Friday, May 29, 2009

Architects Stop Traffic in Madrid

On Friday, May 29, a demonstration by a few hundred architects and architecture students stopped traffic in central Madrid when they protested outside the offices of Spain's Ministry of Education on the Calle de Alcala, in the center of the city. Of course, this made any kind of vehicular travel impossible, but I didn't mind the inconvenience so much since it was in the cause of architecture.

I haven't found any information on Associated Press -- my Spanish is pretty terrible, so I need an English-language report -- but it seems as though the Education Minister is devaluing their degree. They seem to be demanding a professional organization of some kind.

At the bottom of this banner it says "Crisis + Devaluation of the Profession = Unemployment!!" (referring to the global economic crisis, of course):

Anyway, I'm not exactly sure, but I will update this post when I get more information. In the meantime, good luck to all those Spanish architects!

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Spanish Signs and Spanglish

Spain Journal

Friday, May 22
On our third night in Sevilla – Ascension Day – my husband and I found ourselves sitting in a small plaza (a plazuela) drinking wine and listening to a local band playing British rock and pop songs of the 50s and 60s – in English. They started with The Who (“The Kids Are Alright”) and moved on from there to Monkees, Beatles, Byrds, and similar standards. The scene was great for people-watching, and made me glad I had found us an apartment outside of the tourist core of the city, in a neighborhood on the other side of the Guadalquiver river called Triana. As far as we could tell the crowd was all locals; it was a very family-oriented scene, with a couple dozen kids (of all ages) running around and playing with each other in the midst of the adults partying and drinking. The Spanish kids were up past 11 p.m.; our little guy had already been asleep for a couple hours, and was being babysat by my mom in the apartment.

On the stage behind the band was a large cross decorated with white tissue-paper flowers for Ascension Day. N. observed that from looking at the stage you’d think it was a Christian rock band. The second act was a singer from Mexico with a large embroidered black hat; he was singing along to the accompaniment of a tape. He spoke Spanish really fast, a lot faster than the Spanish people talk. We felt a bit nostalgic, and a common bond as fellow Norte Americanos. We have a running joke that every Mexican song has the word “corazón” (“heart”) in it, and this guy sang about his corazón right away. (I have to admit, as much as I am enjoying Spain, I like Mexico better.)

The third act was a duo of Spaniards singing flamenco music and playing guitar; every song had the word Triana in it (“our” neighborhood in Sevilla). By this point we still hadn’t finished our bottle of wine, but were ready to go home anyway. It was a bit chilly, as we have discovered Spain can be in the evenings. We only had to walk about three blocks back to the apartment through very narrow streets. We had stumbled onto this celebration completely by accident, just by following our ears, and it felt like a real find.

Saturday, May 23

(Photo: Plaza de España in Seville, built for the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition and recently restored)
The Triana neighborhood continues to treat us well. We had dinner at a tapas restaurant just a couple blocks from our apartment, which was one of the best meals we’ve had in Spain. The appetizer – a specialty of the house – was slices of grilled eggplant topped with a somewhat sweet red sauce that tasted like a puréed roasted red pepper; and some kind of yummy cheese on top. Then tapas-sized portions of three kinds of fish, followed by a veggie course. The latter course included a dish called salmorejo, a spread that is indeed pinkish in color (like salmon) but is reminiscent of hummus or some sort of ground legumes (but consisting mainly of tomatoes – roasted? – and bread crumbs to thicken it) with lots of olive oil and other delightful flavors. (Olive oil has been a major component of most dishes we’ve eaten in Spain.)

Because it was the Ascension Day weekend, we happened into a religious procession on our walk to dinner around 9 p.m. – a large coffin-like “float” with an empty cross on top of it, followed by a brass-and-percussion band playing some rather dirge-like music. My mom and my son both had to cover their ears, they said it was too loud for them. We had to wait for the procession to pass before we could cross the street to go to dinner. The “float” was funny because it was being carried by about 20 people, but you couldn’t see the people (except for their feet), they were hidden by the cloths draped from the bottom of the float. Then after dinner there was another such procession, apparently sponsored by a different church.

Now here’s the funny thing about these religious processions – you always hear about them happening in heavily Catholic countries, and about tourists flocking to see them at the proper times of the year. But what I noticed in Seville was that the town does not come to a stop so that everyone can take part; instead, it’s as if the vast majority of the populace takes no notice. A block away, on the major artery through the neighborhood, the buses were still running, people were still walking along carrying their parcels and heading to their destinations; traffic was still heavy. Granted, these were tiny processions we witnessed, but it gave me a different perspective on the phenomenon.

Monday, May 25

This was our day to see the Alhambra! While touring the Nasrid Palace, which is the gorgeous Islamic architectural heart of the entire site, I discovered that the American author Washington Irving had actually gotten to LIVE there. What a privilege. It turns out that in addition to being the first American novelist to acquire an international reputation, he was also a diplomat (ambassador, maybe?) to Spain. Here he wrote Tales of the Alhambra; I bought a copy, maybe someday I'll get a chance to read it. In the meantime, here are some photos:

Tuesday, May 26

We are on a train to Madrid, having spent time in Sevilla, Córdoba, and Granada. Sevilla was my favorite place, and I’m dying to go back. My husband’s favorite place was Córdoba, which was just a day trip from Sevilla, and was a beautiful, quiet city. What I liked most about it – besides the AMAZING mosque-turned-cathedral, which was my main reason for going to Córdoba – was the Roman legacy, which I knew nothing about ahead of time. My mom’s favorite place was Granada, in part because of the cooler climate there. And the Alhambra, of course, impressed the heck out of all of us.

My son’s favorite part of Spain so far has been the zoo in Córdoba, but once we go to the zoo in Madrid I think he’ll decide he likes it better – it’s much larger. A few days ago he said, “I’m going to go to every zoo in the world before I die.” He’s on track to do it, too; this year he’s been to two zoos in Berlin (multiple times each) and zoos in Dresden and Hamburg.

One thing I can’t relate to in Spanish culture is the bullfighting obsession. Bullfighters are the rock stars of Spain, the sex symbols featured in posters on the street. They have great costumes; it’s all about spectacle and pageantry. But I just feel sorry for the bulls. Notice how the bullfighter's cape looks a lot like a cardinal's cape (which is also all about spectacle).

Thursday, May 28
Yesterday we helped my son get one step closer to his goal of seeing all the zoos in the world. We spent the whole day at the Madrid zoo (without my husband, who left for Berlin yesterday morning). It was a fantastic and memorable visit; we got to see a dolphin show, which was the first one my son has ever been to. I think they had 8 or 9 dolphins performing. It was accompanied by very loud Spanish pop music, and hundreds of Spanish school children clapping along. We also got to see a sea lion show, also a lot of fun.

Weirdly the zoo was full of large groups, mostly local kids (around junior high age or younger) on school field trips. Whoever thought 50 kids crowding to look at one animal was a good idea must have been crazy. These crowds were a bit unpleasant, but they moved quickly so it wasn’t too hard to avoid them; and by the afternoon they were mostly gone.

Today we went to the Prado Museum, which blew my mind. This was one of my top two reasons for coming to Spain (the other being the Alhambra), and I’d been wanting to see the Prado for years and years and years. I mostly was awed by the Goya rooms and the Titian rooms; didn’t get to see Velasquez yet, but WILL go back for more. A single room of 18th-century French portraiture was pretty cool too (no postcards available).

Saturday, May 9, 2009

Das Sovietische Ehrenmal (Soviet monument) in Treptower Park, Berlin

Completed in 1949, the Soviet monument in Treptower Park, Berlin, was the largest Soviet World War II monument in the world -- both within and outside of the Soviet Union -- until 1967, when a larger one was constructed in Volgograd, Russia. Located in the former East Berlin, the Soviet monument draws huge crowds of Russian tourists; we spent the afternoon there today, and every conversation I overheard was in Russian. Flowers left in tribute to the dead are everywhere, fresh ones, revealing the importance this monument has for so many people.

May 8, 1945, marked the end of the Second World War and is celebrated in Europe as Victory in Europe Day. In the former East Germany it was celebrated as Tag der Befreihung (Day of Liberation). The fact that we visited the memorial on the weekend of this momentous anniversary was purely coincidental, and serendipitous.

The memorial honors the Soviet liberation of Berlin. Its monumentality seems over the top, but is appropriate considering the number of graves it represents. 5,000 Russian soldiers who died in the liberation are buried under the 5 lawns that lie between the two red granite walls (symbolizing flags lowered in mourning) and the 38-foot-high statue of a Russian soldier, with a German child in one arm, trampling the swastika symbol of the Third Reich underfoot and under sword.

On the approach to the monument is the statue representing Mother Homeland, sculpted from a single 50-ton granite rock. White granite is used to create the cylindrical mausoleum that serves as the base of the statue, as well as 14 massive symbolic sarcophagi; this Swedish granite had been stored by the Nazis to be used to construct a triumphal arch in Moscow. (Talk about counting your chickens...)

The sarcophagi are media for Social Realist relief sculpture representing Germans, oppressed by Fascism, and Russians, their heroic saviors. Quotes by Stalin are engraved at the ends of the sarchophagi.

Our ideology, anchored in our soil, of equal rights of all races and nations, the ideology of friendship among peoples, has achieved total victory over the Hitler-Fascist ideology of bestial nationalism and racial hatred.” – Joseph Stalin

(Hopefully further comment on my part about the irony of Stalin's statement -- who killed or exiled as many people as the Nazis did -- is unnecessary, propaganda being instantly recognizable to most people.)

Thursday, May 7, 2009

"Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles" (film review) at the Black International Film Festival, Berlin

"Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles”

Tonight we had a little taste of Los Angeles in Berlin, at the 24th Black International Cinema, Berlin, 2009 film festival. The documentary film “Leimert Park: The Story of a Village in South Central Los Angeles” celebrates the cultural boom time of the 1990s in this small village in the South Central heart of L.A. Here’s the official description of the film:

“In April 1992, Richard Fulton, a formerly homeless man who had been living on Los Angeles’ skid row, opened Fifth Street Dick’s coffeehouse in the South Central Los Angeles neighborhood of Leimert Park.

“A few days later, the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out. For five days and five nights, a group of dedicated merchants and artists stood guard to protect their village from the fires that raged through the streets of South Central Los Angeles.

“Richard’s coffeehouse soon became a gathering spot for the community, and ultimately sparked a remarkable underground renaissance of African American art and culture. Leimert Park became a stopover for world-class jazz musicians who might drop in to jam until 3 or 4 in the morning. The sidewalks overflowed with people of all ages and races, absorbing the jazz, hip-hop, blues and spoken-word poetry performed in the park and various music venues.

“Told through the powerful words, art and music of the community, this film articulates and celebrates the profound struggles and deep spirit of the extraordinary artists and musicians who transformed a few blocks of modest storefronts into a vibrant and inspiring cultural oasis. Intimate and compelling, “Leimert Park” is also a universal tale of the struggles and triumphs of artists everywhere and of the power and importance of art and music in our lives.”

The film is based largely on interviews conducted in 1998, when the Leimert Park Village was at its height. I like the use of the word “renaissance” in this description, because the cultural blossoming of Leimert Park in the 1990s reminded me (on a smaller scale) of the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s. I will be teaching an Honors College course on the Harlem Renaissance this fall in the Art History Department, so that era has been on my mind a lot lately.

Director Jeannette Lindsay explores the range of artistic projects that flourished in Leimert Park in the 1990s: painting, music, dance, poetry, and film, all made by African-Americans, had a vibrant home and a supportive community. Legendary jazz musicians like Horace Tapscott (leader of the Pan African People’s Arkestra) and Billy Higgins (legendary drummer) were a regular part of this scene; both are now deceased.

Richard Fulton, seen extensively in interview footage, was such a charismatic, warm, and funny person. He describes how he, as a homeless man, created this coffee shop which became a real anchor to the community. One of the funniest lines was when he described how/why his project made him happy; it combines “my three favorite things to do: A, sit on my ass; B, drink coffee; and C, listen to jazz.”

His coffee house opened just a few days before the infamous L.A. riots broke out after the verdict was read in the Rodney King trial. He said that some of the first cups of coffee he served were to the National Guardsmen.

I remember those days; the L.A. riots were probably the most surreal days that I experienced during my 14 years living in L.A. County. I was in downtown L.A. at the theater (an interracial version of “Richard II”) when the riots began, and had to drive home on surface streets because the freeways had all been shut down; the curfews and the run on the grocery stores and video stores as people prepared for the lock-down; the smell of smoke from all the fires filled the air as far west as Santa Monica, where I lived; the National Guard occupying Venice Beach, so you couldn’t walk or skate there at any time of day (which gave the local crazy – one of many – lots of material for loud public rants).

In the aftermath of the riots, all kinds of local, state, and national politicians and dignitaries rushed in to survey the damage and assure the residents that it would be rebuilt, would be better than before, and that the politicians wouldn’t turn their backs on the community like they had done after the Watts riots of the 1960s. Being politicians, they didn’t keep their promises; for years afterwards, the anniversary of the 1992 riots brought journalistic analyses of how the community was being neglected, detailing stories of how banks wouldn’t lend money, there were no grocery stores, and so on.

“Leimert Park” gives evidence to the contrary, showing us in loving detail a community that rose from the ashes of the 1992 riots. This is one case where, the film claims, the riots were the catalyst for the community to join together in creating something meaningful and positive, even transformational. Former gang members becoming poets.

That was all in the first hour. The last 30 minutes dealt with the community’s demise at the hands of politicians and commercial interests for the “redevelopment” of Leimert Park. Inevitably they ruined it, driving out the people who had made the community what it was through rents almost quadrupling overnight.

The film could be stronger – its narrative style does not, in my view, adequately foreground the historical status of the Leimert Park cultural renaissance. (“Historical” as in “it does not exist any more.”) The story about Leimert Park’s redevelopment and commercialization seem to be tacked on at the end, after an hour of what seems to be a complete, fully developed story in itself, the demise of which is never even hinted at in that first hour. Who is behind this redevelopment? It doesn’t even tell us who was the mayor at the time, or how the city council member representing Leimert Park responded to this redevelopment.

I suppose the film can’t be all things to all people. It does a much better job of telling us about the art, the poetry, and the music than about issues of urban development and gentrification.

(I like this image because it was hanging on the podium in front of where the Leimert Park poets stood to read their poems to the assembled audience.)

The 24th Black International Cinema film festival, Berlin, 2009

This was a quirky little film festival that seemed to have more sponsors than audience members. (There were no more than 20 people at the film we attended.) It’s almost like a little Mom-and-Pop film festival, except that it’s incredibly well funded, with support from the Commissioner for Integration of the Templehof-Schöneberg borough of Berlin and the German Commission for UNESCO among its many sponsors. Admission to all films was free, and tonight – the first night of the festival – this included a free buffet of very tasty Caribbean food catered by Ya-Man Caribbean Soul Food of Berlin (in the Tiergarten neighborhood).

The Mom-and-Pop feel of the film festival is reflected in the program, about 50 pages long; no fewer than 6 of these pages are devoted to photos of the husband-and-wife organizers, their two kids, and even their family going back generations! I kid you not. Inside the front cover is a full-color collage of three photos – one shows President Barack Obama, and right next to Obama is a photo of their son, dressed nicely and holding a basketball in the manner of senior class photos for the high school yearbook.

Another irony was the presence at the opening ceremony of a dignitary from the Embassy of the United States of America, Berlin; the embassy may not have been aware beforehand of this image printed in the film program on the page listing their supporters and affiliations:

Joe Louis and Fidel Castro, 1959

But the organizers did put together an impressive program of films from around the world, with emphasis on films from the U.S., Germany, Iran, and India. Several other African and European nations are represented with a single film, as well as Haiti. Most are documentary films, but some are narrative, and some are experimental shorts.

The projection left a lot to be desired. The top of the screen image was cut off, enough to be really annoying; and the sound synchronization was off.

I would love to see as many of these films as I could, but unfortunately that won’t be possible. The venue is clear on the other side of the city and takes an hour to get there; tonight’s film started 90 minutes after the time that was advertised on the website, which is a real inconvenience when you have a babysitter at home with your child. Given those factors, plus the fact that all the films are in the evening and weekend when child care is an issue, I will have to miss out on this great opportunity. Oh, well, that’s life in the big city.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

"The Christian and War" - a response

Four months ago a Facebook "Friend" (actually someone from high school whom I never knew very well to begin with and haven't seen in almost 30 years - he graduated two years before I did) solicited my opinion on an essay called "The Christian and War." The essay was written by Stan Warford, a professor of computer science at Pepperdine University, and delivered in September 2008 at something called the "Red Letter Christians Convocation Series" at Pepperdine University (which, don't forget, is a religiously affiliated university). You can read his essay by clicking here.

In the essay Professor Warford outlines the unequivocal anti-war position which is at the heart of Christianity, then he presents an historical account of how Christian leaders have succeeded in rationalizing and justifying war and Christians' partipation in it. If I'm understanding his essay correctly, he is advising fellow Christians not to participate in or to condone war, including the defense industry; he is exposing and rejecting any and all attempts by Christians to legitimate war.

Bradley, you asked me what I thought of his essay, and I couldn't agree more with the points he makes, i.e., that according to Christ's teachings, war is wrong under any circumstances. (Granted, some wars are easier to defend than others, as per the "just war" theory he describes.) What I really have a problem with is the end of the essay, where he explains that he worked in the defense industry for many years until he saw the light, began to develop a conscience, and decided to quit the war business. My response, then, is "What took him so long?!"

Here's a quote from the essay:

"Allow me to conclude my presentation on a personal note. I have a confession to make. At one point in my professional career I was an aerospace engineer with a company whose revenue was derived entirely from government contracts from NASA and the Pentagon. I have always been fascinated with mathematics, physics, and technology and in my youth did not pay much attention to the ethical implications of my work. While I worked on civilian projects like the Viking mission to Mars and the Space Shuttle, I also worked on military projects. Some of my work is in the Minuteman ballistic missile deployed in silos across the United States, and some is in the Polaris missile deployed in nuclear submarines around the world.

"My regret is the number of years it took for my conscience to evolve to the point where I could no longer participate in warfare projects. One reason I resigned from my position and came to Pepperdine was the desire to influence students like you. My hope is that this talk will prompt you to consider the nature of war in light of the teachings of Jesus. Perhaps my experience will influence someone in this audience so that the years of your youth will not be spent as a proponent of war, which you will later grow to regret."

So he's sort of like the Ancient Mariner, I guess, walking around with an albatross around his neck and warning others not to be like him. (I'm sure there's an apt Biblical character who could be referenced, but I'm not that up on Bible stories.)

His own professional experience, like the history of Christianity that he traces in his essay, points out the core problem with Christianity: it often fails to represent a morally righteous position, it frequently puts itself at the service of government and authority-figures, and it does not encourage people to have what Professor Warford might call a highly evolved conscience. Instead, it encourages people NOT to think for themselves, and to do what church leaders tell them to do, even if it's in direct contradiction to what's in the Bible.

I'm not at all surprised that Professor Warford worked for the military-industrial complex all those years while calling himself a Christian; that sort of hypocrisy is endemic to Christianity, at least in the United States (which is the only culture I'm familiar enough with to judge). Look at all the so-called Christians who voted for George W. Bush in 2004 even though he had led our country into a disastrous war based on out-and-out lies. Too many Christians are willing to let their preachers, their political party, or other folks in positions of authority tell them what to think -- to do the thinking for them. (Remember how the Protestant Reformation was about having people read the Bible for themselves, instead of having the clergy interpret it for them?)

In my view, which Professor Warford points out in his essay, the downfall of Christianity came in the fourth century when Constantine adopted the sign of the cross. Christianity was coopted by the state, and still is. Ever since that time, many Christians -- especially those in authority -- have used their positions to advocate for the status quo, to bolster whatever political regime was in power, and basically not to rock the boat.

The story of someone close to me -- whom I won't identify out of respect for his privacy -- is just as strange to me as Professor Warford's flip-flop. This person went to college with no real religious beliefs, but sometime during the third year was converted by a rather conservative group of campus Christians; they got him to do all kinds of bizarre things, like going to shopping malls so he could accost complete strangers and try to convert them. [I was actually with him once on a bus in Chicago; we were getting off the bus, and he suddenly ran after some poor guy who had gotten off at the same stop, to "witness to him about Christ." When I asked him why, he said that the Holy Spirit had "moved" him to do it. The guy he had approached didn't speak any English.] About a year after this conversion to a right-wing branch of Christianity, this person was recruited by the U.S. Navy -- he was a Physics major, and he signed up for the Nuclear Navy. It wasn't until several years later that he decided he was a conscientious objector, and filed for an honorable discharge from the service. The point of this story is, if Christianity were what it should be, then a fervent new convert wouldn't be signing up for the military in the first place! Would he? I mean, it seems like a no-brainer to me. He should have been a conscientious objector BEFORE he signed up for the Navy, right? I mean, he was a born-again Christian before he joined the Navy.

MY personal position, to be clear, is that I am a former Christian - a member of the United Methodist Church, first in Evanston, Illinois, and then in Santa Monica, California. I was very interested in Christianity and spirituality for several years. I started to become disenchanted with the church for a variety of reasons, but the main reason I dissociated myself from it (passively, not actively) was the political and religious climate of the United States as it evolved during the 1990s. The so-called "Religious Right" so hijacked public discourse about religion and politics that it became impossible to call oneself a Christian without having people assume the worst - that you're pro-war, you hate gays, and you are just generally intolerant and humorless. To be fair, most of the Christians I know are very tolerant, even compassionate; generous and charitable; respectful of other faiths; concerned about social justice; and many of them are even anti-war.

My problem is with the kind of Christians you see on TV: the Sarah Palins and the Cynthia Davises of the world, and worst of all, the George W. Bushes of the world. These folks make Christianity look like the worst catastrophe that ever struck humankind. Sarah Palin believes that an Alaskan oil pipeline is "God's will;" she urges folks at her church to pray for the pipeline because "God's will has to be done." Also the Iraq War - that's right, "God's plan." See the Sarah Palin Church Videos on YouTube.

In my view, religion and politics should be kept completely separate, but as long as people are using the "Christian" label to get themselves elected to the White House, they should at least understand what Christ represented. Those people give Christianity a bad name.

Posted July 11, 2009

Happy May Day!

We missed the Socialist demonstration in Berlin because we were in Hamburg over the weekend. At least they're keeping their message up to date:

From the Miscommunication Department

Spotted on the side of a delivery van in Hamburg, GERMANY, on May 3, 2009:

Um, don't they mean Afro-German??

Architectural History and Architects; Financial Crisis at Mizzou

My Story Begins in Los Angeles and Tivoli, Italy, in 1993:

In the Spring of 1993 I heard a lecture by the architect Robert Mangurian, delivered at the J. Paul Getty Museum, back when there WAS only one J. Paul Getty Museum and it was in Malibu. His talk was on Hadrian’s Villa at Tivoli; more to the point, it was about the work that he and his partner, Mary-Ann Ray (in Studio Works Architects), had been conducting at Hadrian’s Villa for the past eight years, with M.Arch students from SCI-Arc (the Southern California School of Architecture) where they both taught.

Robert said that he and Mary-Ann felt strongly that every architect should “adopt” a building – in this case a vast complex of buildings – as a sort of unofficial caretaker; that architects had a duty to maintain and preserve the great buildings of the past, the buildings that are inspirations to all architects. This kind of advice, given to an audience consisting largely of architecture students, was a message that I think was unique coming from a high-profile professional architect.

Hadrian’s Villa is an amazing complex of buildings, I could write tons on it – in fact I wrote my masters thesis on it – but that’s not my intention in this blog post. I had the great privilege of joining Robert and Mary-Ann and their students in the work on Hadrian’s Villa for two months in 1993, learning a great deal not only about Hadrian’s Villa but also about architectural culture, from almost a sociological point of view. But that’s not the point of this essay either. Instead I want to write about the importance of architectural history to architects, based on my own first-hand observations of the Hadrian’s Villa project.

That project entailed measuring and drawing plans for all structures built for Hadrian in the early second century at Tivoli, and surveying the site as a whole. This project took many, many years – ten or twelve, though I don’t know exactly how many. Another salient feature of Robert’s talk was the tension between the work of the architect and the work of archaeologists, as each profession approaches such an undertaking very differently. Robert told me that the archaeologists didn’t like him and didn’t approve of his and Mary-Ann’s methods. Based on my limited first-hand experiences with archaeologists (I have worked on three digs), I am not surprised; some of them can be quite territorial about their field, not to mention their specific findings.

What Robert and Mary-Ann were doing at Tivoli was more akin to the work of amateur archaeologists, who flourished long before archaeology became institutionalized as a profession and an academic discipline (and we all know that becoming a profession and a discipline means you have to lay exclusive claim to a field). Ever since the early 15th century, with the Florentine architect Filippo Brunelleschi, architects have been making the pilgrimage to Rome to study, measure, and draw the architecture of the ancient Romans. The 16th-century architect Pirro Ligorio, who partly designed the Villa d’Este in Tivoli, had done excavations at Hadrian’s Villa and was, in fact, the “Superintendant of Ancient Monuments” under two popes.

Architecture Students and Architectural History:

While performing an internet search recently I ran across a website called, a forum for discussing architecture. On Jan. 3, 2009, this question was posted by an architecture student: “Hi, I'm a new architecture student. I wonder why we need to study architecture history. Can somebody kindly explain how important it is to a [sic] architecture student?”

Of course it’s hard to read the tone of this message, but I think most architects and architectural historians familiar with architectural education would recognize in it the attitude found among some students who seem not to understand -- and hence not to care about -- the architectural history classes they are required to take; in my teaching of architectural history at the University of Missouri, I have had many students over the years question the necessity of any class that asks them to learn architectural history rather than teaching them to create their own designs. As if knowledge and practice are not intimately connected.

In contrast, the architecture grad students I got to know while working on the Hadrian’s Villa project shared Robert and Mary-Ann’s passion for architectural history. Conversations about the Villa ranged from the serious (“why do these two walls meet at an angle that is slightly less than 90 degrees?”) to the whimsical (“where would Hadrian have put his darkroom?”).

What would I say to this anonymous student on I would say that architects, more than any other group of people in the world, have a need to understand the myriad ways in which architecture has responded to the needs, desires, hopes, and fears of its creators, its patrons, and its users – including the ways a particular building’s response has been able to change over time. Architects need to understand that buildings can express power and privilege, or community, home, and inclusivity, and the whole gamut of ideals and ideologies. They need to understand how buildings have sheltered, comforted, inspired, propagandized to, and, yes, even oppressed their intended and unintended audiences. Designers need to think about all those aspects when they make their own buildings, or interiors: how does architecture speak to people? Who are their audiences, and what happens when they have conflicting needs?

Architectural History Shot Down by MU Architectural Studies Department, 2009:

In March 2009, the faculty of the Architectural Studies Department at the University of Missouri decided to discontinue one of its two architectural history courses that are required for all undergraduate majors. The course they are cancelling is Architectural Studies 4410, “the History of the Designed Environment to 1750” (beginning with ancient Egypt), which has the daunting task of covering 4,000 years of architecture, interior design, furniture, city planning, and landscape architecture. (Ironically it is still a requirement for students, it just isn’t going to be taught any more.) Having taught that course for six years running – every Fall semester from 2003 through 2008 – I admit I have a vested interest in its being offered. But the course’s being cancelled – not just this Fall but permanently – is a greater disservice to the students than to anyone else. This was a very bad decision by the faculty, and one that will have negative repercussions for hundreds of Architectural Studies students.

Students in Architectural Studies have two potential career paths. Many of them plan to be architects, and many of them go on to graduate school to pursue their Masters of Architecture degree. The others plan to be interior designers, and with a Bachelors degree in Architectural Studies, they are qualified to work in that field without further schooling, because the department is accredited by the Council on Interior Design Education (CIDA).

The Interior Design accreditation depends in part on students taking a full year of architectural history. Architecture schools also expect students entering graduate programs to have studied architectural history. But it doesn’t take a panel of experts or a graduate admissions board to apprehend the importance of learning about design history to future designers. These students, whether they plan to be architects or interior designers, will be contributing to culture; as one of my colleagues (not in the Architectural Studies department) has commented to me, how can they make culture if they don’t know about culture?

This decision by the department demonstrates that its faculty does not really value history as much as their own professional accreditation board thinks they should. The message this sends to their own students is also clear – that the students don’t really need to value history either. Such a message is one that many students are all too eager to accept, because the course is challenging. The class covers such a broad time frame, and such a wide range of topics, that students must work hard to master these many historical periods. It is a 4000-level class, an upper-division course intended for students in their 3rd or 4th year, so the level of difficulty is consistent with the expectations we have of advanced undergraduates; it is hard, but not too hard for the outstanding students that the University of Missouri and the Architectural Studies Department pride themselves on.

The chief reason cited for the course’s being cancelled is budget cuts. The current economic crisis seems to have triggered a budget crisis in the College of Human Environmental Sciences (HES), where Architectural Studies is housed. This strikes me as odd, since the president of the University himself has stated in emails to all faculty and staff that positions would NOT be cut. Deans in the College of Art and Sciences have also not cut faculty or staff. Ironically the College of HES, in order to save money, has decided not to re-hire non-tenure-track and adjunct faculty, who teach courses for a ridiculously low amount of money, in order to protect the jobs of tenure-track faculty who get paid at least three times as much to teach the same classes. It doesn’t make economic sense to me.

The secondary reason cited for the course’s being cancelled is to encourage students to go on the department’s European trip for two weeks in May. If they go on this trip, focusing on one or two countries (Spain in 2008, Italy in 2009, and other destinations in previous years), and if they write a paper, they can substitute that for the 16-week, 3-credit-hour course. At a time when many families are struggling just to send their kids to college, the department thinks students should spend a few thousand dollars to travel for two weeks with 35 classmates and a professor (whose trip is fully paid for by the students, although they might not realize this). Believe me, I’m all for students traveling and studying abroad. But for the same amount of money, with a backpack and a Eurail ticket, a student could spend two entire months in Europe travelling on their own; they would see a lot more, but wouldn’t get college credit for it. Going on the departmental trip means they get to spend two weeks with their classmates from the University of Missouri, and they get to see a lot of architecture; they never have to navigate a foreign city on their own, or overcome a language barrier, or encounter a foreign culture in a meaningful way. They remain insulated from the foreign culture by travelling as part of a large group of Americans (one kind of travel I do not recommend to anyone except retirees!).

The Architectural Studies Department bolsters the number of students signing up for the trip by telling them that if they go, they won’t have to take 4410 – a challenging upper-division architectural history course lasting an entire semester. This has been the case all along, even when 4410 was being offered. I am all for travel, believe me – travel has been one of the most important experiences in my own life and in my education as an art / architectural historian. But I strongly believe as well that a comprehensive study of history, taking in many different cultures, is essential. Two weeks in Europe is not really an adequate substitute.

Not to sound too cynical, but I might as well point out that the substitution of two weeks travelling in Europoe for 16 weeks learning about architectural history inside and out encourages students (those who can afford it) to buy their way out of a tough requirement. The faculty are saying look, you won't have to take this difficult architectural history course if your parents will pay for you to travel with us in Europe for two weeks. It is the most transparent example of catering to the "student-as-customer" mentality that so plagues the modern public university. No wonder those students who can't afford the trip to Europe resent having to take a challenging course that some of their fellow students get to opt out of.

Does This Make Financial Sense?

For those students who can’t afford the luxury of the departmental trip to Europe, the Architectural Studies Department will allow them to substitute a course from the Art History department to satisfy the requirement – since Architectural Studies won’t even offer the course they require their own students to take. That’s more money that goes to the Art History Department and the College of Arts and Sciences rather than to Architectural Studies and the College of Human Environmental Sciences. Go figure.

“To provide meaningful architecture is not to parody history but to articulate it.” – Daniel Libeskind

“...history is essential for architecture, because the architect, who must now deal with everything urban, will therefore always be dealing with historical problems -- with the past and, a function of the past, with the future. So the architect should be regarded as a kind of physical historian, because he constructs relationships across time: civilization in fact. And since civilization is based largely upon the capacity of human beings to remember, the architect builds visible history...” -- Vincent Scully, 1969

Sunday, May 3, 2009

War Detritus

Found in the Elbe River in Hamburg:

The theory behind this particular artifact is that during the war, a bomb hit an office building, and the heat fused the contents of a box of paper clips. It somehow made its way into the river, where it collected sediment that made it much heavier. Decades later it was found by a friend of my husband's cousins in Hamburg, in whose home it now resides.