My scholarship deals with the problems posed to the study of architecture by information technology. It confronts us with a new order of things. Electronic media, for example, intersects with the traditional mode of creating place, meaning, and identity in surprising ways. It has destabilized our sense perception by transporting auditory and visual sensation without the witnessing body. Old distinctions—between high and low, art and life, us and them—have crumbled. From their rubble rise new, as yet unnamed hierarchies. My recent book, Broadcasting Buildings: Architecture on the Wireless, 1927-1945 (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014) was informed by these methodological and conceptual challenges. I argued that “wireless sites,” namely programs on the built environment, made a subtle but incredibly powerful crucible for the formation of a participatory democracy. British radio placed architecture, the least autonomous and the most compromised of symbolic systems, at the heart of national debates on welfare economy and democratic progress.
The broadcasts that formed my primary archive created a dynamic cross-section of British architecture during the period: its participants and problems, victories and failures, ideals and illusions, debates and intrigues, commissions and extra-curricular activities. They offered a fresh perspective on interwar and wartime debates on conservation, town planning, and design in modern life. These “wireless sites” presented a prodigious occasion to discuss the role of architects in the new political economy, the place of their work in contemporary life, the impact of democratic finance on their section of the luxury market, challenges of town and country planning with the breakup of large country estates and disappearance of aristocracy, the expansion of local councils’ power, and mass tourism.
My next project will take the lens of media and sound studies outside modern Europe and the realm of electronically transmitted spoken word, to the auditory landscapes and the logo- and anthropocentric environs of the Sufi shrines in Iran, Pakistan, and India. Sufi Shrines in a Hyperconnected World, 1800 to 2015 will explore how the technologies of tourism and mass communication in the past two hundred or so years have transformed, in fact, reinvented these millennium old institutions and their unique sonic spaces. Of special interest to me is the continuity and discontinuity in the attitudes towards tangible (built) and intangible (performative) heritage that should be best reflected in the strategies of preservation and neglect since the nineteenth century. Here, I anticipate a bitter confrontation between literate (preservationist) and non-literate (or oral) ways of organizing information, passing on traditions, and being in the world. Attention to the practices of reconstruction, extension, and adaptive reuse should indicate how more than any other sites, Sufi shrines have become arenas of conflict as well as points of convergence between the formal and informal segments of society, between orality and literacy, between the local and the global, between sound and site, tradition and modernity, and between the formality of fixed exhibition and the vernacular preference for ephemeral performance. Thus these globalized locations as well as their localized dislocations are particularly germane to the exploration of the interplay of ritual, audition, space, politics, and heritage in the current stage of globalization.
I will publish this research in a book format, supporting it with short podcasts, documentary clips, recorded site tours, and digital maps. I will also manage most of the research conducted in Farsi, Dari, Pushto, Urdu, Punjabi, Hindi and English, online. I have done preliminary travel in Iran and Pakistan; and have been learning Farsi for the past two years.
At the moment, I am working on an intervening book length digital humanities project entitled SAH Archipedia. Funded in part by National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), it develops metadata, maps, images, and short thematic essays on the hundred most important buildings in each state of the United States. I am the state coordinator and primary author for Utah. To an architectural historian, Utah presents itself as a compelling and understudied archive. This archive has given me an opportunity to look at the interface of technologies of communication and transportation with architecture across the ages.
The peer-reviewed list covers everything from ancient Anasazi roads that were meant not for transportation but sacred rituals to the Central Pacific Railroad Grade Historic District that is a shrine to the age of efficient and opportune circulation. Readers can learn about the food technologies, tools and mnemonic devices found in 12,000 years old Danger Cave in Wendover side by side with the rationalized food production and industrial tools and planning techniques shrouded in a quint-looking 20th century dairy barn. McPolin farm stands as the logo of the current ski resort, Park City, whose resourceful (mostly part-time) residents are preserving all things that fulfill their desire to live in an alternative if not botoxed reality. The spatialized competition between church and state gets an airing in the study of the revival styles of LDS buildings, federal as well as state institutions. The world’s largest open pit copper mine in Daybreak that in 2012 donated the cladding for the entire facing of the digitally modeled Natural History Museum, simulating the dramatic landscape of Southern Utah, is featured along with the environmentally conscious 2012 Wetland Discovery Center in Kayseille. If the acoustics of the Mormon tabernacle speaks to the role of reverberating chambers in creating an other worldly religious experience, the crisp sound heard in Symphony Hall, standing across from the Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, reminds us of the dissociation of modern sound from the space in which it is produced and consumed. The value of Moshe Safdie’s grand gesture at the City Library in Salt Lake, I insist, is to express the library as a node in a global network of information flow rather than a static repository of knowledge. It is nothing if not a celebration of thinking in the agora. Whether in the analysis of the prairie style homes, vernacularized by the real estate developers, or the conceptual framing of the monumental high-rise office buildings of corporations, media studies had remained my primary methodological device.
The peer review process of the first fifty sites this spring and summer has ensured that my essays, mainly geared towards students and scholars of architecture, are also relevant to the uninitiated readers. This segment is currently in queue for final copyediting and publication. I am under contract with SAH and the University of Virginia Press and will submit a complete package by June 30th 2016. My experiment with short form scholarship, with most essays ranging from 750 words to 1400 words, has been invaluable for teaching and research. I have negotiated with Archipedia editors and publishers to reformat the Building of United States series (BUS), so that this material can be published under the series without much work. The introduction to the BUS Utah will think through the genre of short form scholarship and digital humanities. It will stress the impact of interdisciplinary thinking on formal analysis, the value of looking at vernacular buildings alongside monumental, and the advantage of thematic readings across time. The book will end with an epilogue on learning from Utah.