Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Quadrant: Architect Hilyard R. Robinson's contributions to place-making and public culture.

This post is published in connection with the University of Minnesota Press's launch this week of an an online research archive (www.quadrant.umn.edu) and book series that stems from Quadrant, a new initiative to foster collaborative scholarship and revolutionize interdisciplinary publishing. This is Quadrant post 2 of 3; please see below for links to other posts.

Hilyard R. Robinson. Cartoon by Charles Alston for the Office of War Information, 1943, National Archives Records Administration Record Group 208.

Quadrant fellow and assistant professor in the American Studies program at Miami University

Two major themes animate my professional pursuits: storytelling and communities. Jay Mechling, an American Studies scholar at University of California at Davis, observed that our field is defined by the stories we tell ourselves to make sense of the world. The Quadrant Fellowship enabled me to hear and tell new stories, inter- and multidisciplinary ones within a supportive community of lively, smart scholars and artists. As I listened to their accounts of salsa clubs and shipyards, hip replacements and street vendors, I reconsidered how to tell my tale about the life and times of Hilyard R. Robinson, an African American architect.

My manuscript, Constructing Modernism (tentative title), chronicles the career of Hilyard R. Robinson (1899-1986), who lived and practiced in Washington, D.C. I position Robinson as a man in a milieu: an architect whose practice was embodied, networked, and spatial. This framework requires a consideration of professional and social networks he developed, which included World War I veterans, Alpha Phi Alpha men, federal employees, modern architects, and Howard University faculty members. He shuttled between racially distinct professional circles. In the pages of African American newspapers, in speeches on the lecture circuit, and in other civic enterprises, Robinson promoted himself as an arbiter of style and substance. He relied on his expertise – in modernism, mores, and manners – to compose a career as a design professional. From his perch behind a drafting table, while authoring site and unit plans, Robinson advanced public culture and place-making during the Civil Rights era. He enlisted modern architecture to press African Americans’ claims for the city and democracy, especially in the nation’s capital.

Hilyard R. Robinson trained at the most prestigious institutions in the U.S. and conducted a Grand Tour of Europe at the twilight of the Weimar Republic. His legacy includes 55 buildings, roughly a dozen patents, contributions to the profession (including the integration of the Washington, D.C. chapter of American Institute for Architects and the National Capital Planning Commission), leadership in civic organizations, and a $1.2 million endowment to Howard University. Yet, he did not work in isolation. His work, this legacy, resulted from his training and skills as well as the social, professional, intellectual, and artistic communities he navigated. In mid-January, I arrived for my residency with tubs of documents and loads of inchoate ideas. I hadn’t yet fully found the way to recount Robinson’s life appropriately. Although he designed aesthetically pleasing and important buildings, I did not want to author another architectural hagiography and present him as an exceptional genius. I realize now that as a Quadrant Fellow, I considered how to embed him in his communities while I myself was embedded in a community of scholars who passionately pursued ideas, tested assumptions, and crafted arguments.

The semester’s residency permitted me to luxuriate in periods of uninterrupted thought, to pore over documents, and to hone my writing. Minnesota’s vast library holdings enabled me to follow up and pursue fugitive details and materials that may have been difficult if not impossible to track on my own campus. I presented my work at least once a month in a formal slide-illustrated lecture, a lunchtime colloquium, and two manuscript workshops. During these sessions, I shared my findings with colleagues steeped in a variety of disciplinary traditions. Leading and emerging scholars vetted my work. Together, we puzzled over primary sources and theoretical constructs. When I stumbled across surprising materials like Robinson’s partial ownership of a mechanical cow as part of an ill-fated entrepreneurial scheme, we debated its meanings and significance. Others in residence at the Institute for Advanced Study — sociologists, historians, dancers, a poet, a literary critic/novelist, anthropologists, a geographer, and an artist – nudged me to extend my arguments. They took my work seriously enough to criticize, querying big ideas (like assumptions about power) as well as word choices (like the use of certain action verbs).

My fellowship coincided with the residency of artists and scholars who love language and writing. Their example reminded me to write with precision and care. My tenure at the IAS also offered timely reminders about the importance of participating in a variety of communities. Just as a host of networks informed Robinson’s architectural practice, the Quadrant community informed my writing practice. As mothers, musicians, dancers, lovers, and cooks, other scholars and artists-in-residence impressed upon me the importance of sharing our passions and pursuits. Their stories helped me to make sense of my manuscript.


Watch Kelly Quinn's February 2010 Quadrant presentation,
which includes discussion of three examples of Robinson's work: the Langston Terrace Dwellings; Lincoln Park in Washington, D.C.; and his unbuilt program for the Liberian Centennial and Victory Exposition.

Find out more about Quadrant.

Monday: Lisa Uddin, researcher at the American Philosophical Society Museum in Philadelphia, on race and renewal in American zoos.
Today: Kelly Quinn, assistant professor in the American studies program at Miami University, on architect Hilyard R. Robinson's contributions to place-making and public culture.
Thursday: Shiloh Krupar, assistant professor at the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, on the politics of nature conservation and environmental memory at decommissioned military sites and nuclear facilities in the U.S.

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