11 December 2018 -

Feature: Reflections on DHS 2018 Design and Displacement (Part 1)

In September 2018, design historians gathered in New York City for this year's DHS Conference 'Design and Displacement'. All the more urgent in the current global landscape, the event offered a diverse range of perspectives on the topic through a fantastic programme of panels and three awe-inspiring keynotes.

DHS Ambassadors Vivien Chan (VC) and Simon Spiers (SS), and Student Officer Lydia Caston (LC), documented the conference live on the DHS Ambassadors Twitter and Instagram. Continuing on from last year's blog series, this year we decided to round-up our highlights of the conference events into different themes, in order to reflect on the different discussions surrounding displacement.

Structures and Cities

LC: Flushing Meadows Visit

Our first visit of the conference was to Flushing Meadows Corona Park, bright and early on a sunny Thursday morning. Guided by Ethan Robey (Assistant Professor of History of Decorative Arts and Design, The New School Parsons), we set off to Queens to explore the historic park. Now the site for the US Open, Flushing Meadows was busy with tennis fans and tourists. It was certainly difficult to imagine that this was where the New York World Fairs of 1939 and 1964 were once held.

In the early 1920s, when much of New York witnessed an urban sprawl, many of the city's population moved to Queens and Long Island. This is when the New York City Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, had the idea to make Flushing Meadows Queens' equivalent of a Central Park. However, it was not until 1935 that Moses' architectural ideas were accepted and that planning began for the 1939 World Fair.

Sites were excavated and transformed to create the artificial Meadow and Willow Lakes. Plants and trees were brought to the fair grounds to give the sense of a natural landscape. Residents near the park were displaced in favour of tree-lined pathways to greet the visitors at the famous Cascade Mall. With the 'Dawn of a New Day' as the 1939 fair's slogan, its theme was centred around the future, and promised extravagant and outrageous ideas for the world of tomorrow. Attractions, such as the Billy Rose Aquacade musical water show and the Life Savers Parachute Jump, were erected here and would have entertained huge audiences. Today, flushing Meadows bears faint traces of the carefully designed visitor experience and the political statements the Fair displayed.

Within the first six months of the 1939 Fair's opening, World War II spread across Europe and in 1941 the United States. Flushing Meadows is home to many images of national strength and power in the wake of war. Our tour around the space guided us through the history of both Fairs and the countless relics dotted around the park pointing towards different themes and objectives.

When it was announced that Flushing Meadows would be the location for the 1964 World Fair, the new parks commissioner August Heckscher II aimed to transform the space into a space for the twentieth-century. The most iconic and enduring symbol of the 1964 Fair was the Unisphere. Found across postcards, packaging and pins, this spherical stainless steel structure was commissioned to celebrate the city's globalisation and developments in infrastructure. It would have been difficult for visitors to miss this 140 foot-high globe at the very centre of the park.

The Unisphere also made a statement about the beginning of the Space Age. The graveyard of spaceship statues and the spectacular bronze Rocket Thrower by Donald De Lue show how this theme was celebrated at the Fair. De Lue's tall statue of a nude athletic man casting a starry flame into the sky faces the Unisphere. Ethan shared the humorous story of this statue's reception and controversial history. The towering Rocket Thrower was often critiqued and was famously described by The New York Times art critic, John Canaday, as 'the most lamentable monster, making Walt Disney look like Leonardo Da Vinci'.

Photograph by Zara Arshad.

Our tour continued towards the United States Space Park. Sponsored by NASA and the Department of Defense, its exhibits ranged from full-scale models of engines and a Thor-Delta rocket. These examples of modern technology were highly political landmarks and promised a future of new discoveries to be enjoyed at the Fair by more than 51 million people.

The remnants of the New York State Pavilion was perhaps the most intriguing and haunting section of the visit. The circular suspension roof, named The Tent of Tomorrow, the crumbling concrete Observation Towers and the drum-shaped Theaterama were the three main structures of the Pavillion. All three buildings share the same peeling grey and yellow colour palette. Today, it is partly owned by the Queens Theatre as a stage and storage space, and has been heavily referred to in popular culture. Skateboarding videos and competitions have often been filmed there. Paul Simon performed his last ever live concert in the Tent and it has been the backdrop for science-fiction features such as Men in Black (1997).

When the Fair closed, the New York Pavillion was neglected and its brightly coloured constructions faded away. There have been numerous petitions to protect the structures. Since the Fair's 50th anniversary in 2014, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the Pavillion as one of its National Treasures. Sadly, this same year the towers were damaged by arsonists.The Pavillion has remained an extremely contested space. Many have opposed the expensive restoration projects and questioned its status and legacy. These debates speak for the architectural displacement of the Fair's history in a consistently developing neighbourhood. After Ethan's thought-provoking tour, these conversations were continued throughout the conference with panels including 'Meet Me in St. Louis: Nationalism, Nostalgia and Fashion as Displacement', and Tony Fry's keynote on the role and challenge of design.

SS: Topics in 19th-century France

The theme of displacement in structures and cities was a unifying thread running through both papers in the panel 'Topics in 19th-century France'. Firstly, art historian Dr. Amy F. Ogata's paper on the production and reception of cast iron public sculpture and ornament in Second Empire France (1852-1870) was, in a large way, about the material culture of the rapidly changing urban fabric of Paris. Under the edict of the Emperor Napoleon III, the city underwent the drastic process of 'Haussmannisation' – infrastructural modifications spearheaded by Georges-Eugène Haussmann that aimed to 'open up' the crowded streets and neighbourhoods of inner-city Paris in order to create wide boulevards and open squares and parks. Cast iron, as Dr Ogata neatly recounted, was integral to this process, providing a distinctly modern medium for brand new fountains, monuments and street furniture.

However, the modernisation project of mid 19th-century Paris led to the displacement of entire communities in the city. In the quest for spaces for the performance of public leisure amongst the petit-bourgeoise, cast-iron street furniture, such as railings and ornamental gates, began to literally mark out these new social divisions. Dr Ogata's talk was not necessarily triumphalist about the story of cast-iron, though. The final few slides dwelt upon the fate of the many Parisian foundries that were booming in the middle decades of the 19th-century, but now resembled junk yards of architectural fragments and plaster casts. The material that represented a new age of imperial power was, ironically, melted down for armaments in the preceding century.

Dr Ogata's talk flowed neatly into the next paper presented by Dr Anne Anderson of Exeter University. As Napoleon III surrendered to the Prussians in 1870 and effectively ended the Second French Empire, the geography of the country was redrawn again. Dr Anderson's paper focused on the production of ceramic art in the Nancy School based in the region of Lorraine, an area annexed by the German Empire in 1871. Anderson argued that the progressive artists of Nancy resisted this annexation through politicising their work with nationalist and regional symbolism.

A prevalent case within Dr Anderson's paper was the ceramicist, glassmaker and cabinetmaker Émile Gallé, who diffused many of his designs with well-known motifs associated with Lorraine, such as the thistle, the cockerel and the 'double cross'. This was highly evident in his 'Table le Rhin' of 1889, now in the Musée de l’École de Nancy. The marquetry of the table shows an allegorical depiction of the oppressive German forces and the vulnerable French either side of a bearded man representing the Rhine – this river was considered by the French as a natural border between themselves and Germany. Gallé even used locally grown timber for the table's construction.

Though only two papers were presented in this panel, working together they both described how geographical and urban displacements were a constant through the second half of the 19th-century in France, and how nationalism could be both a force of oppression, as well as resistance.

VC: Mabel O. Wilson Keynote

Our second keynote of the conference was by Professor Mabel O. Wilson of Columbia University, with 'Provisional Demos - The Spatial Agency of Tent Cities'. She asked how the modern concept of race run parallel to architecture - how does the built environment represent the complex and racialised relationship between people and the land? The right to remain in a safe space continues to be a racialised contestation in today's world, and has been through history, whether by war, natural disaster, political turmoil or in the everyday structures of inequality. Wilson began by considering the materiality of the shelter that those displaced live in; they are characterised by a permanent impermanence, a lightness and 'convey the precariousness of life lived out of backpacks and duffle bags'. Tent cities, particularly in our current global political climate, grow bigger and, ironically, seemingly more solid, but nevertheless remain as a reflection of the lack of acknowledgement of the global structures of race, land and personhood.

However, Wilson's critique brought in an alternative narrative about the ways in which tent cities are instead, powerful, vocal, and visible communities. One such tent city was the Resurrection City, a 3,000 person strong camp erected on the Washington Mall in the Summer of 1968, built by people of colour from across the country. Originally organised by Martin Luther King Jr. under the Poor People's Campaign, and carried out by Ralph Abernathy after King Jr.'s assassination, the protest was to address the terrible living conditions for working class people, especially people of colour, across the United States. It demanded 'the right to a decent house', the right to a safe space and economic justice for all. Infrastructure in Resurrection City quickly developed, including schools, psychiatrists and a city hall, and the creation of visual landmarks, like street names, signs and murals. It even had its own zipcode, 20013. Through the raising of this city within a city, the multiplicity of tents forced this mass of people, forgotten in the policies of the capital, to be at the centre of the everyday lives of those leading the country. The camp endured for 42 days on the Mall until it was violently removed from the site by police.

Design here should not only be seen in the ephemeral and material nature of tents and tent cities. In the context of design history, it is important to recognise the centrality of design to the wider structures of society, and also in how these tent cities are framed and represented. Material culture is useful here to emphasise just how the tent city changed the landscape, and also perceptions of the housing problem at large. Resurrection City materialised and questioned the dystopian/utopian distinctions of cities, between the manicured malls of Washington DC designed with an elite user in mind, disrupted by a sudden influx of haphazard materials and aesthetics, black bodies, and different sounds and movement through the city. Only when confronted with the physicality and sensoriality of displacement was the crisis reacted to - although policy was slow to adjust after the removal of the camp, its significance was in how materiality unsettled politicians and how the wider public thought of themselves, others and space.

Resurrection City is seldom mentioned in the wider narrative of American civil rights. But it is nevertheless an important reminder, both of the starkly different experiences of cities, which continues to be segregated by racial lines, but also of the ways in which those discriminated against defy, support and protest against conditions already ingrained for generations. The performative nature of the city, and the journey towards it, reframed the pristine lawns and glorified temples of the Washington Malls into a stage, materialising displacement for all the world to see. As design historians, we should not only think about what is designed, but also how. As Wilson concludes, 'where architecture is for the privileged, building is for everyone'. Design always has consequences.

Lydia Caston (DHS Student Officer), Vivien Chan (DHS Ambassador) and Simon Spier (DHS Ambassador)


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