Work on the Anthony Alofsin Archive

My name is Kathleen Carter and I’m a recent graduate with a Master’s of Science in Library and Information Science from Simmons College in Boston, Massachusetts. I moved to Austin to begin work as the Processing Archivist for the Anthony Alofsin Collection for the Alexander Architectural Archives. The position was generously funded by Dr. Alofsin along with the donation of his papers. Since the end of July, I’ve been processing the collection of the University of Texas at Austin professor, award-winning architect, author, exhibit curator, and expert on modern architecture.

 

If Dr. Alofsin seems like a man who wears many hats, the Archive of his materials certainly verifies that. A major part of the Alofsin Archive is his personal library, now housed in Special Collections of the Architecture and Planning Library. The collection of books, academic journals, and other publications varies from several volumes on architect Frank Lloyd Wright (Dr. Alofsin is a leading authority on Wright) to art books to collections of Irish ghost stories.

 

Some of the materials that make up the Anthony Alofsin Archive
Some of the materials that make up the Anthony Alofsin Archive before they are arranged and rehoused.

This wide array of interests and professional work comes through in every part of the collection, and has made it interesting to work with. The approximately 57 linear feet of archival material follows Alofsin’s personal and professional life from his days as a master’s candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Design to the intensive research accumulated for several of his publications. Over his thirty-year career, Alofsin has published a dozen books, founded The University of Texas at Austin’s Ph.D. in Architecture, and kept up a professional practice as an architect (including designing his own home). Alofsin has also, as the creator of the collection and therefore the preeminent expert on its contents, proven to be an invaluable resource himself. His office in the School of Architecture is a few minutes’ walk from where I’m working on his materials. Meeting with him has provided me otherwise impossible insight into the collection.

A drawing by Anthony Alofsin created as a part of his coursework at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1979.
A drawing by Anthony Alofsin created as a part of his coursework at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1979.

While completing the detailed inventory of the collection, I found Alofsin’s drawings, both his student work for Harvard and for his professional practice, some of the most visually stunning parts of the collection. For his final project at Harvard, Alofsin created a design for a new Boston City Hall. For another student project, Alofsin visited Jerusalem in 1980. The collection includes drawings and several 35mm slides of the Jerusalem Gates that he took on the trip. Later work includes drawings and plans for an addition to a historic home in Santa Fe, New Mexico and the plans for his own Austin, Texas home.

 

Anthony Alofsin's book, When Buildings Speak, published in 2006.
Anthony Alofsin’s book When Buildings Speak, published in 2006.

Other highlights of the collection include his work as a professor. The complete lectures and slides for Alofsin’s Survey courses on the history of modern architecture make up a substantial part of the collection. These allow for the study of courses which no longer exist and include an abundance of stunning visual material. Many photographic materials also exist for the body of research that Alofsin completed on Central European Architecture. Photos of beautiful architecture in Vienna, Prague, and Budapest used in Alofsin’s book When Buildings Speak: Architecture as Language in the Habsburg Empire and Its Aftermath, 1867-1933 fill several folders of the collection. Carefully rehousing all of these photos to preserve them for future research will make up the next large part of the project.

 

Along with rehousing and description, I will also create a complete archival finding aid of the materials. The finding aid will be available online and the collection open to researchers, allowing for the discovery of the wealth of information available within the Anthony Alofsin Archive.

Friday Finds: War Memorials

War MemorialsPublished in 1946, Arnold Whittick’s War Memorials  explores War Memorials around the world, both ancient and new.  Only a year after the end of World War II, Whittick’s book is timely and explores a relevant

Whittick examines locations, dedications, sentiments, and materials appropriate for war memorials.  Particularly interesting are his chapters on the spirit and convincing expression of memorials.  Whittick notes, “the principal purpose of a memorial is to stir remembrance…with a particular sentiment…it is important, therefore, to determine clearly what sentiment it is desired to express” (pg. 6).  What follows is a list of the kinds of sentiments memorials create: “the memorial which expresses mainly death, sorrow, and mourning,; the memorial which expresses religious belief…; the memorial which expresses mainly triumph and victory; and the memorial which expresses mainly the spirit of life” (pg. 6). Whittick then provides a detailed description with examples of such memorials.  In this sense, the book is highly formulaic, introducing the subject of each chapter briefly before laying out the types of memorials and the expected details of each.  There are specific instructions about choosing locations and materials, even which materials Whittick deems most appropriate for war memorials based on his study of existing ones.  Whittick clearly did tedious, exhaustive research on his subject in order to write War Memorials in a way that makes it a true guidepost for building a meaningful memorial.

War Memorials is noticeably devoid of emotion.  Whittick brings a logical and distant tone to a highly emotional subject. Memorials are intended to elicit emotional or sentimental responses, to remind the living of what happened in a particular place.  There is something to be said for this tone: it provides clear direction on how to create a meaningful, appropriate war memorial, something hard to achieve when emotions play too big a part. Whittick also mentions numerous exemplary memorials, even pictures of them.  As a manual for designing a war memorial, War Memorials effective exactly because of its tone.  But for the reader expecting a sentimental examination of memorials, Whittick’s approach is a surprise.  Yet the time of publication could be partially responsible for this tone.  Published immediately following World War II, there were many countries facing decisions about how to memorialize the war and those who fought and died in it.  It could have been interesting, too, if Whittick had included something on appropriate memorials for such a horrific even as the Holocaust.  He distinguishes war memorials from other kinds of memorials (which would include memorials remembering genocide), and yet the Holocaust is inseparably tied into World War II, so it would have been a pertinent and important topic for him to discuss in the book.  What is the appropriate way, the best materials to memorialize a genocide? With time having passed, and powerful memorials having been built now, it is easier to imagine the answers, but only a year after World War II came to an end and the atrocities committed by the Nazis were still coming to light, it is understandable that Whittick would deem it beyond the scope of the book.

Overall, War Memorials is a guide for how to create a memorial. Whittick’s tone and attention to detail is what makes it a successful guide.  Looking through the photos included in the book of the memorials Whittick deems appropriate, the wide variety of styles, inscriptions, and materials becomes clear.  But of course, certain memorials stay with the beholder more than others.  Many are in the same style and materials and they are not memorable because of it.  At a certain point, the columns, the carvings, and the arches all begin to look the same, and they are less memorable for it.  For all the detail and complexity that Whittick suggests in a memorial, he ultimately promotes a status quo instead of thinking creatively.  The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., simply bears the names of the soldiers who died in the Vietnam War in black granite. It compellingly portrays the significance of what it memorializes, but with a simplicity that Whittick never recommends.  Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.”  Memorials like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial point to the truth in Einstein’s quote: the memorial is simple, but if it were any simpler, the poignancy would be lost.  The list of names on the Vietnam Memorial is so simple, but extremely powerful.  Having the actual names of people who died in Vietnam etched into black granite permanently, where you can see the rows and rows of names, humanizes war in a way that most carvings or statues or arches cannot.  Now, in spite of Whittick’s research and directions, those individuals are going to be remembered forever in a memorial unadorned by anything but the names of their brothers in arms.

New Book: Resilience and Adaptability

Berger, Markus, and Liliane Wong, editors. Resilience and Adaptability. Vol. 5,  Rhode Island School of Design, 2014. Interventions/Adaptive Use.

In Volume 5, Resilience and Adaptability, of the periodical Interventions/Adaptive Use, published by the Rhode Island School of Design, editors Markus Berger and Liliane Wong bring together a series of essays suggesting “that from the perspective of design, resilience has to be a central concern of the future of material making but it can also open up more creative ways of thinking about world making” (pg. 4).  Because the natural world evolves so much, the editors argue, the built world must be resilient and adaptable to survive.

Featuring articles on a wide range of places and topics, Resilience and Adaptability pulls together somewhat disparate threads to create a cohesive compilation that argues for building long-lasting, sustainable structures.  For example, Iris Mach’s article “Japan’s Architectural Genome: Destruction as a Chance for Renewal” explores how “Japan has developed  a building culture that embraces, rather than shuns, decay and destruction as an integral part of its system” (pg. 26).  Additionally, Japan has always been open to adopting foreign expertise and technology into their own practices, meaning that the country consistently uses the most cutting-edge building technology.  Through this state of mind, Japan has become a fine example of the resilience and adaptability the editors argue for.  Another article, “Lessons From Queensland For Viable Futures” by Naomi Hay and Tony Fry, discusses how Australian architects are adapting buildings for a changing climate. With the weather in Queensland changing drastically in recent years due to climate change, architects and other design experts are “pre-empting and designing for future risk as an opportunity for redirective development strategy, as well as one that can build a culture of resilience and adaptability” (pg. 64).  Due to Queensland architects’ forward thinking, Queensland and Australia are beginning to think more long term about the effects of climate change and how to better plan for the dramatic weather changes to come.

“Japan’s Architectural Genome” and “Lessons From Queensland For Viable Futures” are just two of the articles in Resilience and Adaptability – there are numerous others that argue the importance of the two titular features in architecture and design.  The book as a whole creates a sense of urgency about looking more towards the future of building and potential future needs, and less about simply the needs of the present.  Resilience and Adaptability also makes an important point about the lack of permanency of architecture. Almost everything manmade will eventually crumble to dust, especially if what humans build is not meant to last for years or is not cared for.  With drastic changes coming in the Earth’s climate, and continuous new advancements in building technology and practices, it is more important than ever that architects look to the past, present, and future in their work.  Combining the history and examples of long-lasting structures, the needs of the present, and anticipating the needs of the future will allow architects and their buildings to be more resilient than ever.

New Book: Tastemaker

Penick, Monica. Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home. New Haven, Yale University Press, 2017.

TastemakerNew to the Library this week is Monica Penick’s new book, Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home.  Penick explores the impact of Elizabeth Gordon on the changing tastes and ideas in American design during the decades following World War II through her editorship of the monthly magazine House Beautiful.

Elizabeth Gordon gained fame (or infamy, depending on who you ask) with the publication of her 1953 editorial “The Threat to the Next America.”  A short piece, the essay exemplified the essence of the Cold War: Gordon accused major institutions of promoting “bad modern,” a “‘totalitarian’ design promoted as the International Style,” while Gordon herself pushed for “‘good modern’…a line of ‘home-grown,’ ‘democratic’ design called the American Style” (pg. 1). Even buildings could not escape the dichotomy shaping up between communism and democracy.  With these few pages, Gordon brought about “the ultimate architectural conflict of the decade” (pg. 1). What Penick does so successfully in this book is explore how Gordon used House Beautiful as almost a form of propaganda to advance her “American Style” and promote architects she felt embodied that style, such as Frank Lloyd Wright.   Gordon managed to tie the American Style to the nation’s fate.  Penick uncovers Gordon’s somewhat repressive childhood, her time at the University of Chicago, and her ambition, which led her to defy her family’s wishes and move to New York to become a reporter, believing it to be a career that would “constantly expand her knowledge, and that of others” (pg. 5).  Her doggedness and her passionate beliefs led her to become an unstoppable force in journalism when she started House Beautiful.  As editor, she carefully crafted a narrative and built alliances with architects like Frank Lloyd Wright to build the case for the American Style.

Elizabeth Gordon’s “The Threat to the Next America” essay remained controversial for years after its publication, so much so that it overshadowed her rather remarkable career and achievements.  In Tastemaker: Elizabeth Gordon, House Beautiful, and the Postwar American Home, Monica Penick recognizes these achievements.  Gordon’s strong-willed, dominating personality shines in the book, as well as her apt leadership of a major architectural and design magazine, House Beautiful.  For decades, Elizabeth Gordon has been remembered as the woman who ignited a vicious debate over the future of the American home and the role of architecture in ensuring American dominance in the Cold War. This earned her both severe criticism and adulation.  But Penick’s book restores personality and humanity to Gordon, demonstrating the depth and contributions of a woman who has long been reduced to the words she once wrote on a few pages of paper.

Come by the Library to see what else is new this week!

New Book: Garden Legacy

Christovich, Mary Louise Mossy, and Roulhac Bunkley Toledano. Garden Legacy. New Orleans, The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2016.

Garden Legacy - CoverMary Louise Mossy Christovich and Roulhac Bunkley Toledano explore New Orleans’ French gardens in Garden Legacy. Christovich and Toledano discuss “the history of settlement, battles with the natural world, plant exchanges, politics, [and] economics…all [of which are]…pertinent to understanding a forgotten world of New Orleans gardens and landscape design” (pg. 8).  Making use of archival drawings and other primary sources, the authors discover and embrace the essential Frenchness of New Orleans culture and the importance of gardens in the city’s history.

Garden Legacy uses records and documents in The Historic New Orleans Collection to piece together the gardens around New Orleans and provide detailed descriptions.  Christovich and Toledano use specific mansions, properties, and plantations as examples that together illuminate what these gardens would have looked like.  For example, in the case of the Lombard Plantation, a drawing by Joseph Antoine Pueyo, a well-known artist, “captured the essence of a petit early nineteenth-century French landscape” through his drawing of the Lombard plantation (pg. 141).  In the drawing are fruit trees, crepe myrtles, evergreens, and unknown flowers that are visible in many drawings of the era and seem to be typical of French gardens.  In the architectural plans, the gardens are not visible, so the authors used the drawings to create a fuller image of the Lombard Plantation.  The property is still in existence and has gone through a major restoration to preserve the house and to recreate the gardens as best as possible.  These gardens were meant display the wealth of the plantation owners, much like the home they built, and to represent their French roots.  Additionally, the the garden featured berry bushes, sixteen different kinds, in fact.  There were “citrus and pomegranates…, muscadine grapes, along with raspberries and blackberries…in front of the kitchen house,” providing easy access (pg. 141).  Every example in Garden Legacy, of which there are many, features similar fascinating information about properties in and around New Orleans.

Christovich and Toledano have successfully made a strong case for the importance of French gardens in early New Orleans.  Garden Legacy is truly exemplary historical work because of the authors’ significant efforts in carefully researching the gardens, sometimes having to use numerous sources to recreate gardens in a meaningful way.  The French remain well-known for their gardens – the gardens at Versailles are a major attraction when tourists visit the palace – but New Orleans, despite its French roots, is not associated in any way with beautiful gardens.  Garden Legacy changes that.  While New Orleans is today a city filled with diverse influences and a great deal of cultural mixing, early New Orleans was distinctly French.  These gardens demonstrate how some aspects of French influence were retained while others, such as the gardens, were quickly forgotten. As one of the most famous and important cities in the American South, New Orleans is a city of music, food, tradition, and culture. Christovich and Toledano have recovered an essential part of its early French culture by examining the city’s lost French gardens, capturing the essential Frenchness of a city of many cultures.

Friday Finds: Glimpses of California and The Missions

Glimpses of California - CoverGlimpses of California & The Missions by Helen Hunt Jackson, published originally in 1883, explores the California Mission system, paying particular attention to the history and current status of Native Americans in the Missions, and contemporary life in the state. Jackson provides a thorough recounting of the history of the Missions mixed with the stories and conversations she heard along her journey through California.

Jackson focuses on Father Junipero Serra, the condition of Mission Indians, Los Angeles, outdoor industries, and includes a short chapter on her visit to Oregon.  Throughout Glimpses of California & The Missions are drawings by Henry Sandham, which portray the scenery and the people they came across, as well as historical figures like Father Junipero.  Jackson devotes a great deal of the book to describing the unfair and, she argues, illegal treatment of Native Americans, especially in regards to the ownership of their land.  She describes one case where Temecula Indians were anxious “as to the title to their lands…all that was in existence to show that they had any was the protecting clause in an old Mexican grant” (pg. 116).  After years of uncertainty and arguments, the case went to court.  The Temecula “appealed to the Catholic bishop to help them…but the scheme had been too skillfully plotted” (pg. 116).  When the Sheriffs arrived to forcibly remove the Indians from the land, Jackson notes that “the Indians’ first impulse was as determined as it could have been if they had been white, to resist the outrage,” but that this was an unacceptable response and would likely lead to violence (pg. 119).  So, the Temecula did not resist, but instead staged a sit-in of sorts: they refused to resist the Sheriff, but also refused to help them.  Interestingly, Jackson openly delineates the racial prejudice involved in this treatment, a fact which was widely known but rarely acknowledged.  In sum, Glimpses of California & The Missions provides valuable insight into the state of California and its history, with Jackson additionally using the book to advocate for Native Americans.

Just as notable as the book itself is Glimpses of California - Imagethe life of its author, Helen Hunt Jackson.  A well-known author of the Nineteenth Century, Jackson’s most famous work remains her novel, Ramona, a fictionalized telling of Native American life in the 1800s, focusing on United States government’s poor treatment of Native Americans and the racial prejudice faced by mixed race individuals.  Jackson also wrote A Century of Dishonor, a carefully researched book which revealed how the federal government reneged on treaties and promises made with tribes.  She became a leading advocate for better treatment of Native Americans, and was even hired by the Interior Department to visit Missions in California and write a report on the conditions of the “Mission Indians” who lived there, a trip which inspired Glimpses of California & The Missions.  This book was written somewhat concurrently with Ramona and the two books make similar arguments about the poor treatment of Native Americans, but are entirely different genres.  Yet Ramona was far more widely read than Glimpses of California & The Missions, and the novel has drawn comparisons with Harriet Beacher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its use of fiction to portray harsh realities and unveil injustices.

In essence, Glimpses of California & The Missions is a scholarly attempt, through some primary sources, some oral histories, and Jackson’s own eyewitness account, to draw attention to the treatment of Native Americans. But where Glimpses of California failed to capture the public’s attention, Ramona succeeded beyond even Jackson’s expectations: there have been more than 300 printings since the book’s original publication in 1884, and five feature film adaptations.  Embedded within Ramona‘s pages, amongst the romance and tragedy of its eponymous heroine’s story is Jackson’s political, radical (for the time) message.  Although racism remains a persistent problem to this day on many Native American reservations, Jackson singlehandedly revealed the dishonorable conduct of the federal government towards Native Americans, creating an outrage that forced the government to change its practices.  Jackson, Glimpses of California & The MissionsRamona, and A Century of Dishonor provide an important lesson in activism and demonstrate the power of books in enacting change.  Activists (primarily men, it is important to note) had tried for years to draw attention to the struggles of Native Americans across the country, but ultimately, it was Helen Hunt Jackson and her pen that held the United States government to task and began a process towards justice.

New Book: Gentrifier

Schlichtman, John Joe, et al. Gentrifier. Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2017.

GentrifierJohn Joe Schlichtman, Jason Patch, and Marc Lamont Hill’s book, Gentrifier, explores the complex issue of gentrification from the perspective of the “gentrifier.”  The authors identify themselves as gentrifiers, “middle-class people who moved into disinvested neighborhoods in a period during which a critical mass of other middle-class people did the same, thereby exerting economic, political, and social pressures upon the existing community” (pg. 4).

The personal narratives of the authors adds greatly to the effectiveness of the book.  Schlichtman, Patch, and Hill seek to understand the underlying causes behind gentrification, finding race, economic disparity, and overall cultural tensions to be dominating factors.  And though they provide no long-term solutions, they do “illuminate the place we strongly believe it must begin” (pg. 202).  They acknowledge the complexity of gentrification and its factors, but advocate a simple start to a solution: engagement and cross-cultural interaction.   Coming from the perspective of those who have moved en masse to up-and-coming neighborhoods, Schlichtman, Patch, and Hill sympathize with the “discontent” of those whose neighborhoods have been “invaded” by people like the authors (pg. 108).  Overall, Gentrifiers provides fascinating insights into gentrification from all perspectives, as well as identifying several important causes, if no solutions.  It succeeds in making the reader thinking about the issue more deeply, and the engagement they strongly advocate is certainly an excellent beginning step in finding a solution.

Recently, “gentrification” has become something of a cultural and political buzzword.  Politicians, architects, builders, city planners, and communities use it to oversimplify a complicated issue with matters of race, gender, and economic inequality at play, to only scratch the surface.  “Revitalization” is another common buzzword.  It is exciting when a neighborhood is “revitalized,” because it means better homes, better schools, better investment in the area as a whole.  But “revitalization” is arguably just a synonym for “gentrification,” just with a positive spin that avoids that dreaded g-word.  Revitalization is defined as “the action of imbuing something with new life and vitality” (according to Google Dictionary).  This implies that the life and vitality before was inconsequential.  And therein is the rub: how can you claim to care about a community while pushing out its residents?  Why does revitalizing a community have to mean bringing in a new, richer, and (most likely) whiter community instead of catering to the existing community?  For example, in Memphis, Tennessee, an old art deco Sears Crosstown building has sat empty for decades after numerous businesses tried to do something with the massive building.  Finally, it was purchased by developers who wished to see the building in use again.  Over the course of the project, the developers have remained aware of the looming danger of gentrification of the Crosstown neighborhood surrounding the building, especially after watching the process occur in the nearby Cooper Young District of the city.  Still, despite all this awareness, the cost of living (especially the price of homes) in the Crosstown area have risen, and the Sears building is not even open.  The process of gentrification has begun, though it is not as pervasive as what was seen in the Cooper Young project – yet.

Such failed or failing instances raise questions about the probability of revitalization without gentrification.  Gentrifier adds to this narrative with a surprisingly optimistic thesis and an important perspective that leaves the reader cautiously hopeful, because they better understand the complexity of the underlying causes of gentrification and the difficulty of finding solutions.  Still, come August 19, 2017, Sears Crosstown, now known as Crosstown Concourse, will be bustling with Memphians eating MemPops popsicles, drinking craft beer, and shopping at the numerous businesses in the gigantic renovated atrium.  Down the block from Crosstown, other Memphians will be packing up the house they have called home for 30 years, because the building down the street (which had sat empty longer than they had lived there) has made it impossible to stay.

Friday Finds: Founders and Frontiersmen

Robert G. Ferris’ 1967 book Founders and Frontiersmen: Historic Places Commemorating Early Nationhood and the Westward Movement, 1783-1828 explores the early years of the United States, providing a history and analysis of how more can Founders and Frontiersmenbe learned about the men and the nation from the architecture.  Ferris seeks to provide a survey of historic sites in the U.S., and hopes “that citizens will use the volumes in this series to seek out and visit sites of interest to them” in order to help encourage preservation (Pg. xii).

Ferris begins the book by providing historical context to better understand the sites he uses as examples in the second part of the book.  The historical overview is crucial for making readers understand why the sites Ferris discusses are important and worthy of preservation.  The vast majority of the book is spent on the sites themselves, with some attention to what is learned from each one and how it contributes to American history, as in the case of Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in Maryland.  Ferris gives a broad and short description of the history, as well as explaining the park itself and the surrounding area.  Interestingly, Ferris leaves out some important elements from the story of Harpers Ferry: he denounces John Brown as only a man “who conceived himself as an instrument of providence…[and] led a violent raid on the town that helped goad the Nation closer to civil war” (Pg. 162).  While what Ferris said isn’t untrue, it leaves out important parts of the story.  John Brown did believe he was given divine permission to murder, specifically he believed it was time to bring the struggles over slavery to a head. Brown was, in fact, a fierce abolitionist who then turned to murder to try to achieve his goals.  There are some instances like this throughout Founders and Frontiersmen, where Ferris provides his own interpretation without presenting the full story.  This is less surprising, especially in the case of Harpers Ferry, when considering the book was published at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and fear of similar violence over race reached a zenith.  But overall, Ferris’ overviews are useful and provide that information which best adds to his argument for preservation.

Founders and Frontiersmen makes a compelling argument for the importance of these historic places, and thereby argues effectively for their continued preservation.  Ferris provides a fantastic overview, showing that the early United States was chaotic – a young nation finding its way in an experimental form of government, freshly broken away from the superpower of the day.  Many colonists fought for independence and the promise of a greater destiny in the American Revolution.  Ferris explains how that destiny then translated into the idea of Manifest Destiny: the notion that the United States was meant to expand westward.  But despite all this spirit and belief in American greatness, some of the architecture, particularly that of the capital city, is inspired by foreign buildings, a fact which Ferris hints at but never fully states. Greek elements are clear in the Capitol building, as well as in Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello.  Yet there are uniquely American elements to each building, too.  The octagonal shape of Monticello  is distinctive and representative of Jefferson’s own tastes.  How did Americans go about adapting and developing their own architectural styles? Did the idea of Manifest Destiny aid in this? What role did climate, materials, and social needs play in developing frontier architecture?  Ferris never satisfactorily answers these questions, and he never fully admits that Americans have a habit of borrowing and building upon the work of others.  The idea of democracy itself was originally Greek, but the Founding Fathers adapted it to a new situation; the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution borrowed ideas from British philosophers John Locke and Thomas Hobbes.  But in spite of this, no one would say that the Constitution or the Declaration are anything but American documents.

In the popular musical Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton says at one point, “I’m just like my country, I’m young, scrappy, and hungry, and I’m not throwing away my shot.”  Though Hamilton is a piece of historical fiction intended for Broadway, there is some truth to this statement. The Founding Fathers and the frontiersmen had to be, if not young, then at least “scrappy” and “hungry.”  These were men who took on the British army and (after many losses) won and then built a nation.  Frontiersmen faced harrowing experiences themselves while seeking to fulfill the idea of Manifest Destiny – starvation, an unyielding geography and climate, or Native Americans who were understandably mistrustful of Americans – yet they kept moving West until they hit the Pacific Ocean.  The early United States took elements of other nations’ architecture, culture, philosophy, and made it their own, so much so that now democracy, the Capitol, and the frontier house are strongly associated with the narrative of the United States. The Founding Fathers and the frontiersmen refused to throw away their shot: they adapted and created buildings, governments, and ways of thinking about American destiny that, though perhaps not entirely American in origin, are now closely intertwined with the American consciousness.  Today, Americans are known for their creativity, tenacity, and innovation, in part because of United States history and belief in itself; contemporary generations have shown themselves to be just as scrappy, just as hungry, and just as unwilling to throw away their shot at shaping the American narrative, landscape, and destiny as those who came before.

New Book: Disability, Space, Architecture

Boys, Jos, editor. Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader. New York, Routledge, 2017.

imagesNew this week is Disability, Space, Architecture: A Reader, edited by Jos Boys.  The book is somewhat interdisciplinary, “exploring the interconnections between disability, architecture and cities…[with contributions from authors in the field of] architecture, geography, anthropology, health studies, English language and literature, rhetoric and composition, art history, disability studies and disability arts and cover personal, theoretical and innovative ideas and work” (Pg. 1).  There is no one argument throughout the book, but rather it seeks to provide an overarching, innovative perspective on disability and how spaces are viewed through that lens.

Disability, Space, Architecture examines the nature and experience of disability itself, and pays particular attention to contrasting it with ability, when appropriate.  Several of the authors are themselves disabled in some form, and the insights they provide to how they view the world and architecture, particularly, differently from others.  The book is organized by themes, including “Theory and Criticism,” “Education,” and “Projects and Practices,” each of which provides an important element for thinking about disability and architecture.  Of particular note is the part on “Projects and Practices” exploring ongoing or planned projects that adapt to the needs of the able and disabled, as well as what could improve in standard practices to better insure inclusivity.  One chapter examines the Ramp House, a home designed by a couple (both architects) for their wheelchair-bound daughter, Greta.  The house is an example of how a space can be disability-friendly without feeling so.  A friend of Greta’s, who is not disabled, explained that the house “is really thoughtful, it doesn’t feel unusual that it has a big ramp instead of stairs and it’s very well designed because it has everything that Greta needs and all the equipment she needs, but it’s not in the way…it’s really bright and spacious…and colorful” (Pg. 261).  The essay goes on to argue that designing a home around a disabled child drastically changes the home and can improve the lives of the family – when a child can do things for themselves, it is less stressful for parents and the child feels more self-sufficient.  The house becomes more inclusive to all and can even make the surrounding community far more aware of the accessibility of spaces.  This essay exemplifies in many ways the stories and other articles in Disability, Space, Architecture, as the article explores a range of issues and features personal stories and experiences that greatly add to the value of the piece.  Many of the essays contain similar aspects, but there is something meaningful about “The Ramp House” piece that makes it stand out among the pieces.

Boys’ and the contributors’ work on the relationship between disability, ability, and architecture is groundbreaking.  Disability, Space, Architecture seeks to view the world through the eyes of disabled individuals, and to reveal the privilege of the able-bodied in something as simple as moving about their home.  When spaces are designed to be inclusive, it undoubtedly improves the quality of life and experiences of everyone, whether disabled or not.  A disability impacts not only the person who is blind, deaf, or wheelchair-bound: it affects everyone around them, particularly family and friends.  To create a space that is welcoming to those with disabilities sends a strong message, especially in a world where moving around a house in a wheelchair can be difficult, or trying to navigate a city as a blind person can be nearly impossible.  The word “disabled” itself can imply that some places or activities are off-limits.  Disability, Space, Architecture seeks to change that.  When spaces, and especially architects, are conscious of the needs of people with disabilities or special needs, the spaces becomes more open and inherently more welcoming.  It is possible, with a little sensitivity, consideration, and a good architect, to turn this inability and disability into an ability.

Come by the Architecture and Planning Library to see the other new books we have this week!

Friday Finds: American Skyline

American Skylines - CoverThis copy of American Skyline: The Growth and Form of Our Cities and Towns by Christopher Tunnard and Henry Hope Reed was published in 1956.  The book explores the changes in the skylines of American cities from the colonial era under British control to 1953, when the book was originally published.  The authors explain in the introduction that “this is a book about the American townscape – the man-made America of industries, homes, skyscrapers, hotels, highways and parking lots…, how this scene was shaped, how it became part of the American heritage, how it affects the lives we lead, and how we may in turn shape it toward the future” (Pg. 15). Throughout are drawings and images of skylines at various points in history in many different cities.

Tunnard and Reed move chronologically through American history. They pay close attention to growth rates and celebrate the efforts to “rediscover the architectural and decorative art traditions” of the United States, and advocate for protecting the heritage of American architecture (Pg. 196).  There are discussions of the highway system, which was then brand new, as well as the rise of suburbs and the changes in architecture and planning brought about by the Civil War, namely Reconstruction and the massive rebuilding of the South.  It is important to note that American Skylines makes no mention of segregation in the South, which is the only notable gap in their coverage of the history of American architecture and planning. While the book focuses on skylines, city planning is also a major topic of interest, which makes the lack of mention of Jim Crow laws all the more glaring, but perhaps not surprising, given the era.  In 1953, Martin Luther King, Jr., had not become a household name yet, Brown v. Board of Education (the case which ended school segregation) had not been decided by the Supreme Court yet, and racism and racial tensions remained high.  Also notable is Tunnard and Reed’s close examination of the revolution of American architectural styles and preferences, as well as noting how these tastes seem to cycle in and out of fashion.  The fluctuation between modern and classic becomes clearly throughout American Skyline.

Interestingly, there are several ways that American Skyline proves rather forward-thinking.  Already in the 1950s, Tunnard and Reed are advocating for the preservation of historic buildings, something which is an ongoing battle in the country today.  Many cities fail to protect these sites in favor of industrial growth over historic preservation, which as led to efforts across the nation to protect historic buildings.  This stands in stark contrast with many European countries that carefully protect their buildings.  Granted, the United States has a relatively short history in comparison with other Western nations, but so far it has not been as devoted to historic preservation as Europe.  But then many European cities do not possess the iconic skylines of American cities.  There are, to be sure, famous buildings that stand out, but nothing quite like the New York City skyline, filled with nearly monotonous skyscrapers, yet instantly recognizable.  Perhaps, it might be argued, this kind of skyline is unique to the United States, in part due to its failure to preserve historic buildings.  So, this means that out of the loss of so many beautiful and historically important buildings sprang a uniquely American phenomenon.

There is something fascinating about skylines.  They offer only a glimpse, an outline of a city, but they also reveal a great deal about it.  Skyscrapers now dominate most American skylines.  Here in Austin, the skyline that once included the University of Texas Tower, the dome of the Texas State Capital, and the Frost Bank is now mostly overshadowed by towering condo buildings.  Visible in the Austin skyline is the rapid growth of the city in the last ten years, the need for more housing, the fact that Austin is a city filled with many young people who are drawn to living downtown instead of in the suburbs. Also reflected in these changing skylines are the advances in technology, building, and changes in architectural styles.  Where early American architecture is Greek revivalist (e.g. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, or the U.S. Capital), and the Empire State Building includes elements of the Art Deco style popular at the time of its building, many of the most visible buildings in the United States today are sleeker and decidedly modern.  Church steeples used to be important parts of the skyline, representative of America’s roots in the Protestant Puritans who left England to escape religious persecution.  Skylines can even have an emotional impact, as with the iconic New York City skyline without the Twin Towers – for years there was a sadness evoked by the empty spaces, but now Freedom Tower fills some of that space, meant as a beacon to the world that the United States remains loyal to its values and remembers the tragedy of 9/11.  Every skyline is unique, filled with the architecture of the city and revealing part of the story.  In a way, a city’s history is written in its buildings; if so, then a skyline is the literal outline of the city and its story, a silhouette that  intrigues and hints at what a city offers.

Blog from the University of Texas Architecture and Planning Library