Bridging Architecture and the Humanities at Princeton

    Students examining the Architecture and Urbanism School at the University of São Paulo (FAU USP), designed in 1961 by João Batista Vilanova Artigas.
    October 30, 2019
    By: Aiala Levy, Ph.D.
    Whether studying Latin American history or gender, space, like time, is a variable we cannot ignore. 

    This article originally appeared in the fall 2019 issue of the Latin American and Women's Studies newsletter, which you can read here.

    What do we learn about cities when we bring together architects and the humanists? This question is at the heart of the Princeton Mellon Initiative in Architecture, Urbanism, and the Humanities, one of many such initiatives supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The question is also an urgent one; today, more than half of the world’s population lives in urban areas and cities disproportionately affect global economic systems, political trends, and intellectual and creative production. How, then, does our understanding of cities change when we consider carefully the built environment, that is, the subject of architects, but from the perspective of multiple disciplines?

    During the 2018-2019 academic year, I joined faculty and students in pursuing these questions at the Princeton Mellon Initiative. As a visiting fellow, my primary responsibility was to advance research projects relevant to the Initiative’s aims. In my case, this meant transforming my University of Chicago dissertation into a publishable book, Making the Metropolis: Theaters and the Urban Public in São Paulo, Brazil, 1854-1924. The book examines how, in rapidly urbanizing São Paulo, a wide range of residents used theaters to claim their place within a nascent mass society. At Princeton, I amassed (and read) books from the library’s impressive collection, sampled digitized periodicals, and marked up, deleted, and rewrote a substantial part of the original manuscript.

    Along the way, I received feedback on chapter drafts at departmental workshops, published a few findings in the Spring 2019 issue of Latin American Theatre Review (available for download through the Weinberg Memorial Library), and presented other conclusions as part of the Princeton Mellon Initiative’s research forum, whose Fall 2019 theme was “Gender, Justice, Urbanism.” The forum presentation led me down the path of a second project, Afro-Paulistano Cartographies. With a grant from Princeton’s Center for Digital Humanities, I hired a team of undergraduates to read São Paulo’s “black press” and compile a database of public spaces accessible to Paulistanos of African descent in the decades following emancipation (Brazil fully abolished slavery in 1888).

    I hope to continue to work with students on this project while at Scranton. I also hope, more broadly, to share with students the joy and significance of thinking with the built environment. Co-teaching an interdisciplinary architectural studio with architect Mario Gandelsonas reminded me how invigorating architecture can be –– especially when experienced firsthand as part of a Fall Break course trip to São Paulo!

    Whether studying Latin American history or gender, space, like time, is a variable we cannot ignore. 

    Aiala Levy, Ph.D. teaches in the departments of History and Latin American & Women’s Studies
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