Category Archives: library

The new Architecture Exhibits site on Omeka!

On Omeka: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Hello y’all!  Katie (2.2) here.  I admit that Battle Hall Highlights has not been quite as active on the blog front from the Library compared to other years – apologies for that, but it was for a very good reason!  The University of Texas at Austin Libraries have been working on implementing Omeka as a platform for publishing digital collections and exhibits from UT institutions.  Our own Katie Pierce Meyer (the Librarian here at the Architecture and Planning Library) was instrumental in bringing Omeka to UT, and APL is proud to now have three exhibits available via Omeka.  As GRA for the Library, I spent the majority of my semester migrating content from our website, which was housed and designed via Drupal 6, to UT’s Omeka.  The three exhibits on Omeka now are “Our Landmark Library: Battle Hall at 100,” “Their Maya Story: George and Gerrie Andrews,” and “Eugene George: Architect, Scholar, Educator, Photographer.”  Each exhibit posed unique challenges in migrating the content, and have provided invaluable experience in creating exhibits via Omeka.

So, what is Omeka?  It is a free, open-source platform for publishing digital collections and exhibits.  Developed and updated by the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media, Omeka has several iterations (Omeka S, Omeka.net, and Omeka Classic), but originally started out as a platform designed for small institutions with limited resources.

The Administrator view of Omeka.org.
The Administrator view of Omeka.org.

Omeka is meant to be easy to use and simple to upkeep, especially for those with limited technological know-how (e.g., me).  So, with some persistent encouragement from Katie Pierce Mayer, UT eventually decided to install Omeka as a platform for the UT Libraries to upload digital collections and exhibits.  So only our three exhibits, and one about South Asian Popular and Pulp Fiction Books, are available via Omeka.  There are various reasons Omeka has not gained traction: it is necessary to first have a digital collection about which to build an exhibit which takes a great deal of time, it has been time consuming to try to coordinate with the UT Data Asset Management System (DAM) to develop a metadata standard, and, simply, Omeka is not perfect.

Omeka's Exhibit Builder from the Administrator view.
Omeka’s Exhibit Builder from the Administrator view.

Where other exhibit builders (such as Scalar) are more image-focused, Omeka is quite metadata-heavy.  This is evident in the limited theme options (basically, themes are the design layout, or style, of the exhibit) currently available on UT’s Omeka, which tend to be text-based with smaller images.  Hopefully, as more institutions digitize items and see the existing exhibits on Omeka, the site will grow in popularity as a platform for UT’s Libraries to share more of their unique collections.

The former UT Omeka homepage on Omeka.org.
The former UT Omeka homepage on Omeka.org.

In late December of 2017 to early January of 2018, all Omeka content was migrated from Omeka.org to Omeka.net.  What the Libraries and the IT team decided to do was host content via Omeka servers rather than host it themselves.  This created the opportunity for each institution to have their own independent Omeka site that they control.  When we worked in Omeka.org (the homepage of which is pictured below), everything was in the same bucket, so to speak.  At that point, two of our exhibits were completed, and the Architecture Library and the South Asian Pop Culture Collection were the primary users of Omeka.  Now, the South Asian Popular and Pulp Fiction Books has its own site, and we have our own website now (which you can see here: http://utlibrariesarchitecture.omeka.net/) that we can customize to fit our needs as an institution.  The site is still a work in progress, as we are working on adding more content, but we now have three exhibits (all discussed thoroughly below) publicly available for everyone to enjoy and explore!

Battle Hall at 100: Our Landmark Library

Pros: Learned how to import items one at a time

Cons: Took three to four months to complete, took a while to standardize metadata (had to go back and change early entries), and there was a lot of trial and error (in both uploading items and in building the exhibit and making it look well-done)

Theme: Thanks, Roy (the fullsize image display is rather small, as are the thumbnails, menus are confusing because Omeka menu is on left and exhibit menu is on right of the text, and the metadata page is text-heavy with a thumbnail image at the very bottom, nice galleries of images, though)

Our Landmark Library Exhibit as built in Omeka.
Our Landmark Library Exhibit built in Omeka in 2017, migrated from Drupal 6.

The first of the three exhibits I migrated was Our Landmark Library: Battle Hall at 100.  This one was migrated “by hand,” if you will, meaning I moved each item individually, entering in the metadata and adding the image files myself.  The main takeaway?  This method of importing items is slow.  Containing approximately 140 items, there was a lot of trial and error (mainly human error) in migrating Our Landmark Library.  Namely, it took time to find the best standard  for the metadata, because I wanted to be sure to include all the information included in the old exhibit on Drupal.  Eventually, I found a standard, wrote it down, and followed it for the remainder of the items, before going back and changing the ones I had already uploaded.  So uploading the items was the first phase of this project.  The second phase was reconstructing the exhibit in Omeka.  I

The Battle Hall at 100 Exhibit as built in Drupal 6 on our legacy site.
The Battle Hall at 100 Exhibit as built in Drupal 6 on our legacy site.

wanted to maintain the original order of the exhibit, which was simple enough.  The hardest part of building the exhibit was putting together the galleries, which were pretty big in this exhibit.  Formatting the exhibit to have a nice flow to it (no big gaps or spaces between what are called “blocks” on Omeka, a means of separating and formatting parts of a page), keeping the images in the correct order, and writing captions for each image was not challenging so much as time-consuming.  Even though this exhibit took a long time to complete because of the method of uploading each image myself, I am glad I had the experience.  I became intimately familiar with how Omeka works, and the rhythm you can get into when uploading every item and formatting an exhibit.  I definitely have a great appreciation for how long building a digital collection can take.  I did not have to digitize any of the items or create original content for the exhibit, but it still took a long time to move everything.  If it took three, almost four, months for me to migrate an exhibit of only 140 items, I can only imagine how long it would take for large collections. for the metadata, because I wanted to be sure to include all the information included in the old exhibit on Drupal.  Eventually, I found a standard, wrote it down, and followed it for the remainder of the items, before going back and changing the ones I had already uploaded.  So uploading the items was the first phase of this project.  The second phase was reconstructing the exhibit in Omeka.  I wanted to maintain the original order of the exhibit, which was simple enough.  The hardest

The new exhibit on Omeka!
An example of a gallery built in Omeka!

part of building the exhibit was putting together the galleries, which were pretty big in this exhibit.  Formatting the exhibit to have a nice flow to it (no big gaps or spaces between what are called “blocks” on Omeka, a means of separating and formatting parts of a page), keeping the images in the correct order, and writing captions for each image was not challenging so much as time-consuming.  Even though this exhibit took a long time to complete because of the method of uploading each image myself, I am glad I had the experience.  I became intimately familiar with how Omeka works, and the rhythm you can get into when uploading every item and formatting an exhibit.  I definitely have a great appreciation for how long building a digital collection can take.  I did not have to digitize any of the items or create original content for the exhibit, but it still took a long time to move everything.  If it took three, almost four, months for me to migrate an exhibit of only 140 items, I can only imagine how long it would take for large collections.

Their Maya Story: George and Gerrie Andrews

Pros: Quick with CSV import, less trial and error, building the exhibit only took two days; Easy metadata standardization when done in Excel ahead of time

Cons: Figuring out the CSV import (must be done very quickly or it has to be started all over again); Mapping elements (sometimes difficult to match column headings with element names for DublinCore metadata)

Theme: Neatscape (nice display of the images,  and large, easy-to-read text, the menu at the bottom is the only downside, only available in Omeka.org); Big Picture (current display in Omeka.net, large image display, allows easy navigation between items in galleries and between pages in the exhibit)

Their Maya Story Exhibit on Omeka.
Their Maya Story Exhibit on Omeka.

After (finally) finishing the Battle Hall at 100 exhibit, I moved on to the George and Gerrie Andrews exhibit, Their Maya Story.  This exhibit Katie Pierce Meyer and I imported into Omeka via a CSV (Comma Separated Value) file that had been generously created for us.  When importing a CSV file, you choose “elements” of metadata that align with the columns in the file (e.g. the “Title” column matches to the “Title” element in Dublin Core, or the “Geographical Location” column might match to the “Spatial Location” element); it is important to note that not all column headings have a corresponding element to match to, so it helps think about this somewhat beforehand.  After a mishap during which Katie and I took too long matching columns to elements, we successfully uploaded all 116 items to Omeka in less than two minutes, complete with metadata and attached image files.  I then began to build the exhibit in Omeka.  I again wanted to be faithful to the original exhibit.  I wanted to try a different theme this time, so I chose the theme called “Neatscape,” which does not permit any customization or changes to the display the way some other themes do.   The only

The original Their Maya Story Exhibit in Drupal 6.
The original Their Maya Story Exhibit in Drupal 6.

problem I have with Neatscape as a theme is that the menu for the exhibit is at the very bottom of the page, so you have to scroll through the whole page in order to reach the menu.  One of the perks of Omeka is that it allows users to change themes without changing the content or layout of the

Metadata display in Drupal 6.
Metadata display in Drupal 6.

existing content of the exhibit.  We decided to go with Neatscape so that we have an example of what it looks like as an exhibit, though we may change it in the future if we find a theme that works well for our content.  A major asset of Neatscape is that the metadata pages for individual items does include a small thumbnail immediately to the right at the top of the page, meaning that (unlike in the Thanks, Roy theme in the Battle Hall at 100 exhibit) users do not have to scroll all the way down the page to see only a small thumbnail image that, when clicked on, then leads to a larger image.  Building the exhibit was much the same as before, only this took merely two days, between using the CSV import and having had the experience of building an exhibit.  It is amazing how much time the CSV import cut out, so I definitely learned that it is necessary to have all the metadata standardized in a CSV file in order to make the process much easier and more enjoyable.

The image and metadata display in the Big Picture Theme used for the Andrews Exhibit.
The image and metadata display in the Big Picture Theme used for the Andrews Exhibit.

After the migration from Omeka.org to Omeka.net, the Neatscape theme was no longer an option, so I chose to use the Big Picture theme, which emphasizes images.  The thumbnails for the galleries are large, and the images displayed when a user clicks on an item is larger than any of the other themes.  We still have not figured out how to add zoom functionality to our exhibits.  That is a task that the Library’s new Digital Initiatives GRA, Zach, is going to be working on in the coming months.  So the Andrews exhibit required a little bit of tweaking after the migration from Omeka.org to Omeka.net, but we wound up with a better outcome because of it.  The Big Picture theme is currently my favorite among the three I have tried so far because of the large image display, which is preferable for some of the items we might include in future digitization efforts.

Eugene George

Pros: More theme options because of the move to Omeka.net, quick because of CSV import, nice to have the exhibit ready to go whenever the CSV file was done so that all that remained was to add images and galleries; took only one day to complete the exhibit

Cons: Harder to build an exhibit without the images ready to go in, quite a bit of wait time due to the migration of all Omeka content from UT’s servers to Omeka.net

Theme: The Daily (there is a nice menu that scrolls down alongside the content to navigate between pages, large text, large image display)

Eugene George Exhibit built in Omeka in 2018.
Eugene George Exhibit built in Omeka in 2018.

This exhibit about Eugene George was done in a slightly different order from the others: instead of importing the items and then building the exhibit, I built the exhibit first since our CSV file was not ready to import.  So I copied over all the text from the exhibit, and created blocks of text and galleries to mimic the original order of the exhibit.  We had to wait on the CSV import until after the migration from Omeka.org to Omeka.net, which took longer than expected, but in early February, we received the go-ahead to import items into the new site.  Katie, Zach, and I sat together and worked on standardizing the metadata in the CSV file before importing it into Omeka, which mostly consists of renaming columns and copying

The original Eugene George Exhibit built in Drupal 6.
The original Eugene George Exhibit built in Drupal 6.

over the desired metadata content.  After several failed attempts at importing the CSV file, we realized that because our website is now a legacy site (http://legacy.lib.utexas.edu/apl) that the links included to connect the JPEG images with their respective metadata would not work.  So, we changed those links to include “legacy” before the link, and

Metadata display in the Eugene George Exhibit, which used the theme The Daily.
Metadata display in the Eugene George Exhibit, which used the theme The Daily.

the CSV import worked perfectly!  With those items now in Omeka.net, I was able to add them into the pre-built exhibit.  I then went back and made sure that the galleries and text looked nice, made the necessary edits, and the exhibit was ready to go!  For this one, I chose The Daily as the theme.  Overall, the theme looks nice, with large text, large image display within the exhibit.  The menu that scrolls along beside the content allows for quick and easy navigation among the pages of the exhibit.  The pages where item metadata is displayed are less text-heavy than in the Thanks, Roy theme used for the Battle Hall exhibit (and feature the image at the top of the page instead of a thumbnail at the bottom), but the image displayed is not as large as that in the Andrews exhibit.

By the time I built the Eugene George exhibit, I had a far greater understanding of how Omeka works and how long it might take.  With the CSV import and the exhibit pre-built, this exhibit took only one day to complete.  This means that just one day of intensive work is needed to build an exhibit when the CSV import is used to add the items, versus nearly four months doing an item-by-item import for the Battle Hall exhibit.  It is easier to build the exhibit as you go, as I did with the Andrews exhibit, rather than having it already built.  I found it far easier to make changes as I went along building the Andrews exhibit than to have to go back afterwards as I did with Eugene George.

Conclusion

In spite of my limited technological expertise and lack of knowledge about Omeka, I found the platform very easy to use.  Exhibits and importing items (whether individually or via CSV file) takes time and patience.  For collections less than 50 items, importing items one-by-one is fine, but for larger collections, the CSV import saves a great deal of time.  It is intensive to create a CSV file with all the pertinent metadata, but it is preferable to having to individually import 200 items and type in metadata for each.  With a CSV file, the standardization is done before the items ever make it into Omeka.

In terms of Omeka.org versus Omeka.net, in terms of the Administrator side of things, not much has changed.  However, it is nice to have our own site to manage and customize.  Since the change to Omeka.net, we have been able to play with the website and are working toward making it exactly what we want.  It is still a work in progress, but it looks pretty sharp!  The ability to manage our own content, look, and navigation is something we never could have achieved through Omeka.org.  Once the Libraries adds links to the UT Libraries website to reach all of the Omeka sites (the South Asian Popular and Pulp Fiction Books site, the Benson’s site), it will allow users to easily access the incredible digital collections that are forming on Omeka.  Additionally, Omeka.net provides more options in terms of themes than Omeka.org.  Though some do not translate between the two, the increased options have allowed us to try different themes for each exhibit to see what is the best display and format for Architectural exhibits.  Hopefully Zach or someone with more technical coding expertise can find a way to add zoom functionality to our images, something that will increase the usability of our items.

The new Architecture Exhibits site on Omeka!
The new Architecture Exhibits site on Omeka!

Overall, working with Omeka was an enriching experience for me.  Coming from a library/archives background, getting to do a project like this was incredibly rewarding.  With a free platform like Omeka, anything is possible.  Even a relative luddite like myself can use it to build digital collections.  For the most part, I am handing off the reigns of digital projects to Zach, but I’m proud of the work I have done on these three collections.  They are not perfect, but I learned so much about building digital collections from the experience of migrating this content.  And currently the Architecture and Planning Library is paving the way for other UT institutions in using Omeka as an exhibit platform, about which we are extremely excited.  Please explore our Omeka site and enjoy the exhibits as much as I enjoyed building  them!  Signing off for now, your Friendly Neighborhood Omeka Semi-Guru.

Friday Finds: The Arts and Crafts Movement

The Arts and Crafts Movement - CoverGillian Naylor’s 1971 book The Arts and Crafts Movement: A Study of Its Sources, Ideals and Influence on Design Theory explores theory and purposes of the Arts and Crafts movement.  According to Naylor, “its motivations were social and moral, and its aesthetic values derived from the conviction that society produces the art and architecture it deserves” (pg. 7).  This is, in part, what Naylor seeks to understand.  By placing the Arts and Crafts movement in its historical context, as well as demonstrating how the movement fits in the larger field of design.

Starting from Britain and moving into other European countries and the United States, the Arts and Crafts movement had a profound influence on design.  The movement encouraged the consideration of society in design, as architecture and popular designs are the product of the society in which they are created.  Also, one aspect of the movement encouraged the making of products by hand, rather than by machine.  This was most particular to Britain, where there “was the conviction that industrialization had brought with the total destruction of ‘purpose, sense and life'” (pg. 8).   So the encouragement of handmade products became a major aspect of the Arts and Crafts Movement.  Taking the reader through the history of the movement, and even the figures and events which led to the movement, from Pugin and Ruskin to William Morris to the guilds, so that Naylor concurrently provides a history of design.  She explores design and the changes in trends through the designs and lives of the major figures who made the Arts and Crafts Movement possible.

In fact, The Arts and Crafts Movement is considered one of the early seminal texts  on the history of design.  Published in 1971, the book was written in the midst of a challenging time in Naylor’s career, as she sought to shift from writing popular magazine articles to more scholarly endeavors.  Naylor became one of the first female writers at Design magazine in 1957, run by the Council for Industrial Design (COID).  As such, such was assigned pieces related to “women’s interests.”  Through this position and the pieces she wrote for Design, Naylor gained expertise in the field of design and design history.  After giving birth to her son (having a child, her contract with Design dictated, meant she had to resign her position), she did some freelance writing for Design, but ultimately focused on writing scholarly works on the history of design and architecture, eventually becoming a professor of the subject.  At a time when women were still forced to leave their jobs after becoming mothers, Naylor managed to continue to pursue her passion for design history and become one of the foremost experts on the topic, writing several texts which remain some of the most influential in the field of design, including The Arts and Crafts Movement (Pavitt, Jane. “Gillian Naylor (1931-2014).” Journal of Design History, Volume 27, Issue 2.  2014.).

Arguably, the life of Gillian Naylor was just as fascinating and important as the book she wrote is influential.  Not only did she write one of the defining texts of design history, but she also wrote two major books about the Bauhaus (The Bauhaus in 1968 and The Bauhaus Reassessed in 1985).  Naylor serves as a reminder of the many challenges and hurdles women faced in building careers as recently as the 1960s.  She was relegated to “women’s topics” as a writer at Design and yet went on to become one of the most respected scholars on design history in Britain.  A member of a panel which awarded Naylor an honorary doctorate in 1987 noted that, “‘If Sir Nikolaus Pevsner is the father of design history, then Gillian Naylor is its favorite aunt.'”  Examining the career of Gillian Naylor, though, it is clear that she is far more than a favorite aunt of design history.  As an art historian, especially of architecture, Sir Nikolaus The Arts and Crafts MovementPevsner is a critical figure in developing the line of scholarship through which the history of architecture and design is viewed.  But, Sir Nikolaus had little to do with design history, specifically; he certainly does not deserve the label of “father.”  In truth, Naylor is more the mother of the history of design than anything else, and displayed a true and rare passion for the subject.  It would have been easier for her to find another job with a magazine that did not require her to resign once she became a mother, but instead she chose to continue writing about design history.  That kind of love for the history of design and perseverance through challenges warrants a far higher honor than the label as the “favorite aunt” would suggest.

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.