New Books: Relics of the Reich

Philpott, Colin. Relics of the Reich: The Buildings the Nazis Left Behind.
Barnsley, Pen & Sword Books, 2016.

51kejxbQHNL._SX345_BO1,204,203,200_New this week at the Library is Colin Philpott’s 2016 book Relics of the Reich: The Buildings the Nazis Left Behind, a fascinating analysis of Nazi architecture, examining “the physical legacy of the Nazis, their buildings, their structures, and their public spaces” (Pg. x).  The Nazis were strategists, everything carefully calculated to serve their ambitions and hopes of a master race, and this included their buildings, everything from the Reichstag to Berchtesgaden to Dachau Concentration Camp.  Philpott’s book emphasizes just how critical the physical spaces were to the Nazis’ success in maintaining power and committing genocide.

Philpott explores themes in Nazi architecture, including what he calls “establishing the faith,” “enforcement,” “showing off to the world,” “future fantasies,” and “downfall.”  Within each theme he discusses specific buildings that served that purpose.  For example, “showing off to the world” focuses primarily on the 1936 Olympics, the 1937 World’s Fair, and other locations international visitors passed through, such as airports.  Similarly, “future fantasies” discusses the future plans of the Nazis that never came to be due to the escalation of World War II, including a vast plan to forever alter Berlin and rename it “Germania.”  Hitler planned “for Germania as Welthaupstadt (World Capital) of a trimphant Germany…[to represent German] world domination” (Pg. 113).  Philpott describes the plans as being so grand and megalomaniacal as to be absurd. Through these plans, it becomes clear that Hitler had become consumed by his desire for power, and so confident in his control over Germany and ability to dominate other countries by 1939, that these self-aggrandizing plans to essentially renovate the whole of Berlin seemed realistic and inevitable.   But of particular interest is Philpott’s theme on “Holocaust.”  Not only does Philpott highlight the physical spaces of the Holocaust, but he also discusses the ways those spaces and the horrors which took place there have been commemorated.  Philpott points out that some of these memorials were self-serving, especially those built while Germany was split between the Allied powers; the Russians sought to paint Communism as a liberating force that freed victims from Nazi rule, while the American side of Germany produced monuments after facing pressure from survivors to do so.

Countless books have been written on the Third Reich, the genocide it perpetrated, and the lasting impact of a regime that committed unmatched horrors.  There is a tendency to focus on the terrors of the Holocaust, and rightly so, but to better understand the Holocaust, one must also seek to understand other aspects of what the Nazis sought to achieve.  Adolf Hitler and his colleagues hoped to build a master race, eliminating Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and the mentally disabled in order to build the Aryan society of which they dreamed.  Thus, the systematic murder of six million people became a priority for the Nazi regime.  But the development of this master race also included building, as well as destruction and murder.  It required the building of concentration camps to house the people they planned to murder, the construction of ghettos before Jews were forced into train cars like cattle, they had to build the gas chambers and the crematoriums, and there had to be new government buildings to symbolize the new era.  This physical, architectural element was crucial to the Third Reich’s plans for their “Final Solution” and the world they tried (and failed) to build.  Everything they did, everything they built was coldly calculated to serve those interests.

The systematic murder of six million people is an atrocity that remains somewhat incomprehensible.  For all the books, the studies, and the conversations, there is something about understanding the Holocaust that remains elusive because of the sheer scope of it.  The questions that keep recurring involve the unanswerable: why?  Why did Hitler and the Reich murder millions of people?  Why did so many Germans do and say nothing?  We have some answers to these questions, but they will never be complete, and they will never be enough to make up for the six million lives taken. But by examining what the Nazis built, and the careful planning required to carry out their Final Solution, Philpott’s Relics of the Reich provides more answers – and more questions.  The Holocaust, if possible, becomes worse in a way because of the cruelty and coldness evident in the planning of the gas chambers, crematoriums, and concentration camps, as well as the callous and narcissistic ways in which the Third Reich planned Germany’s future as it carried out mass murder.  And so, we have more “whys.”  Why did the Nazis feel so little empathy and so little respect for human lives (those who did not fit their vision of the Aryan race) that they felt compelled and justified in committing genocide?  Why did no one speak out when the crematoriums were built, especially when locals could smell the burning bodies?  Why would they plan to renovate the whole of Berlin while millions were dying in the gas chambers?  You can ask “why” over and over and over again. There will never be an answer, at least not a satisfactory one, but the answer is nonetheless worth the seeking.  And, perhaps surprisingly, the physical spaces built by the Nazis play an important role in discovering answers to the mysterious, tragic “whys” of the Holocaust.

Friday Finds: Secret Chambers and Hiding Places

Secret Chambers - CoverWritten by Allan Fea in 1901, Secret Chambers and Hiding Places: The Historic, Romantic, & Legendary Stories and Traditions About Hiding-Holes, Secret Chambers, Etc. explores “the gloomy hiding-holes, concealed apartments, passages, and staircases…[which are] the very groundwork of romance…[and] vitality of a plot” (pg. 12-13). Fea considers both fictional portrayals of hidden chambers and passageways, as well as historical uses of such architectural elements.  He is fascinated by the mystique of secret chambers, as well as the fact that they can serve malicious (as in the case of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, a failed assassination attempt on the King James I of England) or benevolent purposes (young James II, while captive, became known for discovering hiding places during games of hide-and-seek, and so escaped while playing the game).

Secret Chambers and Hiding Places features entire chapters focused on the above mentioned instances, the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 and James II’s escape, but also explores specific houses, their owners, and the intended use of the secret spaces in every case.  He explores the phenomenon of “priests’ holes,” which were hiding spots built into the homes of Catholics in England during the time when Catholics were persecuted, in order to hide a priest in the home, sometimes including passages for escape.  In Salisbury, an old mansion “is said to have been a favorite hiding-place for fugitive cavaliers [Royalists] at the time of the Civil War” (pg. 160).  Fea provides a detailed description of the passage itself, as well as how it was not discovered until the late 1800s by complete happenstance; someone bumped a panel, which then opened to reveal a ordinary-looking cupboard, only to find that when one shelf was removed, the cupboard became a door leading to a small staircase which provided a concealed lookout point and a hiding spot.  All this within a small country manor-turned-inn.  Fea supplies such details in most of the chapters of the book, providing a deeper understanding of the mechanics and cleverness of these chambers.

Fea was a historian and author, and Secret Chambers and Hiding Places was his first published work, followed by seven other books, including one on James II (to whom two chapters of Secret Chambers and Hiding Places is devoted) and another called Nooks and Corners of Old England from 1907.  Clearly, Fea possessed a strong interest in hidden spaces, focusing on elements of plots and stories that were of little interest to other historians.  Like many historical works of the era, there are no citations or sources mentioned in Secret Secret Chambers - Pg. 148Chambers and Hiding Places, but rather Fea likely works from stories, other historical works, or perhaps even some myths.  Today, historians are expected to provide evidence for their claims and arguments, and to work primarily with facts and not rumor, yet somehow the mystery of Fea’s sources adds to his overall point about the mystique of these secret spaces – nothing is known for certain about who hid there, how they felt, why they hid, but Fea makes conjectures about such things, which are unknowable, to add to his story.

Though in some ways Secret Chambers and Hiding Places is a questionable work of history, it is a valuable historical source.  Fea provides drawings of the secret spaces he discusses, to help describe the mechanics of the chambers and provide useful context.  He shows that he has been to many of these spaces (as he did the drawings himself) and wishes for his readers to be as mesmerized by them as he is.  Secret Chambers and Hiding Places never claims to be a history, but Instead seeks to blend history with legend.  Fea makes the two indistinguishable.  It is unclear what is fact versus fiction, history versus legend.  But that seems to be Fea’s point.  He takes things which are hardly discussed (hiding holes for priests, secret passages for escapes, tunnels for assassination attempts) in the stories known by many English citizens and turns them into grand, important elements in the epic legends and history of Britain. There is something elusive and mystical about these hidden spaces that fascinates people, but it makes up only a small part of the story. What Fea’s book lacks in historical truth, it makes up for in highlighting the importance of secret spaces to England’s most famous historical events and mythologies.

New Books: Building Zion and The Optimum Imperative

There are so many amazing news books at the Architecture and Planning Library this week, one book just was not enough to feature in a blog post.  So this week’s highlights are Building Zion: The Material World of Mormon Settlement by Thomas Carter, and The Optimum Imperative: Czech Architecture for the Socialist Lifestyle, 1938-1968 by Ana Miljacki.

Carter’s Building Zion explores the differences and continuities between traditional American architecture and Mormon architecture, as well as the drastic contrast in style between Mormon temples Building Zion - Coverand Mormon homes.  Carter’s book reveals a fascinating conundrum: Mormon temples are designed to stand out, while Mormon homes are meant to blend in with a typical family home in the United States.  The temple is a physical representation of the uniqueness of the Mormon faith, yet the home downplays the polygamous nature of some Mormon families.  Carter also explores that even though the homes of Mormons in Utah were designed to house a larger family, sometimes with each wife living in a wing with their children, the homes are surprisingly typical in style and size. This reflects the desire of many Mormon families to fit in.  Before migrating to Utah, Mormons were sometimes ostracized or even persecuted in their communities; considering this history, it is perfectly understandable that Mormons would seek to stand out as little as possible in their family life, as it was polygamy that bothered many opponents of the faith.  So then, why make the temples stand out so?  This is exactly what Carter explores in Building Zion, as well as the realities of daily life in Mormon settlements.

Miljacki writes on a completely different topic in The Optimum Imperative: Czech architecture from 1938 (when the nation, then called Slovakia, was divided between Hungary, Germany, and The Optimum Imperative - CoverPoland) to 1968 (the time of the Prague Spring, when Czechoslovakia began to liberalize and the Soviet Union invaded to regain control).  This is a particularly fascinating time in Czech history, and Miljacki examines how the architecture reflected socialist ideals.  Miljacki is not kind to the theory or reality of socialism, arguing that the architecture of the Soviet Union years reinforced and physically imposed socialism, class struggles, and Soviet control on the Czech people.  Following the dissolution of Czechoslovakia and establishment of the Czech Republic, there was a renewed emphasis on Czech heritage and culture, presumably architecture, too.  Though The Optimum Imperative does not explore beyond 1968, Miljacki provides the necessary context and background to better understand modern trends in the country and its strong dislike of all things Russian.

While seemingly unrelated, Building Zion and The Optimum Imperative both discuss, broadly, the importance of architecture as an expression of control and culture.  For Mormons, while it was critical to them to deemphasize the distinctive nature (to outsiders, the “otherness”) of their large families and polygamous marriages, the temple was an opportunity to physically express that otherness without judgment as a place of worship.  The Soviet Union used architecture to reinforce the values of socialism, and thereby their control over Czechoslovakia, which later led to a return of Czech tradition.  In both cases, architecture served as an opportunity for cultural expression and as a means of giving the appearance of normality to atypical situations.

Friday Finds: Medieval Architecture, Vol. I

Medieval Architecture - CoverFirst published in 1909, Arthur Kingsley Porter’s Medieval Architecture: Its Origins and Development Volume I seeks to serve as a survey of Medieval architecture for laymen as well as architects and students of architecture. Porter notes in the beginning that that book “attempts to unravel only a single thread from the tangled skein of medieval art…[which] is made up of that succession of formative or generative styles that shaped the architectural destinies of Europe” (pg. v).  By identifying the main formative styles, Porter builds context and a better understanding of Medieval architecture, even if it is not quite a survey of the subject.

Porter begins with a discussion of the architecture of antiquity, such as Roman and German, as well as particular exploration of the elements most incorporated into Medieval architecture, including the different kinds of vaults, arches, and ornamentation. Next he examines early Christian styles, and the connection between faith and architecture in these buildings.  From there, Porter launches into a study of Byzantine, Carolingian, Lombard, and Norman architecture.  He pays close attention to the similarities and Medieval Architecture - Page 8differences between each, and to the elements most frequently adopted, some of which remain popular in modern times, and others which are considered antiquated. Crucially, Porter draws a direct line between antiquity, Medieval architecture, and modern architecture, showing that ancient architectural features are not necessarily antiquated or irrelevant.

For many years, a synonym for “The Middle Ages” or “The Medieval Period” has been “The Dark Ages.”  While this has changed among historians, many in the public still refer to “The Dark Ages,” a time of seeming backwardness, where knowledge and advancement was lost as it gave way to the dominance of Christianity.  While it is true that the Church made efforts to suppress scientific thought and reading was a privilege reserved only for elites, to classify the Medieval period as a Dark Age is a gross exaggeration.  And in this sense, Porter’s book is extremely valuable, not to mention ahead of its time in acknowledging the contributions of Medieval thought and architects to the field.  In Medieval Architecture, Porter brings the remarkable architecture of Medieval times out of the Dark Ages into the light.

New Books: Narrative Architecture

De Bleeckere, Sylvain, and Sebastiaan Gerards. Narrative Architecture: A Designer’s Story. New York, Routledge, 2017.

Narrative Architecture - CoverNew to the Architecture Library this week is Sylvain De Bleeckere and Sebastiaan Gerards’ Narrative Architecture: A Designer’s Story.  Focusing on four themes (thinking, imagining, educating, and designing), Narrative Architecture explores the underlying meanings of architecture, and the acts of thinking, listening, and learning that go into designing.

Bleeckere and Gerards explain that the book “is a designer’s story in which our personal experiences in our school of architecture, our critical study of some important texts…and our analysis of some paradigmatic artworks and films are rhizomatically interwoven” (pg. 3).  They also examine how “it seems that architecture can speak and act like human actors do” (pg. 1).  In each of the four chapters are summaries of major relevant philosophical works and theories, providing context and philosophical backing to prove the importance of each theme.  By approaching the subject from this angle, Bleeckere and Gerards can better understand the motivations of architects, the thought that goes into the buildings they design, and what can be learned from the buildings themselves.

Narrative Architecture, ultimately, portrays architecture as a kind of storytelling, with architects as the storytellers.  Every individual and every building had something to say.  It is crucial to not only question what the architect reveals about the building, but what the building reveals about the architect, as well.  The historical context of the architect, the space, and the building can unveil so much more than traditionally thought.  If we let a building slowly divulge its narrative, then we too become a part of the story.

Friday Finds: Men and Buildings

Gloag - Cover SheetOriginally published in 1931, John Gloag’s book Men and Buildings examines architectural history and trends.  Gloag gives special attention to Italy, England, and changes in more contemporary times.  Gloag notes that “despite new materials and the need for work on a bigger scale, it is a peculiar weakness of our time to take refuge in the past for inspiration” (pg. 4).  He argues that “only if they are humanized can the austere experiments of the present prepare the way for an eventual coherence in architectural taste and a new majesty of form,” one which reflects modern values and an understanding that others will inherit those forms (pg. 228).

Men and Buildings is nearly as focused on the future as it is on the past.  The epilogue even includes a theoretical discussion in the 50th century among archaeologists interpreting the uncovered remnants of a 19th century bridge.  Gloag discusses the recurring theme in architecture of looking to the past for inspiration.  He pays particular attention to England’s recycling of Roman architecture, even naming the chapter “England Edits Rome.”  Additionally, Gloag notes Italy’s reuse of Roman architecture, as well as the numerous advances in materials and the dearth of quality modern architecture featuring new ideas.  Overall, he seems to mourn the state of architecture as of 1931, feeling that it lacks originality and does not reflect the values of society.

In Gloag’s fictional discussion in the epilogue, the archaeologists discover coins under the bridge.  The elder archaeologist believes the coins to be there by chance, while the younger theorizes that they were thrown intentionally.  The young archaeologists, it is revealed, is correct – the coins were thrown by those wishing for luck.  The story serves several purposes.  Gloag consistently argues for the reflection of “values” in architecture.  While it is easy to sort some priorities from the architecture of a home, for example (e.g. a large dining room might indicate the importance of entertaining and family), but it is more complicated with a bridge.  However, the presence of the coins might indicate a bridge so grand and so beautiful, that it inspires people to treat the river below as a wishing well.  The epilogue also implies the importance of the younger generation in innovation and discoveries.  The elder archaeologist dismisses the theory of the younger outright – had the determination of the apprentice archaeologist not been so strong, he might never have been proven correct.  In this sense, Gloag seems to be suggesting that it is time for the older generation to listen to and pass the baton on to the next.  Humans are taught to respect their elders due to their wisdom and experience, but new developments often come from the young.  Oftentimes, the ideas that change the world start as a radical, preposterous notion in the mind of an adolescent.

New Book: Architects’ Homes

Patch, Bethany, editor. Architects’ Homes. Victoria, The Images Publishing Group, 2017.

Architects' Homes - Cover pageBethany Patch’s Architects’ Homes examines the homes architects build for themselves, arguing that “architects use the design of their own homes both as a design experiment and as a representation of their own beliefs and ideals” (pg. 7).  The book contains what Patch believes to be “a small segment of the designs that result from a successful collaboration between the architect as the designer and the architect as the owner” (pg. 9).

Architects’ Homes contains photographs and descriptions of the homes, including the materials used and the architects’ wants and needs.  The styles and locations of the home vary widely.  Many of the homes have distinctive tastes and serve as family homes while also being pieces of art, in a sense.  The architects have put themselves into these projects in a way they cannot in their work for clients.  As both architect and client, the owners of these homes have taken great care in the materials, layouts, and elements they include in their plans.  Most of the homes are also well-suited to their surroundings.  For example, the McKinley Resident in Southern California, owned and designed by David Hertz, fits nicely into its context.  It is at once modern and modular with elements of a traditional beach house.  There is an outdoor shower to use after going to the beach, as well as countless windows “to take advantage of the abundant Californian light and cool ocean breeze” (pg. 108). In keeping with California priorities, the house includes recycled woods and runs on solar energy for electricity, hot water, and heating (there is no air conditioning because of the cross-ventilation created by all the windows).  Many of the houses similarly fit into their environments and locations, while also being distinctive for the architect’s particular tastes.

Providing an in-depth look at the homes architects design for themselves, Architects’ Homes supplies insights into architects’ processes and personal tastes.  While the job of the architect is to serve the client, how does that change when the architect is the client?  Does it make the process more difficult or easier?  How do their priorities and styles differ when it comes to their own homes?  These are fascinating questions raised by Architects’ Homes which the book only begins to explore, but there can be little doubt as to the uniqueness of these buildings and the fact that, to the architects, they are much more than any other house they might design – they are home.

Friday Finds: Letters to Apprentices

Wright - Letters to Apprentices CoverLetters to Apprentices: Frank Lloyd Wright is a publication containing selected letters from Frank Lloyd Wright to his many apprentices. Alongside the many letters is commentary from the editor of the book and the Director of Archives of The Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and The Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Foundation, Bruce Brooks Pfeiffer. This commentary provides context for some of the letters and information on the goings-on in Wright’s life and works at the time.  The letters themselves contribute valuable insights into Wright’s personality and work, as well as those of the Taliesin Fellows to whom the correspondence primarily concerns.

In the preface, Pfeiffer explains how the letters mostly pertain to “the Taliesin Fellowship, that group of young men and women who were his apprentices from 1932 to 1959…[and] throughout those years many hundreds of Taliesin Fellows arrived” (pg. ix).  The book seeks to capture the experiences of Taliesin Fellows, both in their work and their relationships with Wright.  As arguably the most influential and prolific architect of his time, the opportunity to work with Wright was undoubtedly one of the greatest opportunities any young architect could hope for.  The style of the Taliesin Fellowship, preparing students to be architects within only a few years and nothing like a standard curriculum, influenced training programs and apprenticeships across the country, in addition to giving the program a reputation that increased work opportunities.  Over time, “as there came an increase in architectural work, the demands required of him to answer letters…necessitated that letters to applicants and former apprentices be briefer,” so the longest and perhaps most interesting letters are near the start of the Taliesin Fellowship in 1932.

Interestingly, Wright made a point to note in a 1932 letter to an applicant that Taliesin “contemplates exactly 100 apprentices, about 40 girls and 60 boys,” and was intended to serve as an extension of the Taliesin studio Wright - Letters to Apprentices Pg 107(pg. 14).  The fact that Wright, as early as 1932, made a point of including women apprentices is fascinating, even somewhat radical.  Today, many still note an excess of gender discrimination in the field of architecture, as well as a dearth of female architects.  In contrast, Wright dedicated 40% of the apprenticeships to ensuring women had opportunities.  While there may have been no follow-through on this goal (Wright notes that he has decreased the number of fellows to 70 and mentions that the fellowship would likely be only 30% girls), there are letters to female apprentices throughout the collection.  It is worthwhile to note that Wright offers less praise for his female students than his male students, sometimes merely relegating them to “furnish” a project or “housebreak the owners” (pg. 96).  He also proves somewhat haughty at times, such as after a student left Taliesin, telling him, “we all make errors of judgment, if we have any judgment, and being a young fellow, you ought to acquire a collection of errors in your own name as I have in mine,” indicating that he believes the student’s abandonment of Taliesin to be a mistake he will later regret (pg. 97). Wright also showed himself through the letters to be dedicated to keeping up with his pupils, often offering them work or advice, and asking about their families and personal lives.  While Wright definitely showed a preference for his male students, he remained a loyal correspondent with many of his students whom he respected.

As one of the most famous architects in history, Frank Lloyd Wright remains a fascinating figure to study, for the controversy of his personal life, for his celebrity, and for his unique style.  There is something enigmatic about Wright.  He is remembered as fiercely proud of his own accomplishments, selective in his taste, and loathe to give compliments.  Yet in his correspondence with his students, he is shown to be loyal, to have great faith in his students’ talents so long as they display a similar loyalty and dedication to their work, supportive of female architects (certainly for the time period), and yes, a bit haughty, yet more affable than he is remembered. Letters are a unique historical resource – they unveil personality and information that, for example, Wright’s autobiography, would not. These letters were never meant to be ready by anyone other than the recipients, making them a more unvarnished, honest source than something written to be read publicly.  In this sense, Wright’s letters are a powerful resource.  As much of a celebrity as he was, and as much as he and his work has been researched, no source could explore his personality and the complicated relationships he had with his apprentices as well as the letters in Letters to Apprentices do. The collection of letters provides captivating insights into one of America’s best-known architects, supplying glimpses into Frank Lloyd Wright and the proteges who followed him in shaping modern architecture.

New Book: Building Histories

Rajagopalan, Mrinalini. Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Mrinalini Rajagopalan’s 2016Rajagopalan - Cover book Building Histories: The Archival and Affective Lives of Five Monuments in Modern Delhi examines the “modern lives, from the mid-nineteenth century to the late twentieth century, of Islamic monuments of Delhi, originally built between the twelfth and seventeenth centuries”: the Red Fort, Rasul Numa Dargah, the Jama Masjid, the Purana Qila, and the Qutb Complex (pg. 2).  Rajagopalan’s main interest is in the state-led projects of preserving these monuments, so she explores the bias present in the selection of these monuments and the historical narratives they support, which is then reflected in the archival representation.  She seeks to complicate and challenge these narratives to develop “new conceptual histories of the Indian monument” (pg. 2).

For each of the five monuments, Rajagopalan explores the architectural history, preservation history, and the master narratives surrounding them.  In each chapter there is a discussion of these features, as well as the role of colonialism in shaping these sites and how they were used by the British to retain their power.  In the chapter on the Purana Qila, for example, reveals the combating narratives surrounding the ancient palace: in one the palace was built by the first Mughal emperor of Delhi (and added onto by later Suri rulers), while the other suggests that the palace was the capitol mentioned in a Hindu epic, Mahabharata.  Despite the truth of the first narrative, the preferred story in India is the second, an urban legend that Indraprastha, the capitol in the epic, lies beneath Purana Qila.  This story has gone “from myth to history,” as Rajagopalan writes (pg. 124).  How?  Why?  These are exactly the questions which fascinate the author.  She argues that this occurred because of the myth’s popularity among academics, who helped to make the story an important part of Delhi’s history and character, as well as the changing political and cultural landscape of India over the course of centuries.  It became more important in this time of cultural upheaval for Hindus to have an origin story for Delhi, rather than the reality that the site was founded by a Muslim Mughal emperor.  At a time when tensions between Muslims and Hindus reached a zenith, during the Partition of India into India and Pakistan, this myth became ever more embedded in popular conscious, eventually being accepted as history instead of legend.  All five monuments Rajagopalan discusses relate to a similar challenge to the current master narrative surrounding the sites.  In some way, each of the monuments, so carefully preserved, help to perpetuate a narrative which is, at best, misleading.

A trend in historical scholarship in recent years has been to challenge “the master narrative.”  Building Histories is an excellent example of this scholarship.  Rajagopalan carefully examines and researches the narratives of these five monuments, crafting a compelling argument that the master narratives behind the sites served a purpose for someone or some group, whether it be a politician or Hindus.  The title itself reveals a great deal: histories are built.  History is written by the winners, the wealthy, and the powerful.  They are allowed to shape the narrative that is passed on to future generations and mold it to their purposes.  The truth is malleable until historians like Rajagopalan begin to challenge the accepted narrative. Only then can the true history become clear. People think of historians as stuffy old men in bowties lecturing about the ancient world. Truly though, history is one of the most dynamic disciplines to study. The field is constantly changing, with new sources and evidence coming to light, ripe for interpretation and incorporation into the narrative.  In this sense, too, history is built.  But, hopefully, this time it is built to give a voice to those who had previously been silenced, and to provide a more complete story of the past than that told before.  History may have been written by the winners, but it can be rewritten by the newest generation of dynamic, perhaps even bowtie-wearing, historians.

Friday Finds: Sam Houston’s Texas

Flanagan - Cover Sheet copySue Flanagan’s book Sam Houston’s Texas “attempts to place Houston in proper perspective against the backcloth of past events and to show him still a part of the changing pattern of our time” (pg. ix).  The book is organized chronologically, running from 1832 to 1863, with a chapter devoted to each year.  Included in every chapter are photographs of relevant buildings and the Texas landscape, as well as historical context for the year, based mostly in primary sources from the era.

Beginning in 1832, Flanagan examines Houston’s childhood in Virginia, his time as a Congressman and Governor in Tennessee, and as a delegate for the Cherokee Tribe to Washington.  Houston came to Texas to buy up land and serve as an envoy to Native Americans in the territory, a role assigned to him by then-President Andrew Jackson.  Moving year-by-year, Flanagan details the increasing dissatisfaction in Texas with Mexican governance, Houston’s rise to General of the Texas army, the price of Texas independence, and the early years of the Texas Republic.  One of the longest chapters is the one on 1836, the year Texas won independence from Mexico, featuring discussion of the Battle of the Alamo, the massacre of all inside the mission, and the subsequent surrender of Santa Anna to Houston less than two months after the loss of the Alamo.  Houston declared on March 2, 1836, that “Independence is declared; it must be maintained.”  Houston recognized that once Texas was free of Mexico, its best chance of maintaining independence was joining the United States.  However, before Texas joined the Union, it was its own nation for ten years, with Houston remaining a prominent leader throughout, serving twice as President of the Republic of Texas, a Senator to the US Congress, and Governor of Texas. Flanagan’s book ends in 1863, the year of Houston’s death. Throughout this narrative are photographs of relevant places and spaces, showing the Texas Houston fought for and loved so dearly.

Published in 1964, Sam Houston’s Texas came just over 100 years after Houston’s death and just short of 100 years of the start of the Civil War.  Houston foresaw the Civil War, and feared that secession and alliance with the Southern states would irreparably damage Texas and the United States.  Instead, he thought Texas would fare better as its own empire if it conquered Mexico.  With this in mind, as Governor of Texas, Flanagan - LonghornHouston refused to secede from the United States.  This stemmed not from a belief in abolition (Houston himself owned slaves) but rather from his wish to avoid more war on Texas soil.   As a result, Houston was forced out as Governor and replaced with someone more sympathetic to the Confederate cause.  Much like in the 1860s, the 1960s were filled with racial tension and turmoil. President Lyndon B. Johnson, a Texan, passed the Civil Rights Act the same year that Sam Houston’s Texas was published, a reminder of how much had changed in the last century for the state and the nation.

Sam Houston’s Texas is a fascinating look at Sam Houston himself, as well as the indelible mark he left on Texas.  Houston is an incredibly complicated figure: a representative for Native American rights, yet an advocate for slavery; a believer that Texas should be in the United States while also wanting Texas to be a great nation in its own right; a war hero who wanted to avoid war at all costs in later life.  He was the first President of the Republic of Texas, a U.S. Senator for Texas, the man who made Santa Anna surrender and won Texas’ independence in a battle lasting only 18 minutes against a seemingly unstoppable Mexican Army, and he is the namesake for the city of Houston. The tales of Sam Houston are larger than life.  Flanagan’s book reveals the man who inspired the legends.  Using Houston’s own words, letters, and accounts from others who knew him, Flanagan shows Houston to be a complicated and flawed, yet remarkable man. In short, Houston was human, with all the complexities and contradictions that come with the human experience.

Many Americans have gone through a reckoning in recent years, realizing that the Founding Fathers were not infallible men.  For years they have been literally placed on pedestals, had cities, buildings, and monuments named for them and built in homage to them, with few questions asked about who they were beyond the iconic image. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and many of the other Founding Fathers preached the values of liberty and equality while owning slaves.  This does not make them entirely unworthy of admiration, but it does mean that Americans must recognize that they were imperfect men who accomplished exceptional things. Texans must face a similar reckoning with their heroes, and Sam Houston’s Texas is an excellent start to rewriting that historical narrative. Houston was all things: a friend to Native Americans, a slave holder, an American, a Texan, a leader of the Texas Revolution, and an advocate against the Civil War.  These seemingly contradictory traits make Houston a more tangible, relatable figure. Sam Houston the legend provides an unattainable vision of what it means to be human.  Sam Houston the man, with all his flaws and contradictions, provides a realistic example to which Texans can aspire. Sam Houston will forever live on in Texas folklore, but it is time to separate the legend from the man.  It may be simpler or more appealing to tell tales of Houston as a perfect, Arthurian icon who led Texas to independence, but the truth of the man behind the legend is a far more fascinating story.

Blog from the University of Texas Architecture and Planning Library