• Member Stories: Charlette Caldwell

    SAH News
    May 4, 2021

    Charlette CaldwellToday's profile is Charlette Caldwell, a Ph.D. student and a Provost Diversity Fellow studying the history and theory of architecture at Columbia University. Charlette has been an SAH member since 2014.

    Can you tell SAH a little about your background and what interests you most about architectural history?

    I have a bachelors in architecture from Syracuse University, but I was always interested in taking architectural history and history classes while completing my undergraduate degree. These interests led me to completing a masters in historic preservation from the University of Pennsylvania and then pursing a doctorate at Columbia University. I think what most interests me about architectural history is uncovering untold stories that are not typically associated with architecture or history in general.

    Can you give us a brief summary of your current work?

    Currently I’m working on researching and interpreting the role the American Black Church had in the culture of American building in the 19th century. This research takes a vernacular methodological approach that asks questions about the changing cultural values of the built environment rather than deeming something as “commonplace” or “ordinary”. The major outcome I’m working toward with this research is to show Black agency in the built environment that touches on historic and monumental buildings such as Mother Bethel AME in Philadelphia and smaller unassuming places of worship.

    That's really interesting. The 19th century spans a watershed in American history—the Civil War—which raises other questions. Are there changes in the establishment and use of Black spaces before and after the war, or do you see consistency and persistent attitudes toward the built environment in the Black community?

    This is a good question about consistency and change in Black heritage sites. Although I haven't done the rigorous research for this (haven't quite started the dissertation phase of my PhD!), I do see in other places where I've researched or assisted with preservation efforts that there's consistency. That doesn't mean there are not moments of innovation. Consistency is really something everyone deals with; we adapt only when we need toMother Bethel AME and keep methods and practices that continue to be sufficient. Where I really see change in building practices is when a community responds to popular trends and adapts them to their unique situations. One really good example of this is Mother Bethel AME in Philadelphia, which I mentioned, where renderings of the different church buildings built on the site corresponded to popular building trends. The current building, built in 1890, is a Richardson Romanesque building. The building has the amenities one would expect for AME liturgy, but also the style reflects popular taste at the time in the United States. So I suppose my answer is that it's more of a both/and and a mix of historical and contextual, if that makes sense. Also, who gets to be a tastemaker? But I suppose that's a question for another day.

    I would imagine most Black churches were sites of sanctuary and agency regardless of building style, but are you finding more differences or more similarities in how these communities valued monumental buildings versus vernacular types?

    I see the vernacular more as a process of building as oppose to building types. I think there's still an archaic/elitist assumption of "the vernacular" that labels building practices by some groups of people—which are often race and class based—as "commonplace" or "ordinary" when in actuality, every group of people has building practices that are made of monumental and non-monumental buildings. I think when you also explore the vernacular historically, you'll see that because of the legacy of discrimination, especially in places like the United States, historically marginalized people respond to the built environment very much like everyone else, except there may be those limitations I mentioned before that add uniqueness to their building practices. So I guess this is a long way of saying that there's no such thing as "vernacular" types; the United States in particular (since this is my area of focus) is made up of different types of buildings, engagements, and understandings of architecture. It's more appropriate and inclusive to refer to it as a process of building culture. One architectural historian who I think does a really great job at this is Dell Upton. His American Architecture survey books do a great job at discussing every permutation and iteration of building as happening simultaneously and equally important to our understanding of the built historical past. No one is more important than the other, yet even with this in mind it's best to try to elevate and discuss historically marginalized people such as Black Americans as building monumental and non-monumental structures. You avoid othering folks while recognizing their agency and contributions when you approach history this way. 

    Along with Dell Upton, do you have other people who have influenced your work or inspired you to study architecture?

    In high school I was intrigued by Frank Lloyd Wright, but later I was influenced by historians like Barry Bergdoll and Mabel Wilson. Barry’s book on European architecture was required in my history survey while I was at Syracuse and I came to Charlette's Motherappreciate scholars like Mabel as I became more interested in the Black American experience in architectural studies and practices.  

    My mother is a small business manager at a construction firm in Washington state and she would bring home blueprints that needed review from the project architect. I remember looking through them in our dining room when I was little. That’s the earliest memory I have, but my interest wasn’t really sparked until I began having interest in film and art direction. My father was concerned about my job prospects so I began researching related professional careers and stumbled upon architecture again.

    If a layperson asked why we should study architecture and its history, what would you say?

    I would say knowing about the past in general is important to learn lessons that could be applied for the future, but architectural history is important especially because it’s something that everyone comes in contact with in their everyday experiences. Everyone has some emotional or cultural attachment to the built environment and it’s crucial to understand that attachment to learn more about people.

    When and how did you become involved with SAH and how has the Society enriched your experience in architectural history?

    I first became involved with SAH when I started my masters at Penn. It was important to me to learn about the professional opportunities and SAH was one of the top organizations on my list.

    Working with other graduate students has been key in my experience with SAH. Serving on the SAH Graduate Student Advisory Committee has shown me more opportunities and possibilities. Also, getting the chance to meet important scholars in our field through attending conferences and talks has been extremely influential in how I work as an architectural historian.

    The last year has seen significant changes in our society and in SAH. Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future, and how do you see yourself as part of that growth?

    I think it’s important that SAH responds to historical injustices by elevating historically marginalized voices, but also continuing to instill historical rigor that makes us think deeply about the role the built environment plays in historical scholarship. Also, elevating the work of graduate students could help facilitate a stronger connection among professionals in different stages of their career.

    I participated in the first Method Acts Workshop and thought having the opportunity to discuss some interventions I’m hoping to explore with my dissertation was helpful. And despite the moment we’re in, using online platforms allows more people to come into contact with each other, which I thought the workshops did quite well. I do think future workshops could continue discussing archival material and different ways to approach this material. That could be useful for exploring different avenues for research.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I always like to end by asking what advice would you give to a young person considering a career in architectural history or a related field?

    I would say take as many history courses as possible, in your interests and outside. This also includes history not explicitly related to architecture as it will expose you to how other historians have been thinking about interpreting the past.

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.

  • Member Stories: Macarena de la Vega de León

    SAH News
    Apr 7, 2021

    Work from Home

    Today's profile is Macarena de la Vega de León, an Honorary Research Fellow at The University of Melbourne and SAH member since August of 2018.

    First of all, thank you for sharing a little about yourself with the other members. Can you tell us a little about your background and what interests you most about architectural history?

    I studied architecture in Madrid, but very quickly realized that it was the history/theory subjects that I liked and was better at. After having done a master's at the same school, it was clear to me that I needed to do my PhD somewhere else. By pure chance, that "somewhere" ended up being Australia.

    I am interested in the writing of architecture and its history. Who writes it? What did they have in mind? So far, I have worked on historians from the early and late twentieth century, as well as on more recent histories and histories in Australasia. 

    Most recently, you have been working from the U.S. As someone who has seen architecture and its history from the perspective of 3 continents, what about architecture is universal, and what about it is particular to its culture and place?

    This is a really complicated question to answer briefly. I believe that architecture and its history are not different from people: we combine in ourselves the complexities and contradictions of being human while being a product of our circumstances, the culture and place in which we grow up. Like us, architecture and its history have the potential to be more culturally aware and engaged every single day.

    Can you briefly summarize your current work?

    I am currently looking for my next job while I continue to publish parts of my dissertation and findings of the research project I undertook last year at the University of Melbourne. I have a ridiculous amount of deadlines this spring for somebody that is currently unemployed, but I am trying to stay in the game so I can be ready and competitive when an opportunity arises. Being in the midst of the storm at the moment, it is hard to see the way through, but all I can do is keep persevering, keep swimming.

    Are you looking for opportunities in academia or elsewhere? As work in higher education changes, are there opportunities for emerging professionals outside the university setting?

    Again, great questions without an easy answer. Working in academia—one can even say surviving academia—is not easy, and while I am actively searching for opportunities, I am not willing to accept just anything, anywhere, or risk my wellbeing. While careers outside academia are certainly fulfilling for researchers, for the moment I continue to search for an opportunity to teach, to learn, and to research.

    How can SAH support young professionals?

    SAH’s support since I became a member has been immense, especially during the last year, when the society has risen to address the very trying circumstances and continued to offer opportunities. Very recently, I have benefitted from my participation in the Method Acts workshops and the SAH/GAHTC Teacher-to-Teacher workshop.

    Do you have a particular memory of when you first became aware of the significance of architecture or when you knew you wanted to study it?

    I can’t really name one particular moment or reason. My parents are very fond of travelling, and I travelled with them and also on my own, visiting family since I was very young. With visiting new places, there is always the fixation on sightseeing. Before starting university, I had visited Paris, New York, Boston….

    Do you have a particular building or landscape in Paris, New York, or Boston that stands out in your mind? 

    Interestingly, more than a particular building or park, what I always remember best—and keep in mind, I have a terrible memory—is the feeling of walking on these (and other) cities’ streets.

    Do you have a particular architect or architectural historian that has influenced your work and career?

    First and foremost, I would have to name my PhD supervisor, the reason I went to Australia, Gevork Hartoonian. In Australia, I have also found supportive mentors in my bosses John Marcarthur, Paul Walker, and Hannah Lewi. I have met people that have showed genuine interest in my work and have helped generously along the way like Julia Gatley, Mirjana Lozanovska, and Ana Esteban Maluenda. Of course, I have people whose work I admire, and SAH has given me great chances to interact with them. This would be people like Sibel Bozdoğan, Kathleen James-Chakraborty, Mark Jarzombek, and very recently, even if virtually, Esra Ackan. 

    If a layperson asked why we should study architecture and its history, what would you say?

    I do believe that it helps in understanding the past. How humans have lived and interacted can be understood through studying cities and buildings. 

    When and how did you become involved with SAH?

    Macarena at SAH ProvidenceIn 2018, I was selected to participate in the 2019 annual conference in Providence. I joined as a student who had just submitted the dissertation, which was still under revision, and I presented at Providence having just graduated.

    I travelled from Australia supported by one of SAH's fellowships, I presented as part of a great session chaired by David Rifkind and Elie Haddad, whose work I had followed, and with whom I have continued to collaborate. That is one of the deadlines that I have coming up.

    How else has SAH enriched your work and experience with architectural history?

    Last year, I was chair of a session, so I was part of the first virtual conference. My co-chair, Brett Tippey, and I continued to work with our participants in the development of their papers for publication as co-editors of an issue of Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand that should be out very soon.

    The less obvious: being welcomed by none other than Victoria Young, who I had “met” on Twitter, into an amazing family, and it feels indeed as one. The communication with SAH officers at different stages has always been great and familiar. I even had the chance to learn from Helena (SAH Director of Communications) when I was trying to set up the communications for SAHANZ, the partner society in Australia and New Zealand.

    I also got to meet really interesting people coming from or working on Latin America, who welcomed me like another Latin-Americanist.

    The opportunities that came from attending the conference are immense: the program for graduate students, the professional headshot, and the GAHTC teacher-to-teacherTeaching after the GAHTC workshop that I attended, organized by Ana María León, where I got to learn from Daniela Sandler, among other educators and scholars. Tricks came up in the discussions that I put into practice as soon as I landed in my own teaching. For example, in the image you can see the result of the tutorial’s discussion with the students. I would start with a prompt/question and throw the ball of yarn to whoever would like to answer or continue with the discussion. Given how visual we are, very quickly students would be aware if they had contributed too much and encourage others to participate.

    The Method Acts workshops were new to SAH this year. How do you think they lived up to expectations and how could they be even better? 

    The February workshop demonstrated that emerging scholars are eager to share their work beyond their institutions and more than once a year, if there is luck, as did the workshops for the students selected to participate in the lighting talks. I believe there is potential for a monthly or bi-monthly workshop of the sort. 

    The last year has seen significant changes in our communities and in SAH itself. Do you have a vision for how SAH should evolve in the future, and how do you see yourself as part of that growth?

    I think that SAH demonstrated last year that it grows with adversity: it delivered a conference and developed an online program of depth and breadth that has no rival worldwide. But most importantly, it has stepped up in terms of its advocacy against inequities and social injustice, and its responses to presidential interferences with the appearance of the built environment. It has shown efficacy and speed in those responses.

    Last question: what advice would you give to a young person considering a career in architectural history or a related field?

    The only advice that I can give, that should be taken with a pinch of salt, as I do not think I have a career in architectural history yet, is to just keep swimming. If you are as lucky as I am, try to find ways to do what you are passionate about, and opportunities will come your way. You just need to keep an open mind.

    SAH members engage with the history of the built environment through a broad array of specializations, professional fields, and areas of interest. Member Stories is a regular feature that recognizes the expertise and unique experiences of our members.


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