Environmental Histories of Architecture

Workshop Report (Rachel Carson Center, 28–29 June 2017).

Written by Daniel A. Barber (University of Pennsylvania), Alexander von Humboldt Foundation advanced research fellow and former RCC visiting fellow. Daniel also organized the workshop.

College of Design (Hochschule für Gestaltung), Ulm. Architect: Max Bill. Photo: Andreas Bohnenstengel, CC BY-SA 3.0 DE. The college is considered by some as a founding institute in the fields of visual comminication and information and building and industrial design.

The relationship between environmental history and the history of the built environment has only recently begun to gain substantive attention in the field of architectural history. This Workshop brought together leading scholars to discuss the interpretive and analytic methods relevant to Environmental Histories of Architecture, and to assess the conceptual challenges presented to the field.

The discussion focused on a number of related themes: First, the question of disciplinary adjacencies. Architectural history has long positioned itself in relation to art history and other aesthetic/cultural realms of inquiry. How does the environmental history of architecture emphasize interaction with other fields (such as, but not limited to: history of technology, environmental history, science and technology studies), while continuing to emphasize familiar engagements (media studies, post-colonial studies, issues of human rights, for example)? Specific methodological innovations were discussed in order to open up these fields for scholars of architecture. In particular, presentations by Carola Hein (TU Delft) proposing a broad methodological framework for analyzing petroleumscapes, and Torsten Lange’s (ETH Zurich) discussion on architecture, environment, and pedagogy, suggested new connections. Isabelle Doucet’s (University of Manchester) discussion of the work of Cedric Price and Ant Farm’s Dolphin Embassy made explicit and compelling connections to the surge of recent literature on the role of nonhuman agency in reconsidering social habits and practices in the Anthropocene.

Second, the Workshop discussed the question of instrumentality. Given that many histories of architecture and environment engage with technologies, social formations, and design methods that are again (still?) of relevance today, the environmental history of architecture threatens to exceed the historian’s critical distance from contemporary practice. What are the terms by which scholars can negotiate this operative impulse? Are there examples from other fields or from other arenas of architectural scholarship that can serve as models here? Ginger Nolan’s (University of Basel) discussion of architectural and environmental pedagogy helped to frame new avenues on these terms. Mark Kammerbauer’s closing comments were also focused on how new knowledge being developed at the intersection of architectural and environmental history can frame new trajectories in design education.

Lord Snowdon's Aviary, ZSL.
Lord Snowdon’s Aviary at the Zoological Society of London. Architect: Cedric Price. Photo: Paul Downey, CC BY 2.0.

And finally, the broader disciplinary effects of the environmentalization of architectural history were considered. Given that the project is not simply to add object to the database but, rather, to pose new frameworks, narratives, and figures for the development of architectural ideas, are there specific historiographic consequences? For example, do some individuals (architects, critics, historians) emerge as newly significant, while other become less so? Should we adjust the periodicity of architectural-historical knowledge with reference to the Anthropocene, the Great Acceleration, or other recent revisionist periodicities? What are the new means by which we might conceptualize familiar architectural ideas in light of increased engagement with related environmental histories? While these large-scale concerns were not addressed directly, presentations by Laurent Stalder (ETH Zurich) and Caroline Maniaque (ENSA Normandie) provided useful context. Stalder’s discussion of the origin of the plan as a tool for architectural knowledge helped to put the negotiation of environmental effects in the field in perspective. Maniaque’s discussion of the Whole Earth Catalog assessed how counter-culture discussions in the 1960s and 70s often played out in an architectural context—reflexively, the field of architectural history faces challenges to its familiar frameworks and narratives when taking such cultural developments seriously.

We had the pleasure of a number of interlocutors from the RCC and elsewhere, who engaged in discussions about the general themes and the specific content of the presentation. One such participant was James Beattie, Professor of History at the University of Waikato (NZ) and Director of the University’s Environmental History and Garden History Research Unit. For this report, I posed a few questions to Professor Beattie in order to explore some of the potential relevance of the workshop to other, related fields.

How do you find the concept “environment” to be developed in architectural histories vis-à-vis other, related fields of inquiry?

Environmental historians such as myself associate “environment” strongly with ecological change, with the living and non-living components of an ecosystem, and more particularly with the physical, material dimensions of its existence. The historians of architecture who presented at the workshop were particularly astute at divining the cultural constructions of environment and its manifestations in a range of different media and from a range of different cultural perspectives—something environmental historians might associate more with intellectual history.

Does architectural history provide a novel frame for environmental histories more generally?

Environmental historians tend to associate the twentieth century with what we may loosely call “The Anthropocene”— a period marked by the acceleration of the exploitation of the natural environment, accompanied by different patterns of behavior associated with consumerism, travel, and economic expansion. Many environmental historians would point to the physical manifestations of this shift, while architectural historians stress the cultural and intellectual dimensions of this within the praxis of architecture. (Left to be more carefully analyzed, perhaps, is how this cultural dimension of architectural practice leads to specific physical manifestations.)

Are there ways in which environmental histories of architecture open up specific themes for environmental historians and Are there certain themes or approaches that benefit from more attention in order to contribute to the broader discussion of environmental history/environmental humanities?

One point going forward might well be to focus on the broader physical changes taking place during the Anthropocene. Environmental historians are especially good at focusing on the large-scale, to the detriment of avoiding smaller, public and private spaces such as the garden or an architectural space, so perhaps having historians and historians of architecture work on a common site would allow for an interesting development on both sides.

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