Bigger than Big

Manifest editors Justin Fowler and Dan Handel will be chairing the panel on the "Bigger than Big: American Matter out of Scale" at the Society of Architectural Historians 2015 conference.

The American continent(s) remains an underexplored agent in the fields of architectural and urban histories. As John R. Stilgoe writes, in the centuries since the settlement of the New World, we still “lack words for bigger than big” and are plagued by a “stubborn refusal to confront…the immensity of the continent itself.” While specific narratives of city-building across the Americas have been told, the role of the “bigger than big,” so persistent in many of the exploratory accounts of the territory—from those of Bernardino de Sahagún and Alexis de Tocqueville to John Muir and Isabella L. Bird—has, in the domains of architecture, urbanism, and even landscape, often taken a back seat to discourses focusing exclusively on questions of style, performance, or networks of transaction. When it has been taken up—as in Nathaniel Owings’ overture toward Rachel Carson’s “long vistas of history” in The American Aesthetic and most notably in Reyner Banham’s Scenes in America Deserta—the results are decidedly singular offerings that merge realist rhetoric with a poetics of ecology.

This session asks how we might write history differently by taking seriously the “bigger than big” or the out-of-scale as matter rather than prematurely consigning it to the realms of metaphor, alibi, or the pastoral. It asks, how do we delimit or write about that which is apparently outside of the scalar purview of language without necessarily having to tame our matter of study? The panel invites papers that contribute to our understanding of the blunt physicality of the American continent(s) and the forms, ideas, and histories, which it animates. It welcomes papers on method, demonstrations of applied method, and case studies of architectures and urbanisms that interrogate such matter.