Member of the Week: Peter Laurence

Peter LaurencePeter L. Laurence
Associate Professor of Architecture
Clemson University School of Architecture
twitter.com/peterlaurence
facebook.com/becomingjanejacobs

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

Much of my research has been concerned with the presence (and absence) of urbanism in architectural theory and in architects’ thinking in general. This led me, more than twenty years ago, to studying Jane Jacobs, and that in turn led me to urban history, urban studies, and the history of urban design. Publishing Becoming Jane Jacobs in early 2016, the US election later that year, and the dramatic changes to the political and cultural landscape that followed caused me to turn to other aspects of Jacobs’s work, resulting in some new essays and chapters focused on her writing on US imperialism, racism and the “plantation mentality,” public space in the face of privatization and gentrification, and her eventual self-exile to Canada. Since then I’ve returned to projects in architectural theory; I’m currently editing a book on the history of architectural education, and just started co-editing a book on contemporary architectural theory. In the meantime, for a number of years I’ve been working on theurbanismproject.org, a research/activist project that has the goal of incorporating fundamental lessons in urbanism and urban design into architectural education, which currently doesn’t, and hasn’t, required professional architecture students (in accredited degree programs in the US) to have any coursework in these areas. After these projects, I plan to return to another book on Jacobs, although I’ve also been thinking about a book on architecture and urbanism.

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

Apart from the occasional undergraduate honors seminar on Jacobs’s Death and Life of Great American Cities and co-teaching a course on theories and methods for first-year students in our interdisciplinary PhD program in Planning, Design, and the Built Environment, in any given semester I’ll teach one of our four required graduate courses in architectural history and theory. This curriculum, which I helped to establish as Director of Graduate Studies some years ago, can be taught however the instructor sees fit, although we want to make sure that various essential historical periods are covered. Most recently I taught our course focused on the mid- to late-twentieth century (and post-modernism), and I naturally teach this with an emphasis on urban history and urban design (e.g., architecture and urban theory in the urban renewal era). Next spring I’ll teach our course focused on the Modern Movement in architecture, and this will similarly include the professionalization of city planning, functionalist urbanism, city histories, and so on. While my recent course on late twentieth-century architectural theory was certainly on my mind while planning a symposium on Architectural Theory Now at University of Pennsylvania in April, since I’m primarily teaching foundational courses for Masters-level students, I generally keep my research separate from my teaching and focus on what the students need to know. What I learn myself in the teaching process, as always happens, informs my thinking and writing.

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

Like everyone working on book projects, I’m most looking forward to completing and seeing the two books mentioned earlier! I’m also looking forward to a book on Jane Jacobs’s early life by Glenna Lang and an English-language version of a Swedish book on Jacobs that I contributed to. I recently had an opportunity to preview Suffragette City: Gender, Politics, and the Built Environment, forthcoming from Routledge, and recommend it. I’m looking forward to Spatial Practices: Modes of Action and Engagement with the City and The Routledge Handbook of Philosophy of the City also coming from Routledge. Meanwhile, I have The Municipalists by Seth Fried and New York 2140 by Kim Stanley Robinson cued up for a first and second listen in my audiobooks library.

What advice do you have for young scholars preparing themselves for a career related to urban history or urban studies?

My advice is to proceed with caution. I’m very concerned about trends in higher education. I haven’t yet read Herb Childress’s The Adjunct Underclass: How America’s Colleges Betrayed Their Faculty, Their Students, and Their Mission, but, apart from his recent editorial (which doesn’t mention the critical issue of declining state funding for state universities), I’ve been reading similar things as a longtime faculty senator and member of the AAUP, which reported non-tenure-track instructional appointments at 73% as of 2016. Apart from the increasingly frequent political attacks on academia, new scholars need to beware that universities, and faculty, are under pressure to produce more PhDs, along with more research, and that job training and placement are not always their highest priorities.

You sit on the board of The Center for the Living City. For UHA members who have never sat on a board of large nonprofit organization, can you share what it means to serve in that role? How do you use your academic expertise and leadership skills to support the Center’s mission?

The Center for the Living City isn’t a large or very old organization. It was established in 2005 to carry forward (with her collaboration and blessing) Jane Jacobs’s interests in the ecologies of cities, and more specifically various social, environmental, and economic justice activities in urban contexts. As a small organization, it has to be strategic about what it can take on. One notable project is the Observe! program, an international program to engage girls and young women, including Girl Scouts (who would earn an “Observe!” merit-badge patch), in learning about and developing agency and positive change in their communities. This program has had pilots in US, India, and Bangladesh; in India and Bangladesh, empowering girls has been a special goal of this project. Another project is creating workshops for city journalism and journalists writing about cities; this project naturally echoes Jane’s work as a journalist and writer. Reflective of Jacobs’s diverse interests, CFLC has a diverse group of board members. I’m one of the academics and, knowing Jacobs’s suspicions of Ivory-Tower dwellers, don’t take that for granted! I contribute something as a Jacobs scholar and urban historian of sorts, but I feel I’m more directly contributing to the mission with activities like theurbanismproject and, in a small, local, day-to-day way, teaching architecture students something about urbanism, urban design, and cities.

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