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Problems of Chronology and Looking for the Big Picture

From the Archives

Problems of Chronology and Looking for the Big Picture

Sarah Rovang

I've been binge listening to This American Life's hit podcast Serial for the past week or so (at the gym, around the house while repotting an orchid). And I'm hooked. Part of it is just the compelling way the story is told and this compulsive need to find out the truth, but it's also the fact the whole investigative process is feeling kind of familiar to me right now. So it's a little different... it's architecture not murder. And most the characters in my dissertation died thirty or more years ago so I can't just call them up and interview them. But as I'm sifting through all of this evidence I've amassed, much of which feels fragmentary, contradictory, or indefinite, I can relate to the this idea of putting together a court case—trying to make a coherent narrative, to tell a good story, using parts that don't always fit together that well. 

I ended up restructuring a big chunk of my first chapter earlier this week when I discovered that the order in which REA published information about its architecture was not necessarily the order in which projects were completed. The correspondence files I'm going through revealed that it was really a case of having material to publish. If a cooperative had good photographs, or if a nice perspective rendering of a building had been made for a presentation, then building projects would get written up whether the actual construction had finished or not. So I've spent the week just trying to work out what happened when in 1939 (arguably the most important year for my dissertation) so I can make my "case."  All of this is complicated by the fact that in this era before email when people still needed to be in constant contact, letters crossed each other all the time. The redundancies and misunderstandings caused by the delay of waiting for mail delivery complicate the ostensibly chronological series of letters I'm reading. 

In the process of untangling all of this, I'm vacillating between focusing on the details, noting every brand of every light, sign, and piece of furniture REA used, and really trying to get a sense of the bigger picture. What were the people who started REA's architecture program most concerned about? What topics get brought up most often? I've ended up doing a little bit of both - seizing on details that really stand out and also looking for these bigger patterns. 

Rather than having their engineering unit be the point of contact for the architectural consultants, REA placed their "Information Division" in this position in 1939. The Information Division was basically the advertising unit - they wrote the national newsletter, hired artists and designers, made displays and pamphlets, etc. Even though these letters are 75 years old, they pretty much sound like how you would expect a conversation to go between an architect and a graphic designer. The graphic designers are really fixated the design of the signs, including standardizing the colors, typefaces, and spacing. A lot of typewriter ink gets spilled on the subject of which version of Franklin Gothic to use for the signs. Meanwhile, the architects are concerned with how the various functions of the buildings will work in the same space, and how the signage is actually going to look on the side of a building with some dramatic floodlighting on it. I've been trying to pinpoint how exactly Roland Wank's work for REA differs from his TVA stuff - because much of it, particularly the interiors, looks very similar. But while much of his TVA works had the sort of sculptural quality of the dams themselves, I'm realizing that the REA buildings look flatter and more, well... graphic. 

Meanwhile, the engineers and this new REA Administrator, Harry Slattery, aren't out of the picture either - they're right there ready to give feedback too. And the interventions they're making are certainly important as well. But, as they always say on Serial, "more on that next week."