The Collins/Kaufmann Forum for Modern Architectural History

The Department of Art History and Archaeology is launching its Spring 2021 Collins/Kaufmann Forum for Modern Architectural History with an experimental approach. This year, presented with the challenges of this ongoing global pandemic, we instead consider this situation as an opportunity to expand the geographies of research interest in a global architectural history. This new series of 6 lectures, curated by doctoral students, is thus entitled “Global Dialogues” and will invite scholars from around the world to share their recent research or work-in-process over Zoom, with the aim of surveying trends in different sub-fields of the period since 1750 and with specific attention to current methodologies, approaches, and themes of research. Each event will be hosted by a different graduate student in modern architectural history from the Department, generally in liaison with their own doctoral research.

All events in Spring 2021 are held over Zoom and open to the public.

Spring 2021

Patricio del Real
Tropical Whiteness: Architectural Adventures in a Brazilian Ideology
with response by Mabel O. Wilson, hosted by Rebecca Yuste-Golob
Wednesday, February 3, 2021, 6:30 p.m. EST
Columbia University
Live Zoom Webinar: Register Here

In the early 1950s, U.S. citizens were encouraged to travel to Brazil to “have fun” and come back home “the wiser” by visiting modern architecture, with architects among these tourists. Brazilians, for one, knew a trick or two about living comfortably in hot, tropical weather, leading the world in Climate Control with designs that could be adapted to U.S. suburban living in regions that needed “privacy, shade and breeze.” Moreover, Brazilian examples of modern living carried important social lessons on how to be “free of racial prejudices.”

This talk explores the dissemination of the Brazilian ideology of racial harmony as it circulated through exhibitions, architecture journals, and popular magazines entangled with modern architecture as a discourse on “whiteness.” Traveling through north-Atlantic networks, as what I call tropical whiteness, modernism became a Trojan Horse of Brazil’s racial imaginary. Celebrated, contested, and challenged, it will “colorize” Brazil’s modern architecture, losing the “clarity” that local white elites and cultural officialdom sought to promote. This presentation advances the notion of tropical whiteness to reframe Brazilian modernism, explore a contested field of racial meaning, and uncover the dialogic relationship between cultural whiteness and tropical exoticism that in the 1940s and early ‘50s underwrote its architectural imaginary.

Richard Anderson

Left: El Lissitzky, Wolkenbügel, 1923-26
Right: El Lissitzky, ‘Man is the measure of
all tailors…,’ typo-photo montage for
Izvestiia ASNOVA, 1926
Learning to See: El Lissitzky’s Wolkenbügel
Hosted by Kasiet Toktomusheva
Friday, February 12, 2021, 12:30 p.m. EST
Columbia University
Live Zoom Webinar: Register Here

Variously described as a "sky stirrup," a "cloud iron," or a "cloud presser," the Wolkenbügel was El Lissitzky's most provocative contribution to architectural culture in the 1920s. Lissitzky conceived the Wolkenbügel during a period of intense productivity while undergoing treatment for tuberculosis in 1924-25 in Switzerland. First exhibited in Mannheim and Berlin, the project was described most fully in the pages of Izvestiia ASNOVA [ASNOVA News], which Lissitzky designed and edited for the Moscow-based Association of New Architects in 1926. The project emerged from, and was informed by, Lissitzky’s network of relationships that spanned Europe and the Soviet Union. As scholars have noted, the Wolkenbügel registered Lissitzky's deep engagement with "Americanism" and the emergence of new technologies and building types. Likewise, the Wolkenbügel clearly drew on Lissitzky's earlier painterly practice, evoking the forms that feature in his “PROUN” paintings. This paper addresses Lissitzky's project by synthesizing his preoccupations with scale, movement, and the conditions of visuality in the modern city. A key to understanding the Wolkenbügel is the enigmatic "Feuilleton of images" that Lissitzky published on the final page of Izvestiia ASNOVA. Using bold phrases such as "measure architecture by architecture" and "learn to see what is in front of your eyes," this typo-photo composition presented the incommensurability of human and architectural scales, suggesting that a new art of seeing was required to understand and inhabit the contemporary city. Attending to Lissitzky's concerns with visuality, orientation, and dynamism, this analysis asks how the Wolkenbügel manifested his interest in activated spectatorship and explores how the project served as a complement to his contemporaneous designs for demonstration spaces (Demonstrationsräume).

Jacqueline Taylor
Azurest South (built 1939). Petersburg,
VA (Amaza Lee Meredith, 1895-1984)
Complicating the Canon: Modern Architecture and the Black Middle Class
with response by Mario Gooden & moderated by Mary McLeod
Friday, March 19, 2021, 12:00 p.m. EDT
Columbia University
Live Zoom Webinar: Register Here

In the late 1930s, Amaza Lee Meredith (1895-1984), an African American woman from Lynchburg, Virginia, designed and built a Modern style house for herself and her female companion. Situated on the edge of the Historically Black Virginia State College, in Petersburg, VA, the modest structure, built of concrete blocks, emphasizes the horizontal in a cube-like form. A smooth white planar surface is punctuated by glass bricks, has rounded ends, and a flat roof terrace framed by curved metal coping and accessed by means of a steel ship’s ladder. In other words, the building reflects clear principles of Modern architecture. Yet these formal and aesthetic considerations typically, to this day, conjure the designs of the white European male: the slick shiny cube of a Le Corbusier dwelling or the refractive glass and steel of a Mies van der Rohe facade.

In her life and work, Amaza Lee Meredith shattered behavioral norms on multiple levels. The house she designed provides a provocative place to explore the choices she made, the influences she absorbed, and the new norms she desired to reflect. This lecture offers a reconsideration of the Modernist canon, but more importantly, provides a candid lens into the world of the emergent Black professional class of the early 20th century. Asking critical questions to enrich the discourse of race and gender identity politics, while broadening histories of social representation, this presentation illustrates the importance of mining minority histories of material culture, to enhance our appreciation of American history and life in all its complexity.

Delin Lai
Regionality: A Resistant Issue and Keyword in Modern Chinese Architecture
Hosted by Qisen Song
Monday, April 12, 2021, 6:30 p.m. EDT
Columbia University
Live Zoom Webinar: Register Here

This talk decodes various manifestations of “regionality”, an important issue and keyword in modern Chinese architectural discourse. It argues that each manifestation was a response to cultural, political, social, or even professional challenges faced by architectural scholars, officials, or practitioners. The notion of regionality thus may be interpreted as strategies of criticism or resistance. As “vernacular architecture” it was to criticize monument-dominated historical study, as “the study of local geography” to resist the International Style, as “regional styles” to resist the monopoly of the state discourse, as “Critical Regionalism” or “land-based rationalism” to resist the hegemony of globalized architectural practice, and as “cultural-oriented regionalism” to strive for self-justification in the competition for a national expression.

Grace Lees-Maffei
Handprint in a blanket Hands at Home? Textures, Tactility and Touch in Interior Design
Hosted by Hannah Pivo
Wednesday, April 21, 2021, 12:30 p.m. EDT
Columbia University
Live Zoom Webinar: Register Here

Interior design is the result of a range of designed elements being brought together to produce an orchestrated space. Just as the interior spaces that accommodate much of our lives are designed, so the sensory experiences we have in those spaces are also designed, whether by professionals or by householders. Some interiors are put together with all of the senses in mind, while others prioritise one sense over the rest, for example in appealing to the eye. This presentation will examine a variety of ways in which interior designers, mediators and consumers accommodate and stimulate the sense of touch.
Landmark examples of designers’ appeal to the hand range from Adolf Loos’ furry bedroom for Lina Loos, to the smooth plastic curves favoured by Charles and Ray Eames, Verner Panton and, latterly, Karim Rashid, and are demonstrated too in the ubiquitous Monobloc chair.
Design mediators such as retailers, curators and journalists are well aware of the importance of touch in both promoting and understanding designed objects and interiors. For instance, a 2019 retrospective exhibition of Charlotte Perriand’s work encouraged visitors to sit on her furniture to experience of its ergonomic excellence, while texture has been emphasised by writers and editors such as Ilse Crawford and Michelle Ogundehin, as an antidote to the visuality of the interior design press.
Users/consumers identify affordances unanticipated by designers; we use tables as chairs, benches as tables, chairs as ladders. We fondly use familiar furnishings long after their ostensible lifespans have expired. The habitation practices of visually impaired people demonstrate how we learn to inhabit our interiors using touch sense-memory, reaching out for the expected door knob, stair rail, drawer and light pull, and the soft cushion, flock wallpaper, leather seat.
By foregrounding touch in design ideation or production, mediation and consumption, this presentation offers an alternative to interior design histories which focus exclusively on eye appeal.

Cole Roskam
Aftermath of the 1874 Typhoon in Yau Ma
Tei, photo by Lai Afong
Constructing Climate in Colonial Hong Kong, 1842-1912
Hosted by Y. L. Lucy Wang
Tuesday, May 4, 2021, 8:00 p.m. EDT
Columbia University
Live Zoom Webinar: Register Here

Meteorology emerged as an important science in late-nineteenth century colonial Hong Kong that deepened imperial knowledge concerning the environmental forces affecting the colony’s economic, political, and social affairs and the region at large. This talk traces the historical study of Hong Kong’s climate through the architecture that enabled it, namely, the design and construction of the Hong Kong Observatory, which was initiated in 1879 at the behest of the London-based Meteorological Society and eventually completed in 1883. Overlooked not only in the architectural history of colonial Hong Kong and Great Britain’s imperial sphere, but in the architectural study of climate more generally, analysis of the observatory and attending controversy surrounding its materialization offers insight into the spaces, systems, and information that gave definition to the colony as an environment and proved critical to Hong Kong’s governance, commercial culture, and physical development over time.

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