Construction History Society of America 7th Biennial
Housing Solidarity: Building by and for the United Auto Workers in Detroit, 1935–196X
Conference Presentation, June 2022

An early dispatch from a research project on the architectural and construction history of organized labor in the United States, in this paper I will narrate the strata of twentieth-century history on one particular site on the north side of Detroit, which since 1951 has served as headquarters of the UAW. Reaching backward to the founding of the union years earlier and forward to the strange, presently uncertain fate of the union’s headquarters building, known as Solidarity House, this history reveals the necessity of space and the functions of construction in the building — and maintenance — of class solidarity. Designed by Oscar Stonorov (a Philadelphia architect known primarily for labor union housing in that city and a personal friend of UAW President Walter Reuther) Solidarity House was located on the same site as an Italianate home once occupied by Edsel Ford, son of Henry and President of Ford Motor Company until his untimely death in 1943. The residence was originally built for lumber, railroad, and real estate baron Albert L. Stephens, making the history of this single site a microcosm for Detroit as a whole from Gilded Age to manufacturing mecca to the power-sharing détente established between labor and industry by midcentury.  Stonorov’s design aimed to capture the spirit of this optimistic alliance through the now-familiar forms, materials and construction methods of modernist architecture. What made Solidarity House unusual was its function. Unlike the slick symbols of consolidated corporate power that populate most textbooks on modernism, this was a building by and for laborers and their elected leaders.

Demolition of the Stephens/Ford House on the property of UAW Solidarity House, Jefferson Avenue, Detroit, ca. late 1950s. Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Interdisciplinary Nineteenth-Century Studies Conference
From Bullpen to Ballroom: Miners' Union Halls in the Western U.S., 1865-1905
Conference Presentation, March 2022

The buildings and spatial strategies of the organized labor movement in the United States form a chapter of architectural history that is sparsely recorded. Though hundreds or even thousands of labor lyceums, federations of labor, union halls, and worker retreats were built across the country between the late 19th century and the middle of the 20th, most have not yet received the attention of architectural historians or preservationists. These spaces were—as political theorist Margaret Kohn has written of similar structures in Europe—part citadel and part church; they established a space free from obstruction by bosses and served as prototypical “houses of the people” whose proletarian, democratic ideals were to be extended to the whole of society. Often paid for by workers’ union dues, these spaces supported not only strikes but also socializing, not only picketing but also parades. The vast distance between mineral deposits meant organizing miners required decentralized strategies and redundant spaces. In this paper, I present an architectural history of the miners’ union hall, a building type that proliferated in the Western U.S. first among localized craft unions and later as outposts for the radical Western Federation of Miners founded in 1893.

Research supported by a collections engagement grant from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts / J. Willard Marriott Library.

Western Federation of Miners Local no. 220 Union Hall, Goldfield, Nevada serves as the backdrop for a 1907 demonstration on the second anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” massacre in St. Petersburg, Russia. UNLV Digital Collections.

Symposium “Compositional Physics and Other Forms of Disorder,” Rice University
Looking Askance, Looking Away, Looking Easy: Notes on Architectural Nonchalance
Symposium Talk, February 2020

I was invited to offer my take on the theme of a symposium titled “Compositional Physics and Other Forms of Disorder.” The question at the heart of this presentation wasn’t how physics engines or other tools have been used in design, but rather why architects have been interested in the forms of disorder they produce? I believe they were predisposed to desire a nonchalant appearance by the search for unselfconscious informality threaded within the patchwork of late modernism. The presentation was split into three parts, each associated with a particular posture for achieving nonchalance: Looking Askance, meaning that the elements of a composition appear chaotically or randomly arranged; Looking Away, meaning that the designer sets a process in motion while setting aside their own formal preconceptions; and Looking Easy, which is about the ways design products and ensembles avoid looking like much work. I see echoes of this nonchalant attitude in the work of many contemporary architects – the last thing many of them want their work to look like is deliberate, contrived, or effortful. Much better to make it look easy.

John M. Johansen’s Mummers Theater, Oklahoma City (1967–1972) one example from a geneaology of “nonchalant” late modernisms.

International Conference “Architecture and Bureaucracy”
Organizational Signature: Norms and Forms in Late Twentieth Century US Architectural Practice
Conference Presentation, October 2019

In the late twentieth century US, increasing specialization in the construction field sapped the influence architects had over the realization of their designs, even as claims to individual authorship became ever more important for market competitiveness. At the same time, the emergence of new specializations and new roles within firms showed that changes were nascent in the then-conventional definition of the architect as a generalist. As a result, in writing the history of this period we must adjust our conception of “the architect” to include not only those remaining generalists at the top of the professional hierarchy, but also those who translate design into a constructed object—project managers, spec writers, draftspeople, and interior designers. We must write of an architecture that is undecided beyond the schematic design phase, an object that evolves from start to finish. In this paper I argued that instead of a design signature, historians should work to distill an organizational one, asking how a particular firm responded to challenges posed by specialization and administration rather than site or building type. As a demonstration of this method, the paper drew from archival research into a key project by the important late modernist architecture firm Gunnar Birkerts and Associates, a building for the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Minnesota, completed in 1973. Despite inheriting deeply ingrained professional knowledge through the contracts and document formats they used, the architects had to make sense of unfamiliar management and scheduling protocols like the Critical Path Method, as well as an unfamiliar project delivery method that included new roles like Construction Manager and Interior Designer.

Construction photograph showing steel frame and suspension structure for Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis building designed by Gunnar Birkerts and Associates. Photograph by Balthazar Korab.

Society of Architectural Historians Annual Conference
Logical Flow: Critical Path Construction Scheduling in the 1960s
Conference Presentation, April 2019

Scheduling construction projects requires managerial expertise that contractors often lack and architects routinely spurn. This important pre-construction practice saw dramatic change in the 1960s with the emergence of the Critical Path Method (CPM). Still in use today, CPM was originally developed by the DuPont Corporation to schedule and estimate costs for complex research and development projects. It helps schedulers determine which tasks are most critical, thus making it easier to assess and respond to delays as they arise. Its primary innovation was a graphical system of task mapping called an arrow diagram. More than a mere schedule, these diagrams show the “logical flow” of a project. The eponymous critical path, traced from one key task to the next, reveals the total time expected to complete the project. By the mid-1960s general contractors, architects, and particularly construction managers had adopted CPM as an effective means to coordinate and schedule projects. The method’s computerization in the late 1960s quickly put architects on the outside looking in as numerical outputs replaced graphical. Absent arrow diagrams and with its capacity to visualize “logical flow” gone, interest in CPM waned among all but the most specialized project managers. CPM’s story raises important questions for an architectural history of pre-construction. To what extent do architects’ graphical sensibilities predispose them to view management tasks as unworthy of their attention? Is it logical or ludicrous that critical procedures like construction scheduling find themselves exiled from architectural practice?

Brochure advertising the services of McKee Berger Mansueto, Inc., a specialist in construction management using the Critical Path Method, ca. 1967.