2010 Buell Oral History Prize

2010 Buell Oral History Prize


The Buell Center Fellowship, an annual award for historical research on the built environment within or between the fields of architecture, urban history, and landscape, was developed by The Temple Hoyne Buell Center for the Study of American Architecture in coordination with Columbia University’s Center for Oral History and the Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library.  


Up to three awards, between $3,000 and $5,000, are given annually for the purposes of carrying out primary research in conjunction with a scholarly research project at the advanced graduate level. Interdisciplinary or comparative work on the Americas is especially encouraged, and special consideration is given for projects that include an oral history component. Applicants must be full-time Columbia University students at the time of the award's distribution.




Alexandra Quantrill, PhD Candidate in Architecture History and Theory, GSAPP


This project formed the preliminary research for my dissertation, The Aesthetics of Precision: Research and Technique in the Architecture of Sealed Space, 1946-1986, which concerns the means of ensuring accuracy in the production and maintenance of controlled environments. I argue that the modern ideal of precision was complicated when technical research and construction standards confronted the aesthetic project of modernism. Moreover, the very pursuit of technical precision revealed dissonance within and surrounding the discipline of architecture regarding how environment should be constituted and standardized. Alternately explicit and elusive, as precision was increasingly specified the more vexed it became.


The Buell Prize research examined the discourse surrounding what came to be labeled “High Tech” architecture, typically characterized by the overt expression of its own fabrication and a celebration of industrial precision. Focusing on figures working in the United States and Britain from the 1960s through the 1980s, it explored the treatment of technology and aesthetics within critical and professional discourses. Influenced by the experiments of technocrat Buckminster Fuller, figures like James Meller and his erstwhile employer Norman Foster, and others including Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano, heralded the possibilities of a scientific approach to architecture. Alan Colquhoun posed a critique of such technological enthusiasm, rejecting a wholly pragmatic method and questioning the possibility of materializing a purely technical idea within building. Instead he maintained the importance of symbolic form for analyzing functionalism in architecture. His insistence upon the centrality of the “architectural idea” in producing value, and the relevance of the political program within which architecture would be carried out, make Colquhoun’s analyses of High Tech a compelling thread in the broader history of precision and aesthetics in modern architecture.


1                                                   2


1. Installation of glazing panel, Willis Faber & Dumas Headquarters, Foster Associates (1975). Image courtesy of Foster+Partners and a+u Publishing, a+u 75:09
2. Model of service duct manifold, Centre Pompidou, Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers (1977). Image courtesy of The MIT Press and Alan Colquhoun, Essays in Architectural Criticism: Modern Architecture and Historical Change, 1981.