Event Date: 

Media + Modernity: Michael Osman

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Program in Media + Modernity presents "Modernism’s Visible Hand"
Michael Osman (Associate Professor, Architecture and Urban Design, UCLA)
Respondent: Bart-Jan Polman (Doctoral Candidate, SoA, Princeton University)
Tuesday, September 25th
5pm, N-107

What is the origin of “room temperature”? When did food become considered fresh or not fresh? Why do we think management makes things more efficient? The answers to these questions share a history with architecture and regulation at the turn of the twentieth century. This technological and architectural history of environmental control systems during the Gilded Age begins with the premise that regulation—of temperature, the economy, even the freshness of food—can be found in the guts of buildings. From cold storage and scientific laboratories to factories, these infrastructures first organized life in a way we now call “modern.” 

Drawing on a range of previously unexplored archival resources, Michael Osman examines the increasing role of environmental technologies in building design from the late nineteenth century. He shows how architects appropriated and subsumed the work of engineers as thermostats, air handlers, and refrigeration proliferated. He argues that this change was closely connected to broader cultural and economic trends in management and the regulation of risk. The transformation shaped the evolution of architectural modernism and the development of the building as a machine. Rather than assume the preexisting natural order of things, participants in regulation—including architects, scientists, entrepreneurs, engineers, managers, economists, government employees, and domestic reformers—became entangled in managing the errors, crises, and risks stemming from the nation’s unprecedented growth.

Modernism’s Visible Hand not only broadens our conception of how industrial capitalism shaped the built environment but is also vital to understanding the role of design in dealing with ecological crises today.