The following are images of our installation process and student reflections on the projects they developed and on the exhibition experience overall.
On the Image as Commodity
I certainly did not intend to explore the history behind a single painting when I set out to research the University of Michigan's pastoral past. However, of the many documents and images I came across in the University's archives, Richard Rummell's early 20th-century watercolor painting of the University stood out. My curiosity spurred a futile pursuit of an original I had imagined lay somewhere in the archives or on campus, only for me to realize that it makes sense that no original would be around, for the watercolor was commissioned by a company whose business was to sell photogravures—that is, copies of paintings. And the University of Michigan was no exception; New York printing company Littig & Co. tasked Rummell with painting dozens of the United State's universities at the time. The seemingly singular painting was a simulacrum, essentially a commodity in an artistic commercial enterprise. These developments notwithstanding, I was able to find several high quality photogravures hanging on walls on campus and appropriated one as a medium through which to convey the power of architectural visualization from the pre-digital age. For the exhibition, Rummell's watercolor became the vessel of an interactive digital display that allowed viewers to zoom in on highlighted moments and learn about the history of that which Rummell chose to represent in painting.
On a broader note, Rummell's series of panoramic illustrations constitutes a vivid visual survey of higher education in the United States over a century ago. The reproduced paintings emblematize the notions of representationality and archival memory where the past, present, and future are collapsed, reconstructed, and re-presented in an aestheticized visual and spatial manner. As pastoral watercolors, they illuminate how mimetic architectural representation might actually serve as an idealized projection for the future of the rapidly growing turn-of-the-century university. To explain the images’ extraordinary perspective, some have speculated that Rummell painted his bird’s-eye views from a balloon 300 feet in the air, as unlikely as that was. The discrepancies between what was depicted and what existed at the time, as with Alumni Memorial Hall in the University of Michigan's case, suggest that these illustrations were also used as projective instruments—as architectural renderings with which to visualize prospective campus developments.
- Bader AlBader
On Archival Abundance and Scarcity
In the middle of the semester, I remember sitting in the archives with box after box of material from the Gunnar Birkerts collection. It was endless, the drawings and notes and related documents. The sheer amount of available resources proved intimidating. Yet my partner, Ibiayi and I, never lost sight of the driving idea: given the prevailing moods of the time, how did the big names of architecture question and respond to each other’s work on the university campus? We knew very early that because our motivating question was so architecture focused, that the outcome would likewise focus on built, existing work. Speaking the architecture language provided clarity in how to organize and present the oftentimes immense—sometimes scant—amount of material. It helped resolve the problem of relating four structures of wildly different scales and context in a legible manner. So, we could easily decide to present a plan and section of each structure in a digestible graphic format. While the drawings are the bulk of our project, the surprise component arrived by chance—serendipity is the perfect word. Deep in the Birkerts archives, at the bottom of a box, were tapes of lectures and conferences of Birkerts himself. By digging further, we were able to compile an audio collection of comments that helped frame our entire contribution to the exhibition.
- Jordan Laurila
On Visualizing a Contentious Past
Our team was originally interested in spaces of protest within the University of Michigan campus. The initial stages of research proved that to be a very broad topic with an extensive list of movements and incidents that took place at the university over many decades. However, nothing we found seemed to be as impactful and widely documented as the Black Action Movement (BAM). It started with a small discovery about black female students requesting an all-black corridor at Stockwell Hall in 1971. This led to more research about racial tension on campus during those years, eventually culminating in a plethora of information about BAM and its influence on the administration and student life.
As architecture students, we wanted to draw attention to the role that physical spaces played both during the movement's protests as well as in issues of identity on campus. However, realizing the complexity of the topic that we were exploring, as well as its special relevance in the world we live in today, we did not want to reduce complex social issues into simple architectural diagrams. We concluded that the best way to display this information was to present it in its raw form that left room for interpretation by the viewer. We divided our research into four parts that focused on different spatial elements, each represented by a frame. Within each frame was a curated combination of archival materials with occasional diagrams that highlighted the architectural or spatial relevance of the issue being presented. Supplemented by additional photos and newspaper selections, the aim of our installation was to deliver impact through unedited primary material.
-Nour Majzoub and Rebecca Lesher