Cities 255: Survey of American Architecture, Spring Semester 2001

Th 2:00 - 4:00, Carpenter B25
Mr. Cohen ( office: Carpenter Library A5


In this course we will attempt to build an overview of American architecture, examining patterns of building, individual landmarks, settings, influential models, design dialogues, and the motives of various players in the creation of the American built environment over the course of four centuries. We will cast a critical eye at the sequence of examples that comprise the traditional survey course, probing the relation of this canon to the wider realms of building in the United States.

The course will proceed in roughly chronological sequence, but rather than a single narrative it will piece together several; an operative metaphor will be the intersection of diverse narratives that determine built form, whether personal, social, urbanistic, technological, economic, or aesthetic. The focal question will be "why does a building take the form it does," wherever that may lead.

There are no strict prerequisites, although familiarity with the content of Cities 253 (History of Western Architecture) and Cities 190 (Form of the City) will be particularly helpful. Electronic media (email and www) will be used for communication and for class assignments, but beyond knowing how to use email, browse the web, and do basic word-processing, you will be taught what you need to know about higher functions in class.

Class will meet on Thursday afternoons, 2:00 - 4:00, in Carpenter B25. There will also be a number of trips to area sites using public transport, car pooling, etc. late on Mondays and Friday afternoons, along with three make-up classes and five optional but highly encouraged video showings on Monday evenings, as spelled out below. If you have classes or other engagements that you would not want to miss that will interfere with these, you might consider taking this course some other semester.

Course requirements:

IV. Tests
V. Site visits
VI. Films and alternative lecture times

I. Individual Assignments:

The reading assignments will be a little bit out of the ordinary in this course, as I want you to have a general sense of a master narrative, but I also want you to question it. You should get a sense of the relativity of even authoritatively presented points of view, gain some familiarity with the landscape of different kinds of writing on architecture, and get a sense of the sources of information each is based on.
You won't all be reading the same things. Each student should pick a general chronological survey of American architecture in order to establish an orienting "backbone" to which you can attach more focused discussions. I can recommend any of seven commonly available, the first six in paperback:

In case you're having a hard time getting your hands on any of these, I've put a copy of each on reserve at Carpenter (Scully is on reserve under Cities 190). There are others books on library and bookstore shelves that will also serve (but don't choose one of those "what style is it"-picture books in place of a text with more interpretive discussion). Adopt one or switch among different ones over the course of the semester, but keep up with the chronological units of the course. As you read in each unit, jot down thoughts and questions your reading raises for later reference, and we can discuss these and the contrasts in the perspectives between texts in class.
Timing: complete this survey-text reading at the start of each unit, beginning roughly on 25 Jan., 12 Feb., 5 Mar., 2 Apr., and 16 Apr. start it after browsing through the webbed "canon" for each unit, but before you begin your more focused readings (see below).

The bulk of the reading will be smaller, more focused pieces in a variety of forms -- analytical scholarly articles, original period treatises, popular contemporary accounts, parts of biographies, etc.-- that you should tap for each period. I'll recommend some good sources, and several specific titles, but I encourage you to find others. I want you to experience the variety of perspectives and contexts in which one may find good writing on our subject, and to acquire a facility with the bibliographical tools and resources for finding them. You should read things of different sorts for each unit, totaling perhaps 50-75 pages each (beyond the text chapters discussed above). Shoot for some variety in reading type and topic within each unit.
For each of the five units you will then prepare a short "reading response", roughly 2-4 pages long, specifying in a legit bibliographical form, including page numbers exactly what articles and sections of books you've read (not including the basic survey texts), Then give a brief, thoughtful response to your readings. This is NOT meant to be an extended recap; don't spend more than a sentence or two retelling; go right to the main points and weigh them alongside other things you've read, and other thoughts that they provoke. You will turn these into a formal (i.e., carefully reread and proofed) document that you will learn to post on the web, to be seen by both your classmates and the instructor.
These readings and responses will really be the heart of the course. Read adventurously, and about varied places, in varied published forms, and things from various perspectives. Find readings from footnotes, bibliographies, library reference tools, word of mouth, or browsing though journals like the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Winterthur Portfolio, or Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture (Some tables of contents will be available over the web, but I will also put a list of compiled "tocs" on reserve at Carpenter for you to browse.) Please be considerate of your classmates: try to get things back on the shelves quickly for them to find when you're not actively using them, or let them know what you have on your carrel.
Timing: due immediately at the end of each unit. Each of these must be posted on a Monday (12 Feb., 5 Mar., 2 Apr., 16 Apr., and 30 Apr.). You should then look at at least three of those of your classmates before the next class on a Thursday, and be prepared to participate in discussions based on these.


II. Short Exercises:

Several survey texts on American architecture have been published over recent decades. They present a range of perspectives, but all attempt to illustrate the greater whole of millions of American buildings and landscapes through a few hundred images of a smaller number of places, some of them representative and some extraordinary. The examples illustrated in the different texts nonetheless overlap a good deal, and generally converge in a consensus that can be taken as a certain core group, constituting a roughly agreed-upon body of key examples -- one with which most architects, architectural historians, and historic preservation folks are somewhat conversant, and through which most texts illustrate major themes. It's worth absorbing this pedagogical canon as a shared vocabulary of buildings and as a touchstone for key issues, even as we retain a certain skepticism over the claim of some of these buildings to representative character or extraordinary attention.
Before you begin your reading for each of the five chronological divisions in the course, you should browse the appropriate set of such images in a "consensus canon" that is being built on the web. It starts with the earliest period at Based on the overlap in illustrations in four textbooks, it attempts to give multiple, complementary images for each (to the degree that copyright and availability have allowed so far). At the start of each unit in this course, please look through all the images for that period, getting a fuller sense of each building or place, looking for overall patterns of form among them, and posing questions for yourself to be addressed in your reading and in class.
Timing: do immediately at the start of each unit, beginning roughly on 25 Jan., 12 Feb., 5 Mar., 2 Apr., and 16 Apr., before you begin your survey-text and focused readings.

This semester you'll be encountering architectural spaces depicted in a graphic language of scaled orthographic drawings that you should get used to. To help you get conversant with these, you'll draw a plan. On a single sheet of paper, draw a plan of a part of a building you have access to, including at least a pair of adjoining spaces, one or more windows and doors, and exterior and interior walls. It needn't be precisely to scale or drawn with a straightedge, but try to make it clear in conveying the spaces and their perimeters. Observe the graphic conventions you find in plans in your readings.
Timing: due in class on 8 Feb.

The canon collectively established by the various publications on American architectural history professes to represent in a few hundred examples the pattern of millions of American buildings and spaces. We'll try an exercise of digitizing images of other dated buildings, but relatively obscure ones, as a way of illustrating the dissemination of forms and/or probing that professed relationship.
Each student should take photographs of five buildings that can be securely dated -- datestones are especially good evidence for an exact year (although be careful of inscribed dates of an institution's establishment vs. that of a building). Try to represent a range of periods from the early 19th century to the present. You'll learn how to digitize images from prints or slides (or you may take them with a digital camera) and then to post them on the web along with information on their identity and location. These should be buildings you find in the streets in this area or elsewhere when away, rather than those identified through books; they should be buildings selected by you rather than filtered through their fit with academic criteria. We'll occasionally draw them into our period discussions.
Timing: scan and post images by 22 March.

Architectural criticism is a kind of writing that seeks to weigh new architectural expressions as they emerge, commenting on them and helping shape a dialogue over notions of what is appropriate -- appropriate for the purpose housed but, usually overriding that, as a collective cultural self-portrait, an image of "now" and "us." Find and read two short newspaper or magazine works of criticism on recent works of architecture, say from 1990-2000. Try to discern the values implicit in the judgements made there. Consider whether you find in contemporary American architecture an image that you can identify with, an emblem of a culture of which you feel yourself part, relative to older architecture.
Timing: read and prepare for discussion in class on 3 May. Email me with citations of what you have read by 2 May.

III. Group assignments:

Our subject involves working with a large number of images of places and a lot of commentary about them. In order for you to aid your classmates in digesting some key points and places for each unit, and also personally to go through the process of distilling a lot of material into a few to several key trends and themes for each period, you'll work in groups to devise web pages that will serve as study aids.
For each chronological unit, a pre-assigned group of three to six of you will prepare and present a small website that identifies the key issues for the unit, associating each with a "consensus-canon" building or buildings in which they play out, and also presenting key quotations from the period. Consider how this period is treated in the different survey texts, and choose what you judge to be the most important and engaging key issues or themes, and the images or words from that time that best convey these. Briefly set out the themes, and aim for a total of 15-20 buildings or places from the consensus set, linking to images of them, with 3-6 good, short, period quotes -- the kind that you find encapsulate and illuminate an issue in an accessible way. Search the web for better images or websites devoted to these places, and link to them. In all this try to look beyond simply illustrating and identifying different styles; target larger issues and trends of form for the period.
Each group will create the website near the end of each unit. The group should meet with the instructor far enough in advance of the next exam to integrate suggested revisions before the class turns to it.
Timing: Units A, B, and C should be posted in final form by 23 March. Units D and E should be posted by 4 May. Come see me as a group in advance of the presentation.

Toward the end of the semester, you will visit and interview an architect from a list of several who will have agreed to participate. Call and make a half-hour appointment at their and your convenience to visit in pairs or trios, probably at their office, probably downtown. (In teaming up, do this with someone not from your unit-presentation group.) Prepare three or four good questions that you've thought about carefully in terms of issues presented in the architecture of the present day. Topics may range from the way an office runs, what clients want, major design influences, pleasures and frustrations of practice, or in connection with a particular work, comments on context or type. Each group should be prepared to give a ten-minute oral presentation for class-time in late April. If images will be critical to the class's understanding of your main points, make multiple copies of an image or two for your classmates.
Timing: arrange to meet with the architects well in advance of our discussion, to be held during the last few weeks of the semester. Be ready by 21 April.

IV. Tests:

There will be a midterm on 29 March, and a final exam after the end of classes in May, the latter to be scheduled by the Registrar's office.

V. Site visits:

One of the most potent parts of this kind of class is in actually visiting architectural sites rather than just reading about and looking at pictures of them. It provides a full, three-dimensional experience of architecture, and the least pre-scripted, most first-hand part of our inquiry. These visits will be a critical part of the class despite the difficulty of our all finding times in common to do them. Consider these as lab sections. We'll schedule six to eight of these visits for late on Monday or Friday afternoons.
Some visits will be quite nearby, but others will involve our using public transportation or car-pooling, and will therefore require two- or three-hour time blocks to both get downtown and back, and still have some time to spend at the site. I know that this is time-consuming, and that some of you will have science labs, sports, or other things at these times, but if you think that you will not be able to attend at least three of these with the group, you should think about taking this course another year, or choosing another. I'll try to arrange these roughly equally on these two days of the week for those regularly occupied on one of them. And for those who know that they'll be busy on those afternoons but are determined to take the course this time around -- I'll be willing to recommend sites for you to visit on your own, preferably as a small group, and then talk with the group in my office separately after their visit.

VI. Films and alternative lecture times:

There are some very good videos on our subject that are well worth viewing for their presentation of moving images of places as well as for the perspectives they provide. I'll schedule showings of the five episodes of Spiro Kostof's America by Design, each a 50-minute PBS program, on five Monday evenings at 5:30. Attendance is optional but very highly encouraged.
Monday at 5:30 will also be the time for three classes that I already know will be displaced because of conferences, one in late February (26 Feb. instead of 1 March) and two in late April (16 and 23 April instead of 19 and 26). These will be normal classes, and you will be responsible for their content, as for others, so, again, if you think that you will not be able to attend at those times, you should think about taking this course another year or registering for another course.

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