April 29, 2014

“The Figure of Democracy: Houses, Housing, and the Polis”

The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture

Neil Cummings, Occupy occupy! Global Democracy Now, October 16, 2011. Tents in front of St Paul’s Cathedral, London. Digital Photograph. Courtesy of the photographer, licensed under the Creative Commons.

Conference on the History of Architecture

Opening and keynote:
Friday, May 9, 6:30pm
“What is a Decent City? Reflections on the Architecture of Fear”
Ira Katznelson (Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University)
MoMA, Education and Research Building
Bartos Theater (Theater 3)
4 West 54th Street

There may be no figure more fraught than that of democracy. We say figure rather than political project, system, or ideology, to underscore the role of the imagination, and of cultural narratives, artistic forms, and material things, in shaping and making politics. Historically and in the present, architecture has contributed its fair share to such processes, poised awkwardly between justice and injustice, equity and inequity. Houses, housing, and cities are among architecture’s most potent instruments, guiding the political imagination as well as implementing public policies, to yield thoroughly concrete and enduring results.

The conference, hosted by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, will begin with a keynote evening lecture on Friday, May 9 by Ira Katznelson, Columbia’s Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History and author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (Liveright, 2013), at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and continue throughout the day on Saturday, May 10 in the East Gallery of Columbia University’s Buell Hall. The conference’s central reference will be the architecture and urbanism of the United States during the modern period, seen comparatively and in the widest possible scope. Rather than de Tocqueville, its ambiguous standard bearer, poised symbolically in the background, is the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright imagined his work as the quintessential “architecture of democracy,” associated with a politics harking back to Jefferson, and an urbanism in which the epic tension between individual and collective life is arguably at its highest pitch.

The conference coincides with an exhibition at MoMA, Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal, marking the museum’s joint acquisition, with Columbia University’s Avery Library, of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive. It also inaugurates the Buell Center’s engagement with that archive, by drawing one of many possible frames around it. Conference participants have not been asked to address Wright’s work or environs directly; we have only placed these in the frame. In that spirit, the conference brings together scholars in architectural and urban history, American studies, political and economic history, political theory, and urban anthropology to reflect on that frame. In doing so, we seek to gather ideas and objects, from New Deal housing policies to the prison system, in which the figure of democracy is most visibly at stake.

Irene Cheng (California College of the Arts), Christina Cogdell (University of California, Davis), Ofelia Cuevas (University of California, Los Angeles), Gabrielle Esperdy (New Jersey Institute of Technology), Catherine Ingraham (Pratt Institute), Pamela Karimi (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth), Jan-Werner Mueller (Princeton University), Ijlal Muzaffar (Rhode Island School of Design), Joan Ockman (University of Pennsylvania), Sarah Whiting (Rice University), Samuel Zipp (Brown University)

Keynote and opening night are co-sponsored by the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Architecture and Design and the Social Science Research Council.

Audience members are asked to arrive early for both days’ events, as seating will be limited.
Columbia University’s Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture was founded in 1982 with the mission of advancing the interdisciplinary study of American architecture, urbanism, and landscape. Recognizing its overlapping constituencies, the Buell Center has recently pursued initiatives that explore architecture’s participation in the public sphere, in an effort to catalyze a new, national conversation about issues of general concern. This year’s conference is linked to the Buell Center’s ongoing research initiative, titled “House Housing.” Following the culmination of our previous multi-year endeavor—which included, among other projects, The Buell Hypothesis and the exhibition, Foreclosed: Rehousing the American Dream at New York’s Museum of Modern Art—for “House Housing,” Buell researchers are formulating a critical analysis of architecture’s engagement with real estate development, particularly in the design of housing. The Center is planning to preview this project in an exhibition at Columbia University’s Casa Muraro in June, to coincide with the opening of the 14th International Architecture Biennale in Venice.

For more information, see and follow us on Twitter.

Director: Reinhold Martin
Program Coordinator: Jacob Moore

Board of Advisors:
Dianne Harris, Chair
Robert Beauregard
Teddy Cruz
Vittoria Di Palma
Elizabeth Diller
Jeanne Gang
Mark Jarzombek
Phyllis Lambert
Brian Larkin
Mark Wigley
Mabel O. Wilson




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