Thursday, June 30, 2011

Making a place's invisible elements visible: The architecture of David Salmela

Professor and dean at the College of Design, University of Minnesota

When I started to write about architect David Salmela's buildings more than a decade ago, I never knew I would end up becoming his chronicler. My previous career as an editor for one of the leading journals in my field meant that I wrote about the work of a wide range of architects, and never about just one practitioner's range of work, as I have done with David. But having just published my second book on his work, I find myself in the unlikely role of being the world’s expert on David Salmela.

I don’t know if I deserve such a position, but I do know that David deserves such attention, for he has emerged as one of the most talented architects of his generation. As the dean of a college of design, I find it fascinating that someone who never attended architecture school could achieve the success and international renown that David has. This is not to say that aspiring architects should not get a professional education; to get licensed in most states, such an education is now a requirement. But David’s example does show that great talents prevail, whether properly schooled or not.

I also value David’s ability to create one compelling building after another under conditions that many architects would find impossible. He works largely alone, out of his own house in Duluth, Minnesota — far from the big cities that house most of the world’s architectural talent — and he works mostly for middle-class clients, designing houses, cabins, and saunas for relatively modest budgets. That he has won more design awards for this work than almost any sole practitioner in the country counters a myth all too common in the architecture culture that important buildings require patron-like clients with big budgets. Not true, as David has repeatedly shown.

Another myth his work defies involves the supposed "divide" among architects between the avant-garde and the rear guard. Like the partisan politics that so polarizes this country, a similar division exists among architects, with the avant-garde proposing “radical” and often utopian visions for a high-tech future and with the rear guard responding with “nostalgic” and highly populist versions of historic buildings and neighborhoods. To his credit, David’s work occupies neither camp. His architecture remains firmly rooted in the culture and climate of the upper Midwest, with allusions to both historic black creosoted log buildings and the minimalist white modern architecture of northern Europe. At the same time, his buildings have a frugality and environmental awareness that reflects the rural ethos of the Scandinavian immigrants who settled the northern reaches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.

The title of the book, “The Invisible Element of Place,” comes from a Wallace Stevens poem that an English professor at the College of St. Scholastica in Duluth sent to David after seeing David’s house. I decided to use a line from the poem as the book’s title because it so aptly captures the invisible and ultimately indescribable qualities that make David Salmela’s architecture such an inseparable element of this place and its people.


Thomas Fisher is author of The Invisible Element of Place: The Architecture of David Salmela and Salmela Architect, both with photographs by Peter Bastianelli-Kerze and both published by University of Minnesota Press. He is professor and dean at the College of Design, University of Minnesota. You can also follow him on Twitter at @MnDesignDean.

"For anyone who’s ever marveled at the purity and austerity of homes designed by David Salmela, The Invisible Element of Place provides a fascinating look at the work of one of Minnesota’s premier architects."
—Mpls/St. Paul Magazine

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Florida Everglades: A land of alligators, outlaws and so much swampy, cinematic excess

Associate professor of anthropology at Florida International University

This movie poster from the film Shark River manages to cram almost every single Everglades-related stereotype into one “vivid color” tableau. It is really quite remarkable, reflecting, in particular, the racial binaries common to American landscape politics in the early 1950s. Here, we see, a generic looking “Indian,” wearing a headdress and face paint that surely no person ever wore in the Everglades, standing in proud opposition to gun-toting white people who are trudging through the swamp. In this Everglades, indigenous people are naturalized as “of the swamp,” (a process that glosses over Seminole and Miccosukee peoples’ lived histories of war, resistance, and ongoing disputes about the Everglades’ future and management). On the other hand, whites are simply outlaws who are “out of place,” endangered by alligators, mosquitoes, malarial vapors, you name it. As for the blonde “white goddess” staring off into space . . .

Of course, Shark River seems too easy a target. The film came out in 1953, the same year Eisenhower became President, Marilyn Monroe graced the first issue of Playboy, and color television entered our homes. That America feels sepia-toned and remote to those of us, like myself, who were born after the Age of Aquarius. Moreover, the film was hardly a blockbuster or critical success.

That said, the images and tropes that Shark River depends on continue to shape popular ideas about the Everglades. For many of us, the Everglades represents all that we think of as nature at its most uncultivated: an icon infested with frightening reptiles, botanical excess, swarms of mosquitoes, and unforgiving heat. This is the alien and impenetrable Everglades that stymied the attempts of early surveyors and settlers and continues to provide dramatic flair to countless novels, films, and other accounts of swampland exploration. This swampy morass can only be home to the cinematic simplifications of the dangerous outlaw and the generic Hollywood Indian.

Shark River
came out only six years after Everglades National Park was established. Without the park’s creation, I have little doubt that much of this landscape would now look like the rest of southern Florida—an endless expanse of gated communities, strip malls, and restaurant chains. I have a personal and deep connection to the Everglades. My parents, who both worked at the park, brought me home from the hospital to live in park employee housing. “Everglades National Park” is printed on my birth certificate. While I am exceedingly grateful for the environmental protection that the park has afforded, there is something about American national parks that is
Laura Ogden and her daughter, Eva, walk on the Anhinga Trail
in Everglades National Park. Ogden's research focuses on reimagining
the Everglades as a human experience.
unnatural—by which I mean they often become living dioramas of places without people, history, politics or home.

My book Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades is an effort to rethink the Everglades as a humanized landscape. Swamplife is based on a decade of interviews I conducted with alligator hunters in the Everglades. Most of the men I interviewed recall an Everglades prior to the establishment of the national park, allowing us to see the landscape of Shark River in another light. This research has allowed me to reimagine the Everglades as a human experience, one that comes into being through complicated relationships among hunters, animals and plants. In Swamplife, I do not ignore the power of Everglades mythology, and, instead, throughout the book I contrast the stories of the Everglades most famous outlaws, the Ashley Gang, to the gritty realities of the hunter’s landscape.


Laura A. Ogden is author of Swamplife: People, Gators, and Mangroves Entangled in the Everglades, which is a Quadrant book.

"Tangled swamps; alligator hunters; outlaws: Here is a multi-species ethnography that is really fun to read. The book just asks to be taught."
—Anna Tsing, author of Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection

"Swamplife is thoroughly compelling. It works at the cutting edge of theory without straying far from an extremely grounded, rich, and page-turning narrative style. There are few books like it in political ecology."
—Paul Robbins, author of Political Ecology: A Critical Introduction

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Happy 100th Birthday, IBM

Associate professor of modern and contemporary architectural history at Oberlin College

As IBM is celebrates its centenary today, one might be tempted to ask how IBM actually settled on a birthday.

To hear IBM tell it, emerging from the key patents for punched-card storage and information processing written and held by Hermann Hollerith, and marrying those pieces of intellectual property to a set of clock, scale, and computational machine manufacturing concerns, a child—the Computing-Tabulating-Recording Company (CTR)—was born on June 16th, 1911. As anyone can see, though, the letters “CTR” are quite distinctly different from the letters that replaced them in 1924: “IBM.” As is the significance of the letters. To compute, to tabulate, to record: anyone might do these things, whether “anyone” be a writer, a carpenter, a sports fan, or a musician. The letters “IBM,” of course, stand for “International Business Machines”: to use an international business machine is to do something quite different.

As The Economist has rightly stressed, the key to IBM’s longevity is that it has never been a corporation associated with a single product, nor even a single idea. Instead, as IBM publications have stressed from the 1920s right on through to yesterday, IBM is “more than just a business”: it is a corporation whose business is how other corporations do business.

Photo of the Hypertext Editing System (HES) console in use at
Brown University, circa October 1969. HES was developed as an IBM
sponsored research project. Original photo by Greg Lloyd, 1969.
Image source.
Any number of companies today, ranging from Accenture (né Andersen Consulting) to universities, offer putatively sage advice on how you ought to run your business. What separates and has separated IBM from all of these companies is that it has, throughout its history, actually played a role in determining exactly how you do business. This is not only because IBM did, until recently, manufacture the vast majority of “business machines” (i.e. tabulators, time-keeping systems, digital computers, real-time management systems, operating system software, etc.) used in the 20th century, but also—and crucially—because IBM’s managers thought of these various machines as part of a systematic method of organizing societies. This started early, with CTR’s (and IBM’s) founder, Thomas Watson, who exhorted his employees and his clients alike to pursue one sole goal: “THINK.”

Of course, the kind of thinking that Watson was talking about was rather specific. It was logical, it was rigorous, it was calculating. For Watson, everything had a value, and it was IBM’s unique ability to provide that value. As he wrote in 1916, well before the company’s engineers had even begun to conceive of a machine that might automate and render autonomous the process of crunching numbers: “A minute has no negative qualities; it can be made yield something but not nothing ... We spend minutes to improve ourselves physically, mentally, morally, socially and financially – they are our working capital. They are the basis of this or any business, but particularly of this business, inasmuch as we deal largely with time. When selling our products we stress the saving of time which our machines effect – the value of this time which is saved.... Make time your ally and time will make you.”

My book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976 is an attempt to provide a critical history of the corporation’s concrete intervention in American and international business practices by examining the crucial role that architects, industrial designers, and graphic designers played in helping IBM to articulate a coherent set of strategies for reforming those practices from the immediate aftermath of WWII to the beginning of the era of personal computing in the mid-1970s.

Far from being a superficial “rebranding” campaign, the involvement of designers in IBM’s reform-minded business plan marked a substantive effort to translate the often seemingly abstract notions and motions of data processing into concrete forms that could transform the physical and psychological aspects of everyday life.


John Harwood is author of The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945-1976.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Fertile Hysteria: "Desert birthers," "maternity tourism," and the regenerative properties of racialized citizenship

The most recent birth-certificate debate means it's once again time to evaluate properties of citizenship and the racialized value of American life. Image source.

Associate professor of comparative studies and women's studies at The Ohio State University and author of American Pietàs

Challenging the rights to U.S. citizenship and the U.S. presidency of nonwhites has recently been all the rage in conservative political movements and discourses. Again.

From anti-birthright bills SB1308 and SB1309 recently proposed in Arizona to the “Birthers” conspiracy, debates about who should have access to the rights and privileges of national membership have taken on a familiar, if presently remarkably saturated, racial hue. To the historically conscious and anti-racistly inclined, the white nativist political and cultural motivations behind such initiatives appear to be blindingly transparent. Such transparency, coupled with the bittersweet victories – as one must cringingly call them – of the birthright bills’ failures to pass in the Arizona senate and President Obama’s release of his comedic, Lion King-assisted birth video immediately following that of his long-form birth certificate might lead us to conclude that our critical analytical attentions can turn completely elsewhere—perhaps to interrogating the discourses of "Operation Geronimo," that patriotic mission on which the death of all that birth certificate silliness allowed us to focus. With this “new” critical project, however, we land – again – in the historical and culturally symbolic snake pit of racialized notions of belonging. We land in a space of critical urgency, needing to figure out what a dead Geronimo has to do with America’s safety and freedom, and what America’s safety and freedom has to do with Birthers and the eradication of “illegal” nonwhite births. Because just as surely as all of these recent events are inspired – and made sense of — by the racialized properties of citizenship and the racialized value of American life, the workings of these properties and the scales of this value are not self-evident.

Though race is a constant factor that determines the qualities of national membership (as well as the meanings of the births, deaths and assassinations that occur relative to national borders and national security), we understand the work of race most fully when we look at the intricacies of comparative, relational racialization. Take, for example, the dissonant representations between two targets of anti-birthright citizenship initiatives: Mexican “anchor babies” and Chinese “maternity tourists”. Gearing up to challenge the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship to everyone born on American soil – more specifically, to deny citizenship to those born to undocumented immigrants – many legislators and citizens took a cue from South Carolina Republican senator Lindsay Graham’s characterization of such births as acts of “drop (a baby) and leave.” Mad-TV-like caricatures of imagined Latina Breeder’s Associations membership calls and sombrero-wearing, cigar-smoking, diaper-clad, Mexican man-babies circulated on the Internet, along with advertisements for a range of products from T-shirts to BBQ aprons to tote-bags that displayed the slogan "Squat & Drop Does Not Make Anyone an American." Obviously central to the strategy of all of these materials is a virulent nativism trained on Mexican immigrants. Both this Pew Research Center study in August 2010 and this New York Times article from January 2011 did some work to counter the notion that “fertile” or pregnant Latina immigrants to the United States are mere “squatters and droppers” by documenting that most of these women are seeking long-term, stable employment for themselves and their families – many of which are often “mixed” in the sense of consisting of both documented and undocumented members.

Also contradicting these “squat and drop” images of birthing Mexican women is Laura Gomez’s story, reported in the same January 2011 NYTimes article, in which she recounts carrying scissors with her in her journey across the border so that she could cut the umbilical cord after what she was certain would be her baby’s “desert birth.” These images of Mexican immigrant mothers range from nativist to sympathetic, but in all cases, they depend on the economic resourcelessness of their subjects for their effect. In a country where poverty itself is stigmatized and criminalized, the nobly suffering, persevering “desert birther” cannot be just, or perhaps even any kind of, gift to anti-racist, immigrant rights initiatives. Further complicating our attempts to understand how racialized maternal imagery is deployed in “anchor baby” coverage to both racist and anti-racist ends, is the recent “model minority”-inflected discourse of Chinese “maternity tourism” in the United States.

On March 28, 2011, the New York Times covered the closing of a maternity house in San Gabriel, California, wherein pregnant Chinese women who entered the country on tourist visas intended to live until giving birth. According to the article, these were “well-to-do” Chinese women. As the city inspector testified, “These were not women living in squalor — it was a well taken care of place and clean, but there were a lot of women and babies.” The article also suggested that this phenomenon of “maternity tourism” may not be as widespread as the label suggests, despite the fact that “businesses in China, Mexico and South Korea advertise packages that arrange for doctors, insurance and postpartum care” in the United States. Also apparently countering the stigma of impoverishment attributed to immigrant or “touring” pregnancies, the article reported that “in one kitchen, stacks of pictures showing a mother holding her days-old baby sat next to several cans of formula. In another, boxes of prenatal vitamins were tucked into rice cookers. Several bedroom doors had numbers on them. Some rooms were rather luxurious — B9, for instance, had a large walk-in closet, a whirlpool and a small personal refrigerator.”

While such coverage certainly runs counter to the racist images of “anchor babies” and the purportedly leeching families that breed them, the comparatively racializing repertoire of relatively pampered Chinese mothers and desert-traversing pregnant Mexicans occludes a long and complicated history wherein nativist laws governing citizenship and immigration have targeted Chinese and other Asian communities and wherein welfare reform policies since the 1990s have increasingly economically disenfranchised large numbers of these same groups (see Lynn Fujiwara’s brilliant study Mothers Without Citizenship). Indeed, the very first federal act of immigration regulation – the Page Act of 1875 – assumed that Chinese immigrant women seeking entry to the United States were prostitutes and in an effort to curtail this (Chinese) prostitution, denied entry to all Chinese women. The recent sympathetic portrayals of upstanding, “clean,” but problematically maternally touring Chinese women must be understood in this longer historical light.

The differences in racial inflection between these apparently vastly disparate moments wherein the national body is guarded and secured appear to index nothing more than significant progress in how Asian and Asian American families and maternities are, or can be, popularly consumed in public and legal discourse. But between the Page Act of 1875 and the shutting down of a Chinese maternity house in California in 2011, much more – and much less – than such “progress” has occurred in U.S. American images and legislation governing the racialized production of women and mothers, as well as the circumstances of immigrant births, lives, and social and material deaths. This is why the “desert birthers” and “maternity tourists” have to be decoded on the same analytical screen, the screen – or intermedial image-swath – of comparative racialization.

Anti-immigrant discourses of “desert birthers” need “maternity tourists” and “maternity tourists” need “desert birthers” so that the racialized, classed, and gendered requirements of American citizenship can be upheld in image and law. Both of these apparently different targets of anti-birthright initiatives index locations that are relative to – not constitutive of – citizens, bodies, and lives of value.


Read more about constructions of racialized citizenship in maternal imagery in Ruby C. Tapia's American Pietàs: Visions of Race, Death, and the Maternal.

"American Pietàs offers a compelling analysis of racialized concepts of motherhood in American narratives of identity, history, and memory. This is an extremely important intervention that interrogates, rather than simply references, the centrality of racialized motherhood to national identities."
—Wendy Kozol, Oberlin College

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Staff picks from Cooking up the Good Life

With warm weather upon us and summer picnics, barbecues, potlucks and other food-motivated gatherings on the horizon, we bet you're on the market for some seasonally adjusted recipes. Here, the staff at UMP offers up a few favorites from Cooking Up the Good Life: Creative Recipes for the Family Table (by Twin Cities chef Jenny Breen and writer Susan Thurston) to help kick off the season in a meaningful, healthful and family-oriented spirit.

Display of Jenny Breen's cookbook spotted at a local school's plant sale fundraiser.

RECIPE 1: Nut Butter—Chocolate Chip Cookies
(with vegan option)

From the author:

I am a cookie fanatic. I love them fresh out of the oven, so rarely do I bake more than I can eat at one time (I won’t say how many that is). I also like to keep them simple, and find that ever since developing these recipes, which are mostly eggless and maple syrup–sweetened, my tastes have changed; standard crunchy cookies made with butter and sugar no longer suffice. My cookies are dense and moist—cookie qualities that I love and, hopefully, you will too.


* 1/2 cup oil or butter (use oil for vegan version)
* 1 cup maple syrup or 1/2 cup maple syrup and 1/2 cup sugar
* 1 cup nut butter, either almond or cashew
* 1/2 tablespoon vanilla
* 3 1/2 cups pastry flour
* 2 teaspoons baking soda
* 1 teaspoon salt
* 1 1/2 cups chocolate chips (check that the chocolate does not have added whey, milk fat, or casein for vegan version)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a cookie sheet.

Stir together the oil, maple syrup, nut butter, and vanilla. In another bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, and salt. Add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients and stir to combine. Stir in the chocolate chips. Drop spoonfuls of the dough onto the prepared pan and flatten them with the palm of your hand. Bake 8 to 10 minutes.

The Family Kitchen tip:
It is easy to get kids to take part in making these treats. Almost all of these recipes involve hand rolling and pressing, which is always fun for little hands. Let’s face it, there are few things better than making cookies together, except maybe licking the bowl afterward. Note: If you want to be frugal, you can extend these recipes to 3 dozen by making the cookies slightly smaller.


RECIPE 2: Tofu "Cheese"

From the author:
This is a great cheese substitute that is full of flavor and is certain to please everyone, whether they are vegan or not! I use it for a number of the recipes throughout the book. It works great as an alternative to cheese or meat toppings for pizza or in lasagna—essentially any place you would normally use moist cheeses such as ricotta, feta, mozzarella, or chèvre. It browns nicely for baking in the oven, and has a tangy, smoky, and yeasty flavor.


* 1 pound extra-firm tofu
* 6 tablespoons nutritional yeast (the yellow flakey kind)
* 4 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
* 1/4 cup nut butter of your choice (any type except peanut butter works*)
* 1 teaspoon salt

Mash all of the ingredients together well with a fork—do not use a food processor or a blender. The mixture should be slightly lumpy, like the texture of crumbly cheese or browned ground meat. Store the “cheese” in the refrigerator for use as needed. It should last at least a week.

* Staff recommends sesame seed butter.


RECIPE 3: Gingered Green Beans

A great, cartable potluck item or a fun experiment as a pizza topping.

From the author:
One of the appealing aspects of this recipe is its simplicity. Given the limited number of ingredients, the result is surprisingly full of taste. The sweet and savory mix of the Asian flavors complements the crispness of fresh green beans.


* 1 1/2 pounds green beans, stem ends removed
* 3 inches fresh ginger, peeled and minced
* 1/4 cup toasted sesame oil
* 1/4 cup orange juice
* 1/4 cup champagne vinegar
* 2 teaspoons salt

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the green beans with the ginger, sesame oil, orange juice, vinegar, and salt and toss to coat. Roast the beans for 15 to 20 minutes. Serve the beans right away for peak texture and flavor.

The Family Kitchen tip:
Kids can help remove the stem ends from the green beans—with or without knives. And if they nibble on a few raw beans while helping to prepare the recipe, all the better.


These recipes appear in Cooking Up the Good Life: Creative Recipes for the Family Table, by Jenny Breen and Susan Thurston.

"Jenny Breen and Susan Thurston guide us through the seasonal kitchen like a good friend sharing cooking secrets with clear, accessible recipes. The book is a passionate celebration for the fun of cooking delicious, good food for friends and family."
—Lucia Watson

"Jenny Breen’s work continues to inspire me. Cooking Up the Good Life is the culmination of her love for ‘good real food’ and her heartfelt efforts to integrate a new consciousness toward local foods with the timeless joys of cooking together."
—Tracy Singleton, owner of the Birchwood Café