The Construction History Society of America (CHSA) will meet in Austin, Texas, from May 26-28, 2016. Twelve sessions covering a wide range of topics, from Colonial Latin America to Plastic Composite Construction, will be augmented by four tours covering Austin and its environs.
The overall theme of the meeting is: Knowledge Exchange and Building Technology Transfer. From the CHSA website:
“The History of Construction has evolved by experimentation, refinement, and by the transference of knowledge across different cultures and continents. The cross pollination of ideas, methods of construction, and even styles is characteristic of the development of the architectural discipline. In the Americas these encounters of cultures and modes of operation have created a rich scenario in which buildings emerge as result of the cultural exchange, insertion of new social orders, industrialization, and adoption of new technologies. As cities change and mature the exchange and influences have become an intrinsic part of this ongoing evolution (and revolution) that impacts the built environment and its methods of materialization.
This conference seeks to establish a discussion within the frame of the knowledge exchange and building technology transfer. We seek for research work that depicts the spectrum of scenarios, building solutions, industry, and cultural transformations that are the result of those exchanges and transferences. The discussions aim to reflect on the assimilations, education, and transformation processes necessary when importing or exporting building technology reflecting on the particular solutions that emerged from the process itself.”
The CHSA is part of the larger International Congress on Construction History (ICCH), which meets every three years. Last year, for the first time, the Congress ventured to the United States to meet in Chicago in June 2015. At the Congress, more that 300 attendees represented at least 25 different nationalities. Over the course of the five day conference there were 52 paper sessions, each featuring three to five papers (in published form, that’s around 1800 pages). With such a proliferation of papers, it was natural that most attendees were also presenters. In addition to paper sessions, there were also daily keynotes, social hours, and a full day of tours in and around Chicago. The MDR Chapter of the SAH was well represented among the presenters, mainly due to Tyler Sprague (University of Washington), who presented not one, but two papers during the Congress. Tyler Sprague will also present as part of the the upcoming Austin conference.
The question of, “What is construction history and why should we study it?” was raised multiple times. Based on the Congress’ content, construction history is a happy combination of historical narrative and technical analysis. That said, architectural and structural engineers who happen to like history appeared to be the dominant form of attendee. As to the “why,” to quote Brian Bowen, the Chair Emeritus of CHSA:
“We use history not to predict the future—a common misunderstanding—but to prepare for it and to learn how things change and, more particularly, what causes change. Knowledge of this kind is especially helpful now, as the American construction industry goes through a period of significant transformation. However, we also study history for other purposes that are important for our self-esteem: to ensure that great deeds are not forgotten and to instill a sense of pride in the industry to which we belong. This endeavor is important today as we struggle to attract people to build their careers with us.” (“Does Construction History Matter?,” Engineering News-Record, 5/11/2015)
Though these points can easily be translated to the Society of Architectural Historians, construction history shifts the focus away from the architect and toward everyone else. As James Campbell (University of Cambridge) pointed out during his keynote “Bricks, Books, Cathedrals, and Libraries,” about Christopher Wren’s library for Trinity College, it is likely that Wren only visited the library twice during his lifetime, and never after its completion. So by calling it “Wren’s Library” a vast number of contributors are omitted, from clients to craftsmen to couriers and beyond. So how did this shift away from architects express itself during 5ICCH?
Sessions tended to group papers into overall themes. In some cases, presenters focused on very small elements. For example, during a session on “Equipment and Elevation,” Ilaria Giannetti (University of Rome) looked at the far-reaching impact of tubular scaffolding, or more precisely, a “clamping bolt with a T-shaped head and a hinge,” patented by Ferdinando Innocenti in 1934. The resultant scaffolding system was much used in cast-in-place concrete construction in Italy, including bridges of the Autostrada del Sole and Pier Luigi Nervi’s Palasport domes. A much larger scale was addressed in the “Skyscrapers” session, which included an analysis of the 1969-1974 construction of Willis (Sears) Tower by John Zils; Skidmore, Owings, Merrill (SOM) Associate Partner Emeritus. The structure’s modular “bundled tube” design employed by its structural engineer Fazlur Khan combined with extensive off-site prefabrication and streamlined personnel management (around 2400 people worked on the site each day) resulted in a building that was particularly efficient in terms of resources used, time, and costs. The tale of the Sears Tower’s efficient progress, around two stories per week, contrasted with the tale of another building discussed during a keynote lecture: “Frank Lloyd Wright and the Mile High Tower,” presented by William F. Baker, Structural and Civil Engineering Partner at SOM. The primary difference between the Sears Tower and Wright’s Mile High Tower (also known as “The Illinois”) is of course that one is very real while the other remains hypothetical. Could Wright, known for his “ground scraping” residential projects such as Chicago’s Robie House,” design a viable skyscraper in 1956? Though conceptual drawings for the Mile High Tower rather resemble the half-mile tall Burj Khalifa in Dubai (for which the presenter served as the structural engineer), Wright’s foundation system, the “taproot” he employed at the Johnson Wax Research Tower (1950) would be ineffective in a mile high cantilever. All structural issues aside, it is on the logistical end that Wright’s design would have fallen apart. Contrast the construction progress of the two story per week Sears Tower with the five story per year Johnson Wax Tower. The 18 million square foot interior would also present a commercial real estate nightmare. In contrast, the Sears Tower’s 108 stories contain nearly 4.5 million square feet. Sears initially intended to occupy 26 levels of the structure, leasing out the remainder, but eventually intended to occupy the ENTIRE structure. That never quite happened and thus the Sears Tower became the Willis Tower, whose current largest tenant (United Airlines) occupies 20 floors.
SOM not only provided presenters to the Congress, but also hosted an evening reception at their Chicago offices. Located in the Railway Exchange Building (Burnham & Root, 1904), the firm spreads the roughly 300 employees of the Chicago office over three floors arranged around a central atrium. A large reception area, located on a lower level, is dominated by oversize renderings and models of the firms projects throughout the world. Another large reception during the Congress was held at the Ballroom at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (formerly the Illinois Athletic Club; Barnett, Hayes, and Barnett, 1908). Titled “We Built Chicago,” the event was sponsored by the Builders Association of Chicago and featured representatives from four construction firms talking about their history. The companies were family businesses, one founded as early as 1856. There was a certain jealousy of this west coaster for the continuous construction history and expertise represented on stage.
While the conference’s content skewed highly technical, occasionally resulting in rather overheated grey matter on my part, I can highly recommend attending a meeting of the Construction History Society, whether it be the upcoming Austin gathering or the next international meeting in Brussels in 2018.
For more on CHSA, go to http://www.constructionhistorysociety.org/.