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
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).
In this episode of Dangerous History, Christianna Bonin talks with me about archives. She dials in from Moscow to discuss life under quarantine, adventures in WWII-era bunkers turned art vaults, the structure of Soviet archives and collections, Kazakh nationalism, and the impact of Stalin’s legacy on historical production today. Listen to the interview here. Recorded April 22, 2020, Christianna traces her path to her current focus on Russian decorative arts in the twentieth century through archival finds and tugs on her heartstrings she could not ignore. A dedicated scholar and a generous colleague, Christianna’s stories of the archives help illustrate the on-the-ground work of an art-and-architecture historian in her day-to-day life. Read More
My interview with Eliyahu (Eli) Keller concerns ruin. What motivates us to return, time and again, to the site of a disaster and have the strength to rebuild? What draws us to ruin, even in the midsts of happiness? Eli and I discuss the influence of the cold war and images of nuclear annihilation on architecture in the 1950’s and 60s. Eli comes to the PhD program from Israel, and in relation to his work, we discuss Judaism and Judaic texts centered on ruin and rebuilding as a fundamental act of faith.
Eli Keller is an architect, and architectural historian currently pursuing a Ph.D. in History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art program at the MIT Department of Architecture. He is the co-editor of the 46th volume of the department’s peer-reviewed journal Thresholds, published by the MIT Press. Eliyahu holds a Bachelor of Architecture from Israel, and a Master in Design Studies with Distinction from the Harvard Graduate School of Design. His doctoral research investigates the relationships between the rise of nuclear weapons, apocalyptic thinking and visionary architectural production during the Cold War in the United States and the Soviet Union.
To hear more from Eli, listen to his internet broadcast show on WAWD? Radio, Kelly and Eli Smiling Through the Apocalypse, with Kelly Main. Airing Thursday nights at 7pm, they focus on their mutual scholarly interests highlighted by the pandemic, such as suburban planning, ecology, and ethics in the Anthropocene, and talk to interesting faculty guests from Harvard, MIT, and elsewhere about the guest’s work on that topic.
Figures mentioned in our conversation:
Raimund Abraham (architect)
Lebbeus Woods (architect)
Paolo Soleri (architect)
Peter Gallison, “War Against the Center,” Grey Room No. 4 (Summer, 2001): 5-33.
David Monteyne, Fallout Shelter: Designing for Civil Defense in the Cold War (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011).
Nicholas Meyer, dir., “The Day After,” ABC Circle Films, 126 min., 1983.
For the first episode of Dangerous History on WAWD? Radio I interviewed Nushelle de Silva, who has her own internet broadcast show, Museum Missives, 5pm on Thursdays. (Listen to our interview here.) My discussion with Nushelle focuses on self-discovery. How does our work connect to the world around us? Does it reflect our inner goals, hopes, and fears? As we work through the marathon of the PhD process together, Nushelle reminds us to aim high, raise our spirits, and reinsert our humanity into our professional lives.
Nushelle da Silva is a PhD student in History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture at MIT. She received a Master of Science in Architecture Studies (SMArchS) from MIT in 2015, and a BA in Architecture from Princeton University in 2011. Her research is broadly concerned with the politics of display; her past work has examined Cold War exhibitions, contentious museum collections, and the fate of monuments in times of crisis.
This conversation aired on April 1, 2020, from inside my closet. As my first attempt at a live internet radio show, routed through both Zoom and Mixlr, it went well in the sense that it aired, but there is reverb in the audio. Nushelle has a beautiful voice that shines through nevertheless. You can find out more about Nushelle at Nushelle.com.