“This is not a history of enthusiastic people doing interesting things,” Michael Osman archly warns readers of Modernism's Visible Hand (ix). He argues that in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new imperative to regulate exerted profound influence on the built environment of the United States, from middle-class households to large industrial plants. Technologies for keeping ambient room temperature constant were connected in surprising ways with efforts to manage factory labor, to mitigate economic fluctuations, and to study the natural world. These developments collectively shaped the American built environment far more, Osman asserts, than the creative efforts of canonical architects. His book is part of a broader reexamination of the history of environmental control, building on but also pushing beyond Reyner Banham's now-classic polemical elevation of technical systems as the repressed protagonists of modernism. In more recent accounts, technology is shown to be interwoven with social, political, and aesthetic issues.1 Hence, Osman's title is a reference to the work of business historian Alfred Chandler, whose book The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business was published in 1977. Chandler argued that in the nineteenth century, the activity of large corporations began to be guided not by capitalism's passive “invisible hand” but more actively by a new class of professional managers.2 The efforts of these managers to steady the corporate ship amid market turbulence reflected a fundamental change in the economy. By the same token, Osman argues that the emergence of active environmental and economic regulation led to profound shifts in how buildings were conceived and used.

It would be difficult to pursue such an ambitious thesis in the form of a methodically structured proof. Instead, Osman offers five quasi-independent essays about regulation in diverse contexts. As a result, his book has the character of a “secret history,” defamiliarizing an ostensibly well-known topic by identifying a single, seemingly minor thread and tugging on it to disclose a weft of unexpected relationships. It also resembles the kind of research proposed by Sigfried Giedion in Mechanization Takes Command (1948). Giedion emphasized “how badly research is needed into the anonymous history of our period, tracing our mode of life as affected by mechanization—its impact on our dwellings, our food, our furniture. Research is needed into the links existing between industrial methods and methods used outside industry—in art, in visualization.”3 Osman's book reads as an answer to this challenge. It explores how architecture's modern environmental norms were shaped by a roster of unheralded actors operating in various fields, often at a considerable remove from architectural practice.

The first chapter of Modernism's Visible Hand effectively synthesizes these far-ranging developments into a compelling revisionist account. It examines the origins of the mechanically regulated interior, beginning with the development of thermostats in nineteenth-century British factories and culminating in the introduction of these systems into American single-family homes. Osman analyzes the advent of residential heating and air-conditioning systems—and, more important, the devices that switched them on and off automatically—in relation to Americans’ waning reliance on servants, the rise of “household science,” and an emerging expectation that the mother should serve as “manager” of the family's domestic atmosphere. He closes the chapter by considering how thermostat manufacturers marketed the idea of a house whose interior ambience appears perfectly tranquil but is in fact actively produced by powerful machines clicking on and off just out of view.

In exploring this mechanical history of the American household, Osman is not moving in entirely uncharted territory. Banham also paid close attention to the evolution of residential heating and ventilation systems.4 But Osman, expanding on Banham's analysis of technology, also considers how the development of the modern household intersected with economic and labor history. For example, he discusses how reformer Charlotte Perkins Gilman had argued for the establishment of shared kitchens and nurseries, to emancipate women from domestic chores. The thermostat, by lessening the burden on women and servants, seemed to undercut Gilman's critique of household labor and thus reduced the urgency to collectivize. This was a significant case of “architecture or revolution” a good ten years before Le Corbusier's famous essay of that title.5 

In chapter 2, Osman pursues a related argument but jumps to a new context. In the late nineteenth century, the cold storage of consumable commodities was greeted as a way to stabilize prices in the face of uneven demand, and thereby to mitigate what seemed like perennial economic crises. Osman argues that the formal language of architectural monumentality was incapable of expressing the mechanical complexity of chilling systems or the economic functions they served. He contrasts the example of the Chicago Cold Storage Exchange (1890–92), an imposing warehouse complex designed by Adler & Sullivan, with the humble buildings of Boston's Quincy Market Cold Storage Company (1882–1915), which conceived its refrigeration system as being more like a public utility and sold cooling services to other merchants in the city's market district. While the latter business thrived, the former eventually folded. Osman implies that one reason for the closure of the Chicago warehouse was its misguided architectural conception as a civic monument rather than a form of infrastructure.

An implicit theme of these first two chapters is architects’ failure to give form to modern technical and economic realities. Osman argues that when designers adopted “machine-age” imagery, it was merely to conceal how the tradition-bound discourse of architecture was failing to keep up with the evolving forces of modern industry. As the book shifts to consider more distant cases of regulation and how it was represented visibly, architecture recedes into the background. Chapter 3 focuses on the emergence of ecological science through the work of University of Chicago botanist Henry Chandler Cowles and his circle of researchers in the early twentieth century. Osman shows how this new scientific discourse was related to changing museum exhibition techniques, such as the use of hybrid photographic and painted dioramas to portray organisms’ dynamic interactions with their environments. Architecture appears briefly in this chapter in the form of a specialized laboratory for ecological research built at the University of Chicago with the aid of heating and air-conditioning specialists. Once again, the idea of regulation brought distant fields of activity into dialogue.

The final chapters of Modernism's Visible Hand examine “brainwork,” a set of management techniques developed by efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor and his followers for collecting data on factory work and for using calculations and diagrams to govern industrial production. Osman explains this thematic leap by likening scientists studying a biome to factory managers who adopted Taylorist systems to organize production. These systems involved the detailed analysis of production processes, which were broken down into discrete tasks, each to be performed in a specific amount of time. Osman pays particular attention to the specialized slide rules and diagramming conventions developed by Taylor's assistant Carl Barth to mediate between the spatiotemporal organization of factory work and the logic of the market. The book's last chapter describes how scientific management techniques were implemented at large architecture firms as part of the gradual professionalization and bureaucratization of American architectural practice. Osman's case in point is the Detroit office of Albert Kahn, with its regimented work flow and standardized forms to be filled out by draftsmen, supervisors, and clerks.

Throughout these case studies, one senses that Osman's real fascination is with conceptual exchanges between different fields of activity, as economic ideas were transferred into the realm of the life sciences, or as corporate managers applied scientific methods to the control of factory operations. Osman belongs to a community of architectural historians reacting against what they view as an overly restrictive idea of disciplinary autonomy. For these scholars, architectural history is a springboard to more far-ranging exploration. When one ventures beyond a shared disciplinary grounding, however, determining exactly how the historical objects under examination relate to one another can become more difficult. Are all the forms of regulation that Osman addresses really best understood as permutations of a single idea? Some late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scientists, managers, and technicians perceived connections between their disparate fields of work—that much is certain. But how broadly were these perceptions shared? Is the contemporary historian justified in taking this interpretation a step further and positing regulation as a coherent paradigm extending across disparate fields of technical and economic activity? And finally, even if the rise of regulation can be understood as a unitary historical development in this way, does the field of architecture offer the best vantage point from which to study it?

Osman does not answer all of these questions in Modernism's Visible Hand, but he does not hide from them either. Elsewhere, he has worked to foster a conversation about the kinds of evidence architectural historians cite and the ways that evidence is marshaled to produce new knowledge.6 This book is a welcome addition to the debate. In his conclusion, Osman writes, “In lieu of the focus provided by an overarching explanatory system, a definitive event, or the inevitability of a root cause in this history, I have developed narratives that trace temporary alignments among scientific theories, legal codes, representational tools, and technical instruments” (186). Through this narrative approach, the book succeeds in showing that the making of buildings was intertwined with numerous external factors, including the “anonymous” work (anonymous, at least, to most architects) of scientists, financiers, and industrial reformers. In so doing, it offers a provocative model for how scholarship on modern architectural technology can chart a creative and critical journey through an exceptionally diverse historical archive.


For example, see Daniel A. Barber, A House in the Sun: Modern Architecture and Solar Energy in the Cold War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016); Luis Fernández-Galiano, Fire and Memory: On Architecture and Energy, trans. Gina Cariño (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000).
Alfred D. Chandler Jr., The Visible Hand: The Managerial Revolution in American Business (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 1977)
Sigfried Giedion, Mechanization Takes Command: A Contribution to Anonymous History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1948), vi.
Reyner Banham, Architecture of the Well-Tempered Environment (London: Architectural Press, 1969). See also Banham's earlier article, “A Home Is Not a House,” Art in America, April 1965, 70–79.
Le Corbusier, Toward an Architecture, trans. John Goodman (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2007), 291–307, originally published as Vers une architecture (Paris: Éditions Crès, 1923), 225–43.
See Michael Osman and Daniel M. Abramson, “Evidence and Narrative,” JSAH 76, no. 4 (December 2017), 443–45.