SAH Blog

  • Take a Stand: Architecture Matters

    By
    Swati Chattopadhyay, Marta Gutman, Zeynep Kezer, Matthew Lasner
     |
    Jul 22, 2019

    On June 24, 2019, we launched PLATFORM, a new digital venue for public conversations about architecture, the built environment, and landscape. It features timely short essays organized into six sectionsFinding, House Histories, Opinion, Reading /Listening/Watching, Specifying, and Teaching/Working—that serve as entry points into different realms of discussion, and address different constituencies and interests. Our goal is to reach a broader audience than academics and professionals working on architecture and urbanism, because we believe that the built environment is too important to be confined to scholarly and professional silos. PLATFORM, explicitly outward-facing, is thus a work of public humanities, designed to allow writers in our fields to shed light on a range of contemporary concerns. As a digital forum, it leverages the capabilities of new media to facilitate this conversation.

    PLATFORM is an invitation to take a stand. We want our contributors and readers to assess critically how the built environment affects us, and to consider how people around the world are using space as an instrument of change. We want all of us—readers, editors, and contributors--to reckon with how knowledge about architecture and the environment is disseminated, what our culture teaches us to see, and what it asks us to ignore. We encourage readers to intervene, to interpret, and to use space to achieve democratizing, liberatory aims.

    PLATFORM

    Beginnings     

    The idea of a new kind of digital venue for conversation on the built environment was first broached at Architectural History Redefined, a conference hosted to honor the scholarship of Dell Upton at the Bernard and Ann Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of New York (CCNY), on April 13–14, 2018. The conference, spearheaded by Marta Gutman, brought together Upton’s former and current students and colleagues with CCNY students and faculty, as well as scholars from other institutions in New York and beyond. Upton’s work has transformed how scholars approach ordinary lives and everyday landscapes. The symposium provided the rare opportunity to showcase and discuss the propagation and evolution of this approach through the work of his students and colleagues located in a variety of institutions and regions across the world. The format of the panels comprising five-minute presentations followed by a discussion, produced engaging conversations on a range of topics from design and pedagogy to the history of colonialism and racism, teaching in the classroom, in national parks, and in the prison, and architecture and cities as public culture.

    At the concluding roundtable of the conference, Mary McLeod suggested that this critical conversation—and approaches to the built environment that emphasize the social and political, more broadly—should be shared with a larger public. At the Society of Architectural Historians annual conference, a week later, Swati Chattopadhyay, Marta Gutman, Zeynep Kezer, and Jeremy White met to discuss plans and possibilities. These initial conversations grew into a more coherent scheme with William Littmann and Matthew Lasner on board, and supported by peers who reviewed the ideas and shared their views.

    Our objective is not to replicate the format of an academic journal, but to offer an alternative venue for timely, provocative, and diverse exchanges on the role of the built environment and space.

    Timely

    PLATFORM invites timely conversations about why and how architecture and space matter. We want to convey the excitement of how architecture transforms us, our thoughts, and actions: why an archival discovery is so important today, and how a field-trip changes the optics through which we see the world moving forward. We want to illustrate how buildings, landscapes, and places, contemporary and historical, help us make sense of current events, inside and outside the architecture world, from questions about the West Bank, borderlands, and international airspace, to the challenges of urban decay and housing. We want to examine cutting-edge methods and tools for analyzing space. We want to stimulate urgent conversations about how and what we teach.

    The leading venues in our fields—peer reviewed journals, popular and professional design journals, university and design presses—operate slowly, by necessity. Even on-line. But this process cannot be responsive to rapidly developing events. Where can we share work quickly—in as little as a week or two? Where can we discuss breaking news? Urgent discoveries? PLATFORM is that place.

    Provocative

    The form of communication is just as vital as the content of communication. We publish short-form essays and digital content (audio, photos, video, and data visualization) that facilitate discussions about the here and now, and how we relate to the past, to history, and our legacies at the present moment.

    Articles and monographs provide an indispensable outlet for communicating thoroughly researched and annotated scholarship that has also gone through the thoughtful scrutiny of peer reviewers. PLAFTORM’s format accommodates short-form writing that is not generally available elsewhere. Where can we share thoughtful musings on a serendipitously encountered piece of evidence that cannot be stretched to a reasonable article length? Where can we share our excitement about a new book, documentary, or exhibition with just a brief critical description? Where can we find the opportunity for working through issues that are pressing or controversial? Where is the forum for provocation—a provocation to think earnestly, immediately, and to engage in challenging conversations in the company of similarly curious and interested minds? PLATFORM is that place.

    Diverse

    We at PLATFORM are interested in all scales of the built environment from that of the interior and building detail to that of the city, region, and planetary. Diversity of content, however, demands diverse audiences—and contributors.

    PLATFORM is broad in perspective and interdisciplinary in orientation. We invite writers from the Global South and North and from across professions and disciplines. We want to attract novices as well as old hands. We are not a closed or finite group. Unsolicited work is welcome. You do not need to have gone to school with the editors, be an architect, an architectural historian, or an academic to join the conversation. We value the diversity of opinions about how we view, read, experience, and engage with the built and natural landscapes. PLATFORM crosses disciplinary divides and is explicitly international.

    We hope you will read PLATFORM, contribute to it, and help us build this conversation. Help us make a stand. Architecture matters.

    Go comment!
  • Where Is Architectural History Thriving?

    By
    Sarah M. Dreller
     |
    Jul 9, 2019

    Welcome to The SAH Data Project’s process blog, a series of short-form reflections and interviews about the Society’s study of architectural history in higher education. By Sarah M. Dreller, Postdoctoral Researcher in the Humanities. #SAHDataProject

    There’s something a little curious about the Society’s effort to describe and analyze the status of architectural history in higher education: it is called the “SAH Data Project” but the dedicated staff person—me—has the title of “Researcher in the Humanities.” Data and humanism together? Can we combine the urge to quantify with the study of the unquantifiable in the same undertaking? Can any really meaningful results come of this synthesis?

    Of course I think the answer is yes and that it can be more than just collecting information about the humanities, too. I also think it deserves some unpacking. I say that because not everyone bothers to examine or explain their relationship with metrics, and I want you to know that we’re trying to find a more nuanced path. After all, we are a group of humanists who have placed a specific form of deliberately humanistic practice at the center of our research. And we hope the resulting report will do what good humanistic inquiry does, which is to stimulate conversation with the questions it inspires rather than shut down debate with comfortingly tidy conclusions. So we’re intent on developing a form that follows our function: a methodology that values experience, judgement, and instinct and that looks for the ingredients of human-centered stories that matter.

    I’d like to start with a concrete example of how we’re infusing humanism into our information-gathering work. From the beginning the SAH Data Project has taken a layered approach to soliciting guidance that is specifically designed to create opportunities for thoughtful discussion and generally neutralize the conditions under which an uncritical reliance on hard data could form. This infrastructure consists of two simultaneous tracks that do complementary things: one provides regular bursts of feedback on the project as a whole while the other provides very in-depth occasional feedback on selected topics. The former we’re calling the Advisory Committee and consists of twelve historians who are currently teaching in or otherwise associated with the full range of degree-granting programs and institutions. The latter is a series of four day-long meetings that will involve eight different stakeholders per meeting from the wider universe in which some version of architectural history is valued and practiced.


    SAH Data Project Advisory Committee
    The SAH Data Project’s Advisory Committee convened in person for the first time at SAH’s 2019 annual meeting in Providence. Here, Jorge Otero-Pailos (far right) shares his perspective on architectural history’s strengths and weaknesses as a discipline in higher education. Other committee members include (left to right): Michael Lee; Pauline Saliga, Abigail Van Slyck (Chair); Amber Wiley; and Sandy Isenstadt

    Regardless of format, though, everyone is receiving the same basic charge. We want them to give us their perspectives on which aspects of architectural history are thriving and where the field is faltering. In higher education, particularly, we want to know what they think the term “thriving” actually means. The point is to begin developing a kind of consensus around which qualities the field really needs to be the most robust version of itself so that, in turn, we can design the research to collect data about the status of these same qualities. So far I’ve had this conversation one-on-one with every member of the Advisory Committee and they discussed it as a group, too. It was enlightening and productive, and the stakeholder meetings are still to come. To be sure, this is a messier and more laborious process than it could have otherwise been. But human it most certainly is.

    Between the Advisory Committee and stakeholder meetings we’re talking about forty-four individuals who will be sharing their informed observations and aspirations about a thriving field. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like very many people when presented as just a one-dimensional number. What if, instead, we reimagine this group in terms of their rich collective knowledge as thinkers, writers, makers, and doers? There are various ways to approach that but for demonstration’s sake here we can say that since participants range from students to emeriti faculty, they will each bring about seventeen years of experience to our discussions. Do that math and you find that this part of the project alone actively solicits meaningful advice based on a combined total of seven-and-a-half centuries of humanistic work dedicated to understanding the built environment. Suddenly the commitment behind creating this process and the effort I’m expending managing it all has a lot more meaning.

    SAH Data Project Advisory Committee
    The SAH Data Project’s Advisory Committee also suggested potential survey data points during their first in-person meeting. Here, Martha McNamara (center) discusses the benefits and drawbacks of a particular group of questions. Other committee members include (left to right): Jorge Otero-Pailos; Mohammad Gharipour; and Bill Littmann. I’m standing to the far right.

    Future blog posts will offer other examples. For now I think it’s important to acknowledge that we’re not the first to value a humanistic mindset within the context of data-focused research. Since the project is currently in its visioning phases, I’ve been considering The Tyranny of Metrics by Jerry Muller, a historian of organizations, and Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil, a former quantitative analyst. As you can probably imagine from the titles these authors have chosen, both describe society’s dangerous reliance on uncritical data systems. That’s been important as a way to identify potential pitfalls but it’s not all doom and gloom. Importantly, as an effective antidote Muller and O’Neil recommend incorporating more human judgement into data work. Muller’s most resonant suggestion is to create opportunities for the people being studied to participate in decisions about what information is collected and how it will be used. The guidance infrastructure I described earlier had already been established by the time I heard Muller say this so it served primarily as a welcome confirmation that we were on the right track. I also came across O’Neil’s suggestion to build in frequent and thoughtful self-audits after having committed to the blog, but in this case there was time to plan out the writing schedule in ways that turned the blog into a trigger for checking in with what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.    

    In addition to the authors whose ideas can be clearly associated with specific elements of our project, there is one person whose work is a true touchstone for me: Giorgia Lupi. Indeed, no one can put the words data and humanism in the same sentence without also including this brilliant information designer who has done so much to push back at the lack of critical self-awareness in her field. Lupi’s manifesto, “Data Humanism, the Revolution will be Visualized,” is the place to start but, really, I would encourage you to also watch one of her recorded presentations (TED or 99U). There is something very compelling about her charisma and authenticity, something that is hard to articulate and that I suspect makes her case as effectively as her words. Alexandra Lange’s profile for the New Yorker, published just this May, will fill out some of the details of the Lupi’s background for you better than I could summarize here.

    Where is architectural history thriving and where is the field faltering?  In higher education, particularly, what does the term “thriving” actually mean? Which qualities does the field need to be the most robust version of itself?

    As you read (and watch) Lupi describe her idea of data humanism, one thing that really becomes clear is that she is not just concerned about the way information is visualized, although that is her main output. It’s also about integrating empathy across data’s entire life cycle, from the initial abstraction all the way through its processing and consumption. It’s about the way we imagine what can and should be measured, how we gather that information, the narratives we assign, the tools we choose to conceptualize it in correlation with other data. It’s about honoring the fact that the data we collect about people are more than just numbers on a screen.

    For some reason the example Lupi offers that has stuck in my head the most is the week she experimented with tracking when she checked the time and how she was feeling when she did that; by the end she’d discovered patterns in her emotional relationship with time that were more substantive than just when her eyes were most likely to drift toward a clock. That’s the kind of nuanced insight I’d like to see our project yield for architectural history, so I wasn’t surprised when I realized recently that I think about Lupi’s work especially when we’re debating the qualitative questions we could include on our survey. If we do it right, this is the kind of information that could give dimensionality to all manner of otherwise hard data like enrollment numbers, the relative percentages of tenure-stream vs. contingent faculty positions, and so on. And while we don’t yet know what, if anything, that data will tell us, the desire to ask in case we uncover something meaningful about our constituencies just kind of feels right. That’s instinct, it’s human, and we’re trusting it.

     

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