Tag Archives: Global Urban History

Member of the Week: Rainer Schützeichel

Schuetzeichel_UHA-MotW_PortraitDr. Rainer Schützeichel

ETH Zurich, Institute for the History and Theory of Architecture (gta)

 

 

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

Intellectual history alongside (and intertwined with) urban and architectural history has always caught my interest. At the moment, I am following this research interest firstly in a project that is looking at a larger, regional scale: At ETH Zurich, we are conducting a research project on the Swiss civil engineer Heinz Isler (1926–2009), who played a major role in the development of prestressed thin concrete shells and was influential in shaping the Swiss infrastructural landscape by implementing a network of industrial buildings. These structures can shed light on developments in engineering, on changing conditions inside the construction industry, as well as on the phenomenon of land-consuming sprawl in industrial zones. Secondly, I am following the traces of several disciples of the architect and urban planner Theodor Fischer (1862–1938), who was one of the doyens of modern, yet traditionally rooted architecture in Germany. My goal is to carve out the effect that Fischer’s teaching had on the younger generations of architects who then, in turn, set the tone during the interwar years and in the reconstruction of cities during the early postwar period.

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

During the current semester, I am taking a pause from teaching to concentrate on my research. In the upcoming semester, though, I will be teaching History of Urban Design as a guest lecturer at Hochschule München. It is the relationship between theory, cultural history, and practice that intrigues me and that I want to reveal to the students. In past years, I concentrated on the discourse of space in German architectural theory – a discourse which also evolved in urban planning around the turn of the century. This opens up new perspectives on industrialized cities as both estranged environments that could be reclaimed and on larger spatial relationships that went beyond the historical boundaries of cities on the other. This investigation into theory and its actual effects on planning practice informs my teaching of urban history.

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

I am very much looking forward to the publication of my PhD thesis on the architect and theoretician Herman Sörgel (1885–1952), which will appear in the fall this year. It is not only that this research – as is the nature of a dissertation – accompanied me for many years. It is also my aim to contribute with this book, which for the first time shifts the focus from both Sörgel’s unfinished “Theorie der Baukunst” and his architectural and urban designs to a broader understanding of modernism in general by introducing a figure that until now has not been in the center of the historiography of modern architecture.

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

One that sounds rather self-explanatory: be curious, and be aware that when you answer one research question you raise at least two new ones. Although this can sometimes be sobering or even annoying, it is the best driver for research. And certainty about the fact that history never follows an easy logic of smooth progress, but that it contains a bundle of fascinating sub-plots, is one of its best outcomes.

You have written about the application of the philosophical concept of “Einfühlung” (empathy) in architecture. What is an example of a structure or architectural work that you particularly empathize with, and why?

It is rather an urban project than an architectural work that I am empathizing with, if I have to choose one. I am thinking of Joze Plecnik’s (1872–1957) renewal (or better, refurbishment) of Ljubljana’s city center. He was able to implement this by a series of punctual interventions: When strolling through the city along the river bank of the Ljubljanica, one is confronted with several bridges that were carefully implanted into the urban fabric, flights of stairs, monuments, and public buildings such as the Market or the National Library. In Ljubljana, one can experience a vivid urban center and at the same time some kind of open-air exhibition making visible the architectural search for an identity which the newly constituted capital city undertook in the crucial years after the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Slovenia’s independence from the Viennese reign.

Member of the Week: Tracy Neumann

BilbaoTracy Neumann

Associate Professor of History

Wayne State University

@tracy_neumann

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

My current book project looks at how urban and international development became linked after World War II through the activities of philanthropic foundations, international organizations, and universities. I came to the project through my first book, which talks in part about Pittsburgh as an international model for urban revitalization first in the 1950s and in again in the 1980s. I wanted to know more about how urban planning models are developed and circulated internationally, and why certain models become enshrined as “best practices” while others never gain traction. When I got into the archives, I realized that the same people popped up over and over again in domestic and international urban development initiatives supported by institutions such as the Ford Foundation and the UN, and I’m trying to map the network of actors who influenced urban development globally in the second half of the 20th century.

The other project I’m really excited about right now is a Global Urban History “Elements” series Michael Goebel, Joseph Ben Prestel, and I just signed on to edit for Cambridge University Press. (We also edit the Global Urban History blog.) We’ve managed to enlist some really incredible global urban historians to write the initial volumes in the series, which should begin to appear in the next year-and-a-half.

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

This semester, both of my classes directly relate to my scholarship: I’m teaching a general education course on the History of Detroit and a course on Modern American Cities, which is a mix of undergrads and grad students.

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

 To be honest, I am *most* excited about the stack of mystery novels on my nightstand (it’s spring break for us right now). Once I’m finished with those, though, I want to check out Shaped by the State: Toward a New Political History of the Twentieth Century, edited by Lily Gesimer, Brent Cebul, and Mason Williams. Clay Howard’s The Closet and the Cul-de-Sac: The Politics of Sexual Privacy in Northern California is out soon, and I can’t wait to pick that up. I’m also looking forward to two forthcoming books on Detroit as a borderland, one on immigration and policing in the first part of the twentieth century by Ashley Johnson Bavery and one by my Wayne State colleague Karen Marrero on the role of indigenous and mixed blood peoples in the development of the region in the eighteenth century. On a longer time horizon, I’m really eager to read Ayala Levin’s work on how Israeli architecture and planning models were exported to Africa, Paige Glotzer’s work on U.S. suburban housing developers and their ties to transnational financiers and real estate interests, and whatever Nancy Kwak and Lily Geismer publish next, because their first books are two of my favorites.

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

 I’d echo the same advice others have offered in this space: read widely outside of your field and outside of history. Take classes on topics outside of your primary geographic and temporal interests, and in other departments. Talk to geographers, sociologists, and anthropologists and learn something about their research methodologies. Ask good questions and think carefully about the scale at which they can best be answered. And even though you didn’t actually ask for it, here’s my top piece of advice for young scholars about to go to graduate school (or already there) in any discipline: join your union! Organizing with your grad union will give you an invaluable education in the politics of academic labor and the structures of higher education.

How has being at Wayne State shaped the last few years of your life, intellectually and personally, and how do you feed that back into the work you are doing in the classroom, on Twitter, and as an all-around human being?

 Wayne State has been a really good fit for me, both in terms of my research and teaching interests—we are a public research university with an urban mission, and Detroit is a fascinating place to be for an urban historian—and in terms of the kinds of activities I care about as a faculty member. For instance, I love that I’m able to partner with organizations like the Detroit Historical Society to get students in my classes involved with community-driven, hands-on history projects, like conducting oral histories in Detroit’s Mexicantown this term. Urban history aside, my primary interests as a faculty member are graduate education and academic labor issues. I got my PhD (and my current job) in 2011, which as we know from recent AHA data was the only year in which there was a small uptick in history jobs after the 2008 recession. I’m still mind-boggled by how fast the academic labor market and career horizons for PhD students have changed over the past decade, both because of the acceleration of casual labor and because of heightened expectations for peer-reviewed publications and evidence of public engagement for entry-level jobs. I’m proud of how my Department and University have responded: we recently started a public history program to better prepare our master’s students for the kinds of jobs they actually end up getting, and we have been part of the last two rounds of the AHA Career Diversity Initiative, which has led us to rethink our doctoral curriculum and become more expansive in our efforts to support our doctoral students’ career goals. And I deeply value being at an institution with a unionized faculty; I’m one of my Department’s shop stewards, and I really enjoy the work I do with the union.

Member of the Week: Margaret O’Mara

OMara.pngMargaret O’Mara

Professor of History

University of Washington

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

I’m currently working on a book about the history of the American high-tech industry—from semiconductors to social media—and its relationship to the worlds of politics and finance. My interest and intent here is, to adapt a phrase, to “put the tech back in” to the study of modern American history, including urban history. Cities are among the many things that computer hardware and software have disrupted in the past half century—from the use of mainframes to run urban infrastructure and municipal services, to the personal computer’s transformation of workplaces, home life, and “third places,” to the role of social media in political mobilization, group identity, and sense of place. The high-tech revolution is rich and relatively underexplored territory, and as the PC reaches middle age and the smartphone approaches adolescence, it is ready for some serious historical analysis. I encourage other urban historians to join me!

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

I teach twentieth century political, economic, and urban history, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels. Every winter term—including this one—I teach my undergraduate survey course, “The City,” which covers North American urban history from New Amsterdam to the new economy. One of the joys of teaching this class is the wide variety of students who take it—engineering majors as well as history majors, freshmen to seniors, all drawn in by a curiosity about what makes cities work and how they’ve grown. Instead of a final paper, the students build a digital exhibition that uses the history of one Seattle city block to discuss broader patterns of urban change. The focus on the digital also allows me to introduce students to new scholarship and new scholarly voices, and to incorporate beyond-the-book digital platforms and sources like Mapping Inequality from the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab and the urban visualizations built at the Spatial History Project at Stanford University.

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

I’m excited by the transnational turn in urban history, a good slice of which is represented in the edited volume published last year from Penn Press, Making Cities Global (full disclosure: I’m a contributor) and reflected in important recent books like Nancy Kwak, A Nation of Homeowners and N.D.B. Connolly, A World More Concrete. These and other works placing urban ideas and institutions in global and imperial context have had a significant impact on both my teaching and my research. Also, with tax reform in the news—and, as urban historians know, taxation is at the center of everything!—I’m gaining much from the recent crop of books giving tax policy and politics a deeper and more nuanced history, such as Isaac William Martin, Rich People’s Movements and Ajay Mehrotra, Making the Modern American Fiscal State.

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

One of the more refreshing trends in the profession today—call it the silver lining on the gloomy cloud of the academic job market—is that younger scholars are more willing and more able to practice history in public, whether by writing directly for public audiences, developing public history and digital history projects, or simply by being very good at Twitter. At a moment when “history” is so often wielded as a partisan weapon, it’s particularly important to have thoughtful and careful scholars out there engaging broad audiences. I encourage younger scholars to start thinking quite early about how they want to contribute to this conversation, how they delineate their scholarship and their activism, and how their scholarly expertise might translate to a broader scholarly community as well as to public audiences. Particularly good examples of this sort of careful, informed engagement can be found these days on the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS) blog Black Perspectives, the Organization of American Historians’ Process: a blog for American History, and the online and print editions of the Boston Review, all of which are on my regular reading list.

You are the lead curatorial advisor to the Bezos Center for Innovation at the Museum of History and Industry (MOHAI). What have been some of the highlights of serving in that capacity?

My work at the Bezos Center at MOHAI was a lightning-fast education in public history, and in the art and science of historical museums in particular. Creating an effective museum exhibit is a team sport involving players with a wide range of expertise, from my team of History PhD researchers to the to visionary architects and graphic designers who turned our research into words on a wall to the lighting maestros who set the mood and feel for the experience. It was also was an eye-opening lesson in how a well-designed museum experience can reach and educate so many different people, including those who don’t see themselves as “history people.” I also love that a future-tense business leader like Jeff Bezos has such an appreciation for the past—I hope other tech leaders will embark on their own philanthropic efforts to support history education and scholarship.