We are continuing our series of student blogs with a number of reflections on the “Small Modernisms” symposium, a public event held at the Carleton Dominion-Chalmers Centre on May 12-13, 2022. The event was organized by Professors Michael Windover and Dustin Valen. The blogs were written by undergraduate students in the History and Theory of Architecture and Art History programs in Carleton’s School for Studies in Art and Culture.
By Anders Modeen
“Small Modernisms” highlighted the many methods used to study architectural history today and examined architecture’s social impacts in postwar Canada. Architecture is not just the physical fabric of buildings. It includes a wide scope of social considerations. Architecture influences how we experience places, interact with people, and even how we imagine the future. Presenters showed how architecture influenced the lives of Montreal residents, the experience of LGBTQ+ community members, and how the built environment holds memories of these historical events, linking knowledge of the past to specific spaces. These influences can be captured and discovered using different methods and kinds of evidence.
Photographs capture moments in time and can be used effectively in storytelling. Tanya Southcott was one of the presenters at the event who discussed how photos can be used by architectural researchers and for conservation purposes. Her paper examined photos of Montreal taken by celebrated Canadian architect Blanche Lemco van Ginkel to study the city’s postwar redevelopment. Her findings included a panorama of street facades in a now redeveloped neighbourhood, preserving its story-like experience, and allowing for interesting comparisons with the present. Similarly, spaces represented in films afford viewers a unique perspective on lost heritage. For example, Olivier Vallerand’s presentation on LGBTQ+ spaces in postwar Montreal explored how movies contain evidence of spaces once important to members of the queer community. Films are an interesting source because, unlike photographs, they offer both visual and acoustic information.
By talking to different groups and individuals, we can learn about their firsthand experiences of the built environment and the significance of smaller spaces to them, as evidenced by Cynthia Hammond’s use of interviews during her presentation. The interviews were with people of diverse communities who experienced urban change in Montreal. The room fell silent as everyone listened to interviewees, whose memories were bound to specific places and elicited strong emotions. Something as simple as eating a steamed bun in a park became a gateway to discussing complex topics related to family, community cohesion, and home. Hammond’s presentation highlighted the emotional power of oral history as a research method.
To see a place is one thing, to hear of it another, and to be in that place is an experience all its own. Another important part of the event was the inclusion of two walking tours delivered by Glenn Crawford and Brian McDougall. Both tours were located in downtown Ottawa, but told different narratives related to LGBTQ+ history and the history of protests. Crawford and McDougall showed how walking tours have the unique ability to connect physical spaces and past events, drawing out memories that are location specific. McDougall even gave a bonus lecture on the pedagogical benefits of walking tours, such as active learning and spur-of-the-moment, on-site discussion.
Different research methods can enliven architectural history. Students, in particular, benefit from engaging in different kinds of architectural research because of the range of perspectives they afford. These perspectives can inspire new ideas about architecture and its role in shaping society, both in the past and today.