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What is “Californian” About Design and Architecture in California?

Is there something distinctly “California” about California architecture and design? This was a key topic of discussion at last week´s inaugural meeting of the California Architecture and Design Multi-campus Research Group. The meeting on March 9th and 10th at UC Davis brought together new and established scholars from around the UC system who study the history and theory of design and architecture to discuss the potential of a new subfield of study called California Design.

The event was funded through a multi-campus research grant from the UC Humanities Network, administered by the UC Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI), and organized by UC Davis Department of Design faculty Christina Cogdell, James Housefield, and Simon Sadler, with assistance from Sarah McCullough, PhD candidate of the Graduate Group in Cultural Studies.

“It is invigorating to our research, teaching, and the life of the university to have the support of UCHRI in bringing together a critical mass of scholars and students with shared interest in design’s histories,” said Housefield. “This meeting offered an unparalleled opportunity to get to know others working within related fields and to prepare the ground for future collaborations, conversations, and endeavors. Our first meeting gives us an exceptional base from which to build in multiple directions, including collaborations with groups inside and outside of the UC.”

Each attendee offered brief presentations that inspired conversations about the benefits and pitfalls of thinking about California as a distinct region as well as the role of architecture and design in producing a sense of place. “It was a highly efficient way to workshop ongoing scholarship,” explained Cogdell. “We all are looking forward to doing much more of this in the future.”

In the next few years, the group plans to develop a collaborative publishing project, a graduate student network, and multi-disciplinary conferences.

The Society of Architectural Historians has invited the MRG to partner with them in the production of Archipedia, an online project that will host studies of one hundred buildings from each of the 50 states in the U.S. The California Architecture and Design MRG plans to workshop at least fifteen 1,500-word entries for sites in California at a meeting in 2013. This “15 x 1,500″ project will provide a model for subsequent entries and, once published, build pedagogy for undergraduate classes on California Architecture & Design, according to Sadler.

The MRG also is investing in the future of California architecture and design by forming a graduate student network that links resources across the UC system. The network will help graduate students connect with faculty and students at other UCs through online and in-person interactions. The website will provide links to courses and syllabi and other resources of interest such as conference announcements, talks, and archives. Three graduate students had the opportunity to receive feedback on their work, and with renewed funding the group will host a dissertation workshop for graduate student members.

Conversations will continue at a conference, “Icon and Anonymity: What is California Architectural History?” at UC Santa Barbara. Though independent from the California Architecture & Design MRG activities, the event is organized by MRG members Volker Welter of UCSB and Sadler. In future years, group members plan to host two academic and public conferences on aspects of California architecture and design. They hope that the first, tentatively titled “The Reign of Terroir: California’s Regional Architecture, Design, and Viticulture,” will be held in collaboration with other UC research groups and a local winery. The second, “Complex Systems in Architecture, 1960-Present,” would capitalize on the growing interest in systems theory that humanities scholars and scientists share.

“This meeting generated a huge boost of enthusiasm and energy about the ‘global’ community across UC,” said Cogdell. She believes the group will grow into a great resource for academic research and publishing collaborations, shared doctoral committee work, and teaching inspiration. “The intelligence and collegiality of all members makes this a promising ongoing endeavor.”

The call for new Multi-Campus Research Groups is now open. Proposals are due by March 22nd.

Photo credit: Simon Sadler.

This piece is also posted at the Davis Humanities Institute.

About the author

Ph.D. candidate in Cultural Studies examining body-technology-nature relations and the politics of mobility a study of bicycling.