All of my roads are lately leading to Paris. My research in French architecture, my teaching in the history of architecture and urbanism, and my taste for photography and cuisine converged in the City of Light at the culmination of my sabbatical leave this past year. The lion’s share of my sabbatical time was spent studying the work of a 19th century lithographer who dedicated his career to documenting the disappearing built legacy of medieval France. Visually and in writing, André Durand lamented the combined toll of the Revolution of 1789 (which destroyed monuments perceived as symbols of the “old regime”) and the rampant dismemberment of what fabric remained by speculators indifferent to its charms. And he advocated passionately for buildings under active threat in his time; at mid-century many historic structures that had managed to survive the Revolution and its aftermath were confronted by the wrecking ball of urban “beautification” and modernization.
Some of Durand’s written work and many of his stunning lithographs are documented in French libraries and archives, and scholarship on this period has changed dramatically since my last sabbatical (not to mention since the years of my dissertation research!). I enjoyed many virtual hours deeply mired in Gallica—the digital library of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, in the digital collections of Durand’s native Normandy, and in Google Books, where can be found the most surprisingly obscure texts. Fortunately though, critical documents could not be had digitally, which necessitated travel to France. I say “fortunately,” for obvious reasons (especially culinary), but also because I felt certain that my understanding of Durand’s writings and views—and their pertinence to contemporary challenges--would be deepened by contact with his subjects, particularly the Gothic churches of his native Rouen that faced destruction as that city sought to re-make itself along Parisian lines in the 1850s and 60s.
I mentioned a Paris convergence, above. The second preoccupation of my sabbatical year was development of an educational iPad app, in collaboration with Professors John Barr of Computer Science and Jennifer Germann of Art History. “Portable Paris” will support a planned Short Term Study Abroad trip slated for May 2013. The development process required field-testing, so I happily volunteered to combine my interests in a short but intensive trip to France this past June. Dividing my time between travel to Rouen, archival work in Paris, and extensive traipsing around town to test Portable Paris features, I still found time for some serious taste-testing and museum-going. Students in my Fall classes will see the pay-off; in the seminar Architecture in the Contact Zone we will explore striking contemporary sculptural interventions by Portuguese artist Joana Vasconcelos on display this summer in the hallowed halls of Versailles (e.g., a pair of colossal stainless steel stilettos in the Hall of Mirrors!); in Architecture Across Cultures students will explore Jean Nouvel’s Quai Branly museum, a spectacular and controversial space for display of the arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, with a sustainable “vertical garden” façade that I was able to photograph in the full flush of its summer verdure.