The Future is a Rectangle: Modernist University Architecture and the Human Being

Speaker: Joshua Shannon (Professor of contemporary Art History and Theory, University of Maryland)

Painting of building i Parren J. Mithell Art-Sociology Building, University of Maryland, 1976 Painting by Warren G. Sargent & Associates

International Style modernist architecture, together with many of its major practitioners, arrived in the United States after World War II. It famously took form in corporate office buildings and public housing projects by the mid-1950s. The predominant effect of the International Style’s migration, however, would be its near-universal adoption for new civic architecture in the three decades following 1955. Schools, post offices, jails, churches and, influentially, university buildings adopted the simplified, rectilinear vocabulary of this European architectural movement. These little-studied buildings indelibly altered the vernacular American landscape and its meanings. This talk looks closely at some representative university building projects around 1970, in order to uncover their socio-political values, both explicit and implicit.

The new postwar university shunned the body-oriented details of neo-classical and colonial campuses (volutes, brackets, shutters, etc.) for a more abstract geometry. This new civic architecture—like its European precedents—was not, however, simply antihumanist. Indeed we might understand it as a technocratic humanism—at once a manifestation of and also a bulwark against civil rights, the women’s movement, and campus protest. Imagining, like the science-fiction of the day, a future that was simply devoid of race and gender, its utopianism was mild and democratic. The talk considers period documents including architectural drawings, administrators’ memos, and coverage in student newspapers.

This talk looks back at vernacular modernism with nostalgia for its dreams of a developing common good but also with criticism of its brash faith in a universal human sovereign. The conclusion considers how the history of university modernism might be mined for rethinking the concept of the human being for our own period of environmental and social crisis.

Joshua Shannon is Professor of contemporary Art History and Theory in the Department of Art History and Archaeology at the University of Maryland. His research and teaching interests cover art and visual culture since 1945, including especially sculpture, photography, the urban landscape, and realism. He is the author of The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City (Yale University Press, 2009) and of The Recording Machine: Art and Fact During the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2017). He has also published articles and reviews in journals such as American Art, The Art Bulletin, Modernism/Modernity and October. Shannon is founder and director of The Potomac Center for the Study of Modernity, an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research initiative hosting events in Washington, DC. He is currently the Terra Visiting Professor of American Art at the Freie Universität Berlin.

Organised by Professor David Peters Corbett (The Courtauld) 


This event has passed.

3 Feb 2020

The Courtauld Institute of Art, Vernon Square, Penton Rise, King’s Cross, London