Université de Strasbourg

Public lecture: Modernism's Visible Hand

February 11, 2020
From 15:30 until 17:00
Salle de conférence, MISHA - 5 allée du Général Rouvillois, Strasbourg

Modernism's Visible Hand: How architecture shaped the modern way of life

By Michael Osman
Professor of Architectural History
University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA) 

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Modernist architects believed that their design principles (simplicity, rationality, functionality and universality) and the use of new materials and technologies would actively make the world a better place. Environment-regulating technologies played an increasing role in building design from the late nineteenth century. As the use of thermostats, air handlers, and refrigeration increased rapidly, architects appropriated and subsumed the work of engineers. This was closely connected to broader cultural and economic trends in management, control and the regulation of risk. Architectural modernism developed the notion of the building as a well-designed “machine” with an architecture that is functional like machine parts.

Osman book coverMichael Osman presents a pioneering technological and architectural history of environmental control systems during the late 19th century. His research represents a particular way of studying buildings: as spatial interventions resulting in social, economic, and ecological changes. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a new imperative to regulate exerted profound influence on the built environment of the United States, from middle-class households to large industrial plants. Technologies for keeping ambient room temperature constant were connected in surprising ways with efforts to manage factory labor, to mitigate economic fluctuations, and to study the natural world. From cold storage and scientific laboratories to factories, the incorporation of regulating technologies into physical infrastructures started to organize life in a way we now call “modern.” Osman’s book 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.

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