Member of the Week: Willa Granger

2709E908-D200-47D5-AE2F-8EA6573020CDWilla Granger

PhD Candidate

The University of Texas at Austin, School of Architecture

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

I am currently working on a dissertation that examines the material history of the American “old age home” during the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century. Few architectural historians have studied the history of senior housing, and fewer still have examined congregate facilities for elder Americans (nursing homes, old age homes, assisted living facilities, etc.). What drew me to this subject was its contemporary relevance – as Baby Boomers start to enter retirement, the country will soon face its own senior housing crisis. I am curious how we reached this point, and how our ambiguous cultural, social, and regulatory attitude towards the elderly has manifested materially over time. More and more I realize the urban nature of the subject – not only the spatialization of these homes, but how they fit into the social “mosaic” of the American downtown.

Describe the ideal course you would create based on your research.

I’ve done a fair amount of writing about the incidental built environments of the US military. This includes studies of defense housing projects, and the most recent work I presented at UHA on the how the arrival of Korean-American “War Brides” and their extended families impacted the built environment around Fort Hood, Texas. I’ve conceptualized a class that uses an institutional history of the US military to understand larger built environment narratives. The military provides an architectural historian with a vehicle to study both “high and low” design, both local and transnational spaces, both rural and urban scales. It would be an exploratory “generator” to use with students towards understanding some of the fundamental considerations of the field.

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

I am excited (for my own dissertation work!) to read Carla Yanni’s forthcoming Living on Campus: An Architectural History of the American Dormitory. If you’ve read The Architecture of Madness: Insane Asylums in the United States, you know that Yanni is particularly adept at filtering social history through the lens of a specific typology – not dissimilar from what I hope to do with my dissertation. Dormitories – like insane asylums, like old age homes – fit into the landscape of the Victorian city, and I am eager to see what she has uncovered.

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

To simply look around! That’s one of the joys of this field (especially for built environment scholars examining cities) – our evidence is everywhere. Some of the best topics I’ve happened upon in my own work have come from simply moving through city-space. The material world (and even its absence) tells us things that other forms of evidence cannot.

You contributed a fascinating think piece about the film A Ghost Story to Interiors, a publication about “how architecture functions in film and media.” What was it like to write an architectural critique of a film? Would you do it again?

I am constantly thinking about the way the built environment is represented in film. In many movies the architecture is just a backdrop, a support – in conjuring a scene, oftentimes the whole goal of architecture is to not be idiosyncratic. I think this resonates with my interest in the everyday built environment, the vernacular. But the vernacular is so loaded with meaning; in its ordinariness it contains cues and clues about the actual lived experience of people. What I learned in writing the piece on A Ghost Story was the role that “vernacular looking” played on the film set. The director, the set designer, and many others shared a thoughtful attunement to the nuance of creating an “everyday,” home-like setting which played a critical role in the narrative.

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