Interviews with Nushelle and Eli

My interview with Eliyahu (Eli) Keller concerns ruin. What motivates us to return, time and again, to the site of a disaster and have the strength to rebuild? What draws us to ruin, even in the midsts of happiness? Eli and I discuss the influence of the cold war and images of nuclear annihilation on architecture in the 1950’s and 60s. Eli comes to the PhD program from Israel, and in relation to his work, we discuss Judaism and Judaic texts centered on ruin and rebuilding as a fundamental act of faith.

Eli Keller is an architect, and architectural historian currently pursuing a Ph.D. in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at the MIT Department of Architecture. He is the co-editor of the 46th volume of the department’s peer-reviewed journal Thresholds, published by the MIT Press. Eliyahu holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Israel, and a Master in Design Studies with Distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His doctoral research investigates the relationships between the rise of nuclear weapons, apocalyptic thinking and visionary architectural production during the Cold War in the United States and the Soviet Union.

To hear more from Eli, listen to his internet broadcast show on WAWD? Radio, Kelly and Eli Smiling Through the Apocalypse, with Kelly Main. Airing Thursday nights at 7pm, they focus on their mutual scholarly interests highlighted by the pandemic, such as suburban planning, ecology, and ethics in the Anthropocene, and talk to interesting faculty guests from Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere about the guest’s work on that topic.

Figures mentioned in our conversation:

  • Raimund Abraham (architect)
  • Lebbeus Woods (architect)
  • Paolo Soleri (architect)
  • Peter Gallison, “War Against the Center,” Grey Room No. 4 (Summer, 2001): 5-33.
  • David Monteyne, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
  • Nicholas Meyer, dir., “The Day After,” ABC Circle Films, 126 min., 1983.

For the first episode of Dangerous History on WAWD? Radio I interviewed Nushelle de Silva, who has her own internet broadcast show, Museum Missives, 5pm on Thursdays. (Listen to our interview here.) My discussion with Nushelle focuses on self-discovery. How does our work connect to the world around us? Does it reflect our inner goals, hopes, and fears? As we work through the marathon of the PhD process together, Nushelle reminds us to aim high, raise our spirits, and reinsert our humanity into our professional lives.

Nushelle da Silva is a PhD student in History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture at MIT. She received a Master of Science in Architecture Studies (SMArchS) from MIT in 2015, and a BA in Architecture from Princeton University in 2011. Her research is broadly concerned with the politics of display; her past work has examined Cold War exhibitions, contentious museum collections, and the fate of monuments in times of crisis.

This conversation aired on April 1, 2020, from inside my closet. As my first attempt at a live internet radio show, routed through both Zoom and Mixlr, it went well in the sense that it aired, but there is reverb in the audio. Nushelle has a beautiful voice that shines through nevertheless. You can find out more about Nushelle at Nushelle.com.

MIT Architecture’s radio station

In the wake of COVID-19, MIT has closed its campus; quite a tragedy for a one of the few elite schools that maintained an open campus 24 hours per day. I’ve been recalled from France following the cessation of the Fulbright-France scholarship program, and find myself back in Cambridge, far from the archives where I had been conducting doctoral research. In the midst of all this, I suffered the loss of my mother, and as her only child, was thrown headlong into the process of managing her affairs. I spent the first few weeks of quarantine polishing silver, washing porcelain, and cleaning glassware with a microfiber cloth—items handed down from my grandparents and great grandparents, part of my new inheritance. Then the zoom calls started. The PhD students in the History, Theory, and Criticism (HTC) program got together to form a virtual “kennel,” which is what we loving call the PhD office. Suddenly we could see eachothers’ faces, and drink coffee together, and discuss what was happening in our personal and professional lives. It was a great relief.

When the M.Arch students decided to launch an on-line radio station, What Are We Doing? Radio, I wanted to take part. It was another way to connect with people, albeit in this case mostly students I had never met before. I launched a talk show airing Wednesdays at 10am Eastern Standard Time called Dangerous History, in which I interview fellow HTC students about their personal paths and their work. (Check it out here.) A few weeks later, I launched a second show, Songs for Tomorrow, which is all music and airs Friday nights at 7pm. Here is a link to my debut show, which, because the FCC does not control the internet, contains explicit songs despite airing before 10 o’clock at night.

I haven’t posted new entries here in a while, so I’m hoping this marks a shift in my online presence. I’ll post weekly updates about these two shows, and talk a little about my experiences living in Paris, which, while cut short, I’ll never forget.

Stay safe, wash your hands, and call your loved ones.

New York City skyline

New York City in Spring

As its residents are well aware, spring time comes and goes very quickly in Manhattan. First it rains, then everything blooms at once, then it gets scorching hot. Early May is a sweet spot for temperate weather. I was lucky to spend a week in the city this May, and it did not disappoint. The townhouses in my mother’s neighborhood were covered in lilac blossoms, and the brave were out riding bicycles up First Avenue.

The neighborhood in which I came of age, the East Village, has changed dramatically over the past few decades. Retail establishments, especially restaurants, have a very brief life span—barring a few holdouts that have managed to stay relevant. I tried to patronize a shoe store that’s been in business almost forever, for example, and found a construction site instead (below middle). More significant changes have occurred closer to Astor Place and Cooper Square, where luxury towers were erected in the 2000s and the street grid was altered. There is now no road in front of my old building, just an expansive, and not very attractive, plaza. (There’s no service access in the rear either… it’s a stranded building.) While I dislike the plaza’s industrial pipe railings around clusters of dirt and grass, I did see fireflies there at twilight.

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Art is the Only Escape

Life presents itself as a series of stressful events, good and bad, and the task of becoming is often stymied by the overwhelming nature of reality. In those moments remember: Art! presents the ridiculous beauty and joy of the world. I saw this message written in the forgotten space of a bare, utilitarian façade above an old movie theater in New York’s East Village. It was a crisp, clear day. My heart was lifted, buoyed by the shared spirit of appreciation. When the news is bad, solace is at hand, if you look for it in the arts.

SAH 2019

This year, the Society of Architectural Historians held their annual conference in Providence, Rhode Island. As Providence is only a commuter train ride away from Boston, I decided to finally attend. It was one of the more interesting conferences I’ve attended in terms of presentation content. A stand out moment among many was a “round table” presentation that took place during the Friday lunch hour titled, Pluralizing Histories of the Built Environment. It was convened by Itohan Osayimwese, who teaches at Brown, and Charles Davis II, from SUNY Buffalo. In the SAH conference brochure description, the session promises to ask:

Where are the archives for minorities and people of color to be found today? And what practical techniques and strategies have historians employed to pluralize histories of the built environment?

This was essentially a panel session, with each of four presenters discussing their work and their methodological approaches to understudied or traditionally undervalued material. I found Anooradha Siddiqi’s comments regarding the study of refugee camps particularly fascinating — “subjects structurally marginalized within the context of their emergence.” (That is, the moment one becomes a refugee, one is simultaneously marginalized.) Siddiqi, who teaches at Columbia, does not have an architecture history background, and this allows her I think to move through her archive in a more nimble way than an art history training generally permits. I’m thankful that MIT does not adhere to the period or place boundaries that traditional programs follow, and encourages similar methodological dexterity.

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When the mood to make something strikes

Sometimes I need to clear my mind of all verbal thought. In those moments I unpack my various art- and craft-making tools and get to work. Weaving tiny glass beads together seems to quiet my mind rather effectively—the beads are so delicate that I can only focus on the minute movements of my own two hands.