• 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.

  • Member Stories: Pollyanna Rhee

    SAH News
    Apr 7, 2021

    Pollyanna RheeToday's profile is Pollyanna Rhee, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign and a member since August of 2018.

    Dr. Rhee, thank you for participating in this feature and letting the rest of the membership get to know you in a small but important way. To begin, can you tell SAH a little about your background and what interests you most about architectural history?

    My academic history is a lesson in the significance of luck. Unlike many of my classmates in my PhD program in architecture at Columbia, I didn’t have a professional degree in architecture nor did I study art history as an undergraduate—I studied politics and history. I started the PhD program in 2011 right after finishing the Master of Science Program in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture at Columbia. At the time, I had a sense of the larger questions and themes I wanted to explore, but no actual places or buildings. And this was the case, more or less, until the process of writing my dissertation prospectus. I wanted to write about environmental ideas in the shaping of the American West’s urban landscapes and cobbled together something along those lines. But an off-hand comment made by a faculty member at an environmental history seminar months after I started archival research set me on the actual path of what became the dissertation, which in part provides a new narrative of modern environmentalism’s rise in the United States.

    Coincidentally it was at SAH in St. Paul in 2018, after what seemed to be a devastating series of near misses, when I was offered my first academic job as a postdoctoral fellow in environmental humanities at the University of Illinois. It was a dream position—one I wanted as soon as I read the job description in the summer of 2017. At Illinois, I worked very closely with Bob Morrissey, a historian of Early America at Illinois, and Leah Aronowsky, a historian of environmental science now at the Columbia Society of Fellows, as well as graduate and undergraduate students, and met a really fantastic group of humanities faculty. During my second month at Illinois, the university’s department of landscape architecture, had a position for a modern landscape historian open up, and somehow through that process I was offered the job. My fellowship was two years and only required me to teach one course during that period, so I deferred my start date to finish the fellowship and started on faculty in Fall 2020 where I teach courses on modern and global landscape history. Every single day, I am absolutely in thrilled disbelief that I get to do what I do with the people around me.

    Does your current work still involve urban landscapes and environmentalism?

    I’m currently working on two major research projects and perhaps neither of them sound like architectural history at first glance. The first, based on my dissertation, is a history of the rise of modern environmentalism in the United States and uses the city of Santa Barbara, California to tell that story. The place--but also ideas of home, domesticity, community, and belonging--are central to how people form attachments to their environments.

    State Street perspective

    The second is a history of the concept of “quality of life” since 1945, especially the ways that cities and communities have been shaped around the aspiration of attaining quality of life whether it means access to leisure time, environmental quality, or health outcomes. This project began from research in the dissertation—so many figures in the archives discussed their concerns for maintaining Santa Barbara’s quality of life that I began to investigate what they meant by this evocative, yet rather vaguely-defined phrase.

    Overall, what drives my work is an overarching interest in how people construct normative ideas about the world,  the types of people constructed or envisioned by those norms, what counts as common sense, and how the built and natural environments contribute to the stabilization that common sense. For example, in the first project, one underlying thread within it is a critical stance towards often-romantic views of “community” as an unalloyed good. I spend quite a bit of time underscoring the reactionary and exclusionary potentials of community. In a review essay that’s just been published for early access for Modern Intellectual History I make the argument that examining architecture and landscapes are really ideal for this type of investigation because they’re often considered mere background for the ostensibly more substantive aspects of political and social life, but actually can help put into relief the political culture and priorities of communities, institutions, and governments.  

    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?

    Probably reading of Carl Schorske’s Fin-de-Siecle Vienna on the Ringstrasse as an undergraduate. It’s still a real model to me of how to write about culture and politics.

    Other than Schorske, do you have a particular architect or historian that has influenced your work and career?

    I’ve been exceptionally lucky when it comes to people around me both within in architectural history and in environmental history, most especially Felicity Scott, Reinhold Martin, and Karl Jacoby. When you’re doing an interdisciplinary dissertation within architectural history—which I know a lot of people do—it can be a little scary to subject your work to scholars in adjacent fields, like you’re going to be outed as a charlatan dabbler. Or at least that’s a fear of mine. But subjecting my work to historians of the American West, environmental historians, intellectual historians, and political theorists has been amazing and probably a contributing factor to what I’ve been able to do. 

    Now as a professor, you have an opportunity to shape others' views of the field. If a layperson asked why we should study architecture and its history, what would you tell them?

    I tell my students that examining the land, landscapes, and the built environment are necessary for approaching the largest issues in our histories. In the scope of US history, this includes the legacies of territorial expansion and expulsion, slavery, war, and imperialist endeavors, as well as smaller scale, but just as revealing, histories of placemaking, domesticity, and consumption.

    Has SAH enriched your work and experience with architectural history?

    My first active involvement in SAH is through a book review of Shundana Yusaf’s Broadcasting Buildings published in JSAH in 2015. I think Stephen Nelson, the book review editor at the time, got my name from Felicity. Over the years I’ve written entries for the California edition of SAH Archipedia, taken part in the Graduate Student Lightning Talks, given a full paper on a panel in Glasgow, and am organizing a panel for Pittsburgh in 2022, so SAH is a regular and fulfilling presence in my work. This is especially the case now that I’m not in graduate school anymore, so SAH serves as a really important way to keep in touch with my classmates.

    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?

    At a time when public interest in the built environment and its historical legacies is at a height, we need ways to address the fact that there is so much work in architectural history and for architectural historians to do when it comes to teaching, whether or not the students are future designers, and scholarship, and there are simply not enough jobs for that work to be done.

    You were a participant in the Method Acts workshops that were new to SAH this year. How do you think they lived up to expectations and how could they be even better?

    The Method Acts workshops revealed a real desire for outlets for early-career scholars to discuss the methods, the spadework, and questions that come out of studying architectural history. Doctoral programs in architectural history are quite small, so it’s really necessary, more so now, to be able to forge connections outside our respective institutions, especially since the motivating questions and intellectual touchstones can be quite different across departments. I would love to have more discussions about underutilized archives, surprising discoveries, and theoretical touchstones and questions that drive our scholarly work.  

    You have mentioned the small market of academic jobs in the field, and the need to build bridges between scholars from different institutions. What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in architectural history or a related field?

    Often I think of academic life as an equivalent of professional sports or Hollywood with much less lucrative compensation packages, not just because of the importance of luck and circumstance, but also because one needs good bearings and a thick skin. Graduate school was an absolutely fantastic time for me—I made brilliant, incredible friends, my work evolved in ways I didn’t expect, and it was just a lot of fun. In retrospect, the path I had from getting my PhD in 2018 to faculty position was remarkably straightforward, but it’s a pretty exceptional case now. The realities of the job market make me hesitant to encourage anyone to do a PhD in architectural history, but at the same time, there’s so much vital work left to do.

    Thanks for you time and insights, and we will all look forward to seeing you online at this year's conference and in person for your panel in Pittsburgh in 2022.

    *The image above shows the prospective plans for downtown Santa Barbara from the 1920s (Architecture and Design Collection at University of California, Santa Barbara).

    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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