Ghosts on the wall: how I became an architectural historian

This latest quest of mine began with an epiphany. I was in my regular café, sitting at my regular table writing a book on ecological architecture and urban planning. I aspired to fundamentally challenge the recent developments I observed taking place on the field. My contention was that there had been a turn to a wrong and potentially dangerous direction. In fact, I had already a couple of years earlier touched loosely upon the same subject in my tv mini-series, The Green City (2010), but since soon after its completion I had felt that there was so much left unsaid I now wanted to elaborate in a book. I envisioned it as the story of ecological architecture.

But on that autumn afternoon, with my book already halfway written, came my ghosts. They appeared as visions of various indigenous abodes: African huts made out of mud, American tipis covered with animal skins, and others similar. They flickered faintly on the grey, dimly lit walls of the café and taunted me with their questions: Why on earth is it that in your story ecological architecture you only acknowledge the developments of the past fifty years of human history? Do you perhaps not regard us as ecological dwellings? Indeed, do you even know when the notion of building ones abode in harmony with its surroundings first dawned on man?

These ghosts of mine quickly forced me to admit that, no, I actually had not got a clue about the very first beginnings of ecological building. My initial decision to begin the narrative from the 1960s was based purely on intuition, nothing else. I realized that I had to do some research on the history of my subject.

And that was it. That was both the fortunate and the unfortunate moment that has since governed my thoughts, my doings, my life – both professional and civilian. As regards the book-to-be, I decided to begin it anew.

A second attempt… (and a third… )

In approximately six months I composed a new first chapter to my manuscript: a brief history of the early phases of ecological architecture. Then I continued with the main story. But only to soon encounter another dilemma to deal with: Buckminster Fuller, that weird, enigmatic inventor-architect-engineer who had, for instance, invented the geodesic dome as well as coined the term ‘Spaceship Earth’. Initially I had planned to mention Fuller only in passing, but as I was lured to study him more thoroughly his role got ever more important. Until, ultimately, I realized that I had to dedicate the very first chapter to him. Once again, my story got a new beginning.

It was during those days that my wife, commenting on the piles of Fuller books I kept carrying home, sarcastically remarked: “Are you perhaps working on a doctoral dissertation on this Fuller?” I laughed. Sort of.

The thing is that initially, when I first launched my book project, I had promised my wife that it will be a quick side job; it will be a simple book, mostly based on the material I had already gathered while working on the tv series. “It will only take a year or one and a half at the most”, I assured her. Well, that was in the fall of 2011. Her remark about Fuller came in early 2013. Hence, at that time, my project should have been more or less finished, but I was only digging deeper. Indeed, after studying Fuller, it gradually dawned on me that my book was really turning into a historical one. Although I was desperate to discuss the contemporary conundrums of which I was most worried about, it seemed that I was only being sucked ever farther into history.

Now, as I write this, it is fall 2017. It is six years into my project which has now, indeed, evolved from a non-fiction scheme to a PhD project. For in 2015 I applied to the Aalto doctoral programme in Arts, Design and Architecture and got admitted. As is typical for a beginner, my initial research topic was huge with its historical timeline spanning over centuries. So, soon it became obvious that I had to focus and I decided to concentrate on Fuller, for as architectural historian Jonathan Massey writes, there is “no more important precursor to today’s sustainable design movement than R. Buckminster Fuller”.1

So, what next?

Although as so far an end to the project is nowhere in sight, I really, really hope I am able to get my results out – sooner or later. My first aim is to complete my PhD research on Fuller which is now midpoint and needs two more years of work. After that, I wish to tackle the broader issues that still constantly haunt me – those indigenous ghosts of mine included.

Should these themes be of any interest to you, dear reader, you are most welcome to follow how this endeavor unfolds. I assure you that at least my initial findings are most intriguing and in this blog I will keep you up to date on what is going on with my research and on where it is next leading me to…

 

1 Massey, Jonathan. 2009. The Sumptuary Ecology of Buckminster Fuller’s Designs. In Alan Braddock & Christoph Irmscher (eds.): A Keener Perception; Ecocritical Studies in American Art History. University of Alabama Press. 218-236.

 

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