ATCH members Deborah van der Plaat, Janina Gosseye and Naomi Stead attended the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH) Annual International Conference, held in Pasedena/Los Angeles, from 6 April to 10 April 2016.
Janina Gosseye and Naomi Stead chaired a session on ‘Oral History as Method,’ where Deborah van der Plaat presented a paper, entitled Women and Australian Architectural History: A problem of Historiography or Culture? as one of the speakers at the session. Find further information on the session below.
Oral History as Method: Writing a History of Diverse Architectural Voices
A session at the SAH conference, under the auspices of SAHANZ
Janina Gosseye (University of Queensland, Australia / TUDelft, The Netherlands)
Naomi Stead (University of Queensland, Australia)
Oral history as a mode of research has brought about a significant diversification of the voices that elucidate and construct the canon of modern architecture. However its place within the discipline of architectural history is not yet fully accepted, or conventionalized. Architecture remains a strongly authorised practice, which implies that the authority to speak for and about buildings is still attached to author figures, and their design intentions are often privileged over other possible accounts and perspectives. In architecture, as in other disciplines, oral history conversations take place within a particular professional context and culture, with all the tropes and types, patterns and clichés, and performances of professional belonging that entails.
Building upon ‘Lost in Conversation,’ a special issue of Fabrications: The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Australia and New Zealand, this session proposes to expand upon some key questions raised, but not fully addressed, in that issue. In particular, it asks: what types of information are disclosed through oral history in architecture that would otherwise remain unknown? How do oral histories differ from written histories in architecture? Does the oral history interview change the role of the architectural historian, particularly around issues of ‘authenticity’? How might oral history unsettle the very foundations of architectural historiography, for instance, does ‘reliability’ become an irrelevant concept, and how is the sometimes rich, nuanced, subjective and idiosyncratic character of oral accounts valued? How does the complex interweaving of subjectivities at play in all oral history research play out in particular ways in architecture?
As ‘Lost in Conversation’ established, the oral history method also gives rise to a set of questions related to the interpersonal positioning of the interviewer vis-à-vis the interviewee. Up until the 1970s architecture was a largely male-dominated profession. In recent decades however women have become much more visible in the discipline, not only in architectural practice, but also in architectural history. Furthermore, women appear to be disproportionately involved in oral history projects, which leads us to question (what might be called) the ‘erotics’ of oral history methodologies, especially when (young) women are interviewing elderly men. Beyond sexual dynamics, how are these oral histories affected by cultural or political differences between the interviewer and the interviewee? What of the effects of the time, day, location, and circumstances of the interview? How does the gendered, intersubjective interplay of the oral history interview contribute to a larger understanding of modern architecture?
Oral history as a research method is now an established area of scholarship in its own right, marked by attempts to valorise oral history as different from other modes of historic research, and subjective and personal voices being equally as legitimate as documents, ‘official’ accounts, and other forms of material and ‘objective’ evidence. Indeed, the argument is frequently made that oral histories offer advantages over and correctives to these more conventional forms of historic account. This session proposes to explore what is gained, and what is lost, through the use of oral history methods in architectural research.