My ACSA session

placards

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.

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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. 

Thoughts on the conference

kitty-zaha

Last weekend my department hosted the ACSA Northeast Fall Conference. The conference, titled Urban/Suburban Identity, was our first, and I was one of the organizers. The group was small but robust, with 45 papers presented in 11 sessions over two days. I moderated the “Hybrids” and “Emergent Types” paper sessions, both of which were fascinating and pleasantly non-doctrinal. Fellow blogger Lyle Solla-Yates presented “Toward the Green City” with Carl Sterner in session 2, relating incredibly insightful information about the connection between sewer infrastructure and urban planning, using historical research on London and Paris as examples. (Did you know it was once an advantage for farmland to be city-adjacent? That’s where the fertilizer came from!) As a moderator, I could not simply pop in and out of paper sessions at will. I did get to sit in on session 10, “Urban Cultures,” and session 11, “Infrastructure,” both of which were mind blowing. (It’s too bad they took place on Sunday morning after most participants had left.) I have to say that setting aside a whole weekend to discuss important topics in our field—pressing topics with broad social implications no less—with fellow architects and educators who readily engage in intellectual discussion was a real treat for me. I wish I could do it more often. Continue reading Thoughts on the conference