1. Structural Instability: History, Environment, and Risk in Architecture
    Department of Architecture, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania
    – 11.15.17

    Structural Instability: History, Environment, and Risk in Architecture

    Department of Architecture, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania
    April 5-7, 2018

    Abstracts due November 15, 2017

    Uncertainty, risk, and instability are determinant features of contemporary life. In recent years, substantive new scholarship has emerged around structural conditions of economic precarity—on both the individual and societal levels—and around the systemic effects of climatic instability, increasingly evident in storms and other events, the impacts of which are intensified by spatial and economic inequities. The sources of structural instability are manifold, and have long been understood to be essential aspects of capitalist economic systems, of colonization and its aftermath, of institutional forms of racism and economic injustice. Environmental insecurities have both served to intensify and rhetorically justify these forms of spatio-temporal oppression. Colonial expansions, states of exception, emergency management, corporate exceptionalism, and discourses on resilience all inform our historical understanding of these instabilities and their systemic relationship to historical change; they also inform capacities for collective resistance.

    Architecture, broadly considered as the intentional design of the built environment, is an important symbolic and material aspect of this structural instability. Operating at the nexus of processes of financialization, material metabolisms, and urban organization, the work of design mediates these conditions and contributes to our understanding of them. The seemingly unpredictable relationship between social practices and planetary systems also has a rich history, as do the conditions of social inequity that environmental pressures continue to intensify. By framing this symposium through architecture, the intent is to emphasize the intensity and indeterminacy of how economies and ecologies interconnect.

    This symposium is interested in understanding instability as a theme in architectural, urban, and environmental histories and theories. We aim to explore how the structural instabilities of the twenty-first century are legible in histories of architecture and related spatio-political disciplines, insofar as they engage questions of economy, race, and environmental change. Scholarly explorations around these terms have necessarily been interdisciplinary, and abstracts are welcome from any field.

    The symposium aims to elicit historical, methodological, and theoretical discussions. Papers can address any temporal or regional scope, including the challenges of contemporary spatial practices. We are soliciting abstracts that reflect on or respond to the following questions:

    _How has instability played a material and symbolic role in the production of architecture, landscape, and urbanism? What new evidence or new narratives does this framework reveal?

    _What sorts of scholarly methods are emerging that open up the periodicity, figures, and context of architectural discussions in order to render unstable familiar historical structures? What are the historiographic consequences? Or, are there specific historical methods appropriate to unstable histories and histories of instability?

    _Are there specific episodes in the history of architecture that recognize and emphasize unstable rather than stable conditions (for life, for building, for the production of cities)?

    _How does the experience of crisis play a substantive role in the transformation of the built environment?

    _How do theories of complexity, and the data-based and computational platforms through which these theories are inflected, offer new historical trajectories and revisit familiar stories in a new light?

    _Given the fundamental premise of “firmitas” as essential to the Vitruvian triumvirate, to what extent does the implied structural solidity of the built environment abet or deter the crafting of relevant histories in the face of a condition of historical unrest?

    _Have specific figures in architecture and associated fields sought to thematize instability in written and built work, relative to encountering crisis or unpredictability, or through emphases on flexible design and production processes?

    _How are economic and racialized conditions of precarity and/or marginalization legible, or not, in the built environment; how can this relative legibility be seen as a substantive aspect of the work of an architect, firm, or movement?

    _How can contemporary tropes of resilience be seen to have a robust historical trajectory, and what does this help us to understand about the heightening sense of anxiety around global economic, political, and environmental crises?

    _How has architecture related to and expressed changing conceptions of energy systems, and the effects of these systems on social formation?

    _How might tropes of instability mask political and economic projects, relative to conditions of distribution and environmental justice?

    A keynote lecture will be delivered by Felicity Scott. Presenters will be asked to prepare a 30 minute presentation. There will also be a round table discussion at the conclusion.

    Abstracts should be 300 words, include author name and affiliation, and be sent to by November 15.

    The conference will take place from Thursday, April 5 to Saturday, April 7.

    Accommodation, travel and meals will be provided for all speakers.

    Further details and updates can be found at

    This symposium is being organized by Daniel A. Barber (PennDesign), Sophie Hochhäusl (Radcliffe/PennDesign), Eduardo Rega (PennDesign) and Naomi Waltham-Smith (Penn School of Arts and Sciences), in collaboration with the Slought Foundation. It is sponsored by the Department of Architecture, School of Design, University of Pennsylvania; the Penn/Mellon Program on Humanities + Urbanism + Design; and the Penn Program in the Environmental Humanities.