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.”
I was delighted to be able to sit down with Albert for an interview for Dangerous History. Since the year before I was accepted into the PhD program at MIT, Albert has been a friend and mentor to me, in part because we share an academic advisor, Arindam Dutta. Albert’s humor and zest for life comes through even in this very professional conversation, which you can listen to here. Albert is writing a dissertation about the evolution of architecture and planning in Mexico in the mid-twentieth century. He focuses on rhetorical shifts that aided socially-minded architects to frame themselves as political actors with important roles to play in the developing republic. Terms like “técnico” and “planificación” took on greater meaning as technical expertise was integrated into Mexico’s central bureaucracy. We discuss the role of key figures in this time period, and the possible use of technical expertise in planning to either ameliorate or exacerbate social inequity.
Albert Jose-Antonio López is a historian of modern architecture, planning, and the built environment. He is a current PhD Candidate in the program for History, Theory, and Criticism at MIT, holds an M.S. in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practice in Architecture from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, and received a BArch from the University of Southern California. His research on the intersections of architectural professionalization, regional planning, rhetoric, and political society in mid-20th century Mexico has been supported by the Fulbright Garcia-Robles Award as well as by the Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California at San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy. He was recently a guest lecturer for the Spring quarter at the University of California at Santa Barbara where he taught courses on the urbanization, planning, and political economy of the Americas from the 18th-20th centuries as well as the built environments of Latino/a/x, Hispanic, and Chicano/a/x communities of North American cities. He is a native of the inner city of Los Angeles.
The image above show the Palacio de Lecumberri, the panopticon-style prison that now serves as the Mexican National Archives.
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.
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.
Art Deco typography is ubiquitous in Portuguese cities. In many ways, it seems that the commercial areas of Porto and Lisbon ceased to evolve aesthetically at the moment António de Oliveira Salazar became President in 1932. His corporatist authoritarian government ruled until 1968. I’m very interested in the “lusotropical” Portuguese colonial project as part of my southern African research. This semester I’m writing about Brazilian photographer Angélica Dass and her Humanae project, matching the skin tones of her numerous subjects with pantone chart colors. More on that text soon… in the meantime, enjoy this font of fonts.
I was in Savannah recently for a wedding and took lots of pictures. Savannah, Georgia is a picture-perfect southern town (if you stay in the historic area) preserved through a combination of General Sherman’s mercy and Savannah College of Art and Design’s diligence. Half of downtown seems to be owned by SCAD, with each department occupying its own architecturally rich structure. One of my fellow travelers was determined to take only “coffee table book” pictures, and did so with great success. This is a place filled with lavishly wrought iron balconies, blossoming dogwood and magnolia trees, spanish moss, and pretty fountains. Couples from across the country come here to be married and have their pictures taken among the city’s 22 garden squares. I decided to concentrate instead on the overlooked modern parts of town. Above (from top to bottom) you see a school or a convent located across the street from the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, the Savannah Theater (it looks like a movie theater but it’s a stage), and an office building—perhaps a bank or government building—on the corner of East Broughton and Abercorn.
Above are some photos of quirky Savannah, including a parking garage with graffito, a DIYer’s home, and the SCAD art house movie theater.
The town’s urban plan is of great interest. It was drawn up by English General James Oglethorpe for the purpose of military defense against the Spanish and the indigenous nations to the south and west, and for the prevention of disease. The plan’s beauty seems to be of only secondary interest to its creator. The core idea is the creation of very small neighborhoods, or wards, each anchored by a square that includes both tything lots and trust lots, the later of which were small blocks along the shorter sides of the square intended to house only civic buildings. It’s alleyways are a New Urbanist’s dream, and I took photos of those as well for my colleague Robert Orr (though he probably has his own stock already).
Savannah is a place with a lot of folk lore and a lot of interesting people (especially because of the presence of its art school—I saw Manolo Blahnik on the street going to a private showing of an exhibition about his shoes). The film Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was shot here, which I re-watched immediately upon my return. They also serve rose petal ice cream at the local homemade ice cream shop.
In old Savannah, I said Savannah, the weather there is nice and warm! the climate’s of the Southern brand, but here’s what I don’t understand:
They got a gal there, a pretty gal there, who’s colder than an arctic storm, got a heart just like a stone, even ice men* leave her alone!
They call her “Hard Hearted Hannah,” the vamp† of Savannah, the meanest gal in town. Leather is tough, but Hannah’s heart is tougher, she’s a gal who loves to see men suffer!
To tease ’em, to thrill ’em, to torture and then kill ’em, is her delight, they say. I saw her at the seashore with a great big pan, there was Hannah pouring water on a drowning man! Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA!
musical interlude verse added later
Talk of your cold, refrigeratin’ mamas, brother, she’s a polar bear’s pajamas! To tease ’em, and thrill ’em, to torture and kill ’em, is her delight, they say. An evening spent with Hannah sittin’ on your knees, is like travelin’ through Alaska in your BVDs! She’s Hard Hearted Hannah, the vamp of Savannah, GA!
* An ice man, by the way, is the fellow who would deliver ice to your house, not the unlucky prehistoric warrior discovered in Austria in 1991. † A “vamp” is a term used to refer to a woman who uses her sexuality to entice and somehow to harm men. It’s a shortened version of “vampire.”