2 May 2023

Speaking of Architectural (Hi)Stories

University of Melbourne

Respondent: Alex Maymind, University of Minnesota

The use of oral history as a method to rewrite histories of modern architecture has intensified lately with events, publications, and specific sessions at the annual events of scholarly societies. Characterised by a sense of urgency and transience, oral history has the potential to also expand the field of architectural historiography. This talk presents findings of a research project on oral histories of architectural history, not architecture; through interviews with architectural historians, not architects, initially conducted in Australia and New Zealand but to be replicated in and expanded to other contexts. While others focus on acknowledging the contribution of users, clients, and laborers in constructing alternative narratives of the built environment, I argue that there is also value in recording the stories told by architectural historians. Building on the investigation of the entangled subjectivities of the narrators who talk, the researcher who listens, and the audience and institutions who care about them, this presentation focusses precisely on the latter, on those who (will) write the histories of architecture in the future and their reception of these stories. Can the resulting intergenerational dialogue help overcome the institutional uncertainty of emerging scholars? Can it increase their sense of belonging to the discipline? By presenting fragments of the interviews to audiences beyond Australia and New Zealand, the aim is to reflect on whether the multiple meaningful interpretations of their stories can help navigate the current generational shift characterized by the urgency of social and climate crises. In the stories of established historians, emerging scholars may find hope.


How I love the place you have no idea: Poetic Language and Sensory Stimuli in the Arab Quarter of Alexandria

McGill University

Respondent: Arianna Fognani, Coastal Carolina University

The plan of Arab quarter where the fictional British Lieutenant Jushua Scobie lived in The Alexandria Quartet (1956) Nicoho Soff, “Plan Général D’Alexandrie ” 1 :10.000, (Egypt : Carte de l’Egypte Cotonnière, 1930).

While it is difficult for architectural representations to reveal lived-in places through conventional means such as diagrams and maps, the language of literature can identify qualities of place, including mood, and atmosphere. Studying Lawrence Durrell’s deep sensitivity towards place in his novel The Alexandria Quartet (1957) can help to better understand architectural context. Durrell’s depiction of place is in line with phenomenological definition of place as a humanizing space given with language and narrative which is the theoretical framework of this study that investigates the Arab quarter in a novel.

The quarter emerges through a hermeneutical read of British Lieutenant, Joshua Scobie’s urban experience. He is portrayed as a queer man, and a foreign inhabitant who feels at home as long-term resident of the neighborhood. The argument is that Scobie is not just a European sexual tourist with a homoerotic bond to place, but rather he has love for the Arab quarter as well. His topophilia arises from his active engagement with place, which gives him a sense of attunement. For Scobie, the architecture of the quarter emerges through olfactory aspects that reinforce embodied engagement. These sensory stimuli are intimately tied to poetic language. For instance, the smell of a bread in a street leads Scobie to be reflectively attentive to place and gives rise to poetic prose: “It smells like mother’s lap!” Reflection in such moments shows how Scobie finds his place in the city based on senses expressed with language as a medium to define the quarter’s character. Scobie’s journey shows that dwelling occurs when architecture stimulates poetic emotions to embody a place with a sense of belonging.

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