When Dianne Harris, first vice-president of the Society of Architectural Historians, invited me to deliver this plenary talk, she asked me not only to highlight the challenges that face historians of the built environment, but also to outline some of the innovative interdisciplinary methodologies that have been developed in recent years.1 My presentation this evening will thus focus on two questions: first, how do we——as historians, preservationists, critics, and scholars——gain access to evidence that can help us document and understand the poetics and the politics of architecture and spatial experience; and second, what methods of interpretation might we use, and what questions might we ask, as we try to make sense of the history and meaning of buildings, cities, landscapes, and built environments?
Before I begin, I would like to take note of the contributions of the many friends and colleagues I've worked with over the course of the many years that I've been a member of the SAH——and I want to say, at the outset, that the best part of working in this field is, for me, having the opportunity to collaborate, to talk, to visit buildings, and to share ideas and experiences with a group of like-minded women and men. Thinking back on the sessions I've heard at these annual meetings, and the ones I've participated in——sessions that focused on topics ranging from women architects, to gender, to what Eve Blau and I called "The Politics of the Plan," to "Gay Space," and, a few years back, to one on "Luxury"——I'm struck by the ways in which our thinking about architecture, and my own approach in particular, has evolved. When I first started out in this field as a graduate student, our battle cry clamored for more attention to the contributions of women, for more interdisciplinarity and collaboration, more complex thinking about power and hierarchies, and more attention to vernacular architecture and everyday experience. It is not only gratifying that many of these desiderata have been incorporated into our working methods and habits of thought, but also to note that younger scholars in the field have taken up these questions with particular enthusiasm and talent. Thus, although for the next half hour or so I get to act like the wisest person in the room on the subject of architectural history, I want to begin by pointing out that my work in this field and my thinking owe a huge debt to the efforts of others.
Two other topics should be highlighted at the outset. The first is risk-taking. As many of you know, and as I suspect was the reason I was asked to give this plenary talk, my work in architectural history has focused primarily on understanding the ways in which cultural values——and gender and sexuality in particular——shape the built environment both as a physical entity and as an environment that is experienced by the culturally constructed body, the senses, the mind, and the heart——with consequences both material and ideological. This work has not always been as warmly received as it is now——and the questions that I and others raised about gender, sexuality, politics, and power were sometimes uncomfortable for me and others——and I believe necessarily so. Hard questions mean incomplete answers and lots of research and thinking by groups of people working together, but there are often awkward silences, and sometimes even a price to be paid, professionally and personally, before better answers can be found. I understand full well that all of us face institutional pressures——and foremost among them, reappointment, promotion, and tenure decisions——that would seem to conspire to keep risk-taking to a minimum, and I am in no way intending to downplay these very real concerns, and particularly not in this economy and culturally ambivalent moment. Yet my experience suggests that academic fashions always change, and that good ideas really do move into the foreground as time goes by. With that in mind, I want to put in a plea here for focusing our attention on the questions and issues that inspire us, no matter how unpopular these might be at the moment. If we do what we are supposed to do in this field, there will be a venue and a journal for any kind of good scholarship. I truly believe that the field ought to be large enough, and that there surely is enough work to be done, to accommodate all the things we want to study, to think about, and, of course, to teach.
The second issue I want to highlight is of concern primarily for the more "senior" members of our profession——the full professors and officers of institutions such as the SAH. Simply put, I believe that it is our responsibility to link arms against the onslaught of administrative red tape, budget-cutting, and committee work that threaten to suck the resources and energy out of the work we have been trained to do——and the work that we love. As a teacher at a liberal arts college, I know very well the value of service to institutions, and I also know that our service as scholars and academics consists, now more than ever, in defending the scholarly goals and needs of ourselves and our younger colleagues. Face to face conferences like the one we are currently attending cannot be phased out in favor of teleconferencing or email, and even more to the point, real money needs to put aside for site visits, travel grants, sabbatical leaves and the slow, laborious, contemplative work of archival research. It is a wise institution that makes this investment, and I am proud to say that mine (Wellesley College) is among the ones that still do. Not only are these activities the things that drew most of us into the field in the first place, but they are necessary to nurturing the excitement and curiosity that are so critical for the production of inspired historical scholarship and teaching. Most important, direct contact with architecture and with others who are passionate about the built environment are essential ingredients if we are to teach our students, our readers, and the interested public to love buildings and cities and to think about them deeply.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming pressures of institutional and academic work, it is important that we keep a firm focus on these principles and on the great pleasures associated with the work that we are lucky enough to be able to do, especially on site. Henry James summed up the excitement of this great adventure very well when he wrote in Transatlantic Sketches (1875) about the experience of meeting a young painter one summer evening on the Piazza San Marco in Venice:
Meeting on the Piazza on the evening of my arrival, a young American painter, who told me that he had been spending the summer at Venice. . . . I could have assaulted him, for very envy. He was painting, forsooth, the interior of Saint Mark's! To be a young American painter, unperplexed by the mocking, elusive soul of things, and satisfied by their wholesome, light-bathed surface and shape; of sea and sky, and anything that may chance between them; of old lace, and old brocade, and old furniture (even when made to order); of time-mellowed harmonies on nameless canvases, and happy contours on cheap old engravings; to spend one's mornings in still, productive analysis of the clustered shadows of the Basilica, one's afternoons anywhere, in church or campo, on canal or lagoon, and one's evenings in starlight gossip at Florian's, feeling the sea-breeze throb languidly between the two great pillars of the Piazetta and over the low, black domes of the——this, I consider, is to be as happy as one may safely be.2
Not only does the first-hand experience of places and spaces contribute to making us, as James put, "as happy as one may safely be," but it is also necessary both for our full understanding of the material fabric of the built environment, and for the process of imaginative reconstruction of "the poetics of place"——that often complex set of interactions between what we might call the "sensorium" (embodied experiences involving all the senses) and the cultural values, politics, economics, and power relations that frame these experiences and construct our understanding of them.3
To think a bit more about the range of sensations and memories that make up the elements of the "sensorium," at any given time and place, we can do no better than to turn again to the vivid, pictorial writing of Henry James. In the passage that follows, he is once again describing life in Venice, in this case in the voice of the narrator of The Aspern Papers, published in the Atlantic Monthly in 1888. That novella revolves around the experiences of an overzealous American researcher and writer, a nameless literary scholar who lies his way into renting a room in an old Venetian palazzo in hopes of getting his hands on a cache of papers and manuscripts that had belonged to the long-dead poet, the subject of a biography he is working on. The range of physical and emotional sensations that James calls to mind in this description of the writer's experiences will be familiar to anyone who has spent time in Venice, particularly in the summer:
I was seldom at home in the evening, the narrator explains, for when I attempted to occupy myself in my apartments the lamplight brought in a swarm of noxious insects, and it was too hot for closed windows. Accordingly, I spent the late hours either on the water (the moonlight of Venice is famous), or in the splendid square which serves as a vast forecourt to the strange old basilica of Saint Mark. I sat in front of Florian's cafe, eating ices, listening to music, talking with acquaintances: the traveler will remember how the immense cluster of tables and little chairs stretches like a promontory into the smooth lake of the Piazza.
The whole place, of a summer's evening, under the stars and with all the lamps, all the voices and light footsteps on marble (the only sounds of the arcades that enclose it), is like an open-air saloon dedicated to cooling drinks and to a still finer degustation——that of the exquisite impressions received during the day. When I did not prefer to keep mine to myself, there was always a stray tourist, disencumbered of his Baedeker, to discuss them with, or some domesticated painter rejoicing in the return of the season of strong effects. The wonderful church, with its low domes and bristling embroideries, the mystery of its mosaic and sculpture, looking ghostly in the tempered gloom, and the sea breeze passed between the twin columns of the Piazetta, the lintels of a door no longer guarded, as gently as if a rich curtain were swaying there.4
Henry James's writing about Venice is beautiful and evocative, and for an earlier generation perhaps, it would have been easy to take it at face value as a record of typical tourist experiences and leave it at that. While the passage does capture a great deal of the feeling of Venice, as its writer——and many other well-to-do male travelers——knew it, what we have learned over the past generation, thanks both to feminism and to what, in the 1970s, came to be known as "the new art history," is that this view is very partial, and, as a historical record, woefully incomplete. Just for starters, no woman of the 1880s would have had the freedom to hang about in the piazza and sip her cocktail at Florian's, nor would she have had the leisure or the freedom to pick up an artist in a cafe and share her impressions——to participate in what James calls the "finer degustation"——of chewing over the day's sensations and experiences. Indeed, that independence for women did not even begin to be felt in Europe and the U.S. until the 1970s, and it hasn't arrived, or has been shoved down again, in many parts of the world, as we all know well.
As historians, we not only have to come to grips with these values and constraints, but also to ask questions about gender, class, race, ethnicity, and of course sexuality as these operate in a text like the Henry James passage. We also have to look for alternative sources of evidence, at things like women's tourist albums, and diaries, and letters, if we are going to be able to begin to touch on women's experiences——in this case, those of upper class women tourists——in those same places that Henry James wrote about. Whether they were feeding the pigeons at San Marco, or posing for snapshots in front of the Bridge of Sighs, women, like men, participated in activities that were circumscribed by culturally determined identities. Indeed, their very physical experiences of buildings and cities were, and remain, conditioned and shaped by the specificities of the gendered body. Thus texts and photographs become part of gendered and racialized narratives, and these in turn played a part in shaping the ways in which women anticipated, realized, and also remembered their travel experiences once they returned home. Indeed (as I'm sure is obvious by this point) each of the images of Venice that I've referred to here, can be and should be understood within the context of the pictorial conventions of travel representation, and just like Henry James's story about his own life in Venice, they should be viewed not simply as evidence pure and simple but as a constructed and politicized texts which tells their stories according to very particular viewpoints.
The analysis of such questions is clearly not new to the methodology of our discipline. Thinking back on the history of gender studies in our field, I looked again at Linda Nochlin's foundational essay, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?," first published in 1971 and many times since. There she called attention to the institutional and political structures that shape art, architecture, and cultural values, opening our eyes to what would later become identified as the problem of "agency" for women artists, architects, clients, and users of the built environment. Calling up the rhetoric of political feminism for virtually the first time ever in the refined upper echelons of academia, Nochlin wrote not only of gendered minds but of gendered bodies, mentioning unmentionable things in a way that was truly shocking at the time. "The fault lies not in our stars," she wrote,
our hormones, our menstrual cycles, or our empty internal spaces, but in our institutions and our education——education understood to include everything that happens to us from the moment we enter this world of meaningful symbols, signs, and signals. The miracle is, in fact, that given the overwhelming odds against women, or blacks, that so many of both have managed to achieve so much sheer excellence, in those bailiwicks of white masculine prerogative like science, politics, or the arts.5
Drawing on Nochlin's and many others' work over the space of the nearly forty years since feminist cultural studies have become current and accepted in our field, we are now asking even more complex questions about the ways in which gender, sexuality, buildings, and cities all interact. Indeed, since it is clear that these concerns have gained such broad currency that they have become part of the humor of New Yorker cartoons and other popular media, we can be sure that the work of feminist architectural historians is enjoying some of the broad reach that we could only hope for all those many years ago.
Unfortunately, considerations of race——the other issue that Nochlin refers to, albeit in passing——continue to lag behind in our field, despite some remarkable contributions by scholars like Dell Upton, John Michael Vlatch, Dianne Harris, and others. Here I can only direct your attention to a book that I think is enormously promising as a model for a new methodology in architectural history. The book is by Walter Johnson, a professor in the history department at Harvard, and it was published in 1999. It is entitled Soul by Soul: Life Inside the Antebellum Slave Market.6 The areas where it succeeds for our purposes here are threefold: first, it gives back agency to the African-American slaves whose stories it tells, breaking with the conventions of historical narratives that place slaves only in the role of victims; second, it looks at archival evidence in new ways, bringing to light new elements of experience, previously unknown interactions and patterns of resistance; and third, it examines the built environment of the New Orleans slave market in complex terms, focusing alternately on bodies, commodities, economics, and materials to tell its story.
In my own recent work, I've tried to bear the example of these groundbreaking studies in mind by looking at buildings through the lens of embodied experience, perceptions that are firmly lodged in cultural values, economic realities, and the day-to-day movements of ordinary women and men. Looking at a handful of midcentury modern buildings that were popular among clients and users but publicly and vociferously disliked by critics——one good example is Eero Saarinen's TWA terminal at Idlewild (now Kennedy) airport of 1963——it became clear to me that the points of contention here had to do with contradictions within modernism's own understanding of itself. Clearly the building was too literally pictorial for most observers (how obvious to make an airport terminal look like a giant bird!) and, on the interior in particular, too theatrical and spectacular.7 Thus, instead of focusing on the facts of the new postwar technologies of jet travel and cast concrete engineering, Eero Saarinen used his artistry at TWA to focus on the feelings——using form, and light, and color, movement, and sightlines, to create a new experience, to "catch the excitement of the trip," as he put it.8 This excitement was both physical and psychological, and in an era in which the successes and failures of modernism were measured precisely by a work's distance from embodied sensation——thanks to the theories of critics like Clement Greenberg and others, as Caroline Jones has recently shown——this was a major strike against Saarinen's sensual architecture on many levels.9 Yet the TWA terminal gave ordinary people a palpable thrill: like the Miami Beach hotels of Morris Lapidus or the sleek modern houses captured in Julius Shulman's photographs of southern California, it offered them a touch of glamour.
With the ever-widening influence of Hollywood films across the U.S. and Europe, and with the spread of the common language of celebrity culture in the postwar decades (thanks to television, to movie magazines, to magazines not only like Vogue and Harper's Bazaar but to Time and Life as well), glamour became a significant factor in twentieth-century American culture and experience——for both women and men——in realms far beyond the department store or automobile showroom. Understood as a combination of visual images, fantasies, and aspirations inspired by advertising, fashion photography, television, movies——and by a host of other emotional and sensory impressions in consumer culture——the notion of glamour gained currency in the 1920s, and spread, and evolved, and increased in power. Glamour was both intensely private and extremely public——it was physical and emotional, and it was fueled by memories of the things one looked and thought about, not only as a series of still images but also as bodily movements. As Walter Benjamin described it, and as historians like Hayden White explained it, such images, and the ways in which they become part of a "filmic discourse" of real and imagined spatial experience, were the glue that held clients, users, and architects together on many projects, particularly in the postwar decades.10 As such, they have a great deal to tell us about the history and meaning of architecture, and especially about the ways in which buildings like TWA lodged themselves in the popular imagination, communicating on many different levels, and sending out a series of compelling messages about what it meant to be an American in the postwar period, what it meant to travel to Europe, about prosperity, luxury, everyday lives, and dreams for the future. Those messages were encoded in images drawn not only from the history of architecture but from photographs, from advertising, film, and television——to name only the most obvious sources.
Thus, while I have no idea whether the passengers, pilots, and "stewardesses" who used the TWA terminal actually thought about Hollywood images like the famous one of Gloria Swanson descending the staircase in Sunset Boulevard (1950), or if they would have recalled the sexy ascent of the big red carpeted staircase by Rhett Butler carrying Scarlet O'Hara in his arms, we do have evidence that many visitors to the terminal came there just for the sheer thrill of looking around or eating a meal in the restaurant——just to get a little bit of the feeling of glamour, even if they weren't themselves actually going anywhere.
By gaining access to this sort of almost incidental, everyday impression and association, we historians can come to better understand the habits of mind and the ways of seeing that give texture and meaning to spatial experience. First articulated by historians like Lucien Febvre and members of the Annales School in the 1930s, and now pursued by scholars like Alain Corbin, David Howes, Constance Classen, and others working at the intersections of various disciplines (including history, anthropology, literary history, and art history), this approach to the embodied experience of spaces and places within a context of culture and power seems to me to be one that has enormous promise for a critical and specific architectural history.11
In 1977 the historian Joan Kelly first asked the simple question "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" and, to the surprise of many of us who took up the challenge of trying to find an answer, the evidence suggested that they did not——not, at least, in the sense of the term that we had always been taught, and not in the ways in which we had come to understand architectural experience as somehow universal and unchanging.12 Now we know a great deal more about gender, identity, and the experience of the built environment, thanks in large part to the methodological tools developed by feminist cultural historians, to the work of researchers in the fields of vernacular architecture and everyday environments, and to the contributions of a host of others working in hybrid disciplines. Yet there is still so much more to be done, and I believe that the way to do it best will be accomplished by pursuing a fourfold agenda. First, we have to hold fast to the importance of on-site research, and to insist on placing our own experiences of spaces and places in dialogue with those of other people. Second, we have to really know the physical fabric of buildings and their materials: buildings have to be measured, photographed, and thoroughly researched so we can have accurate data about them across time. Third, we have to do more work in the archives, to understand how buildings were used and experienced, gathering data that will allow us to come to grips with the hard questions about who could go where, what happened in various spaces, where the light came from, and what the surrounding landscape looked like. And last but not least, we have to listen to architects——not only to those in practice currently, but also to the voices of those long dead. The poetics of popular public spaces like Saarinen's, or of spiritual architecture like Le Corbusier's pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp, or indeed of any building, can't really be understood without digging deep into architectural history, and really looking hard——using the tools of formal analysis and, dare one say it, old-fashioned connoisseurship——to come to terms with issues of art and design.
That said, I will end by asking you to visualize the beauty of Notre Dame du Haut at Ronchamp, a deeply spiritual place to which pilgrims come in search of God, as way of reinforcing a final and perhaps somewhat contradictory point: that despite all I've said about all that the hard work of historians and critics can reveal to us, the essence of architectural experience, and with it our sense of the past, may well always remain something of a mystery. For what Ronchamp makes clear, I think, is that a great work of architecture represents a multidimensional environment, reaching beyond the present to both the past and the future, a place in which art, poetry, and the human body come vividly, and sometimes even violently, into contact with landscape and light, and with materials like concrete and glass. Here embodied memory and individual experience are always in dialogue with the hard facts of built form. Looking at Ronchamp, it seems clear that we have to use a range of different lenses to really see it, lenses that let us look deep into the experiences of visitors but also others that enable us to grasp both the minute realities of postwar politics and religion, and the effects of power——including the power of celebrity——on the French and international milieus in which this building was designed, constructed, and used.
Yet while the enormity of the historian's task can sometimes seem daunting, it is in the small details that we find not only pleasure and reassurance, but also the clues that help us construct the stories we tell. The joys of visiting buildings, of sorting through old photos, of touching and reading old documents, and even of drinking a glass of prosecco at Florian's in Venice are what make our work not only so much fun, but also, I would argue, so necessary both for honoring the past and for building the future. Thus I will end now with a short excerpt from a long poem by Adrienne Rich entitled "Natural Resources" that I hope will inspire you, because it says so much about what I've been trying to talk about for the past half hour——only it does it far more succinctly and beautifully than I have:
This essay was adapted from the plenary address at the annual meeting of the Society of Architectural Historians in Chicago, delivered 22 April 2010.
Henry James, "From Venice to Strasburg," Transatlantic Sketches (Boston: James R. Osgood and Co, 1875), 86––87.
For more on this topic, see Mirko Zardini, ed., Sense of the City: An Alternate Approach to Urbanism, (Montreal: Canadian Center for Architecture, 2005); David Howes, ed., Empire of the Senses: The Sensual Culture Reader (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2004). Constance Classen, The Color of Angels: Cosmology, Gender and the Aesthetic Imagination (London: Routledge, 1998); Patrizia Di Bello and Gabriel Koureas, Art, History and the Senses: 1830 to thePresent (Farnham, Surrey, England and Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate, 2010). This topic was considered by a panel chaired by Medina Lasansky: "Sensational Space: Architecture and the Seven Senses," SAH Annual Meeting, Chicago, 22 April 2010.
Henry James, The Aspern Papers (London: Macmillan, 1888), chap. 5, opening paragraphs.
Nochlin, "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (1971), reprinted in Amelia Jones, ed., The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader (New York: Routledge, 2002), chap. 26. The quote is on p. 231.
Walter Johnson, Soul by Soul: Inside the Antebellum Slave Market (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).
I discuss this question at length in my American Glamour and the Evolution of Modern Architecture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), chap. 3. Saarinen's work is the subject of two recent studies: Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht, eds., Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), and Jayne Merkel, Eero Saarinen (New York: Phaidon, 2005).
"I Want to Catch the Excitement of the Trip," Architectural Forum 117 (July 1962), 72––79.
Caroline A. Jones, Eyesight Alone: Clement Greenberg's Modernism and the Bureaucratization of the Senses (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006). Jones's "The Mediated Sensorium," in Caroline Sensorium: Embodied Experience, Technology and Contemporary Art, ed. Caroline Jones (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2006), 5––49, is also extremely helpful in setting this topic in its philosophical and art historical contexts.
See, for example, Hayden White, "Historiography and Historiophoty," American Historical Review 93, no. 5 (Dec. 1988), 1193––99; and Vanessa Schwartz, "Walter Benjamin for Historians," American Historical Review 106, no. 5 (Dec. 2001), 1721––43.
See note 3 above, and Alain Corbin, Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
Joan Kelly, "Did Women Have a Renaissance?" in Women, History and Theory: Essays by Joan Kelly (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 19––50.
"Natural Resources" (1977), from The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974––77 (New York: W.W. Norton, 1978).