Why the Humanities Matter

By Kostis Kourelis
| Mar 27, 2013

How will the Society of Architectural Historians address the financial crisis confronting the Humanities? Many of our peer organizations, the American Historical Association and the American Philological Association, have formally initiated conversations at the local, regional and national levels. Pauline Saliga, our Executive Director, has wisely urged us to voice some support for the general plea for the Humanities but also articulate responses that might be specific to our discipline. As we activate our SAH Blog towards greater connectivity, we should use it as a venue to begin this conversation. 

Our conversation might begin with a historical perspective, assessing the role of architectural history in the humanities revolution in American education. Louis Menand's The Marketplace of Ideas (2010) offers the most concise historical overview. According to Menand, the humanities were inserted as general education to bolster the development of professional fields in the late 19th century, a process that peeked in 1970. Accordingly, between 1870 and 1900, most disciplines were outfitted with external national organizations that helped define the disciplinary integrity of academic life within the university (ASSA 1865; MLA 1883; AHA 1884). In this respect, our SAH was a relative late-comer, established in 1940. Since 1970, enrollment in the humanities began a reverse trend. By 2000, the number of undergraduates majoring in the humanities was down to 4%, almost half of the number 30 years earlier (7.6%). At the same time, the majors in business have grown to 22% of all college graduates. In contrast to other countries of nationalized education, America prides itself on mechanisms of the free market that can swiftly respond to societal needs, rather than linger in sclerotic bureaucracies. The shrinking demand for the humanities has facilitated an economic crisis in its academic departments and professional organizations. The equation becomes even more complicated when graduate education enters the system. Universities have been adjusting to the humanities crisis by continuing to produce PhD and then exploiting them as cheap labor (see SAH Blog post on adjunct labor). To use Menand's words, "Doctoral education is the horse that the university is riding to the mall." An organization like the SAH can wait it out, ride the crisis and hope for the best. It can also try to highlight "the value" of the humanities with the hope of inserting it back into market demand. Joan Ockman's new book, Architecture School: Three Centuries of Educating Architects in North America, might help us situate the teaching of history in one of our strongest constituents, the training of American designers.

Architectural history has an added burden in the recent financial crisis once we consider the role that architectural practice has played in contributing to the crisis. On the one end of the spectrum, architecture has contributed to economic speculation by means of the star-architect system that we have implicitly endorsed. Frank Gehry's success at Bilbao has contributed to "the Bilbao Effect," where desperate cities bank the future of their economic development on a brand-name building. This pseudo-urbanist strategy has wreaked havoc, since most Bilbao attempts have failed (see Witold Rybczynski's discussion of the problem in Makeshift Metropolis). The same strategy has been deployed in the speculation over university finances, known as the Edifice Complex. A recent investigation by the New York Times has shown that such real estate binges by college presidents have fallen on the shoulders of tuition-paying students.

On the other end of the spectrum, architectural history's relationship to domestic architecture indirectly implicates it in the cause of the financial crisis, the housing bubble. The construction industry artificially sustained the American economy through the 1990s but caused its inevitable collapse. When times are good for building, times are also good for teaching architecture. But when times are bad, disintegration is vividly evident in the disintegrating urban fabric. The ruins of Detroit or Camden generate an architectural discourse as objects of reception, excavation, preservation that fall into the domain of our discipline. Thus, on both sides of production and destruction, architectural history has a disciplinary presence. 

Our discipline has an additional purview in the form of vernacular architecture and alternative forms of dwelling. We must thus turn our deepest attention to the development of new architectural objects like shanty towns, favelas, man camps, or Occupy tent-cities. Both desperate and new, these new architectures offer a fundamental challenge to our natural tendencies towards the collection of architectural masterpieces that fill our surveys. We could, therefore, de-commodify our object of study while also recognizing the risks of losing our standard of quality. Moving far down the masterpiece ladder, for instance, would fold our discipline into Anthropology and would make us extinct. The choice to hold the 2012 Annual Conference in Detroit and to invite geographer Don Mitchell as plenary speaker shows that our institution is developing such sensitivities. "La Casa de Esclavos Modernos: Exposing the Architecture of Exploitation," revealed one way by which architectural history is more vital at a time of crisis.

The crisis in the humanities is complex. We need to join forces with other disciplinary organizations, while also addressing the particular challenges of our own architectural discipline. Hard questions need to be asked. As Howard Zinn has taught us, historians are never neutral observers. So, where do we stand? Our we part of the problem, or part of the solution?

Photo above: Detroit Fire Station across from SAH Annual Conference in Detroit, 2012

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