The challenge and the thrill of teaching architectural history for me comes from helping students to experience the built environment in unexpected ways. As Walter Benjamin observed, architecture as a medium is habitually consumed “in a state of distraction.” Recognizing this “state of distraction,” I strive to defamiliarize the everyday experience of architecture and push students to question their preconceptions about the landscapes in which we dwell, work, and live. In my pedagogical practice, the foundation I provide is a critical toolset for analyzing architectural, visual, and written evidence. These tools allow students to build the framework for a deeper understanding of architectural history as an experiential engagement with the past. Ultimately, I use this teaching structure to help my students understand how architecture and society can be mutually constitutive forces, advancing their comprehension not only of how we shape buildings, but how buildings shape us.
Many of my beliefs about teaching are informed by my own research, particularly the idea of a “cultural democracy” coming out of the New Deal. New Deal programs brought art into the sphere of mainstream American society, putting paintbrushes and cameras in the hands of many who had never painted or taken pictures before. Though the results varied, the notion that anyone can take part in cultural production continues to motivate my pedagogy. During the spring semester of 2013, I led a weekly discussion section at Brown University for advanced students in a lecture class on the history of Parisian architecture and urbanism. In this course, I started a blog to foster the ideal of “cultural democracy” both inside and outside of the classroom. To start a dialogue and promote universal participation, each week I asked my students to write a concise, articulate blog entry based on the readings. Knowing that their peers would also be privy to their responses significantly elevated the clarity and reflectiveness of these responses. This technique also created an atmosphere where students felt comfortable taking intellectual risks—on the blog, students were much more willing to argue for a view that went against the prevailing sentiment of the class.
Having established the cornerstone of a “cultural democracy,” I encourage my students to begin assembling their own analytical tool kits to approach diverse visual and textual materials. The discipline of architectural history is, for me, less about the memorization of dates and images than learning how to deal with evidence critically and to gain insights that can be applied to other fields and learning experiences. When we covered Renaissance map-making and topography in the Paris course, I brought in one of the popular tourist maps of Providence, Rhode Island. This map, which showed a highly curated selection of attractions, presented an obviously skewed view of the city. After engaging my students in a discussion of what factors influenced the map’s representation of the city (sponsored ads, the desire to establish credibility by including historical sites, etc.), we turned to an imagined bird’s-eye view of Paris from 1652 that claimed in textual sources to be the first “objective” map of the city. Based on our previous discussion, my students quickly identified how this map was far from unbiased. This historical comparison helped elucidate an underlying principle: that topographical projections can be used to promote certain agendas. From this discipline-specific lesson, the students gained an even more widely applicable tool: a critically informed suspicion of all historical accounts claiming to be “objective.”
For the final project in this course, I gave students the option of either writing a more conventional 12-15 page research paper, or devising a creative project (such as an architectural model or drawing, mapping exercise, video, etc.) that somehow related to the main thematic material. Many chose to pursue the creative option, and I was delighted when these projects demonstrated how they were able to distill the core concepts from our seminar and apply these to their own chosen topics of research, even outside the field of architectural history. One student, an avid programmer, combined insights from a class discussion on the sensorial experience of navigating medieval Paris with his own personal observation that much urban navigation today happens on the screen of a smartphone. He coded a website that forced the user to navigate with historic landmarks (“Turn right at Notre Dame,” e.g.) and thereby encounter the city in an unexpected way. A student in fashion design crafted hats from different periods in French history, demonstrating how the material culture of millinery related to the city’s urban development, both through changing class structure as well as more concrete concerns like keeping off dust during major periods of construction. More so than an essay test or a slide examination, these projects became a way of assessing how the students had not only understood but synthesized central concepts from the course.
For me, architectural history is necessarily a subjective endeavor and we benefit as both students and teachers when we talk about and acknowledge the different experiences that we are each bringing to our research and analysis. I encourage my students to examine their personal histories as they might a building or a text in order to elucidate how those narratives now inform their preconceived opinions and biases. As historians, we are story-writers by profession, and I prefer to think of my students’ backgrounds as complementing and even encompassing markers of identity such as race, gender, sexuality, or religion.
Likewise, in teaching a discussion section for a film architecture course called “City and Cinema,” I discovered that the films students had been exposed to growing up or in previous university classes largely determined how they related to the material. Though a few students came in with a working knowledge of historic cinema, the majority were experiencing genres such as Italian Neorealism or Busby Berkeley musicals for the first time. I encouraged students to access this unfamiliar territory via their experiences with more contemporary films. The week we examined Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, I invited students to compare the use of architectural staging in clips we had watched for class to the use of space in more recent horror films. For those (like myself) who generally avoid this genre, this discussion presented the opportunity to think more broadly about how architecture can be used to create suspense and psychological tension. By encouraging students to draw on personal experience, I foster a classroom environment that welcomes diverse opinions and perspectives.
While architectural learning can certainly be effective in the classroom, I believe it is hard to rival the experience of actually inhabiting a space or exploring an urban environment on foot. Though each student experiences this landscape through the filter of her or his personal history, the physical act of occupying a space gives students a concrete, shared experience to which they can all relate. For the past two summers, I have taught a one-week high school course on the history of skyscrapers. On the penultimate day, I take the students on a walking tour in downtown Providence. Unprompted, they begin to accurately identify tall buildings from various historical periods and hypothesize what political, cultural, and economic forces may have influenced certain stylistic or structural choices. That moment of witnessing students seeing the city with fresh eyes—fully conscious, rather than in Benjamin’s “state of distraction”—reminds me that teaching architectural history is not just as an end in itself, but a threshold to a new way of inhabiting the world; a mode of thinking and seeing that students can carry with them into other fields and future studies.