Category Archives: library

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.