The Figure of Democracy: Houses, Housing, and the Polis

Neil Cummings, “Occupy occupy! Global Democracy Now,” Tents in from of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, October 16, 2011. Digital Photograph. Courtesy of the photographer, licensed under the Creative Commons.

Neil Cummings, “Occupy occupy! Global Democracy Now,” Tents in from of St Paul’s Cathedral, London, October 16, 2011. Digital Photograph. Courtesy of the photographer, licensed under the Creative Commons.

The Buell Center Conference on the History of Architecture

9-10 May, 2014

There may be no figure more fraught than that of “democracy.” We say figure rather than political project, system, or ideology, to underscore the role of the imagination, and of cultural narratives, artistic forms, and material things, in shaping and making politics. Historically and in the present, architecture has contributed its fair share to such processes, poised awkwardly between justice and injustice, equity and inequity. Houses, housing, and cities are among architecture’s most potent instruments, guiding the political imagination as well as implementing public policies, to yield thoroughly concrete and enduring results.

The conference, hosted by the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture, will begin with a keynote evening lecture on Friday 9 May by Ira Katznelson, Columbia’s Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History and author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time (Liveright, 2013), at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), and continue throughout the day on Saturday 10 May in the East Gallery of Columbia University’s Buell Hall. The conference’s central reference will be the architecture and urbanism of the United States during the modern period, seen comparatively and in the widest possible scope. Rather than de Tocqueville, its ambiguous standard bearer, poised symbolically in the background, is the architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright imagined his work as the quintessential “architecture of democracy,” associated with a politics harking back to Jefferson, and an urbanism in which the epic tension between individual and collective life is arguably at its highest pitch.

The conference coincides with an exhibition at MoMA, Frank Lloyd Wright and the City: Density vs. Dispersal, marking the museum’s joint acquisition, with Columbia University’s Avery Library, of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation Archive. It also inaugurates the Buell Center’s engagement with that archive, by drawing one of many possible frames around it. Conference participants have not been asked to address Wright’s work or environs directly; we have only placed these in the frame. In that spirit, the conference brings together scholars in architectural and urban history, American studies, political and economic history, political theory, and urban anthropology to reflect on that frame. In doing so, we seek to gather ideas and objects, from New Deal housing policies to the prison system, in which the figure of democracy is most visibly at stake.


Opening & Keynote:

Friday, May 9th

“What is a Decent City? Reflections on the Architecture of Fear”

Ira Katznelson (Ruggles Professor of Political Science and History, Columbia University)

Bartos Theater (Theater 3)

MoMA, Education and Research Building



Saturday, May 10th

Buell Hall, East Gallery

Columbia University, Morningside Campus


10:00, Welcome

Reinhold Martin (Director, Buell Center)


10:10: „The Specter of Democracy: Figuring the Nineteenth-Century Anarchist City”

Irene Cheng (California College of the Arts)

10:35: „….in the vernacular of property”

Catherine Ingraham (Pratt Institute)

11:00: “Four Ways of Thinking About Architecture and Democracy”

Jan-Werner Mueller (Princeton University)

11:25: „Democracy, Plutocracy, Bureaucracy: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Critique of American Society”

Joan Ockman (University of Pennsylvania)


11:50: Panel 1

moderated by: Bob Beauregard (Columbia University)

12:30: Lunch

1:30: „Democracy through the Windshield”

Gabrielle Esperdy (New Jersey Institute of Technology)

1:55: “Figures of Democracy”

Sarah Whiting (Rice University)

2:20: „The Social Shape of Shelter”

Samuel Zipp (Brown University)


2:45: Panel 2

moderated by: Gwendolyn Wright (Columbia University)

3:15: Coffee

3:30: „If Democracy Is Not Inclusive, What Is Democratic Architecture?”

Christina Cogdell (University of California, Davis)

3:55: „Housing, Race and Imprisonment: Unprojected Futures in American Democracy”

Ofelia Cuevas (University of California, Los Angeles)

4:20: „Domesticity, Dominance, and the Art of Defiance in Iran”

Pamela Karimi (University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth)

4:45: “Evacuated Bodies: Imagining Architecture and Democracy After Race”

Ijlal Muzaffar (Rhode Island School of Design)

5:10: Panel 3

moderated by: Dianne Harris (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign)






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