What is evidence in architectural history today? How has our definition of evidence changed as new archives, methods of research, and areas of scholarship have emerged? How have digital media altered what we consider evidence and the ways we employ it for scholarship? The word evidence can refer to an outward sign or indication, or it can refer to something that furnishes proof, that has legal status in determining the truth of a matter. These disparate concepts of evidence inform our scholarly practices, yet we often fail to reflect on the implications of linking evidence to form or to truth.

This issue contains four Field Notes that appraise the status of evidence in architectural history. The authors approach evidence from diverse positions and perspectives, considering the digital humanities, race, narrative, and photography. They ask questions about what we define as evidence, how and where we find evidence, how we give meaning to evidence, and what we consider the truth about evidence. Rather than a comprehensive survey of evidence in architectural history, these essays represent a cross section of the ways the field has expanded into new areas, raising new questions about the premises of the discipline.

What we define as evidence has greatly expanded in recent decades, and this expansion has brought new methods and problems to architectural history. Evidence has no fixed definition in architectural history; definitions have shifted over time and have rarely produced consensus among historians.1 Evidence can disrupt previous knowledge about the field as it enables new insights into a historical problem or debunks a previously accepted narrative. Evidence is not neutral. It plays a crucial role in arbitrating between historical problems and their analysis, and the architectural historian takes the role of arbiter of truth. In an essay on architecture as evidence, Andrew Ballantyne raises questions that go to the heart of this issue: “What values inform our judgment when we decide what it is that is most important to write about? And what is it that we choose to say about the buildings we decide to include in our histories?”2 By contrast with the empiricist tradition, exemplified by German historian Leopold von Ranke, whose method was to “show how it really was” by reference to “the facts,” contemporary work on evidence emphasizes the historian's position of power to choose the facts.

Where we find evidence and how we find it are as important to our discipline as how we define evidence. Important work on evidence and its relationship to the state, for example, has emerged from studies of the imperial archive. Archives are sites not only of knowledge retrieval but also of knowledge production. Ann Laura Stoler identifies the archive as both the supreme technology of the late nineteenth-century imperial state and the prototype of a postmodern one, predicated on the global domination of information and the circuits through which facts move.3 In his review in this issue of Mrinalini Rajagopalan's recent book Building Histories, Will Glover observes that “every archive embeds affective ties that are more than, and different from, objective claims to fact.” The role of the state in legitimating and institutionalizing evidence has become the subject of recent scholarship on the postwar “techno-social” turn in architecture and the rise of technical architectural expertise serving the state.4 The state's power to determine what is archived and what is deemed legitimate evidence—that is, the politics and economics of the archive—is more pronounced in the digital age. At a session on evidence at the 2017 SAH conference, Dianne Harris noted that the state is the designer of the digital world and can control its algorithms and data sets, unless historians take them over.5 

The transformative potential of digital technologies is the subject of Caroline Bruzelius's Field Note. She provides a succinct overview of the rapidly emerging tools that offer architectural historians new types of evidence and methodologies as well as new research questions. As she states, “Digital work is all about evidence.” Big data, imaging software, and noninvasive sensing and scanning technologies can not only produce different forms of evidence but also provoke new queries and alter existing conceptions of architectural history. As Bruzelius suggests, however, while digital evidence may promise a new utopia of freely shared information and deeper intellectual inquiry, architectural historians face some pitfalls and challenges in using these technologies and interpreting the resulting evidence. I would note that access to these capital-intensive technologies is usually confined to elite, well-endowed institutions and grant-supported projects that may be out of reach for many scholars, particularly for the growing numbers of architectural historians without permanent institutional affiliation. Digital technologies may further exacerbate the inequities within the profession and between public and private institutions.

The founders of the Race and Modern Architecture project, Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson, pose a challenge to the types of evidence and evidentiary methods privileged in canonical histories of modern architecture. Their adoption of a critical race studies approach changes the nature of evidence itself. Simply adding the names of nonwhite practitioners or expanding the canon of built work leaves intact the implicit and explicit racial discourse of modernism and progress. In their Field Note, these authors present critical questions about the formation of the discipline on racialist and racist principles, the methods by which works have been selected for the modern canon, the types of archives deemed worthy of examination, and the necessity for transdisciplinary methods that examine the ways in which race underpins modern architectural history. Their critique has implications for the entire field in regard to the interplay of racial ideology and history.

How we give meaning to evidence through narrative is the focus of Michael Osman and Daniel M. Abramson's Field Note. Both their essay and the session they cochaired at the 2017 SAH conference in Glasgow intersect with their broader project to bring to architectural history a greater awareness of the use of evidence and narrative, thereby initiating different histories of architecture and roles for architectural historians. In the absence of a theory of the value of evidence, they envision a self-conscious approach that marks out differences in methods for producing evidence and reveals the internal tensions in our historical practice. Narrative is a common means for tying together the disparate evidence gathered by architectural historians, but the “politicosocial order” (Hayden White's term) that underlies every narrative is often occluded. In response, Osman and Abramson propose that evidence could be used differently to produce counternarratives that resist the hegemonic political tendencies of narrative.

Claire Zimmerman probes architectural history's relation to photographic images as evidence and finds that such images are as much diagnostic as documentary devices. Because architectural photographs are linked with visions of future architecture as much as they offer traces of an existing built world, they have an ambiguous epistemological status. Rather than images with transparent or self-evident meaning, photographs are discursive, in Zimmerman's account, and provide evidence that throws off multifarious meanings. Their mutability makes photographs less a form of reliable evidence than a critical tool for historical writing.

The articles in this issue contribute to the discourse on evidence and offer new evidentiary sources and methods. In her Findings article, Mardges Bacon recounts an episode when, during the Great Depression, architects and other technical workers formed a union, the Federation of Architects, Engineers, Chemists and Technicians (FAECT). Advocating in the areas of wages and employment benefits, labor rights, affordable housing, and the efficiency of manufactured housing, FAECT joined the burgeoning labor movement and associated itself with the New Deal's attempts to address the structural defects of modern industrial capitalism. FAECT provides a little-known example of the architecture profession's activism in confronting economic, social, and political challenges.

Two articles on digital humanities projects present differing strategies for using digital means in architectural history research. Elaine A. Sullivan and Lisa M. Snyder's innovative digital model of ancient Karnak aspires to move beyond digital media as illustration and to generate a new method for conveying scholarship embedded in the born-digital model itself. Their project underscores the capacity for digital scholarship to raise questions specific to the digital and the visual. Their careful explanation of their decision-making process and the ways their model makes clear its artificiality (through techniques such as the partial, rather than complete, use of photographic overlays) invites future researchers to consider their process and the possibility of alternative solutions. Evidence can be extracted from the model, allowing academics to verify or challenge the hypotheses of temple reconstruction.

Paul B. Jaskot and Ivo van der Graaff introduce a database on construction activity in Germany between 1914 and 1924, which they visualized in a series of GIS maps. By mining a historical journal, the Deutsche Bauzeitung, they sought to test the accuracy of the canonical assertion that there was an almost-total dearth of building in Germany during World War I and the early Weimar Republic. Their research process, recorded in the Project Narrative available online, forced the authors to change their methods and conclusions as they confronted uncertainty within their data. Their work raises issues about the nature of evidence gleaned from historical journals and other such sources, and the ambiguity necessarily accommodated in its interpretation. As with the case of Digital Karnak, the practice of creating the digital project itself, the database and maps, produced new knowledge about the subject and methods for using digital evidence.

Daniel Bluestone's article examines the vernacular Chicago courtyard apartment as an important type for a densifying city. These stylistically conventional, courtyard apartment buildings mediated between the single-family house and the tenement apartment, reflecting cultural shifts in urban living in turn-of-the-century Chicago. The Faculty of Fine Arts in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is the centerpiece of Adnan Morshed's study of an architect, Muzharul Islam, with a sparse archive and of a building with a complex national legacy. Interrogating the canonical association made between modernism and national identity and the binaries of local/global and modern/traditional, Morshed complicates the narrative by including discussion of the turbulent politics of post-Partition Pakistan and Islam's resort to modernism as an antinationalist response.

What we consider the truth revealed by evidence is conditional and contingent, and this determination has political consequences. Both within and outside the academy, a deep skepticism toward evidence, facts, and expertise dominates contemporary public discourse.6 While not a new trend—see Richard Hofstadter's 1963 Anti-intellectualism in American Life—or one confined to the United States, this propensity has become more publicly evident under the Trump administration.7 Across the globe, the university, grounded in Enlightenment ideals of learning and knowledge, has come under attack as a harbor of dissent, subversion, or terrorism. In an era of claims for the existence of “alternative facts” and the deployment of purposeful lying, humanistic fields such as architectural history face extraordinary challenges to the value of evidence and scholarship.8 

In this issue, David Friedman pays tribute to James Ackerman, who helped change architectural history's conception of evidence. Ackerman gave the field a rigorous standard for evidence based on historical sources rather than interpretations filtered through contemporary biases, yet he insisted on the necessity of scholarly interpretation. Friedman quotes Ackerman in 1958: “As we cannot do without facts, so we cannot do with facts alone.” “Without theory…we cannot evaluate works of art or interpret them.”9 As we extend our definitions of evidence and methods for collecting it, confronting entrenched power relations and prejudices, Ackerman's formulation remains a touchstone. The current climate of distrust toward expertise and knowledge makes more urgent JSAH's mission to maintain the integrity of architectural history and to engage with the present critically. To quote Claire Zimmerman, “It goes without saying that history writes the present whether it elects to or not.”

In this last issue of my term as editor, I would like to thank the people with whom I have had the great pleasure of working. The review editors merit my deep appreciation for covering the breadth of scholarship in architectural history. Many thanks to the UC Press team for consistently improving the quality of the journal. I am especially grateful to Judy Selhorst, a brilliant copy editor and valued collaborator. Managing editor Kathy Hix has lent her experience and great professionalism to producing the journal, for which I thank her warmly. For her dedication to JSAH, I would like to give special thanks to Danielle Peltakian.


See Andrew Leach, What Is Architectural History? (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010), 88–120.
Andrew Ballantyne, “Architecture as Evidence,” in Rethinking Architectural Historiography, ed. Dana Arnold, Elvan Altan Ergut, and Belgin Turan Özkaya (London: Routledge, 2007), 36.
Ann Laura Stoler, “Colonial Archives and the Arts of Governance: On the Content in the Form,” in Refiguring the Archive, ed. Carolyn Hamilton, Verne Harris, and Graeme Reid (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2002), 89.
See, for example, Arindam Dutta, “Linguistics, Not Grammatology: Architecture's A Prioris and Architecture's Priorities,” in A Second Modernism: MIT, Architecture, and the “Techno-Social” Moment, ed. Arindam Dutta (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013).
Dianne Harris, comment made during question-and-answer period following the session “Evidence and Narrative in Architectural History,” annual conference of the Society of Architectural Historians, Glasgow, 7 June 2017.
For example, political scientist Tom Nichols has recently asserted that a wave of antirationalism has overcome American society, manifested in a preference for ignorance, a blurring of lines between facts and lies, and widespread denial in the face of scientific evidence. Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1963).
For example, since January 2016, thousands of Turkish scholars, university staff, and students have been the targets of dismissals and travel restrictions, as well as prolonged detentions and prosecutions, for expressing dissent regarding the government's policy in the Kurdish region. See “Turkey: 1,184 University Personnel Dismissed in Emergency Decree,” Scholars at Risk Network, 22 Nov. 2016, https://www.scholarsatrisk.org/2016/11/turkey-1184-university-personnel-dismissed-emergency-decree (accessed 7 Aug. 2017).
James S. Ackerman, “On American Scholarship in the Arts,” College Art Journal 17, no. 4 (Summer 1958), 360, 361.