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Jonah Rowen: A Brief Chat with a Fellow

Fire prevention as preservation of racial inequality

Spotlight on a 2020–2021 Weinberg Fellow:
Read our Q&A with Jonah Rowen about his work.

Question:
Tell me about your project.

Rowen:
My project is about the aesthetics and fire aversion efforts of an early nineteenth-century architect in South Carolina in Charleston, Robert Mills, who designed a number of buildings for the state judiciary: arsenals, jails, courthouses, and asylum, etc. All intended to sort of portray a state image of power against a subjugated Black population, that was larger than the White population of the city at the time. And so these buildings for state and local governmental entities featured a brick vaulting system that the architect touted for its fire resistance. We can understand these buildings now in the context of the Antebellum Southern United States and ask, "Why were buildings under threat at all, and, crucially, from whom?" And so focusing in particular on what's known as the Fireproof Building, built in Charleston right around the same time that the state actually had tried, convicted, and then executed Denmark Vesey and a number of alleged co-conspirators. This is all happening at a moment at which tensions were high. And in fact, the Fireproof Building itself was built by enslaved people, and materials for it were produced by enslaved people. So I look at this through the techniques of the actual building and including its construction and fire insurance, and other sort of surrounding sort of aspects of the construction industry. And so the general argument here is that, in this time period, in the U.S. South, architectural preservation and fire prevention was a form of preemptive—what I call preemptive—preservation. And so those techniques are visible traces of a society that was liable to burn without such control measures in place.

Question:
Your doctoral dissertation focused on the Caribbean and the U.K. What led you to study the U S South?


Rowen:
I'll start by saying the wonderful thing about the Italian Academy fellowship is that it affords this opportunity for me to think through a new direction for my research, since I just finished my dissertation last spring. I'd been working for a very long time on the British Atlantic world. So this offers the possibility of testing the hypotheses that I developed in the dissertation. I am applying some of the arguments that I made in the dissertation to a different context, and to see if they still hold up. I've been looking at classical architecture in the U.S., and comparing it to familiar textual sources, like Leon Battista Alberti's De Architettura, and Palladio's Quattro Libri, which would have also been the touchstones for early-nineteenth century U.S. architects. I tie that in to a related story about race and society at the time, namely, the history of slavery. The research questions that I ask are, "Who built these buildings," on the one hand, but also, "If these buildings were built to project and aesthetics of solidity and impregnability, to whom were those aesthetics directed?" A related question is, "If we might assume fire resistance to be a standard form of protecting architecture, why did architecture need to be protected at all? And again, from whom?"

Question:
Now you specify you specify preservation in practice. How is that different from other discussions of preservation?

Rowen:
This phrase is something I sort of invented for this project. What I mean when I talk about preservation in practice, or preemptive preservation, is to suggest that architectural practice had an anticipatory function. Buildings were built in anticipation of damage or destruction, so part of their planning was to make would-be attackers think twice. Again, I'm referring back to one of Alberti’s justifications for building beautiful buildings: this bizarre idea that if architecture was captivatingly attractive, then hostile parties wouldn't try to destroy those buildings. It's an absurd principle, especially given some of the atrocities that we've seen from—for example—the Islamic State in recent years. Nevertheless, it leads me to a conjecture that architecture was a form of deterrence; if not necessarily to overawe insurrectionists or arsonists by the beauty of these buildings, there was an impulse to make an architecture that would preemptively withstand destruction. These buildings would make it clear to potential attackers that they would not be so easy to damage or destroy.

Question:
What challenges to your research has COVID-19 caused?

Rowen:
The biggest challenge is not being able to go to archives. The architects’ papers and other records like insurance policies in South Carolina would have been useful to consult for this research, which I haven't been able to do because of travel restrictions. I have to work through either primary sources that are digitally available, or published secondary source materials. I would also actually be visiting some of these buildings, which is an essential part of architectural history research and preservation. That's impeded, unfortunately, by travel and closed institutions. The other big challenge is not having the opportunity to share this research with the other fellows in real time, and to have casual follow-up conversations that we would otherwise have. We are able to have these exchanges over email, and meeting over video conferences, but it's not the same. It's not as much of a barrier as I thought it might be, but it also doesn't allow for the kinds of informal discussion that I think would have been common if we were all inhabiting the same space.

Question:
Of the other Fellows, whose research is most intriguing?

Rowen:
I can't really single out anyone, but I maybe I'll just say something about each of the others that I find exciting: really briefly, I think Julie's work on the microbiology of memory is interesting to me because, as we've seen in just the last couple of months, architecture and the built environment are effectively all about preserving cultural and collective memories. So there's a relation there. Pierre's work on restoration and the restitution of objects is about how material culture, and cultural capital and more conventional forms of economic capital relate to one another and also how they operate at a distance, remotely, from each other. And that's a subject that drove my dissertation research on the British Atlantic world. I was struck by the relevance actually of Shushruth's neurobiological research to aesthetic philosophy—again about memory, but oriented in the direction of perception. And that's a topic that has fascinated me for a long time. And then Rachel's work is probably methodologically closest to mine, since she's an art historian. It is compelling in that it draws together aesthetic objects with questions of technology, as well as facture—that's to say, craft and making that has clear overlaps with the kinds of research that I'm doing in this process.

Event Date 
Sun, Dec 30, 2012, 5:00 pm
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