Class name: “History of the U.S. Built Environment, 1870 to Present”
Taught by: Associate Professor of History Andrew Friedman
Here’s what Friedman had to say about his class:
“The History of the U.S. Built Environment” examines the history of the United States through its built environment—the physical spaces and landscapes through which Americans have constructed their habits, hopes and divisions in the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries. With a recurring focus on race and racism, gender and sexism, the course looks at how struggles over the U.S. polity both inflicted themselves onto and came to be reflected in the material traces of the built world. We cover a lot of different topics, including the idea of the home, the building of the metropolis, the making of the suburbs, the creations of the highways, utopian planning, the urban crisis, gentrification and the private actions and forms of state power that created the built forms often seen as natural.
I’m hoping students leave the class with a variety of new skills and ways of seeing, experience using visual and material sources for research, and a broad overview of the social, aesthetic, and political forces through which the physical presence of America came to be and to be changed from the late 1800s to the present. I’m also interested in counter-histories, how grand historical narratives tend to obscure other histories of how the space of the country developed and how those counter-histories remain visible in fragments of space. Finally, I want students to take away different tools of understanding and ways of conceiving of space, from the production of space to the cultural landscape, from architectural history to cognitive mapping.
More than anything, I wanted to work alongside students to cultivate in all of us a sensory capacity to see the spaces through which we conduct and traverse our everyday lives critically. Rather than seeing space as a passive setting for everyday experience—as just being—I want us all to think about it as an important terrain for struggles over the collective political life of the U.S., the interface where the individual and the abstract nation and community meet. To this end, I try to get us all to cultivate a practice of estrangement, in a Brechtian sense. Nothing is natural. People made it. All the spaces around us, from Founders Green to Lancaster Avenue and beyond, are the result of choices. Who made the choices? What do we think of how they’re arranged? How might we change them? I want us all to become critical observers of the everyday built world.
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