SAH 2019

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.

My only complaint about the session was it’s “round table” nature. Because it was not a series of discussions curated by each individual table, but rather a presentation taking place at the front of the room, the forced round table seating was extremely awkward. I suppose someone took the term “round table” too seriously?

Session notes

The image at the top of this post is a regular panel presentation room, with chairs set up in regressive rows. Sadly, this was the aesthetic nature of the Rhode Island Conference Center (RICC), a massive, hulking, pomo shed. It’s enormous; several city blocks long.

Aisle as narthex: the pomo logic of the RICC

One panel, Agora to WaterFire: Landscape Histories of the Public Realm, decided to pull all its chairs into a circle. The room, however, was rather narrow, so the circle became an oval, and then a mandorla, pinched at one end. I walked into this room during a presentation and realized, to my horror—as several colleagues from years’ past were sitting facing the door and thus facing me—that I was in the wrong room. I meant to attend a panel on African architecture across the hall titled, Transatlantic Encounters: Africa and the Americas (really about the Black Atlantic world more broadly). The doors to each conference room are heavy, metal, fire-rated doors with noisy push bars, and it was the bane of the entire conference to hear them open and slam closed over and over again as attendees flitted from room to room. (Each paper presentation takes places at an exact time, so it’s possible to see your friend’s work on under-recognized designers in American Beaux-Arts practices, as I did, and then scoot out to catch another panel.) I tried to wait for the current speaker to finish, but I kept thinking of what I might be missing, and then just ducked out as rudely as I had entered.

I was really curious as to why no one—in an architecture history conference—commented on the incredible monument to late capitalism that is the RICC. 1 I can’t properly describe how incredibly large it is, except to say that during the SAH conference, several other events were taking place simultaneously, including a dance expo complete with changing rooms and full stage, and a sports paraphernalia marketing meeting. Even with these participants, there were still plenty of extra rooms unoccupied.

It was pretty great to walk down this long hall and discover a teenager in a full spangly, sparkly, ice dancer-like outfit practicing her tumbles and emotive gestures in the gathering space carved out for SAH guests. (I think she was trying to keep her routine hidden from the other dancers.)

The best thing about conferences, of course, is meeting new people and connecting with colleagues and friends. Dinners and happy hours are the best time for this. I was delighted to spend some quality time with some of my favorite people.

Clockwise from top right: Alek, Phoebe, Chantal, Caroline

Eat, Sleep, Write

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 ThronesNothing can keep me from Game of Thrones.

Ashes to Ashes

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,[1] 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.”[2] 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,[3] 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.

Continue reading Ashes to Ashes

NCBDS 2011 in Lincoln, Nebraska

Conference welcome sign
Philip Johnson’s Sheldon Art Museum
The stipulation of no guns on the museum’s door

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.)

Images of Nebraska: student work in the gallery

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

More about my own session in the next post.

My ACSA session


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.

Thanks to all of them for a great session.

Read part 1 of this post!

ACSA 2011 Montréal

The architecture honor society Tau Sigma Delta paid my way to the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture national conference this month, which took place in snowy Montréal, March 3 to 6. The University of Hartford has launched its own ΤΣΔ chapter, the “gamma nu” chapter, and will start recruiting members later this year. (I’m the new President.) I was not a member of the honor society myself, and I realize now that I may not have been eligible—only the top fifth of the student body can join. I often tell my students, in response either to their complaints or their anxiety, that I never received an A in studio. I’m not ashamed to say my highest studio grade was an A- with B+ being more common. (This was back in college. My graduate school courses were pass/fail.) When I look back on the work I did, I’m surprised my grades were even that good. Steep is the design learning curve.


The conference itself, Where Do You Stand, was characteristically multivalent. How could a national conference not be? Here is a description of the theme:

This demand for a wider agenda for modern architecture, introduced to the discipline in the 1950s and followed by Postmodernism’s demands for greater diversity, has left the discipline open—wide open—perhaps too open… architects are now not only free, but required to interpret and, indeed, choose their position relative to this expanded field. With such choice comes the responsibility to ask: Where Do You Stand?

In Saturday night’s keynote address, Mason White (of Lateral Architecture) talked about the dilution of the terms “architect” and “designer.” Apparently the business community has grabbed onto the concept of design, though I’m not sure in what capacity; either regarding organizational structure or some other aspect of a typical business plan. White notes that as the discipline opens to embrace foreign concerns from other fields, the definition of what architects do becomes confused, even at the linguistic level, in popular culture. This isn’t new; it’s been a trend for decades, as the quote above suggests. I recall being pleasantly surprised at the scope of the discipline when I started college. As the world gets more complicated, so does everything else. It’s the logical response of an intellectually active field. I don’t think it hurts architects, except to the extent it becomes more difficult to explain our work and why someone should pay for it.

Conference sessions took place Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. I missed the Friday sessions, during which two former classmates presented papers, Fred Scharmen and Molly Steenson. Molly is a PhD candidate at Princeton, and Fred is a practitioner teaching at Morgan State. I had planned to see them speak, but was delayed by traffic at the US/Canada border. I was also totally exhausted by the 7-hour drive. I used to make 6-hour drives between Berkeley and Santa Barbara quite often, but that was a decade ago.

Aside from ΤΣΔ, another big reason I wanted to attend the conference is that I signed up to moderate the Northeast Fall Conference session, a greatest hits parade of papers from our October conference. The session didn’t take place until Sunday, in the very last time slot, and most everyone had already bolted for the airport. We had maybe 6 audience members max and it dwindled to 2 by the session’s end.  We followed the West Central Fall Conference session, which coincidentally included three speakers I knew: Elijah Huge, Jesse LeCavalier, and Ed Mitchell. Eli is a Yale grad who teaches at Wesleyan, Jesse and I went to college together, and Ed is a professor at Yale. They all had excellent papers, of course, unrelated thematically because each was taken from a different topic session. That made the presentations more interesting, almost like a Pecha Kucha event. Eli talked about the architecture of emergency and urban catastrophe, in particular James Steele Mackaye’s designs of folding “safety chairs” installed in theaters, meant to prevent the injuries incurred in stampedes by clearing the way to the exit in case of fire. Jesse talked about Bentonville, Arkansas, the corporate home of Walmart, and it’s bizarre infrastructure patterns. He compared it to a technoburb, but with special “vendor consulates” to Walmart HQ, and a surprising density of small airports. I’m going to have a hard time describing what Ed talked about as it was intellectually dense, and I think I took more notes on his offhand comments, like that the hotel room in which we were sitting was a symptom of urban/suburban spatial problems, with its ridiculous carpet and poor lighting, its rows of computer desk chairs, and the sound of applause leaking through the partition. The paper was titled “Up in the Air,” after the movie, and seemed like a lament to a profession that’s lost itself. Ed talked about architecture’s three models: science, populism, and aesthetics, and concluded that none has any real power to influence built space because built space, as capital, is controlled by corporate interests. Why negotiate when the outcome is pre-scripted? We’ve lost both the city and the authority to define it, he said, and what remains is a nostalgia for architecture’s past representationalism. (Ed, if you read this and I’m way off, I apologize.)

My own session had four speakers:

  • Gregory Marinic and Ziad Qureshi of the University of Monterrey presented “Suburbania: Monterrey, Urban/Suburban Dichotomies in Northeastern Mexico.”
  • Michael McCulloch, a PhD student at the University of Michigan presented “Inside Ford’s Garden City: Social and Spatial Logistics of a Hybrid Suburbanity.”
  • Onezieme Mouton, from The University of Louisiana at Lafayette presented “Let it die. Who really gives a damn anyway?”

I will talk about their work in detail in my next post.

Notes about the images above. The first is a view from my car on the scary, snowy drive back to Connecticut on I87 from Montreal. The next is the scene in a packed session room featuring a conversation between Martin Bressani and Alberto Peréz-Gómez, both of McGill. It was moderated by Mark Jarzombek, of MIT, who exchanged his seat on the panel for this role since Saundra Weddle was seemingly absent. I entered the room after the session started, so I didn’t hear the explanation concerning this switch. My lateness also explains my view of the the sea of black backs from the floor, the second image. The title of the session was “JAE Beyond Precedent,” but degenerated into a petty debate about terms, like the true definition of “digital culture.” Is digital culture “one’s and zero’s,” as Peréz-Gómez said, or is it the entire system of social interactions staged around digital platforms, as Bressani countered? I know my friend Molly would have a lot to say about this—she was there in the audience, and was one of the few people able to ask a question. Another question came from a woman incensed over the use of the term “scale,” who walked up to the front of the room to confront the panel up-close. They had to tell her the question was over (after maybe 10 minutes addressing her points and listening to her follow up questions) to get her to go away. That’s one of the most annoying things about conference questions, or even lecture questions: that audience members feel they’re more qualified than the invited speakers to talk about a certain topic, and are indignant. The “questions” are really a platform for them to display their own intellect. That would be more tolerable if these intellects were really as grand as advertised, but often they’re not, and it wastes everyone’s time. The final image was taken by my phone as I jostled around trying to look professional sitting on the ground in a dress, one leg bent and one extended, since sitting cross-legged was not an option.