You wear a lot of hats! What are your many and varied affiliations?
I am Interim Dean and Professor of Architecture (History and Theory) at the Spitzer School of Architecture, City College of the City University of New York, and Professor of Art History and Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences, Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Yes, a mouthful!
I am the president-elect of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History, and a founding co-editor of PLATFORM, the digital forum for conversations about buildings, spaces, and landscapes. The Metropole was an inspiration for PLATFORM, and I’d like to thank publicly senior editors Avigail Oren and Ryan Reft, who advised us before the launch in 2019 and have cheered us on from sidelines since then.
Please describe your current research. What about it drew your interest?
I’m an architectural and urban historian who focuses on public places purposefully made for children in cities. I knew I wanted to tackle public schools in postwar U.S. cities after I finished A City for Children: Women, Architecture, and the Charitable Landscapes of Oakland, 1850-1950, but I didn’t imagine that this prompt would be the one that got me going. I met a friend, a fellow urbanist, for a drink after work, and during the course of conversation she asked me “Do you know anything about the design of this school?” She pointed to her iPhone, and I shook my head no, puzzled by the photograph she showed me—of an architectural model of Intermediate School (I.S.) 201, the New York City public school two blocks north of East 125th Street in Harlem. It piqued my interest and prompted this question: how did architecture contribute to the storied events that unfolded at the site? Lifted one story above grade, supported by concrete piers, clad in brick, and set back from Madison Avenue, I.S. 201 is without one window in its classrooms. It became a flashpoint in the battle for community control of public education in New York City in the 1960s.
Long story short, I.S. 201 is one of the examples that I discuss in my new book, Just Space: Architecture, Education, and Inequality in Postwar Urban America (in contract with the University of Texas Press). It directs attention to the physical tools that the state used to segregate schools, highlighting examples in South Carolina, Louisiana, New York, and California, and to the strategies that parents, teachers, students, architects, artists, and other activists used to challenge racial inequality and reconfigure outcomes—to make just space for Black children. Since these struggles continue in our own time, Just Space also sheds light on the inequalities that persist in public education and the schools that children learn in.
My essay, “Intermediate School 201: Race, Space, and Modern Architecture in Harlem,” which appears in Educating Harlem: A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community, edited by Ansley T. Erickson and Ernest Morrell (Columbia University Press, 2019), is 2021 winner of the Catherine W. Bishir Prize from the Vernacular Architecture Forum.
Please describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I work in a very large, public, urban university, so my teaching runs the gamut, from large lecture courses to small(ish) seminars, and serves different cohorts—undergraduate and graduate students in professional programs in architecture, landscape architecture, and urban design, and doctoral students in art history, geography, political science, and a variety of other disciplines. Cities factor into the narrative, always. I take a social constructionist perspective, asking students to analyze the production of space, from physical, social, and discursive perspectives, and I adhere to this counsel, offered by Holland Carter in the New York Times in response to Charlottesville: “These days, when we need to be as politically alert as possible, anything that gets us into the street, and keeps the reality-check called history in sight, is healthy.”,
Usually, my core assignment at the Spitzer School of Architecture is to teach the required history of world architecture and urbanism. I’ve written (and spoken) about the four-semester sequence—have a look at, “Who Is the Global?” on PLATFORM, “Part 1, The Global Is My Classroom,” and “Part 2, The Meaning of Your Last Name.” Here, I’d like to emphasize that to teach world architecture and world urbanism, I need to reach outside of my specialty. This is humbling. It puts me, the instructor, in the position of my students: I make mistakes; I can’t answer every question; the fragility of my expertise is exposed. I share my risk-taking with my students—to show that I’m learning too, that together we are inventing a new kind of history in the classroom.
I am very fortunate in that I am able to offer electives that pertain to my scholarly interests and allow me to explore new ones. At the Graduate Center, I’ve been involved with an effort to create an urban studies hub, advanced by the urbanists, John Mollenkopf and Cindi Katz. John and I taught a year-long core seminar in urban studies in 2019, using New York City as a laboratory for learning, and drew students from the humanities, the arts, and the social sciences. Last semester (Spring 2021), I offered a seminar on race and architecture in the United States. There were two iterations, one developed for doctoral students in art history at the Graduate Center; the other for professional students in architecture at Spitzer. And I am working on a new seminar for Fall 2021, one that will examine architecture, urbanism, and inequality in global culture in the postwar period. Stay tuned for more news.
What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
I like to read.
I’m in the midst of reading Steven Moga’s wonderful new book, Urban Lowlands: A History of Neighborhoods, Poverty and Planning (University of Chicago Press, 2020), and learning about the lowlands in eastern Harlem. Next up: America on Fire: The Untold History of Police Violence and Black Rebellion Since the 1960s (Liveright, 2021) by Elizabeth Hinton, and Race Capital? Harlem As Setting and Symbol, edited by Andrew M. Fearnley and Daniel Matlin (Columbia University Press, 2019).
For my new seminar, I will dig into Łukasz Stanek’s Architecture in Global Socialism: Eastern Europe, West Africa, and the Middle East in the Cold War (Princeton University Press, 2020), Christina Schwenkel’s Building Socialism: The Afterlife of East German Architecture in Urban Vietnam (Duke University Press, 2020), and Louis Menand’s The Free World: Art and Thought in the Cold War (Farrar Straus, and Giroux, 2021).
And I will be delighted to read my chapter, “Children of the Revolution: The Odyssey School Experiment in Berkeley,” when it’s in print. The pandemic has delayed publication; it is forthcoming in Design Radicals: Spaces of Bay Area Counterculture, edited by Greg Castillo and Lee Stickells (University of Minnesota Press).
What kinds of advice would you give to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who are interested in urban studies and just starting out their careers?
Learn from the landscape. If you were my student, I remind you that this is what I asked you to do in class.
Turn off your computer, shut down your cellphone, and take a walk. Let your city wash over you, step by step, smell by smell, sound by sound, building by building, person by person. Pay attention to what you see and what you don’t see—to the vacant lots, to the tenements, to the storefront churches, to the schools. Take notes. Talk to people. Look up, look down and look underneath the ground, if you can (a la Steven Moga).
Then go to the library and start to read. Archives are important; they also come with their own tyranny. Carry research tools across disciplines, and recognize that as one aspect of urban life comes into focus, another aspect will slip from sight. Be patient. When you write, strive to reach an audience other than yourself. Urban history matters, and you can bring urban places into public debate.
Recognize that learning from the landscape takes time. It disrupts certainty. When you get stuck, which will happen, visit your site again and again. Try to move at a different pace, say by bike, and assess how your understanding of a place is changed. Read some more. Strive to make sense of difference, of possession and dispossession; resist totalizing, essentializing, and universalizing narratives; figure out who called the shots, and who tried to imagine a better future.
Member of the Week series co-editor Alec Dawson continues the conversation with Marta Gutman in this audio interview: