Building hope by standing on shoulders
We are never alone; the examples of our ancestors can inspire our work.
Architecture is inherently conservative. It’s taught and practiced by studying precedent that provides critical cultural continuity. This is similar to lawyers considering legal precedent in their cases. Architects interpret our culture through a continuum of history to understand how and why certain buildings, spaces and aesthetics served the needs of their time.
We stand on the shoulders of past architects to consider the present moment and cast forward into the future. At this current time of great change when innovation is most needed, the careful study of precedent can seem an unnecessary constraint. But it’s not that simple; the continuity of an inspiring precedent allows us to face challenges with creative practicality. Precedents may be from the distant past or even from last year.
Before putting pen to paper, every master’s thesis student spends a semester conducting research. They interrogate their initial ideas, refine the definition of the problem they’ll solve, and study relevant precedents. Their research ranges from big-picture social issues like climate resilience and social justice; to their site’s specific history, culture and community needs; to large-scale aspects such as urban design or brownfields redevelopment; and, finally, to architectural concerns like building type, energy-efficiency, materials, structure, artfulness and beauty.
For all of those categories, the study and analysis of precedent illuminates the way. If a student seeks to increase resilience to urban flooding caused by climate change, they might research the many cutting-edge, practical examples in a low-lying country like the Netherlands—from any century or decade. For an affordable housing project, they might study examples of simple dwellings in ancient Pompeii or apartments that are prefabricated off-site and inserted with a crane into a structure in a matter of days.
For his affordable housing project in Guisquil, El Savador, Christian Romero discovered projects in Chile, Mexico and Iraq that have used 3-D printing for quick construction. This project in Tabasco, Mexico, produced houses in a matter of days at an impressively low cost.
To reinterpret past agrarian communities for the 21st century, Jazmin Inoa also found recent examples. Tassafaronga Village was completed in 2010 on a 7-5-acre brownfield site in collaboration with the Oakland Housing Authority. Tassafaronga provides 189 units of housing, from rental apartments to homes for first-time buyers, and sponsored the creation of Acta Non Verba, a community farm for kids from the village and larger surrounding area.
Melonee Quintanilla’s research led her to the rich history of the Rosenwald Schools, Booker T. Washington’s project to build nearly four hundred Black rural schools in the South in the early 20th century. The Sears-Roebuck tycoon Julius Rosenwald provided funding and by 1930, over one-third of all African American children in the Southern U.S. attended a Rosenwald school. Some of these simple buildings have survived, adapted to other community uses. Many were lost to time. This project is digitizing the few remaining schools.
Melonee expanded precedent to being guided and uplifted by the example of her ancestors. As she said in our interview, “I know that this is one of the best times in history to be me, to be a Black Latin-American daughter of an immigrant female in this country. My ancestors had a lot less and they had to do a lot more with it. I'm riding on the shoulders of giants. That gives me a lot of hope for the future that I can carry with me, to not get overwhelmed by dread. I think we're gonna make it.”
Whose shoulders can you stand on to support you in the work ahead?
This project is supported by a Faculty-Student Research Award from the Graduate School, University of Maryland, as well as grants from the University’s Sustainability Fund and the School of Architecture, Planning & Preservation.