Since my very first paper for an architectural history course (on Latrobe's waterworks in New Orleans), my research has tended toward three main themes: theory/design, building technology, and their place in the nineteenth century. Issues of style--especially with the sometimes competing interests of representing cultural tradition and modern technology--and professionalism raised during the Industrial Revolution in the United States continue to be issues in practice. My aim is to clarify contemporary challenges through my study of the past.
current research & writing
During my sabbatical leave for the academic year 2014-15, I completed a book-lenth monograph on Walter (working title: "Thomas U. Walter: Architecture of Civility in an Age of Barbarism") that has been in the works for many years, and indeed many miles, as I have chased Walter's ghost through building sites and archives from Pennsylvania to Virginia and from London to Rome.
Beginning in January, 2015, I turned to a more focused Walter project on the personalities involved with the design and construction of the Capitol dome, with research in Washington, DC funded by the US Capitol Historical Society and the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology, Smithsonian Institution.
To follow the sabbatical adventure, please see Postcards from Sabbatical-land.
Hand Drawing and the Genesis of the Architecture Profession in the United States
Paper to be presented in September, 2016 at the Conference, "The Art of Architecture: Hand Drawing and Design" at Notre Dame.
The generation of antebellum architects credited with the development of the profession in the United States embraced both drawing and drawings as means to distinguish themselves from the age-old vocational traditions of builders. The copious archive of Thomas U. Walter (1804-87), founder of the original AIA in 1836, illustrates the centrality of drawing(s) in the career of one of its leaders.
In the early nineteenth century, a growing preference for certain historically derived styles required and displayed increased graphic expertise. In particular, the exacting parabolic profiles of Greek origin required more challenging mathematical thinking and geometric constructions than did the formerly-favored, semi-circular Roman mouldings. Likewise, an expanded range of drawing types enhanced with sophisticated rendering techniques opened new avenues of practice. Architects’ watercolored perspectives and ink-washed plans (like Walter’s for Girard College and the Capitol) diverted the gaze of competition judges from mechanics’ monotone, orthogonal diagrams. Drawings expanded practice geographically, carrying architects’ ideas to multiple states, and even foreign countries. From proposal studies approved by clients to full-scale details delivered to the jobsite, drawings were a tool of business that communicated client/architect expectations to builders. Holding legal status akin to contracts and specifications, drawings were deemed intellectual property, even when the hands of assistants had completed them. They were the basis of payment when more lucrative percentage-based, supervisory positions were unavailable. (Walter’s ledgers record the exact dollar valuation for elevations, plats, and plans.) Although the rising artistry of architectural drawings threatened to undermine the professional’s technical expertise, drawings maintained an exceptional significance among the early practitioners: their portraits inevitably include drawing tools and folios as surely as, in religious paintings, saints hold their emblems of beatification—and martyrdom.
Historical Reflections on Psychological Assumptions, Male Norming, and Feminine Potential in Contemporary Architectural Practice
Paper to be presented in November, 2016 at the Conference, "Architecture & Feminisms: Ecologies, Economies & Technologies" at the annual meeting of the Architectural Humanities Research Association, Royal Institute of Technology , Stockholm, Sweden
In spite of recent gains that have begun to level the field, women’s navigation of the architecture profession remains challenging: only 25-40% of professionals working in America, Europe and Australia are female. This paper proposes a reconsideration of the historic formation of the profession in light of popular psychology that will offer a path to parity in the workplace and an evolution in practice.
The establishment of architecture’s practices as truly professional required, by definition, prioritizing work of the head over that of the hand. This shift might have opened opportunities for women who were traditionally excluded from the building trades, yet attitudes regarding their intellectual inferiority in reference to design (espoused as early as Michelangelo), persisted. In the late nineteenth century, the first psychological studies of cerebral differences between the sexes codified this erroneous idea, mistaking activities based in male social/affective experience as evidence of higher-order thinking. Although later researchers revealed very little difference between men’s and women’s cognitive functions, expectations for success in architecture remain normed to typically male behaviors like single-focus attention, swift decisions, and claims of individuality. Alternative approaches to work, like broad-spectrum perspective, contemplative considerations, and collaboration, are frequently deemed less professional because they seem less male.
A fresh examination of distinct chapters in modern architectural history offers evidence for, and alternatives to, these biases by revealing intersections between architectural ideology, gender assumptions, and design practices. Modernist dependence on scientific findings regarding biological determinants prompted Walter Gropius to dissuade female students from studying architecture at the Bauhaus due to their apparent incapacity for rationality and three-dimensional thought. Conversely, ideals of the Arts and Crafts Movement influenced Frank Lloyd Wright (also a reader of Swedish feminist Ellen Key) to disregard gender distinctions at his studio. These feminist insights remain largely ignored by architectural historians, who struggle under many of the same assumptions as practicing architects.
Mining the ideology of collaborative, egalitarian workforces like Wright’s, in light of our contemporary technological potentials, can revitalize and align architecture’s environmental and social methods with urgent contemporary concerns and provide a map to the new “practical identities” championed by Isabelle Stenger. Such an approach will heighten the relevance and efficacy of architecture through increased inclusivity of participation and diversity of thought, approach and deed.
‘Ancient taste perfected by modern hands’ : Thomas U. Walter’s Theory and Practice of the Orders
Article in The Classicist No. 11 (Institute of Classical Architecture and Art), August 2014
Introduction: Although he practiced in several historic traditions throughout his lengthy career, Thomas U. Walter (1804-87) favored the language of Classicism, especially for his most significant civic projects. Although a cursory familiarity with Girard College (Philadelphia, 1838-45) and the United States Capitol (Washington, 1851-65) illustrates his general interest in the Greco-Roman tradition, a closer analysis reveals a change in Walter’s theoretical positions over the course of his career. This shift is especially visible in his handling of the orders, which evolved from a manner that might be termed archaeological—a careful, exacting reproduction of select precedents—, to one that was more emulative—maintaining the spirit and character of the originals while rivaling them with modern innovations. Early in his career, Walter understood the orders to be inviolate; capricious additions and changes could only demean their purity and beauty. As Walter’s theoretical understanding of Classicism and its role as an architectural language matured during the first half of the nineteenth century, he increasingly explored its adaptability for new expressions.
The Inexorable Influence of Christopher Wren and the Design of the US Capitol Dome
Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain Annual Symposium, “The Afterlife of Sir Christopher Wren, 1800-1923,” St. John’s College, Oxford University, May 2014
Introduction: Although American colonists proclaimed their political independence from Great Britain in 1776, it would be another century before the architects of the United States would seek their freedom from British tradition. During the early nineteenth century, the first sizable group of self-described professional architects in America sought foreign masters who exemplified high standards of cultural achievement and simple good taste to compensate for their isolation in a land that they believed showed little evidence of either. Such was certainly the case for Thomas U. Walter, one of the most famous young architects in America. A highly patriotic citizen who deeply valued the independence of his country Walter sought no overt American quality in his practice, but instead traced his professional lineage through several English immigrants who he perceived to be the founding fathers of architecture in America, and who directed his study to revered British buildings and architects. Among them, Christopher Wren would be central to Walter’s design for the project that was not only the most significant of his career, but also the most important in the country as a whole: the Capitol in Washington. Read the full text.
Update: Publication of the proceedings from this conference are planned to be published in the next two to three years.
Staging a Triumph, Raising a Temple: Philadelphia’s ‘Welcoming Parade’ for Lafayette, 1824
Chapter in Commemoration in America: Essays on Monuments, Memorialization and Memory, eds. David Gobel and Daves Rossell (University of Virginia Press, 2013)
Within this diverse collection of essays, stemming from a symposium at the Savannah College of Art and Design, my chapter focuses on the ephemeral and temporary means of commemorating the triumphant visit of the Marquis de Lafayette in Philadelphia (just one stop of dozens throughout the country in 1824). The paper focused on the arrangements made by the official municipal committee for an "Americanized" triumph, a la Imperial Rome, complete with triumphal arches of timber and canvas, that wound through neighborhoods and passed by monuments that were chosen with great intentionality (most significantly, Independence Hall, formally identified as the Old State House, but which was given its nickname at this time). Much of the city was temporarily festooned in a way that celebrated the youth and promise of the United States while acknowledging many of its citizens' desires to be measured against ancient accomplishments.
Architecture and Improvement in Antebellum America
Session Chair, Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting, Buffalo NY (April, 2013)
As anyone who has done it will know, chairing a session at an academic conference like those held annually by the Society of Architectural Historians is a special kind of scholarly project. It is a long process that begins by forming the idea for the session, proposing the topic to a central committee, reviewing abstracts submitted to the call for papers, selecting those to be included, working with the authors to refine their work so that the session as a whole will be cohesive, and finally, overseeing the proceedings by keeping everyone on track and on time as well as by facilitating discussion. Responsible for the session as a whole, the chair really only has ten or so minutes in the spotlight, during which she opens the session with brief remarks that revisit the content of the original abstract that she submitted to the central committee seventeen months earlier, and which now responds to the different paths taken by her speakers. Read the full text.
American and European Architects in China: Global Practice in Historical Context
Judson University Global Practices Symposium, “China: Architecture and Urbanism,” September, 2011
An unusual topic for me, this paper grew from my participation in our department's inaugural (and now annual) practice symposium. Asked to provide some historical context for the surge in building projects by American and European architects in China, I wrote the following, which assessed our current condition against the traditions of four centuries, including Jesuit and Baptist missionaries, eighteenth-century Chinoiserie and shipping companies, the ubiquitous Ecole des Beaux-Arts and establishment of Chinatowns in the US, ping pong and panda bears, and finally the 2008 Olympic Games. Read the full text.
’Promiscuous’ Competitions, the First American Professionals and Thomas U. Walter
Session, "Architecture in Competition: Nineteenth-Century North and South America," Society of Architectural Historians Annual Meeting, Chicago (April, 2010)
Introduction: Through the nineteenth century, American architects maintained a love-hate relationship with the competition system that was commonly used to select the designers of public buildings. On the one hand, as a manifestation of democracy, open competitions allowed all comers the opportunity to compete on a level playing field and potentially see their projects constructed. On the other, as a manifestation of democracy, open competitions allowed the skilled and unskilled, trained and untrained alike, to adopt the title “architect” and compete in a sometimes dishonest system in which they were judged by bureaucrats with no special gift for architectural judgment. Such was the system that embraced all the promise and difficulties of a democracy, and for most architects who could not afford to be choosy about their clientele, competitions were a requirement for any with aspirations to public work on a grand scale. Such is certainly the case of Thomas U. Walter, whose lengthy and prolific career began and ended in Philadelphia, with a significant central section spent in Washington DC. Walter’s career rose and fell with his participation in competitions, for which he held widely varying views in his youth and more mature age. Competitions allowed Walter’s career to launch so quickly that he was named architect of the most expensive public building in the country, Girard College, while still being listed in the city directories as a bricklayer by trade. A boon at the start of his career, open competitions became a target for Walter’s scorn by the time he reached his professional peak in 1850 when—after a competition—he was named architect of the US Capitol. In part, the Walter’s experiences in were impetus for his efforts on behalf of one of the most lasting monuments he and his peers built in the nineteenth century: the American Institute of Architects. Read the full abstract.
‘Vast Avenues to Knowledge:’ Thomas U. Walter’s Books
Chapter in American Architects and Their Books, 1840-1914, ed. James O’Gorman (Univ. of Mass. Press, 2007)
Abstract: Early in his career Thomas Ustick Walter (1807-87) developed a self-described and life-long “strong disposition to indulge in books.” The expansion and contraction of his library indicates the ebb and flow of his architectural work as clearly as any office ledger could. In the many sources of his bibliophilia—notebooks of 1831, lectures of 1840-60, and the inventory taken upon his death in 1887—Walter reveals his favoritism for certain canonical architectural texts published prior to mid-century. Even in the face of professional opposition, shifting aesthetic preferences, and through his own continued stockpiling in the later nineteenth century, Walter’s book collecting and reading chronicle his consistent thought on architecture, its practice, and public reception. As part of the history of architectural practice in America, Walter believed that the activities of collecting and reading would help distinguish the unique character of architects from professional pretenders: builders and engineers. He saw both groups as “brainless bunglers,” threatening the hegemony of the specifically prepared professional who alone could realize the “poetry of architecture.” A self-consciously progressive architect, Walter delighted in the nineteenth century’s explosion of architectural publications. The content of these books allowed contemporary architects to enjoy an unprecedented array of architectural learning. In Walter’s estimation the very use of these books, unparalleled in their breadth, depth, and number, defined contemporary architecture’s modernity. Although America’s antebellum revival styles were in line with Walter’s notions, after the Civil War architectural expressions diverged on a path marked by new styles free from such traditions. With little patience for this kind of invention, Walter remained committed to an accepted canon of architectural precedent as a key to his theory. Blending architectural and theological ideals, this devout Baptist believed that the soul almost literally “feeds” upon the immortal mind’s stores, some of the most powerful of which were acquired through the sense of sight. Because they threatened the development of an ennobling language which could be taught to, and thus discerned by, the public, Walter rejected the invented modes—and the books that popularized them.
Thomas Ustick Walter: The Lectures on Architecture, 1841-1853
Athenæum of Philadelphia, 2006
Published for the first time, Walter's "Lectures on Architecture"--the first formal architectural theory written by an American architect--detail a history world architecture and, as Walter described it, its "philosophy." In his six-part series, Walter explains architecture's aesthetic merits, historical connections and associated cultural values. Both the content and argument of the lectures were colored by Walter's social content and professional experience. His efforts on behalf of his emerging profession, including his role as a founding member of the American Institute of Architects, influenced the tone of the lectures, which he wrote and revised during a dozen years within his prolific five-decade practice. In them, he aimed to elevate architectural practice to a fine art, capable of improving society and advancing the cultural understanding of American citizens. As architectural theory, Walter's lectures reveal his motivation to increase public awareness of the potential virtues of architectural design within a modern, enlightened society.