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.
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.”
I was struck by a line in an article I read for my Harvard class, “Modern Speech and Other Kinds of Testimony,” by historian Megan Vaughan. The class, Themes in Modern African History, is taught by the formidable Caroline Elkins, who is generous with her time despite her demanding schedule, for which I am very grateful. The article is about the slippery nature of historical consciousness, and the ways in which the historian can unwittingly manipulate her subjects’ “identity.” Vaughan is interested in the missing pre-history of the Creole community in Mauritius, of which she writes:
“Creole intellectuals make the very valid point that their history begins on the island—their origins lie in métissage, in creolité itself, and not in a mythic origin moment which came before.”1
This sentence resonates with my own struggle to decipher and iterate my own historical identity. Like many Americans, I like to delve into the various family histories of past generations, which extend to many different ethnic and geographical origins. Yet despite the “truth” of this mixing, it is always assumed I have a European origin, and further it is assumed that I will myself have chosen a preferred ethnicity with which to identify. In the quote above, there is freedom: forget the past; you’re an American, with all the mixing that implies.
The incoming architecture graduate students at the University of Hartford were treated to a day in New York City on August 26th. I led this third annual tour of the city’s cultural institutions, joined by 17 students and 3 other faculty from the department. This tour was similar to the previous two, though I attempt to make variations with each iteration. Our itinerary included the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, and the Center for Architecture. We ended the day at Saigon Grill on University Place, having worked up a healthy appetite.
The images above are of the installation by the Starn brothers on the Met rooftop titled “Big Bambú.” I tried to see it earlier in the summer but was turned away due to rain, so I was really excited to finally visit the growing structure-as-art looming 50 feet above the roof. You can walk along the pathway built into the structure with special, get-up-at-7am-to-wait-in-line tickets, so long as you meet certain criteria (over 4’10”, under 400 lbs) including not being drunk. The only irony there is that alcohol is readily bought and sold on the Met rooftop. Big Bambú is really fantastic, and working on it has to be the best summer job ever. It’s not built the way an architect or engineer would build it—it’s not efficient. Rather, it’s highly fetishized, with extra bits of string hanging down from all the lashings, footings rendered useless by continued construction that leaves them dangling a half-inch above the ground, reams of cloth tied up to provide shade to the mountain-climbers-turned-builders, and wrapped objects likes stones embedded into the bamboo network. It is awesome. And it’s only up until October 31st, so go see it.
The first year grads will be working on an addition to the Whitney Museum, the one Renzo Piano tried to do directly adjacent to Breuer’s building, but the neighborhood said “no” too many times. Read More