Tag Archives: Skyscrapers

Member of the Week: Joseph Watson

watsonJoseph Watson

Ph.D. Candidate in the History and Theory of Architecture

University of Pennsylvania School of Design

Describe your current research. What about it drew your interest? 
I am currently wrapping up my dissertation. It’s a study of competing ideas about the future of metropolitan America during the 1930s. I focus primarily on two architectural projects, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre City and Rockefeller Center, designed by Raymond Hood and a handful of other architects. At face value, these two works seem entirely incompatible. Wright’s techno-pastoral celebration of decentralization, which only exists in a handful of books and a giant model, doesn’t appear to have much in common with a dense assemblage of office towers and theaters built in midtown Manhattan. My contention is that they were, in fact, two sides of the same coin. Not only because Wright first exhibited Broadacre City at Rockefeller Center in 1935. The two projects both used the same points of reference—the proliferation of skyscrapers, automobile-induced suburbanization, technologies like radio and television, an acute crisis of capitalism—to make divergent arguments about how the social, cultural, and economic landscapes of metropolitan America might be reconstituted. What drew me to these projects was a notion that reframing familiar works could produce something new.

Describe what you are currently teaching. How does your teaching relate to your scholarship?
I spent the past year teaching history and design in the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the University of British Columbia. My dissertation work is part of a larger research interest in the histories of skyscrapers and suburbs, which (very conveniently) dominate the landscapes of Metro Vancouver. In my history seminars, I used the peculiarities of Vancouver’s mixture of density and dispersion to frame discussions of industrialization and financialization, infrastructure and environment, the pervasiveness of inequity and the persistence of utopia. By using Vancouver as a laboratory, my students were able to better grasp less visible, sometimes nebulous qualities of architectural and urban history.

What recent or forthcoming publications are you excited about, either of your own or from other scholars?
A number of recent books have helped me to define my own position at the intersection of architectural and urban history. Among them are Francesca Ammon’s Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape, Brian Goldstein’s The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem, Reinhold Martin’s The Urban Apparatus: Mediapolitics and the City, and Sara Steven’s Developing Expertise: Architecture and Real Estate in Metropolitan America. Since last year would have been Frank Lloyd Wright’s 150th birthday, there are quite a few new studies of his work. Of the most interest to UHA members would probably be Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, an edited volume that accompanied a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, and Neil Levine’s The Urbanism of Frank Lloyd Wright. (Although, I argued in a review of Levine’s work that there are issues with his framing of Wright’s relationship to American urban history.) I’m looking forward to finishing the dissertation so that I have time to grapple with Edward Eigen’s On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape. Finally, and it’s not a work of historical scholarship, but I am currently enjoying Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140, a science-fiction novel about the catastrophic convergence of climate change and finance capitalism set in a semi-drowned, 22nd century Manhattan.

What advice do you have for graduate students preparing a dissertation project related to urban history or urban studies? 
Since I’m currently trying to wrap up a dissertation, I’m not sure I’m in the best position to answer this right now. But, I think my own work has benefited from a willingness to let the project evolve as I made new archival finds (or didn’t find what I’d hoped for), which sometimes required rethinking how I was framing things. I’m not sure if that’s a terribly original observation or how it applies directly to urban history or urban studies, but a mix of focus and flexibility has been useful throughout this process.

Most people can list off the name of a few famous skyscrapers. What’s a skyscraper that no one knows about, but should? 
Here’s one I became fascinated with as I was researching the backstory of Rockefeller Center. The Standard Oil Building sits on Broadway, in New York, a couple blocks south of Wall Street. In terms of design, it’s fairly unremarkable. It was designed in the early 1920s by Carrère & Hastings, with Shreve, Lamb & Blake, and is composed of two roughly parallel, sixteen-story bars intersected by a bulky pyramidal tower, an arrangement all but dictated by the 1916 zoning law. Inside of this behemoth, however, are two earlier Standard Oil Buildings. The original is a ten-story, load-bearing masonry structure built in 1886 by Ebenezer L. Roberts. In the mid-1890s, Kimball & Thompson engineered a mostly self-supporting, steel-frame annex that rises alongside the original before adding seven floors to the overall height. The final, 1920s version assimilates the earlier buildings behind a uniform façade, but the floor plans retain obvious traces of each incarnation. So, hiding in plain sight, the Standard Oil Building is a singular accretion of almost fifty years of early skyscraper history.

Member of the Week: Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

joanna-merwood-salisburyProf. Joanna Merwood-Salisbury

Faculty of Architecture and Design

Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

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

I began my career as an historian of late-nineteenth-century American architecture, in particular the culture of the early Chicago skyscraper (roughly 1880 to 1910). My research investigated the broader group of social actors involved in the creation of the skyscraper city, and asked how the appearance of the skyscraper changed ideas about the nature of cities and American society as a whole. From there I moved on to explore the types of public space available to Americans during this period: what was the dominant understanding of public space? How was it incorporated into strategies of urban design and how did different social groups make use of it? These interests lead to my current project on the history of Union Square in New York City.

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

My current position as Associate Dean of Research and Innovation means I spend the majority of my time helping other scholars make the most of their own research. When I do teach it is courses in modern Architectural History. Throughout my career I have usually worked with students aiming for careers in architecture practice. I find that students enrolled in a professional program are principally focused on the contemporary issues at stake for design. For this reason I try to situate historical material in relation to those issues. For example, I connect the current concern with sustainability to the long-standing interest in “organicism” in architecture; in courses dealing with the formulation of the industrial city in the nineteenth-century, I relate historical processes of change to contemporary issues in urban design, in particular the impact of globalization and the environmental crisis.

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

I am excited for the publication next year of Race and Modern Architecture, edited by Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II and Mabel O. Wilson. This is a series of essays on the critical role of racial theory in shaping architectural discourse. Redressing a longstanding neglect of racial discourses among architectural scholars, it reveals how the racial has been deployed to organize and conceptualize the spaces of modernity, from the individual building to the city to the nation to the planet. I have an essay in it about racial themes in Civil War-era New York City architecture. I’m also looking forward to the publication of my book-length project on Union Square, Design for the Crowd Patriotism and Protest in Union Square, which investigates the history of the Square since the early-nineteenth-century, understanding it as both a real public space and as the symbol of competing ideas about the operation of democracy in the United States.

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

Even if it seems unfashionable, obscure, or even over done, find a topic that you are deeply interested in, not just one that seems to tick the right boxes. The many hours you’ll spend in library basements and archival storage will seem even longer if you’re not passionate about what you’re looking at.

In this current moment of political protest, how would you design the optimal protest space? What would it look like and where would it be? Assume no obstacles!

Protest movements today no longer rely on gatherings in physical space to get their message across. Some of the most effective contemporary activism (the “Black Lives Matter” movement, for example) is geographically dispersed with a heavy reliance on social media. However I still believe that physical space has a role to play, principally in giving a visual image to protest movements, as in the Occupy Wall Street protest at Zuccotti Park. The most effective seem to combine occupation of dedicated public spaces (where proximity to symbols of power is key) with dynamic connections to larger groups not present on site, via mainstream and new media.

Member of the Week: Katherine Zubovich

20170623_152330-3.jpgKatherine Zubovich

Assistant Professor, Ryerson University

@kzubovich

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

I’m currently working on a book project about urban planning and urban life in Moscow in the 1930s-1950s, tentatively titled Moscow Monumental: Soviet Skyscrapers and Urban Life under High Stalinism. This research focuses on a city-wide skyscraper construction project begun in Moscow in 1947. Seven out of eight skyscrapers called for (by state decree) in 1947 were built to completion in the waning years of the Stalin era and what drew my interest to this project initially was the buildings themselves. Anyone who has visited Moscow knows these skyscrapers well: they are distinctive features of the Moscow cityscape even today, they share a similar “wedding-cake”-like silhouette, and they continue to serve as important institutional sites in the city (one is Moscow State University, another the Ministry of Foreign Affairs). But if the buildings themselves drew me in, it was the rich trove of archival documents that their construction produced that held my attention. I was excited to find documents in the archives that have allowed me to write a history that stretches beyond design decisions made by top officials and architects.

For example, the plots chosen for skyscraper development in Moscow in 1947 were not empty parcels of land; construction would require the eviction and resettlement of tens of thousands of Muscovites who lived on those plots. I trace this process through the bureaucratic offices involved in resettlement, but also through hundreds of letters of complaint that remain in the archives written by the people who were evicted and resettled on the outskirts of the city. Still more archival files provide a glimpse into the lives of construction workers (both “free” laborers and Gulag laborers) who built the skyscrapers. How these various individuals understood their lives in relation to Moscow’s Stalin-era skyscraper project is a key element that I explore in the book.

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

I’m currently preparing to teach a Global Studies course in my first semester at Ryerson University this fall, followed by courses next spring on The City in History and a seminar on Stalinism. A few years ago, I taught a freshman seminar at Berkeley on The Socialist City and this course related more closely than anything I’ve taught since to my research. But even in the broader courses that I teach, like a World History survey I taught last year, I regularly use cities as a route into the past. Exploring city plans, maps, and photographs (if available) with students and walking them through city spaces while introducing them to broader themes works to make history more tangible and relatable and to make the past come alive in the classroom. I’m especially excited to begin teaching urban history in Toronto—the possibilities for using the city as a laboratory for learning are endless!

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

One of the books on my reading list that I am most excited to turn to this summer is Rosemary Wakeman’s Practicing Utopia: An Intellectual History of the New Town Movement, which looks at the history of the New Town movement in the twentieth century from a global perspective. Now that I’m living in Toronto, I’ve also got some Toronto-related fiction on my list too, including Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of a Lion and Mordecai Richler’s The Incomparable Atuk.

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

I would encourage young scholars to reach out early on to communities of scholars working on urban-related themes, both within and outside their home institutions. Ideally, the networks you build will include people who work on topics similar to yours, as well as people who work in different disciplines and on totally different regions and periods than you do. Both the UHA conferences and region-specific conferences are great places make these kinds of connections, but even within your own department or program, forming an urban-themed reading group is a good place to start building up a network.

What was the Soviet equivalent of the Empire State Building or the Sears Tower, and what interesting urban details would a historian see when looking down from the top of it?

Soviet architects of the Stalin period that I study would not have been content with the notion that their buildings were “equivalent” to American structures—they were keen on surpassing American achievements. One building that aimed to do just this, with an eye to the Empire State Building, was the Palace of Soviets. This neoclassical tower topped by an enormous statue of Lenin was begun in the 1930s, but was never completed. Had it been completed and had it survived to the present day (hard to imagine!), a historian would be able to ascend to the top of this structure and look down straight into Moscow’s Kremlin.