When Kathleen Curran lectures about buildings and what makes them important, she grasps the lectern and leans forward with a barely audible sigh, launching herself breathlessly into her subject. A professor of architectural history at Trinity College, Curran is known on campus as someone who changes the way her students see things - literally. "My goal," she says, "is to train their eyes and teach them a vocabulary."
Today I'm visiting City as Built Environment, a course for first-year honors students in Trinity's Cities Program. Earlier, Curran told me about the challenge of delivering forty-five lectures per course each semester. "It's a huge amount of work to teach a course that has a beginning, middle and end, that has a rhythm to it, that tells a story and teaches something. It's very hard to craft."
But her lectures are skillfully crafted. This morning it's 18th Century America and the Rise of the Gentleman Amateur Architect. Curran dims the lights. "Thomas Jefferson's role in the history of American architecture," she jumps in, "was as decisive as his role in the formation of American democracy." Slide machine whirring, she shows a drawing of Jefferson's Monticello alongside one of Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose "Four Books of Architecture" Jefferson studied in college. "What is Jefferson taking from Palladio?" she asks.
"The two-story portico?" a student offers.
"Right." Monticello, Curran says, is "a weird combination." There are Palladio's portico and temple dome, while inside the entrance hall hang buffalo heads and other artifacts from Lewis and Clark's expedition. A pictograph - "a sort of proto Xerox machine," Curran calls it - stands next to Jefferson's bed. "From Versailles to Virginia, he's getting ideas from all sorts of places and putting them together." Curran likes to talk about architecture as "built expression" and "the expression of certain ideals." And gradually, what emerges from her lecture is not just Monticello, or even Jefferson himself, but rather an idea of Jefferson's Americanness - his self-taught naturalism and farmer's mistrust of cities; his traveler's worldliness; his eclecticism - all creating what Curran calls "the wonderful American space" that is Monticello.
To "teach" a building this way involves laying bare not just its structure, but its cultural and political meanings. Lecturing on 19th century Bavaria, Curran discusses the grandiose historicism of King Ludwig I, and again her presentation subtly captures a sense of national character. She shows the 1842 Walhalla Museum, a pompous monumental building modeled on the Parthenon, housing busts of German artists - "a shrine to German genius," Curran says, that "takes an ancient Greek prototype and makes it conform to a Northern European mythology." The students scribble in their notebooks. Whoever will teach them about Hitler and German fascism, it occurs to me, will have a task made easier by this presentation. I'm watching a terrific teacher prepare the way for others, creating shelf space in her students' minds for ideas to be placed there later.
"Kathy has a profound impact on students," says Ron Spencer, associate dean, history professor and director of the Cities Program at Trinity. "A lot of them come here unaware there is this discipline called architectural history. Then they take a course with her. Some of them end up majoring in it." Learning is hands-on in Curran's courses - an assignment might be to make a model of an unusual city building, or plan the redesign of a stretch of New Britain Avenue. And students speak of her lectures with awe. "In the classroom she comes as close to walking on water as a human being can," Spencer says. "Students are just dazzled. And that's interesting, because Kathy is not a charismatic kind of lecturer. It's more substantive than that, and more deep. She draws them into her subject."
It's true, Curran is not a dramatic person. But she makes architecture dramatic. Her lecture on the Chicago School's invention of the skyscraper begins with the Great Fire of 1871 and the search for fireproof buildings. The steel-cage construction that resulted was revolutionary - "another example of innovation coming out of tragedy," she says, pointing out that a similar fire in ancient Rome led to wood's replacement by stone as a primary building material. Hovering over the discussion is the fiery crucible of 9/11, and the innovations likely to arise from the devastation of the World Trade Center. Because steel-cage construction is how we still build today, Curran reminds the class. She traces the Chicago architects' idea forward to its further development in Europe and the Bauhaus movement, and from there to the glass towers of Manhattan. The path she tracks gives her students a novel way of looking at innovation - as if an idea pre-exists its discovery, and far-flung innovators perform a piecemeal, collaborative uncovering. It's a tantalizing insight, reaching beyond architecture to the unfolding of knowledge itself.
Another thing Curran offers students is a point of view. Sit through a few classes and you see how her critique of contemporary American communities shapes up. High-density, mixed-use environments are good, sprawl bad. Historic preservation, good; mega-malls, bad. Small towns and big cities good; suburbs bad. Curran admires New Urbanism, a neo-traditional planning movement best known for the town of Seaside, Florida ("The Truman Show" town). Like the New Urbanists, she seems to think our American fall from grace began with the automobile. ("That's right," she admits when I ask about this. "I hate cars - hate 'em!") She reveres the town green and the city park; she equates variety with democracy. In class she shows a slide of street signs in a suburban development. "Look at the names of these streets. Ridgeknoll, Ridgewood, Ridgecrest, Ridgetop, Ridgefield ... If there was a party on Ridgecrest, how would you ever get out of there? You'd get lost! You'd never come back!" Her students chuckle.
There's a personal background to this critique. Curran explains to me the Japanese concept of one's "primary landscape" - the environment that enchants you and becomes for you the measure of all other places. Hers was New Orleans. "I grew up in the Lower Garden district, and to me it was the perfect neighborhood. It had alleys, it had old outbuildings, it had a racial mix of people. My grandmother lived right across the street. Magazine Street, two blocks away, had a Woolworth's, the cinema, the German baker, the drugstore. My dad would pick me up from kindergarten, and we'd take the bus home together." Lower Garden offered walkability, diversity, mixed housing stock, public transit - "all those things the New Urbanists talk about." But when Curran was 8, her parents divorced, and her mother moved to a suburb. "We went from this decrepit but wonderful 1860 house to an aluminum-sided ranch. The blocks were really long, and it was nothing but houses. And I really, really hated it." Intellectually and aesthetically, the little girl is mother to the architectural critic. Suburbs represent exile and ennui; get lost among the Ridgecrests, and you may never escape.
Curran strives to be fair. "It's not my job to indoctrinate students," she says. "On the other hand, if I don't have judgments, I don't think that's being a good teacher either." She wants her students to make judgments of their own in the future. "Everybody is going to have the chance at some point to make a decision about their environment," she says. "I would like my students to behave responsibly and do what's best for the big picture, for the long term."
Fittingly, the last class of Curran's I visit is her seminar on Suburbia. It's an end-of-the-semester session, a 3½-hour-long class with students making presentations on various aspects of suburbanization. One girl presents the so-called Case Study Houses built in southern California after WWII, from drawings of Corbusier, Frank Lloyd Wright and other titans of modernism. Another gives a power-point lecture on the development of the interstate highway system in L.A., with digital graphs and maps expertly cued up from her laptop - "I'm so impressed you guys can do these things!" Curran says.
A girl from New Canaan gives a talk about McMansions. She describes real estate conflicts in her town - zoning wars, a spate of multimillion-dollar teardowns, new wealth creating generational conflicts. Afterward, Curran draws the presentations together. While the high modernism of the Case Study Houses became an elite style, she points out, it originated in a utopian vision of modern housing for the masses. With the McMansions, it's just the ethic of consumption. "I don't think these McMansions will last," she says. "It'll be fashionable to live in smaller houses again. It's going to be like the robber barons. Eddie?"
A red-haired kid eagerly jumps in. From the smiles everywhere you can tell he's a class character. "I don't think the McMansions are all that bad," he says. "I mean, I like modern architecture as sculpture. But I look at this big white slab in the middle of a field, and it's not something I'd want to live in."
But the McMansions are so cheesy, Curran says with a grin. "You know, the chateau next to the modern federal next to whatever. Myself, before I die, I'd love to live in an arch-modernist house somewhere."
"Hey, fine," Eddie says. "Maybe your modernist house will have a good view of my twelve-car garage." Curran laughs along with the rest.
The last to go is a boy named Brooks, who discusses the renaissance of his hometown, Nashville. "Ten years ago, when I was little, downtown Nashville was a wasteland. Now it's crowded." He gives us a slide-show tour of the projects that have brought the city back. An arts center housed in a 1930s Art Deco building. A riverfront park and new library. ("It's a destination spot - people come not just to check out books, but to spend time.") Moving outward into residential neighborhoods, Brooks analyzes 1920s-era bungalows whose front porches "address the street and promote a nice neighborhood feel." He assesses how different features of houses contribute to, or detract from, community. Are the homes far off the road or close? Does on-street parking exist? Sidewalks? He complains about low density strip malls and gated communities so pedestrian-unfriendly, people end up driving their kids four blocks to the playing fields.
"It's all visit and drive, visit and drive," he says.
The goal of the presentations, Curran explained to me before we came in, is for students to learn how to look critically at a familiar environment. Brooks sounds like an urban planner. He has the terms down - "mixed-use," "density" - but more than that, he's alert to how places change over time, and to the dynamic relationship between structure and culture: that what we build turns around and shapes how we live. You can tell Curran has been working on him; he's seeing his neighborhood through different eyes. This is how an architectural historian leaves her mark: Training a student's eyes, giving him a vocabulary. Putting tools in his toolbox.
Tomorrow Curran will meet with Brooks to critique his presentation - she'll ask him to include more historical perspectives, and to assess Nashville's new suburbs in light of class readings in Andres Duany, a leading New Urbanism theorist. But for now she congratulates him on a job well done. The marathon class is over.
"Nice work, everybody," Curran says, and turns on the lights.