Architecture As Response: An Interview With Gwendolyn Wright (Part II)
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BUILD sits down with Gwendolyn Wright, architect, professor, and history detective.
[Image Source: History Detectives]
Last spring, BUILD visited Gwendolyn Wright in Manhattan to discuss her professorship at Columbia University, writing the standard reference of modern architecture in the USA, and what it’s like to have a television show. Check out ARCADE to read the first installment of the interview.
You received your master’s degree and Ph.D in architecture from Berkeley in the 1970s, then moved east to New York where you’ve been teaching and writing since. How did your architectural focus shift, moving between California and Manhattan?
It’s a remarkable shift, one that was good for me because I still try to move between the cultures of the two coasts, while stopping at some “sites” in between. There’s a certain insularity at both ends of the county, and a great many differences. This extends to architecture, modes of creativity, and politics, too. Architecture at Berkeley was inclusive, with considerable freedom and play, a willingness to engage emotions, a belief in the value of small-scale improvements. New York was more intellectually rigorous and demanding, although sometimes “architecture” became an abstraction. There continues to be a very strong theoretical focus in New York City, which is exciting, but I worry that it can also be narrow and restricting. Scholars and critics sometimes forget that there are many intellectual positions and political strategies — not just one “theory” that’s a canonical set of authors and ideas.
I got to engage a wide range of architectural issues at Berkeley, many of which were pragmatically engaged with real-life conditions in housing, health care, and community development. There was a distinctive kind of innovation on the West Coast in the 1970s, as there is today, much of it still motivated by what Berkeley called “social and cultural factors” in addition to formal concerns. We wanted to raise intellectual and political questions with no easy answers. There were new ways of thinking about computers, too, and other design methods for addressing what Horst Rittel called “wicked problems.” Environmental issues were already an essential part of design, including the adaptive reuse of materials. So it was very lively and challenging. The experiences encourage me to keep going back and forth between different frames of reference in thinking about architecture.
California is known for limitless boundaries and expanding suburbs, while Manhattan is finite and its built environment confined. Does one place make for a more appropriate case study of modern US architecture over the other?
I don’t think so. There are multiple typologies and ideals all over the country — even in the same place — whether we look at housing or public buildings or landscapes. We have to be careful not to reduce that diversity to an archetype, an essence, not even a basic case study that supposedly applies to most people. For example, there’s no one kind of dwelling that everyone wants or needs or dreams about in Seattle — whether it’s a cottage, a cabin, a bungalow, an apartment or a mansion. Of course, many Americans are still obsessed with the ideal single-family home, as if owning one can solve all our problems, but urban apartments provide an alternative, and more people now see the advantages to this kind of life. Architects should restrain ourselves from saying there is a perfect American home — no matter what the type, no matter if it’s traditional or radically innovative. Our job is to explore ways to improve all kinds of housing options. I always like to see the variations, past and present, wherever I go.
In 1985 you were the first woman to receive tenure in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University. To what extent did gender impact your trajectory?
I was among the first generation of women in architecture who wanted to raise fundamental questions about women. We were interested in the virtually unknown history of women designers. We also asked about women’s experiences as the users of housing, in stores and factories, and in office work. Our principal concern was to show that there were inequalities in terms of what these spaces expect and often require; the spaces make demands on women’s bodies, on how they’re seen and treated, for example, the way in which secretaries were put into a pool in center of the office, always watched to make sure they’re hard at work, always ogled yet fundamentally interchangeable. We wanted to call attention to these spatial patterns, to force a debate about equality and difference and alternative designs in various kinds of environments. There were various positions, to be sure. Some women insisted on a contrast between inherently sexist designs and a distinctive female approach to space and design which they believed would be more benign. Personally, I didn’t believe that oppression or liberation is inherent in any group, or any space.
This led to another major difference between the two coasts. Debates about women and architecture on the East Coast soon became focused on feminist theory rather than women’s experiences. This was sometimes fascinating, but it could be frustrating. I view feminism principally in terms of addressing a broad spectrum of cultural and social and experiential concerns — both problems and successes — that affect real women’s lives.
What does history have to teach, once you look past the five great architects to examine a larger cross section of the design world?
I’m really curious about the circumstances that allow great architects to innovate and those that encourage a lot of architects to improve our environments in more extensive, collective ways. This may even be more significant for cities, for the country, for the world. But we have a culture based on celebrity architects and fantasies about spontaneous creativity. This makes it very difficult for those who don’t get the starchitect budgets, their freedoms and opportunities. History helps us think differently about the nature of innovation. After all, it’s a prerequisite for envisaging alternative futures in psychoanalysis, the law, the sciences, ecological studies, and architecture. We see a variety of patterns, influences, and collaborative sequences — all very helpful for thinking about good design in the present day.
That means we can’t look at the past or the present solely in terms of formal extravaganzas by individual designers. We need better housing in all kinds of ways, we need to rethink infrastructure and schools. History can highlight these collective improvements. Put differently, rather than looking only at stars, we can think about architecture in terms of constellations that can be read in multiple ways and seen from different perspectives.
Much of your work searches for patterns in architecture. How do you think these patterns will surface in the future of architecture?
If there is any major change in the 21st century, I think it will be the need to have all kinds of collaborations. We cannot sustain the idea of an architect doing everything except for fairly small projects. The kinds of challenges we face are enormous, which means learning to work as a team. It’s obvious that we won’t be able to look at a building without looking at environmental issues, which are increasingly complex. There’s also going to be more new architecture that’s combined with historic preservation. That used to be seen as a troublesome compromise, but there are now creative ways of combining the two. If good architecture is responsive to its context, that doesn’t mean copying. It’s a matter of making what’s already there — buildings, landscapes and social communities — look better and function better.
The idea of “responding” is very important to your work, can you explain?
That’s a nice observation. I think it’s important to realize that true experimentation is almost never autonomous. Architects should think of experimentation the way scientists and artists do, responding to what we see, especially what surprises us, analyzing what’s been done, figuring out what’s possible in a given site with its particular problems and possibilities. There’s just as much opportunity for innovation and a lot more impact! This also means making conscious choices about what issues we want to engage, what we really care about, how to focus our creative talents, individually and collectively. There are so many choices, both over time and at a given moment. You can choose to respond to the environmental crisis, to housing problems, to the possibilities of new materials, to a particular urban site and population.
In your travels and studies, you must come across so many good examples of architecture that aren’t included in mainstream architecture curriculums. Care to share any?
One of my favorite examples was the discovery of a women named Marion Manley, who designed a major expansion for the University of Miami campus during World War II. Her proposal was lyrical modernism: responsive to the environment, innovative in the reuse of materials and attentive to the needs of new students, many of whom were former GIs with families. Built just after World War II, the university was on three covers of Architectural Forum as well as German and French magazines, all of whom declared that this epitomized the modern university. But then IIT supplanted Miami in the canon and she virtually disappeared from history. There are many other individuals and buildings who’ve been forgotten. Perhaps the lesson is to keep looking around us, rather than trusting the judgment of historians as infallible!
Getting tours of famous buildings and houses can be a real challenge. Do you have any insights for design-conscious sightseers?
My advice is, wherever you go, try to find the group that’s involved in preserving the modernist architecture: Houston Mod, Modern Phoenix, etc. They will show you stuff that will blow you away.
You co-host the PBS show History Detectives, in which anyone can submit an object that they suspect has played an important role in American history. You must get some very strange stories coming through.
We do, we get about a thousand suggestions per year, although most of them are either bizarre, obvious or overly personal, not very engaging for an audience that’s now over a million households. I keep looking for more architecture stories, but too many people send in questions simply asking if Frank Lloyd Wright or someone else designed a certain house, which isn’t really all that interesting for a general audience. That’s frustrating for me since architecture is a wonderful way to trace many aspects of history — cultural, economic, intellectual, material — and relate to broader social narratives. For example, one story started with a man in the outskirts of Denver whose basement ceiling has the wheels and an axle of some kind of train car, He understandably wanted to know what had happened! We discovered it was the undercarriage of an old streetcar, bought for $100 by a family that was desperate for any kind of home during a nationwide housing shortage just after World War II. Our research then tied this ingenious response to the dismantling of the public transportation system in Denver. A complex historical saga!
History Detectives stands out as an example of television that is educational, purposeful and inspirational. What are the key ingredients that allow a show to be extraordinary?
And it’s fun! All kinds of people stop me on the street to say they try to figure out what happened and why. A truck driver once leaned out the window and said “Hey, History Detective, I love your show.” That was just fabulous! Professional historians are positive as well, since it shows what we do pretty accurately — if necessarily at a faster pace. It’s one of the only shows that goes across a broad class spectrum. As an architectural historian, I like the notion that we’re encouraging people to look closely and evaluate evidence critically, going beyond first impressions and easy labels. Surprisingly enough, architecture students also need to be pushed to look closely and think beyond instant labels. We all work so fast and take in so much visual information, so it’s very easy to put things in categories.
There’s a lot more to the show than simply investigating antiquity and architecture, what other areas have you become passionate about since the show started?
There are experts brought onto the show for so many different specialties I didn’t know about. Specialists on silent films, forgeries, the FBI, baseball, penmanship, slave ceramics, pin-up photos and censorship. There are people who are passionate about bricks and experts about coasters and others who just know a lot about the history of comic books. I learn something from every one of them. The depth of their knowledge is remarkable. But in each case, no one person knows everything, so it opens up the possibility that there are multiple causes and explanations.
Gwendolyn Wright is an award-winning architectural historian, author, and co-host of the PBS television series History Detectives. She is a professor of architecture at Columbia University, also holding appointments in both its departments of history and art history. Besides History Detectives, Dr. Wright’s specialties are US architectural history and urban history from after the Civil War to the present. She also writes about the exchange across national boundaries of architectural styles, influences, and techniques, particularly examining the colonial and neo-colonial attributes of both modernism and historic preservation.