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.
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.
It’s the end of the spring semester and I am working to finish my final papers. There are three of them. I’ve completed one, concerning Frantz Fanon’s 1961 text The Wretched of the Earth, and am about to begin the next. It seems all I do is eat, sleep, and write—and on Sundays I watch Game of Thrones. Nothing can keep me from Game of Thrones.
The Second Life of Kiluanji Kia Henda’s Afrofuturist Critique
(This is the first bit of a paper I wrote for my methods class in fall, 2013)
African artists born to a post-independence continent, curiously placed in the temporal limbo engendered by their new nations’ violently dynamic notions of future and past, are socially empowered as image-makers to realign, reshape, and rename the world. The African artist’s process is an enactment of his nation’s negotiation with modernity; the artist is an “historical agent capable of representing the modern condition in which he is working.” Using methods similar to Dadaist bricolage, Afrofuturism seizes upon this chronological purgatory as a site for uncanny cultural remixes. Science fiction narratives offer a compelling populist opening to such rewritten cultural autobiographies.
In Spaceship Icarus 13 (2008), Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda (born 1979, Luanda) harnesses Afrofuturist memes to present a vision of the future based on a reimagined past, channeling an unlikely combination of satire and utopianism, irony and hope. Spaceship Icarus 13—an architectural model, a story, and a series of eight photographs—”documents” the creation of Africa’s first space base and humanity’s first mission to the sun. Henda’s spaceship is a reappropriated item of totalitarian kitsch, a late 1970s era Soviet-designed mausoleum for Agostinho Neto, Angola’s Marxist-leaning first president. Within this mausoleum-cum-spaceship, enhanced in Henda’s narrative by icons of American consumerism and Angolan devastation—Budweiser and diamonds—the artist sends Neto’s ashes up to burn. The violence of this second destruction, from ashes to ashes, is both piercing and poignant. It encapsulates Henda’s artistic critique of Angola’s long civil war, its lost human potential, and its current political and economic climate.
I had a wonderful time at this year’s National Conference on the Beginning Design Student (NCBDS) at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. The energetic Peter Hind was the conference chair. I was fortunate to meet Peter at last year’s conference, held at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte. I just decided to join his dinner table, not knowing who anyone was, since I came to the conference alone as an observer. I was lucky enough to find myself sitting with Peter and the 2012 conference chair, Jodi La Coe. The title of this year’s NCBDS, “Beginning of/ In the End,” will be mirrored in next year’s conference, “In the End/Beginning of.” This is Peter and Jodi’s conceit and a nice way to tie the two conferences together—2011 focused on teaching the principles of sustainability during first year, and 2012 will be about life-long learning.
Peter scored a coup, I think, inviting Allison Arieff as the keynote speaker. Arieff is the sassy and sharp former editor-in-chief of Dwell magazine, a leader in its socially relevant hay day, who now writes an “opinionator” blog about architecture and design for The New York Times. (Dwell now sadly acts as more of a series of advertisements than as a critical voice about design.) Arieff has a crisp and straight forward style that allows her to cut through a lot of the jargon that normally bogs down architectural discourse (like the word “discourse,” for example). She posed some troubling questions to the audience, like how can professional designers promote walkable communities, for example, in the face of fierce right-wind rhetoric that positions multi-family housing as un-American? (Arieff had no answer to this; she just wanted to point out how polarizing political issues regarding land use planning have become.)
The conference sessions I attended sparked a lot of ideas for me about teaching, and that’s what the NCBDS is about: sharing ideas and getting feedback from faculty who care about pedagogy. The only confusing bit it that not all papers are about first year. Others are about the first year of graduate school or about design pedagogy in general. There are occasional conferences and symposiums about teaching architecture, but this is the only national annual one, and presenters have suggested widening the title to reflect the true diversity of topics. (There was a 2008 conference in Leeds, UK: International Perspectives on Art and Design Pedagogy; a 2003 conference at MIT which produced this useful bibliography on the pedagogy of architectural history and theory; and this winter Princeton held a symposium titled, Teaching Architecture, Practicing Pedagogy, the proceedings for which have yet to be released.)
I would prefer that the conference be strictly about first and second year undergraduate architecture education, since this is a special time for students and a period of great responsibility for faculty who are—really, truly!—moulding young minds. Just as adults fondly remember their first or second grade teacher, architects recall their first studio instructor and internalize the values that person transmits. This is how dynasties of thought flourish. My first studio professor was Thomas Chastain, who was educated at MIT by such luminaries as Gyorgy Kepes. Kepes was a Hungarian born artist, architect, and design theorist who investigated such ideas as phenomenal transparency, later co-opted by Colin Rowe. Kepes was interested in how designers create a set of rules, in how the visual mind works, in patterns in the city, and in links between science and arts—all topics that are in turn important to me, and Professor Chastain’s influence is the likely cause. By third or fourth year, this type of influence on a student’s world-view has diminished, along with the importance of the professor’s ability to clearly illustrate their thoughts on the nature of design. A beginning design conference, therefore, is irreplaceable, and suffers when diluted.
Some ideas and information from the conference sessions:
from Catherine Wetzel, IIT: tape out plans of case studies full scale on the floor
from Jennifer Wall and William Taylor, University of Oregan/Portland State: if you soak plaster blocks for 48 hours, you can then carve them on a cnc mill without copious amounts of dust that mess up the design
from Bradley Walters, University of Florida: 26% of the total US waste stream is linked to construction; 12.85% is from demolition, 10.86% is from renovation, and only 2.29% is from new construction
just my own idea: a lip dub exercise; students take a week to film a lip dub, then another week to draw and map it; teaches about sequencing events and marking time in 2D space
from Michael McGlynn, Kansas State: architecture education is best realized through integration between structures and studio courses. “Structure is architecture.” One must begin with NAAB’s desired learning outcomes and work backwards. However, the conceptual framework of theory is critical: the scaffold of architectural education is built by theory—frames the questions, the why’s of the debate.
just my own idea: instead of lots of projects, give first year students fewer projects with more connecting parts
As mentioned in my last post, there were four speakers in the Northeast Fall Conference session at the ACSA national conference in Montréal, the session I moderated on Sunday morning. Here’s an image of our placards—all except Onezieme’s, who like me wanted to keep his placard. They make one feel rather official, in contrast to the first-name-only name tags ACSA handed out, which were rather casual. The speakers presented in the following order:
Gregory Marinic and Ziad Qureshi, University of Monterrey “Suburbania: Monterrey, Urban/Suburban Dichotomies in Northeastern Mexico.”
Michael McCulloch, PhD student, University of Michigan “Inside Ford’s Garden City: Social and Spatial Logistics of a Hybrid Suburbanity.”
Onezieme Mouton, University of Louisiana at Lafayette “Let it die. Who really gives a damn anyway?”
I’m going to discuss them in reverse order. These three papers represent not only a range of views about urban culture, but the speakers themselves typify three different ways of being an architect. Onezieme Mouton is a design-build practitioner who invested his own funds in the renovation of two small buildings in Abbeville, LA, his home town. They border Madalen Square, part of Abbeville’s downtown historic district. The renovation of a third empty building, Frank’s Theater, has become his personal mission. Mouton established a non-for-profit, the Allumé Society, in order to raise funds, rally community support, and enable critical government partnerships. His paper explores the role non-profit organizations have to play in bridging the gap between designing and building, and between educational, community, and governmental resources. Onezieme is rare in his combination of earnestness and personal sacrifice. He reminds me a bit of Emily Pilloton, who moved to rural North Carolina to teach high school students about the transformative power of design. Pilloton, who was a TED presenter in 2010, would probably like the term Onezieme is trying out to describe community-oriented design as a combination practice of social justice and economic engine: “Quality-of-Life-itecture.”
Michael McCulloch, who goes by Mick, is an architect and educator currently getting his PhD at the University of Michigan. He’s a Detroit native, and his paper explores the role of race, class, and religion in the residential divisions of suburban Detroit, specifically around the Ford factory. It’s really quite remarkable to read how tightly Ford managed to control the social habits of its workers, sending minders into their homes to see if they were wasting their wages on drinking and carousing (if they were, wage bonuses would be docked). This was all part of trying maintaining the neighborhood as an upper middle class Anglican community, even against the influx of diverse workers with distinctly different social values and cultural practices. Mick is an architect like me, one who wants to pull back the curtain on architecture’s past and reveal whatever truths have heretofore been ignored—like the immense role racism and other prejudice has played in shaping the physical environment. It seems that most social sciences have confronted this issue head on. I feel architecture, a profession which is itself still far from diverse, hasn’t.
At some point during the first presentation I wrote down, “suburbia is the physical manifestation of imagined cultural desire.” This seems particularly true in the case of Monterrey, Mexico. Gregory Marinic and Ziad Qureshi had a lot to say about the different iterations of this desire, expressed through a combination of literal architectural translations, transpositions, and outright copying. They showed Monterrey’s miniature version of the ice rink in Houston’s Galleria (a mall), a micro-zócalo modeled on Mexico City, moderne apartment condos, and highrises that imitate recent work in Shanghai. Monterrey, I learned, has a distinct cultural and ethnic identity within Mexico given its dramatic landscape, its proximity to the United States, its wealth, and a strong historical German influence (similar to nations in South America like Argentina and Chile). One’s just as likely to hear techno music on the street as anything from La Raza. Gregory and Ziad (/zee-ahd/) use case studies as the primary vehicle of their scholarship, which seems very productive. They gave two talks as ACSA national, and I hope their collaboration will continue even though Gregory is moving to the faculty at the University of Houston.