On October 22, I sat down with Assistant Professor Charles Davis II, an architect, critic, and historian at the University of Buffalo, for my first-ever live video recording. (You can watch the event here.) This colloquium-style event, sponsored by MIT’s department of Architecture, began with a 25-minute establishing presentation from Professor Davis prior to our conversation. In his presentation, “Black Material Culture in the Round,” Professor Davis discussed ways that institutions like Museums and Universities can recenter their canon to be fully inclusive of black creators and minority contributions to the built environment. We then talked about the state of the archive in institutions of record, and discussed what role architecture historians and architects can play in establishing anti-racist pedagogies as normative practice.
Indrani Saha and ElDante’ Winston along with Chelsea Spenser, my colleagues at HTC and the leaders of Forum, the PhD students’ invited speaker series, invited me to interview Professor Davis as part of this event. The idea was to create a collegial atmosphere more casual than the typical lecture format or even a panel discussion to better pin point critical methodologies introduced by Professor Davis to confront white supremacy in the discipline. I was of course very pleased to be asked to facilitate this conversation, and really honored to be able to speak with Professor Davis, a leading voice in anti-racist revisionist history, as a representative of HTC, the program in History, Theory and Criticism in Art and Architecture at MIT.
One of the most exciting parts of the conversation was spotlighting black voices from the 1970s like June Jordan and Amiri Baraka, whose work, and the critique of that work, can help us build a black futurist lens into the core architecture canon. My original dissertation proposal focused on Afrofuturism in art and architecture after 1960. These creators and their more sci-fi oriented counterparts, like musician Sun-Ra and novelist Samuel Delany, offer a rich source of archival material for future iterations of scholarly work in the field of the built environment.
I hope with permission to release an audio-only version of this event for WAWD? Radio, and will include a list of key figures mentioned at that time.
Ana María León joined me from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to discuss the role of decentering in her pedagogical practice. Listen to our conversation here. An architect from Guayaquil, Ecuador by way of Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, Ana María was inspired by historical and theoretical questions following what she describes as a very practical and pragmatic architectural education. Following the events in Charlottesville, Virginia in 2017, during which a white nationalist killed anti-racist protestor Heather Heyer, Ana María became invested in scholarly collaborations that explore an architecture history focused on the role of race and space in the Americas. Following lessons from the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative (FAAC) reading group that Ana María co-founded while a PhD student at MIT, she similarly helped launch the Space + Race reading list, which has since evolved into a curated collection of thematic readings—an extremely helpful resource for anyone who teaches about architecture, design, race, and place.
Ana María León is an architect and a historian of objects, buildings, and landscapes. Her work studies how spatial politics inform the modernity of the Americas. An assistant professor at the University of Michigan, León has cofounded several collaborations laboring to broaden the reach of architectural history, including the Feminist Art and Architecture Collaborative, the Settler Colonial City Project, and Nuestro Norte es el Sur. A graduate of MIT’s program in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture, she is currently the Charles P. Brauer Faculty Fellow at the University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, and co-directs the Rackham Interdisciplinary Workshop, “Decolonizing Pedagogies.” León sits on the board of the Global Architectural History Teaching Collaborative, the Architecture Lobby, and Anales de Arquitectura, and is an editor-at-large at The Avery Review.
Since moving to Michigan, Ana María León has become interested in the architecture, planning, and politics of Detroit. She describes how, in Detroit, architecture was leveraged as a tool for violence; in the “aestheticization of violence,” built works hide their violent repurcussions under the veneer of beauty. She has worked on the project “Detroit Resists” with Andrew Herscher, which emerged in response to the US Pavilion at the 2016 Venice Biennale. The project theorizes exhibition as intervention, using social media and digital technology to advance counter-political claims within popular architectural discourse.
The image above is a workspace Nisa set-up during her first summer of archival research in Jerusalem.
Nisa spoke to me from her family home in Colorado to recount her journey from art history major, to professional theater performer, to doctoral graduate and lecturer—a story of mutability that informed her scholarly work. Listen to our conversation here. For her dissertation, Nisa tackled the extremely logistically difficult and politically challenging project of writing about art in Palestine. She demonstrates how a group of arts institutions in the Middle East formed a mutually reinforcing network that helped advance the role of Palestinian art in the twentieth century. Working with galleries, local scholars, arts institutions, religious institutions, and private collectors, Nisa sought to highlight these connections. Her perseverance, tenacity, intelligence and charm; alongside a healthy appreciation of the power of collaboration; enabled Nisa’s notable and considerable scholarly achievement.
Nisa Ari is Lecturer in Art History at the Katherine G. McGovern College of the Arts, University of Houston. She studies late-19th and 20th century visual practices, with a focus on artwork from the Middle East. Her research explores the relationships between cultural politics and the development of art institutions, specifically in Palestine and Turkey. Her current book project, Cultural Mandates, Artistic Missions, and “The Welfare of Palestine,” 1876–1948, explores how radical political transformations, from the last decades of Ottoman rule until the establishment of the State of Israel, changed the nature of artistic production in Palestine. Her research has been published in Third Text, Arab Studies Journal, and Thresholds, and she has recently curated exhibitions at the Qalandiya International Art Biennial (Jerusalem/Ramallah) and the Keller Gallery at MIT. She received her Ph.D. in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture program at MIT.
Montreal native Michael Faciejew joined me to discuss knowing, a core theme in his dissertation, Building “World-wide Society”: The Architecture of Documentation 1895-1939. (He will be defending shortly! Good luck, Michael!) Listen here. His research into the nature of organization, how systems of knowledge came to be classified and codified at the turn of the twentieth century, intersects both media theory and information science. How did archaic protocols applied to works on paper (books and folios, maps and drawings) come to inform the management of digital technologies? In this time period, the crucible for modern functionalism in architecture, articulation of these epistemic systems—the relation of parts to wholes in specific hierarchies of order—solidifies. We probe the relationship between knowledge management and the administrative state, techniques Michael explains were used to try to organize society itself, particularly through western colonial enterprises. De-centering the west in contemporary pedagogies will require a concomitant de-centering of knowledge management, separating “knowledge” from “knowing,” and establishing “lumpy” classification systems.
This is the first episode of Dangerous History to feature a guest from outside MIT.
Michael Faciejew is a PhD Candidate at Princeton University pursuing a joint doctoral degree in the History and Theory of Architecture and the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in the Humanities. Beginning in January 2021, will be a postdoctoral fellow at Yale University where he will be working on an interdisciplinary project on the history of Big Data. His research addresses the intersecting histories of architecture, media, technology, and governance in the modern period. His scholarship has appeared in journals such as Transbordeur and the Journal of Architectural Education, and has been supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, among other institutions. Prior to beginning his PhD, he worked as an architect in New Haven, New York, and Los Angeles.
My interview with Courtney Lesoon for Dangerous History began with a discussion of her masters thesis on the Damascus Room at the University of Pittsburgh before proceeding to her proposed dissertation and then, to points beyond! Courtney is delightful: funny and vivacious, outspoken and full of conviction. She’s also a loyal and devoted friend. I decided to share her extended thoughts on the use and misuse of history in an extended two-part interview. You can listen to part one here, and part two over here. This is the kind of interview I’ve been hoping to have with my colleagues, one that really probes the definition of history itself, and examines the implications of an under-written or misunderstood past for the culture of a nation like the Unites States. Courtney touches on topics such as “presentism,” writing Islamic history in the west, the seemingly inescapable tropes and traps of modernity, epistemic tautologies, and what it means to be a medievalist.
Courtney Lesoon is a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture, in the History, Theory & Criticism Section of the Department of Architecture at MIT. Courtney earned her BA in the History of Art with a minor in Middle Eastern Studies from College of the Holy Cross and was a 2012-2013 U.S. Student Fulbright Grantee to the United Arab Emirates where her research concerned contemporary art and emerging cultural institutions in the UAE. Courtney earned her MA in Modern Middle Eastern & North African Studies from the University of Michigan where her thesis concerned an 18th-century Damascus Room and its acquisition as a collected interior in the United States. Before arriving at MIT, Courtney also worked as a Research Assistant in the Art of the Middle East Department at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA). Her current dissertation project is titled, “Learning and the City in the Early Islamic World: 632–1067 CE.”
On May 27, Chelsea Spencer joined me from beautiful Brooklyn, New York to discuss the juridical domain of architecture’s creation: contracts. Listen to the interview here. As she writes her prospectus, Chelsea is exploring the evolving role of building contracts as a medium of communication and mediation between builders and architects in the United States, particularly since reconstruction. It is in this era—the mid-to-late 19th century, directly following the American Civil War—that the figure of the “general contractor” first emerges. She describes how these general contractors learned to manage projects through a systems approach, educating one another about methods to maintain profits while delivering work to architects on schedule. The demands of a capital-driven property market, the legally binding nature of contracts, and the complexity of the building process itself have all contributed to the shape of standardized contracts used today.
Chelsea Spencer is a third-year PhD student in the HTC program. She studies architecture, media, and the building industry in Europe and North America from the nineteenth century to the present. Her current research focuses on the business practices of general contractors in the United States during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in relation to the doctrine of “freedom of contract” in Ango-American legal and social thought.
Chelsea received an MDes in History and Philosophy of Design from the Harvard Graduate School of Design, where she cofounded the student publication Open Letters, and a BA in art and architectural history from Emory University. Before beginning her studies at MIT, she was the managing editor of Log magazine. A native Atlantan, Chelsea currently lives in New York. She is also a lapsed modern dancer.
The image at the top of the page is Chelsea’s current workspace, circa 1907, formally a German Men’s Singing Hall