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
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.
My interview with Walker Downey proved too substantive to limit to just one episode of Dangerous History. You can listen to Part One here, and Part Two over here. Walker examines the intersection of “experimental music” and “sound art,” a transdisciplinary, technological practice that evolved over the decades between WWII and Vietnam. Together we discuss works that fall between the purview of art history and musicology, with a focus on the subversive nature of noise as a category of experience. The institutions and figures around which these compositions or performances accreted are considered alongside the determinative nature of media itself (magnetic tape, for example) in an attempt to determine their relative significance. A project about radio-as-art, on the radio, in two parts.
Walker Downey’s current research is focused on a cross-disciplinary network of American artists, musicians, and dancers that used media such as magnetic recording tape, FM radio, and transistor electronics to carry out experiments with electronic sound in the Fifties, Sixties, and Seventies. At this time, new experimental milieus and stylistic vocabularies took shape within underground music studios, city discotheques, and independent radio stations as diverse practitioners converged around the creative affordances of particular media. He is interested in these hybrid traditions of experimental sound that exceed historical categories such as “sound art” and “electronic music.” As Walker’s research explores, these traditions were distinguished not only by their defiance of disciplinarity and medium-specificity, but by a politically driven engagement with understandings of technological “function” and “dysfunction,” “communication” and “interference” central to the intellectual climate of the Cold War.
On May 13, Caroline E. Murphy joined me to discuss the juridic origins of water management in early modern Tuscany, and the use of water infrastructure as a means towards territorial control. You can listen to the show here. Caroline describes her recent experience conducting research in Florence, Italy before the pandemic, and reflects on how her process has shifted now that she is back home in Toronto. We had a chance to talk for a hour or so a few days before this interview was recorded, and there were so many more topics to cover! It was nice to reconnect with Caroline, who no longer lives in Cambridge, and dive into the world of her work. An archive full of hand-written documents penned with a quill in a language I hardly know sounds incredibly intimidating; Caroline takes the challenge in stride.
Caroline E. Murphy is a PhD candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, as well as a doctoral fellow at the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz in the department of Dr. Gerhard Wolf. Her research examines links between large infrastructure projects, environmental planning, and political economy in late Renaissance Italy, with a current focus on the design of the aqueous landscape in grand ducal Tuscany during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Secondary interests include the visual and material culture of religious antiquarianism in Reformation and Counter-Reformation Europe, and the historiography of the discipline of Renaissance studies. Her research has been supported by the MIT’s Walter A. Rosenblith Presidential Fellowship, Department of Architecture, and Science and Technology Initiatives, as well as by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She holds a SMArchS degree from MIT, and a BA from the University of Toronto.
On episode four of Dangerous History on WAWD? Radio I spoke with ElDante’ Winston, who is sheltering in place with his family on the MIT campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Eldante’ is a registered architect and father of two who writes about Renaissance- and Early Modern-era constructions and agglomerations. He reminds us to look behind the façade of Renaissance architecture (so to speak) and question the context in which it was built. Listen to the interview here, which aired on April 29th. The next time you pass through a European city gate, look around for the plaques and medallions that describe what once happened there. Piazzas were stages on which spectacles of power were performed; villas were fortifications; war and resource allocation have more to do with what architects we remember today than talent or genius. ElDante’ wants architects and historians to follow their own insight and question traditional narratives that simply don’t make sense. Don’t try to map modern curations onto the past, learn to see the past as it was actually lived.
During the interview, Eldante’ had a virtual background pasted behind him: the flag of the City of Chicago. It’s rather attractive, not unlike the Agentinian flag—three, alternating, baby blue and white stripes—but with the addition of four, spiky, six-sided stars in a band across the middle. Born and raised in Chicago, Eldante’ clearly has an affinity for his hometown!
ElDante’ Winston is a registered architect and PhD student in the History Theory and Criticism department. His area of focus is the ‘Renaissance’/Pre-Modern period and the architecture created during this time period. ElDante’ is interested in expanding the Westernized understanding of this period to include in the discourse the architecture of the East. His current research and dissertation topic centers on the intersection of violence and architecture in sixteenth-century Italy. Looking specifically at how war, executions, vendettas and the like reshape current perceptions of Italian Renaissance architecture. ElDante’ holds a M. Arch from the Georgia Institute of Technology and a B.S. in Architecture from The Ohio State University. As an architect ElDante’ has worked on projects from Chicago to China.
I spoke with Iheb Guermazi, who is currently living in his hometown of Tunis, Tunisia, on May 5th. Iheb looks for rational ways to write about irrational, mystical thinkers. Listen to the discussion here. In this interview, Iheb discusses the interests which lead a group of European writers to convert to Sufi Islam, the confluence of influences within the Sufi community in the Maghreb that find their focus in one particular Algerian cleric, and the impact of the resultant way of experiencing the world which effected both art criticism and politics in our own era. Within a so-called irrational system we find a practice that could help us all deal with the stresses of today. (Iheb provided the image above, a drawing from the archives of Ivan Aguéli, where he is experimenting with magic and esoteric formulas.)
I was fortunate that Iheb suggested recording the day before the show aired. The delay gave me the opportunity to edit out the sound of me crashing to the floor on my behind when I fell off the rolling suitcase in my closet that I had commandeered as a seat. I also snipped out the voice of my partner running in to ask if I were alright. However, in the interest of transparency, I left in the laughter that followed and my explanation of what had just transpired. I was also able to increase the volume of Iheb’s voice somewhat in post-production; he had been worried about a spotty internet connection but in fact it was excellent, aside from dialing down the relative volume.
Iheb Guermazi is an architect and author. He lives and works in Tunis where he co-founded with Adnen Ben Tanfous the design and architecture firm ‘Atelier scar.’ Iheb is pursuing his academic research as a PhD candidate in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art program (HTC) at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is affiliated to the Aga Khan program for Islamic Architecture (AKPIA) where his work examines the discourses on art developed in the twentieth century by Western converts to Sufism.
His research interestsinclude the question of sin and morality in the Islamic city, the place of postmodern architectural theory in postcolonial contexts, and issues of identity and representation in architecture. Iheb had previously worked at various architectural practices in France and China. He Holds a Bachelor and a Masters of Architecture (M’Arch 09) from the University of Carthage in Tunisia. As a Fulbright Scholar, Iheb completed a Masters in History and Theory of Architecture at the University of Washington (Ms.Arch 14).
Iheb was a guest scholar and critic for different architectural studios organized by the ENAU of Tunis, the University of Washington, Columbia University, Harvard University and MIT. He has also lectured and participated in panel discussions in various venues and conferences such as the MESA Boston (2016), ENSIE Venice (2018), and the Thielska Galleriet Stockholm (2019).