Member Stories: Pollyanna Rhee

Apr 7, 2021 by SAH News

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.