Towards Teaching Popular Culture
For the last nine years I have taught a course called Archi•Pop about architecture and popular culture. The class was inspired by a student’s suggestion that I create a course that drew upon the everyday visual culture that I so loved. It meant that I could watch bad television (like Keeping Up With the Kardashians and The Bachelor), read People magazine, and play games with my son—and still be engaged, think critically, and ask tough questions.
I found that I learned a lot in the process. I also found that by learning about and from student obsessions, I could more easily keep in touch with them. Students know a tremendous amount about contemporary popular culture. And they often have useful addictions: music videos, Grindr images, cooking shows, slasher films, advertisements in modern architecture, children’s toys, clothing. But, while they are super familiar with the material, they have rarely thought critically about it. And yet, the material is visual and often spatial. So they should learn to engage and not be “off duty” when interacting with popular culture (as one student suggested.) One thing I hate, is the idea that popular culture does not warrant a scholarly and sophisticated analysis in Architectural History. Almost fifty years after the publication of Learning from Las Vegas, and despite the formative legacy of that book, the discipline (unlike that of anthropology, media studies, or English) continues to shy away from things that are popular. This is a disciplinary blind spot.
While it might be important to know the works of Le Corbusier and Philip Johnson, I think it is just as important to know that Snoop Dog shot a music video in John Lautner’s Sheats-Goldstein house (where the Kardashians also filmed; see figure 1) and J-Lo shot a movie in which she lived in a foreboding neo-Brutalist apartment with her abusive husband played by Billy Campbell. I teach in a design school, and while it is a good one, most of the graduates will not become the next Richard Meier (thank god!) or Rem Koolhaas.
All the more reason, they should become equipped to analyze the visual environment that they encounter on a daily basis and make it better. We owe them that. In other words, students should be taught to ask hard questions about the material they encounter every day, not just the special sites (like the Villa Savoye) to which they make pilgrimages.
I was once at a conference in which both Herbert Muschamp (the then architecture critic for The New York Times) and the veteran art historian Karal Ann Marling were asked to identify what they thought was exotic in contemporary architecture. Muschamp said Frank Gehry’s then new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. Marling said Christmas decorations. In Marling’s mind, the average American transported their house to another place through decorations. An audience member asked how many people could afford to travel to Bilbao and was this not elitist to suggest they should. Muschamp was livid as he felt that everyone should see Bilbao. There was some back and forth. Then someone yelled from the audience to Muschamp asking him to put his penis back in his pocket. It was a great moment.
Years ago, I was showing a clip from The Brady Bunch in class. There is so much to say about the brown and orange kitchen, the hetero-normative blended family, and the fact that many many children watched this show in re-runs after school, thus acquiring an understanding of domestic space that was unchallenged and long-lasting (and should I mention that the Brady father was an architect?). A colleague heard the show’s theme song emanating from my classroom, barged in, and demanded to know what I was teaching and why. He was upset. I now keep the classroom door closed.
In the process of teaching popular culture, I can include some of my favorite writers about space and place: Marling, J. B. Jackson, Henri Lefebvre, David Lowenthal, Lucy Lippard, Roland Barthes, Michel De Certeau, George Kubler, Dianne Harris. I can also assign other writers such as Edward Said, David Howes, Stuart Hall, Jacques Le Goff, Griselda Pollock, and James Howard Kunstler; podcasts such as 99% Invisible and This American Life; and YouTube videos such as Crash Course.
Studying and teaching popular culture presents several challenges. One is that most of the pertinent historical evidence lies in corporate archives, making it difficult to access. Furthermore, it is often subject to corporate approval (as is the case with Playboy—which insists on approving every article or book—thereby eroding any construct of academic freedom.) Another problem is that major research libraries (including at my university, Cornell) have a disdain for contemporary popular culture—evinced by the fact that they don’t even carry a subscription to People. Third, most good writing on popular culture is on U.S. culture—making it really difficult to follow current fashion in academe to study the world beyond North American and Western Europe. And, finally, it is hard to find any good recent writing analyzing popular spaces or places—forcing students to do that themselves (which might be a good thing).
One of my favorite books is Barbara A. Hanawalt’s 1986 The Ties That Bound: Peasant Families in Medieval England because it provides a wonderful example of how to think creatively when doing scholarship. Hanawalt wanted to study the everyday life of Medieval peasant women—a seemingly impossible task as the women were largely illiterate and left behind few records. And so she read coroner’s rolls—written by the men who were called into the spaces occupied by those women. Morbid circumstances said a lot about poor rural Medieval spaces. Go figure!
I have taught about buildings and space in Renaissance Italy, and love doing so, but I have found that it takes so long to get to the point of being able to ask creative questions. One has to slog through basic information and in the process dismantle stereotypes—of which there are many.
I grew up without a television as the daughter of a sculptor and a folklorist. Everything in my world was beautiful (a relative term, I know) and hand-made. The visual was paramount. And yet, I love mass-produced culture. Why? Maybe, just maybe, students have outed me and forced me to be more engaged.
There is nothing easy about working on popular culture. And I consider the choice to do so to be political in a subtle and nuanced way. By choosing to write about things that are not written about by architectural historians and are considered by some to be low-brow culture, I am making a decision to think outside the box and function as a bit of an outlier. As Aldo Rossi once said in a lecture (and I am paraphrasing) the best evidence of Palladio can be found at Home Depot. That is thinking outside the box.