Lost in Conversation: Constructing the Oral History of Modern Architecture

Oral history is as old as history itself and might be considered the first ‘kind’ of history. The extensive modern use of the term ‘oral history’ is however relatively new, certainly when it comes to the historiography of modern architecture. Even though this novel research method has brought about a significant expansion of the existing canon of modern architecture, its use within the discipline of architectural history and – theory is not (yet?) set in stone and research results are consequently widely diverging. This conference aims to on the one hand explore issues of knowledge-generation relating to modern architecture through the use of oral history and on the other hand problematize the ‘operational’ aspects of this methodology within the discipline.

Questions include, but are not limited to: What specific types of information are disclosed through the implementation of oral history in architectural historiography that would have otherwise remained unknown? How do oral histories ‘form’ and ‘endure’ over time and how does this differ from the construction of ‘written histories’? Does the oral history interview minimize the role of the architectural historian and offer a more ‘authentic account’? Does the popularity of oral history feed into the critical regionalism-bias, offering a more diversified and often more place-based understanding of post-war modernism or, does it conversely support claims of growing globalization in modern architecture? How might oral history unsettle the very foundations of architectural historiography, for instance, does ‘reliability’ become an irrelevant concept or are these oral accounts in fact more rich, nuanced and idiosyncratic? And what role does oral history assume within the architectural archive?

From an operational point of view, the oral history method also gives rise to a set of questions that mainly relate to the positioning of the interviewer vis-à-vis the interviewee. It is common knowledge that up until the 1970s architecture was a largely male-dominated profession. In recent decades however women have become much more visible in the discipline, not only in the architectural practice, but also in architectural history. Many women are – by extension – involved in oral history projects, which leads us to question what the importance is of (what might be called) the ‘erotics’ of oral history methodologies, especially if it is (young) women interviewing elderly men. Beyond sexual dynamics, how are these oral histories affected by cultural or political differences between the interviewer and the interviewee? … In short, what does oral history contribute to the understanding of modern architecture and how much might be ‘lost in conversation’?