Member of the Week: Vyta Baselice

Vyta BaseliceVyta Baselice

PhD Student in American Studies

George Washington University

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 

My dissertation explores the cultural history of concrete. I examine why concrete became the second most consumed material on the planet and how it came to define architectural and social modernity in the United States. The dissertation therefore attempts to move beyond aesthetic concerns typically addressed in literature on concrete and, in addition to built environments, looks at cement plants, concrete distribution businesses, contractors, and construction workers, among other important players. My interest in concrete is a result of both my personal and educational backgrounds. I grew up in a post-Soviet country, where the material was quite literally everywhere. My experience of studying architectural design and history, first at Wesleyan and then at University College London, got me interested in materials and environments people take for granted.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?

I currently work as a teaching assistant for various courses in the history of art, architecture, and science and technology. My teaching experience with undergraduate students allows me to clarify my own ideas about design and culture. This is important because although I come from a specialized background, I write for a non-expert audience. And it was only when I started teaching that I realized that students with no experience in architecture have a difficult time not only reading plans, drawings and other documentation, but also finding the language with which to describe space. So, I am now particularly sensitive about selecting helpful case studies that we can collectively break down and analyze, paying attention to how architecture can perform as functional buildings, artistic projects, capitalist ventures, and political statements.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?

I have been working on an article that examines the way concrete was transformed as a result of research and engineering efforts during World War I. This project has allowed me to engage with secondary and archival materials in the history of engineering, which is a fascinating though new field to me. In terms of other scholars’ work, I am excited to read Megan Black’s The Global Interior (Harvard, 2018), which examines the transnational aspirations of the Department of the Interior. Black’s approach to her topic is particularly inspiring to me as I am tackling some similar issues related to politics, culture, and the environment.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 

I would advise students to select a topic that allows them to visit diverse archival repositories and field sites. While I have found secondary and digitized materials to be helpful and convenient, it has been critical to actually get to the archives and flip through the different materials, which often reveal unexpected relationships and thoughts. This has been particularly true for a documentation report I wrote for the Historic American Buildings Survey on Paul Rudolph’s Burroughs Wellcome Headquarters. The different project-related boxes I examined at the Library of Congress often included information on other buildings the architect was working on simultaneously. It was fascinating to consider how those projects might have informed the design of Burroughs Wellcome. Visiting the building was likewise critical for understanding the scale of the project and the extent to which representational tools attempted to mediate some of the less successful aspects of the design.

You live in Washington, D.C., which has no shortage of interesting structures. What concrete building should be included in any architectural tour of Washington, D.C.?

Oh, that’s a tough question. Some of the most obviously stunning buildings are large in scale and built by and for various government departments, like Marcel Breuer’s Department of Housing and Urban Development headquarters or Stanislaw Z. Gladych and Carter H. Manny Jr.’s J. Edgar Hoover Building (otherwise known as the imposing FBI structure). The DC metro likewise showcases a pretty impressive application of exposed concrete for transportation. I would, however, like to highlight some other lesser known works of concrete that represent earlier experimental uses of this material, like John Earley’s Meridian Hill Park, which is truly a spectacular urban park project, or the mini golf park in East Potomac Park.

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