New Ways of Thinking About Architectural History

Three of 106 Group’s architectural historians attended the Society of Architectural Historians’ annual conference in Saint Paul from April 18-22. Here are their thoughts and reflections on the conference.

Saleh Miller, Senior Architectural Historian

The Society of Architectural Historians 71st Annual International Conference convened in beautiful, albeit snowy, downtown St. Paul in mid-April. The conference offered a wide array of paper presentations from “The Audience for Architectural History in the Twenty-first Century” to “A Matter of Life and Death: Spaces for Healing in the Pre-modern Era”, opportunities to meet and mingle with our fellow historians from all over the world, and architectural tours throughout the state of Minnesota.

While I attended many sessions that are applicable to our daily work as historians, there were also some I attended of a more personal nature. One such session of personal interest was “Modern Architecture and the Rise of the New South”.

I was drawn to the topic on “Race, Modernism and Architectural Identity at Virginia Union University”, a historically black university in Richmond, Virginia that I previously lived near but knew very little about. During my tenure in Richmond I commuted down Brook Road every day, and I was always curious about the almost unsightly tower at the center of Virginia Union University’s campus, it seemed so out of place from the surrounding late nineteenth century traditional styled university buildings. Bryan Clark Green of Commonwealth Architects in Richmond informed us that this tower and its attached building was the Belgium Building from 1939 New York World’s Fair, which just by looking at it no one would know. The university “won” this modern building after the fair, albeit at a hefty price tag, and over the years it has become more of a detriment to the university due to expensive upkeep, one of the many reasons the formerly beautiful red terra cotta tower is now plastered in white dryvit.

This “hidden history” of architecture was echoed throughout the conference, it was also a primary discussion point of my colleague’s paper on hidden histories of St. Paul’s African American architecture, and really has me contemplating how we can go beyond identifying and studying the style, materials, and architect of a building. Who were a particular building’s former tenants, what was a buildings former use, or perhaps even location, and how can that hidden history help us learn more about our past?

Erin Que, Architectural Historian

The SAH conference offered a wide range of paper sessions intermixed with tours of local architectural sites as well as gems across the state. I was particularly drawn to the sessions that focused on narratives not often represented in the architectural history canon.

I learned about contributions of female architects in the mid-20th century across the globe, hostile attitudes toward Modernist architecture in the southern U.S. and its intersection with racism and discrimination, the architecture of resistance, studies of contemporary rural environments in the face of rapid urbanization, and a session on Caribbean architecture, which is believed to be the first session of its kind in this conference’s history.

One paper that really struck me was titled “Food Deserts, Big Boxes, and the Revitalization of the Rural” and delivered by Vero Rose Smith from the University Of Iowa Stanley Museum Of Art. Big Box architecture refers to stores like Wal-Mart, Target, and Home Depot that are certainly present in cities but also pop up along highways near, but not in, small rural towns. Smith highlighted the economic impacts of these arrivals on local economies in the 1960s and 1970s, both on small mom-and-pop shops that can’t compete with the Big Box prices and the aftermath when a Big Box store closes. Additionally, the arrival and later departure of these stores inflates food insecurity and accessibility, thereby by impacting the healthfulness of the local residents.

She also raised the inherent contradiction of Big Box architecture: these stores are built using temporary materials and methods of construction, but remain permanent fixtures in the landscape whether they are open or closed. How can we reuse these massive spaces and how can we make healthy food available and affordable in small towns?

Nicole Foss, Resources Planner & Historian

The SAH conference’s international scope yielded an exciting mix of topics based in wide-ranging locales that intersected in surprising and informative ways. This included sessions on evolving virtual reality and 3-D scanning technologies which transported participants from past, present, and future buildings in the Netherlands to a twelfth century Serbian Orthodox church and portico-enhanced houses along Rome’s processional avenues during the Renaissance.

Universities, non-profits, and for-profit entities are finding innovative applications for technologies developed for diverse industries to enhance architectural documentation and analysis. As some sessions guided us through historic and imagined interiors (from an Ottoman-era hospital to a forest sanctuary virtually housed in a museum in Norway), one paper prompted the question whether there is actually anything new under the sun with an eye-opening journey along one of the earliest virtual architectural tours. The topic of this presentation was a medieval printed book of Christian architecture in the Holy Land that, when tilted and turned, offered an optical illusory experience of moving through the buildings—a sort of virtual tour for would-be pilgrims.

While technology both past and present was an intriguing theme, those who build, utilize, and are oppressed or uplifted by architecture were also a focus at the conference. Enduring cultural knowledge was the topic of a paper which explored the ways in which traditional architectural forms, shaped by First Nations communities’ knowledge and practices, informed the design of the Tsawwassen First Nation’s Coast Salish longhouse, as well as the ways in which traditional Native concepts and values were manifested in the design of an Aboriginal public post-secondary institute in British Columbia.

The role of communities in architectural history projects and historic preservation was discussed in the session “The Audience for Architectural History in the Twenty-First Century,” which in addition to delving into some of the technology topics noted above, gave consideration to balancing the needs and concerns of different audiences and entities. This was also explored in the “Unheard Voices: New Interpretations of Minnesota’s Landscapes” session in which I had the honor of presenting alongside respected colleagues. All-in-all, the conference was an invigorating and inspiring journey through the state of architectural history in 2018.