Well, it’s not exactly the UN, but that is Construction History royalty there, debating the future of the field at our Scientific Committee lunch this week. Five triennial meetings along, the international field seems to have some momentum, but as Santiago Huerta pointed out in his closing keynote, any pure historical research in these days of vanishing funding and tight budgets is a challenge.
All the more reason to appreciate the roughly 300 delegates who showed up, from points as far afield as Japan, Brazil, Turkey, and the Near North Side. The city cooperated, with exactly one June rainstorm the entire week, and cool weather for walking tours on Friday–we showed off Mies, Frank Lloyd Wright, the River’s bridges, downtown skyscrapers, two construction sites, and as mentioned earlier a brilliant canopy tour of 1890s terra cotta being restored. I got to show off skyscraper history with WJE preservation engineer Ed Gerns, a rare treat for me and (I hope) informative for a good crowd of 30 or so.
Our keynotes were spectacular–UCLA’s Stella Nair on ‘experimental archaeology’ in South America that tries to understand how stone carving techniques enabled massive construction there, James Campbell on libraries, brick, and staircases, Santiago’s stocktaking on the discipline, and SOM”s Bill Baker on whether or not Frank Lloyd Wright’s Mile High Tower would have been feasible or not (spoiler alert: not). Baker’s talk was followed by a reception at SOM’s Chicago office, really one of the week’s highlights as they put out a huge range of models and drawings for us to gawk at over our wine and canapes. And SOM’s generosity was matched by the Builder’s Association of Chicago, which sponsored a cocktail evening and presentations by the leaders of some of the city’s longest-lived family contracting firms–a genuinely historic evening and great to see international historians mingling with some of the city’s biggest construction names (thanks especially to Mary Brush of Brush Architects for organizing this…)
And, plenty of good paper sessions. The range of topics at these Congresses gets more and more astonishing every time, and there are always happy surprises. The history of thermal insulation in postwar Belgium? Sure thing–and absolutely fascinating. Dante Bini’s pneumatic concrete formwork, which built a vacation home for Michelangelo Antonioni, among others? Astonishing (and, frankly, mystifying…I still can’t figure out how these actually stood up). Contracting in India in the 1950s, the construction process of Lina Bo Bardi’s Sao Paolo Museum of Art (on the bucket list), and George Romney’s role in HUD’s “Operation Breakthrough” housing initiative in the 1970s? Those were all in one session…And that’s just what I managed to attend. With six parallel sessions each day, the range and number of papers were frankly daunting.
And we did manage to get out of the Palmer House once or twice. Here’s my Iowa State colleague Rob Whitehead and I treating keynote speaker James Campbell and his Cambridge University colleague to an elegant meal at one of the city’s finer dining establishments–Bucktown’s Arturo’s Tacos. We like to treat our international guests properly.
It was about eight years ago that the founding CHSA membership–Brian Bowen, John Ochsendorf, Don Friedman, and I first mentioned hosting the International Congress in the U.S. Chicago was the only city we ever even considered, and the process of organizing and putting this on has been more of a joy than any of us might admit. We treated ourselves to one final, celebratory lunch on the way out of town, toasting our Congress manager Melanie Feerst for her tireless work to actually get things organized and in place. We have a huge list of people to thank–a local organizing committee that made hundreds of delegates feel absolutely welcome in Chicago, the Chicago Architecture Foundation for helping organize some of our tours, a scientific committee that reviewed over 500 abstracts, local volunteers, sponsors, and of course attendees who were willing to fly thousands of miles to take part in the discussions.
Santiago is right that it’s an uphill battle to keep an admittedly abstruse discipline going these days, but it’s hard not to be optimistic after a week like this. The number of students, young faculty, and professionals who put together great research and great stories all left us feeling like there remains plenty of promise in CH.
Next year, the American branch will have its biennial meeting in Austin, Texas in May. And at the conference’s close we were thrilled to announce that 6ICCH will be held in 2018 in Brussels. See many of you there…!