Skip to ContentSkip to Navigation
Research The Groningen Research Institute for the Study of Culture (ICOG) Research Research centres Research Centre for the Study of Democratic Cultures and Politics Events & Colloquium

AiS & DemCP colloquium - JOSHUA SHANNON (Maryland/Berlin): "The Future is a Rectangle: Modernist University Architecture and the Human Being"

When:We 26-02-2020 16:00 - 18:00
Where:Room A7, Academy building
Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building, University of Maryland, 1976 - Painting for Warren G. Sargent & Associates
Parren J. Mitchell Art-Sociology Building, University of Maryland, 1976 - Painting for Warren G. Sargent & Associates

Prior to the lecture, we are planning a guided tour through the Wall House - please contact a.s.lehmann if you wish to participate.


International Style modernist architecture, together with many of its major practitioners, arrived in the United States after World War II. It famously took form in corporate office buildings and public housing projects by the mid-1950s. The predominant effect of the International Style’s migration, however, would be its near-universal adoption for new civic architecture in the three decades following 1955. Schools, post offices, jails, churches and, influentially, university buildings adopted the simplified, rectilinear vocabulary of this European architectural movement. These little-studied buildings indelibly altered the vernacular American landscape and its meanings. This talk looks closely at some representative university building projects around 1970, in order to uncover their socio-political values, both explicit and implicit.

The new postwar university shunned the body-oriented details of neo-classical and colonial campuses (volutes, brackets, shutters, etc.) for a more abstract geometry. This new civic architecture—like its European precedents—was not, however, simply antihumanist. Indeed we might understand it as a technocratic humanism—at once a manifestation of and also a bulwark against civil rights, the women’s movement, and campus protest. Imagining, like the science-fiction of the day, a future that was simply devoid of race and gender, its utopianism was mild and democratic. The talk considers period documents including architectural drawings, administrators’ memos, and coverage in student newspapers.

This talk looks back at vernacular modernism with nostalgia for its dreams of a developing common good but also with criticism of its brash faith in a universal human sovereign. The conclusion considers how the history of university modernism might be mined for rethinking the concept of the human being for our own period of environmental and social crisis.

About the speaker

Joshua Shannon is Professor of Contemporary Art History and Theory at the University of Maryland. His research and teaching focus on modern and contemporary art in relationship to social and cultural history, with special interests in architecture, cities, landscape, and ecology. He is now working on a book called The Human Being Problem: Man and Other Unsustainable Myths in Modern American Art and co-editing a volume called Humans for the series Terra Foundation Essays. Previous publications include The Recording Machine: Art and Fact During the Cold War (Yale University Press, 2017) and The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City (Yale University Press, 2009). He is Founding Director of the Potomac Center for the Study of Modernity, an interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research initiative in Washington, DC, and is, in 2019-20, Terra Professor of American Art at the Freie Universität Berlin.