07/17/18 Faculty Spotlight: Ginger Nolan
Ginger Nolan will join the School of Architecture faculty this fall as an Assistant Professor teaching architectural theory. Professor Nolan joins USC from the University of Basel, where she has been a postdoctoral fellow since 2016. Her work is situated at the intersections of architecture, media theory, and race studies. Specifically, she examines how constructions of race have been formulated through spatial, aesthetic, and technological practices. Can you tell us about your background? I received my B.A. in Comparative Literature from Columbia University and then went on to obtain a Master’s Degree in Architecture and a Ph.D. in Architectural History and Theory from Columbia as well. My training in literature has greatly influenced the way I approach architectural discourse—with the conviction that researching and writing history can benefit from a fictional (or science-fictional) imagination. I’m guided by some of the insights of Afrofuturism—that imagining how things might have been is crucial to understanding the nature of what is and how it might be transformed. I think architectural education is largely about helping students figure out how to responsibly situate their imaginations vis-à-vis the world. What will you be teaching at USC? I will be teaching Arch 314, the required undergraduate and graduate courses on architectural theory. I will also be teaching seminars on architectural history and theory. What drew you to the USC School of Architecture? What initially drew me to the School was its impressive reputation and talented student body. In addition, the faculty members made a very positive impression on me during my interview. I could tell they were all very respectful of each other regardless of having different fields of specialization, and that is incredibly important to me. I believe that the School’s already remarkable reputation will be further strengthened due to the recent developments in leadership and direction, and I am honored to be a part of its faculty. What excites you about your faculty role? My role is “architectural theorist.” Theory has always been a problematic position in architecture schools. The challenge is how to teach architectural theory in such a way that it directs us toward—rather than distracts us from—questions of architecture’s imbrication with spatial and economic injustice. Contentiousness and charisma need to give way to more co-operative forms of reflection. As a teacher at USC Architecture, I want to push the pedagogy of architectural theory more toward questions of research methodology (informed by postcolonial and feminist theory and by several disciplines in the humanities and social sciences), while simultaneously directing students away from a notion of theory as a set of opposing camps, labels, and identity affiliations. Under the aegis of architectural theory, students could learn that imaginative and collaborative methods of urban research might yield a very different genre of theory—at once more grounded and less self-assertive— than what is typically found in many compendia of architectural thought. What are your thoughts on the current state of architecture pedagogy? Architecture schools have long pursued a split agenda, one that reinforces a labor hierarchy within the profession. On the one hand, resources have been directed toward minute specialization in various sub-fields. On the other hand, curricula and lecture series tend to support the production of an elite cadre of generalists who serve both as public faces for the profession (in their capacities as writers, curators, self-publicists, and educators) and as strategic interfaces, negotiating between the profession’s aesthetic-intellectual prerogatives and the interests of moneyed clients. (Incidentally, a cynical version of “theory” often comes in handy in those negotiations.) Many architecture schools stand at a loss as to which tendency they should be preparing students for—techno-specialization or general adeptness—and this often results in the abdication of pedagogic responsibility, as seen in the trend to brand architecture schools as chaotic laboratories. This brings me back to why I’m excited about USC Architecture—because the school shows a commitment to resisting the neo-liberal adventures that so many architecture schools have been pursuing for the past few decades. Who or what inspires you? I am inspired by the energy, curiosity, and imagination found in architecture schools and by the challenges and responsibility this places on teachers. Over the past three years, I had the opportunity to teach in a couple of different settings - a comparative literature program and an urban studies program. These two unique experiences helped me grow significantly as a teacher and I am excited to apply what I’ve learned to my new role. Students often take what you teach and push it in surprising directions and I can’t wait to see what unfolds during my time here. What are your research interests? What drew you to the work you are doing now? The manuscript I’m currently finalizing is titled “Savage Mind/Savage Machine: Design, Technology and the Remaking of Magical Thought.” It explores how economic and class-based interests have given rise to a mysticism around the training of the creative imagination. I argue that tacit racial constructs have undergirded a magical conceptualization of modernist design and a concomitant racial division of labor. I’ve also begun work on another book project that is focused on the relationships between semiotic infrastructures, domestic architectures, race, and citizenship. In this book, I question how the imbrication between domesticity and infrastructure can help us think through Rousseau’s formulation of the “moi en commun” (the communal self), a concept carrying both utopian and dystopian implications. Why is now such an exciting time to study architecture, media theory and race studies? There is still a lot of work to be done toward making the effects of postcolonial theory felt in the realm of media and technology studies, so it’s good to be part of that collective effort. It’s also an exciting time to be in the field of architectural history and theory, as the discipline has really opened up in the past few decades. One can feel the effects of that in the current generation of Ph.D. students who are producing all kinds of interesting and thoughtful work.