Oral History and Architecture

In issue 47.1, we feature the review essay, “The New Oral History of Architecture” by Kevin Block, exploring the historiography of architectural oral history and reviewing several recent projects and publications. Here, as he embarks on his own oral history project focused on architectural expertise and knowledge, he shares some of what he learned by writing the review. 

By Kevin Block

In the 1970s, the sociologist Paul Thompson turned his attention away from the history of Victorian architecture to oral history. This would be an important shift in the history of oral history as an academic field. Riding the wave of interest in social history and “history from below,” Thompson would go on to publish the first edition of his now-canonical The Voice of the Past in 1978 and help create the National Life Stories collection for the British Library National Sound Archive. Prior to that shift, however, Thompson had published on English architecture and Victorian figures including William Morris, the craftsman and social reformer, and William Butterfield, the great Gothic Revival architect. For Thompson, the study of architecture from within the discipline of art history was closing ranks in the 1970s, becoming more arcane and specialized as “a library activity.” As much as he loved architectural history, it was time to move on.

Nearly a half-century later, Thompson’s two great interests—architecture and oral history—have begun to merge. As Naomi Stead, Janina Gosseye, and Deborah van der Plaat detail in Speaking of Buildings: Oral History in Architectural Research, historians and theorists of architecture are starting to think more consciously about how to incorporate oral history methods into their research. I emphasize starting to think more consciously, because I have come to realize since completing my review of Speaking of Buildings that oral history has long since been a component of architectural research, whether the researchers acknowledged this dimension of their work or not. There are countless “conversations with architects” in publication or online. In my review, for example, I focus on an unusual collection of architect interviews from Pidgeon Digital that I first learned about while attending last year’s annual conference for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture. From the acknowledgement sections and introductions of popular and academic books about architecture, it’s also clear that many traditional histories are based on interviews and de-facto oral history research. The problem is that few scholars within architectural history think about their research practices as oral history methods, and this necessarily influences the lines of inquiry and final products that they pursue, as well as the topics and assignments included in their teaching. To me, one of the benefits of reading Speaking of Buildings is that it reframes these practices within oral history methodologies, and makes the theoretical consequences of that reframing explicit. Part of what I was trying to demonstrate in my review is that one listens to Pidgeon Digital interviews differently after reading a text like Speaking of Buildings.

My own motivation for investigating the oral history of architecture was twofold. First, I’m interested in the topic of architectural expertise. The qualitative interviewing methods of oral history, I suspected, would be a way to better understand the craft and tacit knowledge that is often hard for practitioners to codify or articulate. Second, I’m beginning an oral history project of my own and I wanted to survey the available literature to learn more about the key themes and concerns that structure the field. My project focuses on the architect Vincent Kling. Kling was by all counts the founder of the most important corporate architecture firm in Philadelphia during the 1960s and 1970s, and yet there is practically nothing written about him in the architectural literature, at least in comparison to contemporaneous figure Louis Kahn, who many consider one of the most important postwar American architects. This historical lacuna is largely a result of the surprising non-existence of Kling’s archive. Many of his buildings are still available for study, but the libraries and archives around Philadelphia hold few collections of drawings or working documents related to his work.

To tell the history of Kling, I quickly determined that oral history would be a necessity. Fortunately, there was a way forward. My father worked for Kling’s company after Kling retired and had contact information for former colleagues who knew Kling directly. Many of those colleagues are now retired themselves and some of them are willing to share their stories. Like many other oral history projects that I’ve come to learn about, there’s a sense of urgency to doing this work. In another decade, it may not be possible to assemble a compelling historical account of Kling and his work. He was a big, brash figure, much like his friend Edmund Bacon, the Philadelphia city planner. In many ways, he embodied the kind of “great man” that the editors of Speaking of Buildings are hoping to decenter from the history of architecture. I think there’s a way to do both—to tell Kling’s story while also using him to identify and amplify voices of difference and resistance in a turbulent period of Philadelphia history and American culture. Surveying the various oral history of architecture projects available online has led me to imagine a more open-ended project that I can develop with collaborators and my future students. Catherine Whalen’s “Craft, Art & Design Oral History Project” at the Bard Graduate Center and the Digital Archive of Queensland Architecture, which I address in my review essay, are two helpful precedents.

The resources that I address in my review essay could make great contributions to methodology courses for advanced undergraduates or doctoral students in programs related to architecture, planning, landscape, material culture, art history, or anthropology. They might also inspire students and experienced oral historians who are not working in design- or craft-related fields to reconsider the role of the built environment in shaping the stories that their interview subjects share with them. The oral history of architecture represents a widening of architecture’s historical field. Paul Thompson should be excited!

Kevin Block (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley, 2019) has taught at U.C. Berkeley and Princeton University. His research focuses on the history of American architecture in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. He is currently working on two book-length projects: a history of the discipline of architecture as part of the modern humanities and a monograph on the Philadelphia architect Vincent G. Kling.

Featured image by Kjetil Ree used with a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.