You're trained as an architect and an architecture historian.What interested you about architecture, and why did you want to study its history?
Initially I just loved designing and representing spatial thinking—that is to say, I loved geometry, drawing, and designing new environments. As I started thinking more critically about it I realized how the design of spaces (rooms, buildings, neighborhoods, cities) is, and has always been political. The way spaces are organized says many things about who we are, who we aspire to be, and how we are supposed to behave. I became more interested in reading spaces and what they say about a particular time and place. There’s this wonderful quote by Grace Lee Boggs, “History is a story, not only of the past, but of the future.” In this sense, like to think of my practice as a historian in this context—as spatial thinking that projects to the past and to the future. Reading different pasts suggests different desired futures. So I think as a historian I still operate as an architect, aware that the histories i research imply a critical position that projects into the future.
The undergraduate seminar you're teaching this fall explores that relationship between politics and space. Can you tell us a little bit about the course, and how it happened that it’s being taught simultaneously at Michigan State and Bard?
The seminar is based on a syllabus I designed collaboratively with my friends and colleagues Tessa Paneth-Pollak (now at MSU), Olga Touloumi (Bard) and Martina Tanga, while we were all finishing our PhDs at different institutions and living in Cambridge, MA. As doctoral students we felt very powerless, but we realized teaching is a powerful force to enact change. So we decided to design a syllabus that would generate that change. The class examines how space and its representation reveal the frictions of race, class, and gender, throughout history and in our daily life at present. We will have students collaborate and share their experiences through a series of online assignments throughout the semester, and then bring them together with a workshop here at University of Michigan at the start of December. We will also be taking them to Detroit, where they will get to know practices of spatial resistance.
Do you see examples of "contested spaces" in Ann Arbor?
Of course! Space reveals our internalized politics and excludes difference. The closer an individual is to an accepted norm or standard, the more difficult it is to perceive these exclusions. The national debate over gendered bathrooms is a timely example. The chalking of campus areas with political messages last Winter rendered political conflict suddenly visible in key spaces in the university (for my own intervention in this chalk conversation, see here). The weekly protests and chalk messages in front of Governor Snyder’s house are a reminder of the links between Ann Arbor and the very urgent problems affecting the state. In this case protest makes conflict visible in public space.
Can you tell us a little bit about your current work on the housing projects of Catalan architect Antonio Bonet in Buenos Aires?
I research a series of housing projects that were meant to house the growing crowds of Buenos Aires. Many of them were unbuilt, but they point to the state’s anxiety in terms of controlling and mobilizing large crowds. Bonet, trained in Barcelona and Paris and close to many Surrealist artists, moved to Buenos Aires in the late 1930s and found a city obsessed with psychoanalysis. The projects I study reveal the intersection of these two forces: the state’s relationship with a growing population that it can’t quite control, and the avant-garde’s obsession with ideas of the unconscious and how it might be rendered visible. I look at the discourse surrounding these projects, but also at their collaborations with film, photography, and other media.
What are you reading this summer?
I just joined a reading group that will read W.E.B. Du Bois’ Black Reconstruction, which I’m very excited about. It intersects my interest on space and politics. I’m also part of a writing group in which we read each other’s drafts, it’s wonderful to learn more of my colleagues’ research and also i enjoy discussing the nuts and bolts of writing.
Ana María León joined the Department of History of Art in the fall of 2015. An architect, a teacher, and a PhD graduate of the History, Theory, and Criticism of Architecture and Art group at MIT Architecture, she focuses on the intersection of modernity, politics, and architecture and art.