on uncertainty. Like many universities, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is helping to develop curricula for an emerging university outside the United States, and it is likely that 4.605x will be adapted as an instructional tool for use at that institution in the near future; it is also likely that the course will be used as an instrument in similar “flipped instruction” utilizations elsewhere, further in the future. The details about this were still developing as 4.605x was being put together, but the continuation and adaptation of 4.605x into new and different forms seems inevitable. The inherent problem with this dynamic is one of derivation. Not only is our online course inherently derivative—based, as it is, on recorded lectures from spring 2013—but it is also going to be used to develop derivative content—such as materials to facilitate residential instruction elsewhere. Here is my fear: 4.605x is a survey course, composed of relatively autonomous episodes, portrayed in lectures; I can see its content being easily misused, formulating connections that the course itself leaves ambiguous, to the detriment of students.

    The motivation of my fear is an attachment to 4.605x’s present and delicate neutrality, as a format for content, from the perspective of historiography. Having watched the course lectures out of order, a few times, I can say that all of them stand on their own easily. They are comprehensive, and entertaining. I can also say that no particular lecture is necessary to satisfy the overall pedagogical ambition of the course: the ambition of training students in an understanding of history and architecture can be achieved even without a unit on the Minoans and discussion of the impact of the collapse of the Indus River Valley civilization in 1500 BCE, for example. That said, 4.605x does not lend itself easily to historiographical agendas outside the moral philosophy of the autonomy of practical reason. So, while 4.605x courseware can and should be used as a resource for teaching global architectural history—few exist, more should—I would hate to see it adapted in a manner that naturalizes secondary aspects of the course as overriding concerns. It would be an abuse of the course’s content to create a derivative from it which is centered on ideological critique (cf. Tafuri) or technical determinism (cf. Semper; Banham) for example, or to make an argument that architectural history is characterized by expressions of singularity (Frampton) or signification (Jencks)—all of which are possibilities, should one cherry-pick content to adapt based on ideological interest. To provide an extended example: bearing in mind my interest in sexuality and space, it would be entirely possible to utilize 4.605x lectures to create a limited course on the history of human sexuality and the architecture of domestic environments; this course could include clips about matriarchal societies in the pre-classical Mediterranean (Lecture 6), the relationship between the rise of farming and more dimorphic gender roles in the Holocene (Lecture 3), connections between the lack of public space and the culture of rape renaissance Italy (Lecture 22), among many others. While I am OK with the idea of using 4.605x videos in an external and unrelated environment, it is crucial that this adaptation not be presented as an abridgement of 4.605x. The absolute character of “A Global History of Architecture: Part 1” (covering the whole world, and the complete history of society) neutralizes its particular content such that its only agenda is that of conveying material, to foster the intellectual growth of a student audience. It is for this reason that the course can cover 100,000 years of human history with efficacy: none of its admittedly limited dives into particular subjects are inherently necessary to the overall integrity of the course. Once that neutrality is compromised, the course becomes a political instrument, using incomplete materials to enforce a set of propositions. Rather than learn to teach themselves, students are merely indoctrinated.

    The question facing 4.605x now, as future adaptations remain to be considered, is: can the course’s present ethos of facilitation be expanded to include a body of teachers? Stated another way: Can 4.605x become a platform for facilitating new and novel engagement with global architectural history instruction, in both senses of the phrase (instruction on the subject of “global architectural history;” and on architectural history, generally, around the world), in the same manner as it encourages new, global connections to the subject of architectural history? I don't know. What I would like to see is metamorphoses of 4.605x, not derivations, elicited in the same way that the course hopes to have an impact on student thinking about architecture and history, but not necessarily to shape it.

    I am able to present several informed judgments about the state of 4.605x with regards to the ambitions of its institutional stakeholders. Presently members of the MIT Office of Digital Learning (which also oversees MITx) are utilizing analytics to reconsider how MOOC courseware can be designed to maximize intended impact. One recent study, “Exploring the Relationship between Course Structure and etext Usage in Blended and Open Online Courses,” uses anonymous, aggregated, and chronologically analyzed student click data sets to understand when and how often students utilize certain resources. This research had a marked impact on our course, leading to the implementation of four regular exams rather than a mid-term and final, since research has found that students engage much more with eText when this format is used, and more engagement is assumed to be beneficial. The impact of this leveraging of analytics remains to be seen. In developing our course, research was used to short-circuit the traditional iterative refinements by which university courses are developed over the years. The intention was to improve 4.605x’s online learning experience based on scientific data, but it is just as possible that our creation of additional tests will work to over-emphasize an aspect of the courseware (eText), at the expense of the other possible developments obviated by the labor necessary the additional tests (for example peer reviewed essay assessments, or the beta testing live office hours analogues).

    The dynamic of derivation within which 4.605x presently sits involves a high degree of free play. It is my hope that future analytics data about, for example, what students click on the most, how this is reflected in assessment outcomes, and how demographic data might be implicated in such outcomes, can be leveraged to continue thinking pragmatically about improved learning outcomes. Put another way: it is my hope that those responsible for 4.605x in down the line will leverage gathered data to learn what there is for the architectural history community to learn, about learning, rather than to attempt to manipulate the structures we have created to conform to externally generated assumptions.

    Addressing the issue in this way might be too limited. From the perspective of architectural history as a subject and discipline, the ultimate question provoked by this course at present—and therefore by MOOCs, towards the future of architectural history instruction—is: what do we want? 4.605x proves that creating a high-quality massive open online course on the subject of architectural history is possible, and demonstrates that even following the simplest model for online courseware production (adaptation of existing materials) there is a lot to be gained pedagogically from a careful consideration of the capabilities of the format of content distribution. I personally think that 4.605x will help to fill a gap that exists at many professional programs, who lack the resources retain a dedicated, experienced PhD-level instructor of architectural history capable and motivated to teach a broad, undergraduate-level survey course, and for this reason the course is highly noteworthy. Your views on what qualifies an individual to teach the subject of architectural history and what should be taught to whom likely differ from mine but it is likely we agree that expanding access to college-level instruction in architectural history is a service to the field. What this service will mean, as the project evolves, can start to be evaluated by looking at the landscape of online education today. Compared to disciplines such as math, biology, or electrical engineering, architectural history is relatively unique in its limited size and scope, with only a few institutions able to maintain robust programs of study; 4.605x is an interesting case study in the early history of MOOC education since its licensing and re-distribution likely does not offer the threat of professional displacement that speculated about similar MOOC surveys in subjects with larger teaching communities, threatened by our current age of austerity.[iii] What these things mean, together, is that the relative value added by increasing access to and otherwise facilitating instruction on the subject of architectural history online is high, while the risks, at the level of administration and job security, are relatively low. Even if 4.605x fails to meet your best expectations for the first architectural survey online with regards to content I think you can concede that the precedent it sets with regards to the possibilities for architectural history instruction is a worthy one. It does not replace its traditional equivalent, but it allows greater access to its content, and this is a benefit. Given that, I ask you the members of the Society of Architectural Historians: where do you want to take this? Certainly some serious consideration of what we want the future of architectural history to look like is warranted. The fact of 4.605x occurring, now, and the prospect of its continued adaption brings to that consideration some urgency: massive open online education in architectural history is happening, and will continue. While it is unlikely that a competing MOOC on the subject of “global architectural history” will emerge soon, it is quite likely that similarly constructed offerings on the subject of architectural history—adapted, comprehensive, and lecture-driven—will proliferate over the coming years. I am content with how this course turned out, but not satisfied; to the effect that I remain insecure about its present iteration I worry about its future adaptation, and the design of other MOOCs on the subject of architectural history. In the translated words of Roland Barthes, “whatever its sophistication, style has always something crude about it: it is a form with no clear destination, the product of a thrust, not an intention, and, as it were, a vertical and lonely dimension of thought.” Applying this maxim to 4.605x: our course is configured as it is as a result of its context and the resources available, future iterations will remain the same in that regard, and related courses will bear some resemblance in that concern. It is likely that other online courses on architectural history will resemble ours in terms of formant. Thus it bears asking: how do we want online education to benefit the field of architectural history, and how can the possibilities and capabilities of emerging online education platforms be utilized in the service of these goals?

    To begin this conversation, I would like to offer some interdisciplinary reflection. Many in the arena of Internet Studies have argued that the World Wide Web is a powerful, flattening force, capable of everything from radically decentralizing economies and reproduction (cf. Friedman, The World is Flat), to revolutionizing technological evolution (cf. Zittrain, The Future of the Internet—and How to Stop It), to transcending traditional boundaries of place and culture. In support of this last proposition, Canadian online education pioneer and activist Stephen Downes has argued that the internet is capable of functioning as a global public sphere, where people from around the world can talk to each other without regard to their social position. MOOCs are a fundamental vehicle for achieving this openness; as Downes stated in his EdgeX2012 presentation,

    Online, the Prime Minister of a country can have a conversation with people from all over the place; offline, that's a lot more difficult, because the Prime Minister's always surrounded by advisors, and then media, and then other media, and then a crowd of people, and that prevents the Prime Minister from talking to people directly. It is this directness, this immediacy of communication, that you can do online that allows a MOOC to be open, that is one of its defining features. The MOOC is structured as a network. And again, this is the sort of thing you can't really do offline. But online - I see people laughing at the diagram, that's a creative representation of a MOOC, by one of our students in a MOOC - and the idea here of a MOOC is that it's not one central entity that everybody goes to, it's not like a school or a classroom or a book where everybody would go to this one thing. It's distributed… it's the website of this student, this student, this student, it's the website of a person in Spain, a person in Brazil, a person in India, a person in Canada, the United States, wherever. (Downes)

    Despite this flattening aspect, like all public spheres, MOOCs are characterized by barriers to access. The most important one here is that of regular sustained access to an internet connection. Downes makes a note of this in his presentation:

    Anybody can enter a MOOC. Well, OK, I have to be a bit careful here: anybody with a computer and an internet connection, or access to one, can enter a MOOC. These are types of online learning. I'm going to emphasize this a little bit later as well, but what we built is a type of online learning. And it requires a certain infrastructure. (Downes)

    Here, the non-possession of prerequisites for participation (an internet connection) preemptively disqualifies a person from participation in the public sphere of the MOOC. This problem is negated, however, when it is turned into a question of taste; in this vein Downes continues the selection above...

    It takes advantage of that infrastructure to do things that we could not formerly do without the infrastructure. You might say, and you'd be very reasonable in saying, well what if you don't have that infrastructure? Well then probably you're not going to want to do a MOOC, because it's going to be a lot more difficult. (Downes)

    When one considers that this factor of preference might be motivated by other contingencies (including wealth) the narrative offered by Downes echoes those seen elsewhere. Consider Craig Watkins and Juliet Schor's recent report on connected learning, which argues that new educational approaches risk becoming an opportunity to reinforce already existing privileges of class and status. So they write,

    The trend for privileged young people and parents to mine the learning opportunities of networked and digital media is one more indicator of how differential supports in out-of-school learning can broaden the gap between those who have educational advantages and those who do not. When the public educational system lacks a proactive and well-resourced agenda for enriched and interest-driven learning, young people dependent on public institutions for learning are doubly disadvantaged. (Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design)

    To summarize: the societal value of MOOCs is moderated by limitations to their access. At the same time, the medium can be considered of incredible importance because of its ingenious operation between ideas and ideology: at this precise moment the MOOC remains both a pursuit of education content and its universal access, but its utopic promise remains precisely that. To these ends, while massive open online courseware can serve institutional and egotistical functions, covering elitism with a bad-faith gloss of equanimity, it can nonetheless also be leveraged as a means for identifying social and institutional conditions that foster autonomy and personal growth.

    The MOOC as described by Downes is not really free and available to all but it nonetheless serves as a means of resistance to established social orders; it is building on this compromise that I feel that the MOOC can function as a means towards broadening the availability of architectural history instruction at the college level while also facilitating the creation of a new diverse generation of independent, self-motivated architectural historians. Downes believes that the MOOC can be a democratic space capable of withstanding the corrosive effects of prejudice, narrow-mindedness, and elitism, and I agree. I think that 4.605x has started to model what the space of the MOOC might be within architectural history. I invite you to improve on it.

    Samuel Ray Jacobson holds a Master’s degree in architectural history from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As MITx Fellow, Jacobson coordinated the production of the world’s first massive open online course in global architectural history. He is currently editing a book on sexuality and the ethos of architectural critique.


    [i] In producing the online course, lectures, recorded during the run of the class, were divided into eight to seventeen minute segments. Images and videos from lecturer PowerPoint presentations were spliced over the video feed where appropriate. In addition, four custom-coded, comprehensive exams were developed from the spring mid-term and final exams. As is typical for the massive open online course a.k.a. “MOOC” medium, videos are each accompanied by short multiple-choice exercises, and each lecture includes an opportunity for guided discussion. Some supplemental resources, such as a map of sites mentioned in the course, were also created, based on existing resources. Twenty-three of the twenty-four lectures are presented MIT Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture Mark Jarzombek, and one by Ana Maria Leon, PhD Candidate in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art at MIT. Six supplemental lectures are also offered with the course package, two by Jarzombek, two by Leon, and two by University of Washington Professor of Architecture Vikramāditya Prakāsh. These were recorded over the summer.

    [ii] Currently MITx estimates that managing their discussion forums requires approximately one hour per thousand students, per week, at a minimum; given limited resources it was necessary to devise strategies for discussion forum management that were as efficient as possible.

    [iii] See recent controversies involving JusticeX, a Harvard course offered to San Jose State University students, as well as Princeton sociology professor Mitchell Duneier’s decision to withdraw from his partnership with MOOC distributor Coursera, citing uneasiness over licensing his course to the University of Maryland and the University of Akron.;


    Downes, Stephen. "Education as Platform: The MOOC Experience and what we can do to make it better." EdgeX. Delhi, 2012. Keynote address.

    Ito, Mizuko, et al. Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design. Irvine, CA: The Digital Media and Learning Research Hub, 2013. Report.

    Jarzombek, Mark. Ed. Samuel Ray Jacobson. 6 June 2013. Online course description. 10 July 2013.

     Seaton, Daniel, Yoav Bergner and David Pritchard. "Exploring the Relationship Between Course Structure and etext Usage in Blended and Open Online Courses." 6th International Conference on Educational Data Mining. 2013. Conference Proceeding.


    Portions of this essay appeared in the blog of 4.605x,, in altered form, between June and August 2013.

  • Study Day: Henri Labrouste and Le Corbusier Exhibitions at MoMA

    by User Not Found | Sep 25, 2013

    For a brief period this spring, an unprecedented amount of temporary exhibition space at the Museum of Modern Art was simultaneously devoted to two seminal figures of modern architecture, Henri Labrouste and Le Corbusier (Charles-Édouard Jeanneret). As a recipient of the Society’s Scott Opler Endowment for New Scholars Study Tour Fellowship, I had the exceptional experience of touring the exhibits with their curators and a group of architectural historians and enthusiasts. Each exhibition presented a wealth of architectural drawings, models, photographs, and related ephemeral materials, including Labrouste’s silk laurel wreath from the École des Beaux-Arts and Le Corbusier’s glass bottles used in his Purist paintings. While our tour leaders presented the participants with great insights and historical background to many of the individual objects in the exhibitions, this report will focus on observations regarding the broader questions of exhibit conception, organization, and design, rather than individual objects or building projects.

    Our day began in the lobby of the Museum of Modern Art, where we met Barry Bergdoll, Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design. After traversing the so-called “Bauhaus staircase” we arrived at the entrance to the Henri Labrouste: Structure Brought to Light exhibition, curated by Prof. Bergdoll in association with Corinne Bélier and Marc Le Cœur. We toured the three sections of the exhibition and concluded with a brief tour of the Architecture and Design galleries. 

    Prof. Bergdoll began our tour with an answer to the seemingly fundamental question about the genesis of the exhibit: “Why Labrouste at MoMA?” While he presented many reasons for the exhibition including the importance placed on Labrouste by the early critics and historians of modern architecture and the desire to expose students and the general public to his work, Prof. Bergdoll also shared with us that a Labrouste exhibition was proposed in the early years of the department’s history – the Museum of Modern Art was long due for an exhibit devoted to this important nineteenth-century architect.

    We explored the three sections of the exhibition, beginning with the first gallery devoted to Labrouste’s development as a young architect and student at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and his time in Rome as the recipient of the Grand Prix de Rome. Proceeding to the middle section of the exhibition, devoted to Labrouste’s two major library projects, one noticed the novel ways in which the exhibition presented architectural drawings and other materials. Specifically, exhibition designers created tables in the style of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève to display drawings of the building itself. An opening containing models of the two projects joined the two galleries and ingeniously drew a physical connection between the pair of Parisian libraries. The final gallery of the exhibit looked beyond Labrouste to his contemporaries, his later influences, and the historiography of his work including the landmark The Architecture of the École des Beaux-Arts exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 1975.

    After a break for lunch, we began our tour of Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscapes with Jean-Louis Cohen, guest curator of the exhibit in association with Prof. Bergdoll and Sheldon H. Solow Professor in the History of Architecture at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. I was particularly interested in this tour as I am teaching two concurrent advanced undergraduate seminars on the architecture, art, and writings of Le Corbusier at Connecticut College. 

    Our tour began with a discussion of the genesis of this exhibit—the first full retrospective of Le Corbusier’s work at the Museum of Modern Art—and the challenges that came with this exhibition. With so many exhibits devoted to his work, Prof. Cohen explained his desire to focus on Le Corbusier’s relationship with landscape. While this element of landscape is certainly a clear thread that runs throughout the exhibition—from Le Corbusier’s arrangement of objects in his paintings to the line drawings the exhibit designers employed in the windows of full-scale interior spaces to give the visitor a sense of the space beyond—the exhibition is also clearly a retrospective. This is in part due to the exceptional quality and quantity of objects displayed from the collection of the Fondation Le Corbusier in Paris.    

    Prof. Cohen additionally discussed his vision for the exhibit, his choice to feature both well known and unfamiliar objects, and his goal to create something that would be compelling for both scholars and the general public alike. He also explained that there was a concerted effort to let Le Corbusier’s work speak for itself. Notably no digital reconstructions are included in the exhibition and almost all the architectural models displayed were produced by Le Corbusier and his atelier.

    One design consideration discussed during both tours was the use of color. For the Labrouste exhibition, Prof. Bergdoll noted the use of a gray stonelike color for the walls in the first two sections and white for the final section. The color choice was intended to highlight both Labrouste’s drawings and to mark a differentiation between the sections focused on his work and the final section, which looked to contemporary and comparative examples. While color in the Labrouste exhibit was subtle, in the Le Corbusier exhibition, it plays a major role in the visitor’s interaction with the gallery spaces and ultimately with the objects themselves. The curators drew directly from Le Corbusier’s so-called “color keyboard” to select a variety of subtle as well as vibrant colors to visually mark the development of Le Corbusier’s work from Purism to the postwar.

    The tour of both exhibits was an incredible experience. Rarely, if ever, have two architectural exhibitions of this importance been mounted simultaneously in the same city, let alone at the same institution. These exhibitions present a trove of exceptional objects that tell a compelling history of two the most important architects of the modern era.  The insights shared by Profs. Bergdoll and Cohen not only provided greater knowledge about these extraordinary artifacts, but also gave a deeper appreciation for the choices made in the process of curation. Learning this information about the Le Corbusier exhibition was especially valuable for me as it will directly shape the development and refinement of my fall undergraduate seminar.  While this course will only look at the postwar architecture of the Franco-Swiss architect, the exhibit has already transformed my understanding of his architectural production. I look forward to sharing much of this new insight with my students this fall both in the classroom and at the exhibition, which we will visit in September.  

    Emily Morash, Visiting Instructor, Connecticut College; Ph.D. Candidate, Brown University
    Emily Morash is a Ph.D. candidate at Brown University in the History of Art and Architecture as well as a visiting instructor in architectural studies at Connecticut College. She received a B.A. in art history and Italian from Smith College and a master’s degree in architectural history from the University of Virginia. She is currently completing a dissertation, Reconstructing Italian Domestic Architecture: Gio Ponti and Lo Stile, 1941-1947, that examines the development of domestic architecture and reconstruction solutions in Milan during and immediately following World War II.
  • Building Data: Field Notes on the Future of Architectural History

    by User Not Found | 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.


    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 

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