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Archaeology, architecture joined by theories of culture, ideas

Dell Upton will give a public lecture Nov. 14 on “Signs Taken for Wonders: Learning from Las Vegas?” at 5 p.m. in Campbell Hall, room 153.
Photo by Peggy Harrison
Dell Upton will give a public lecture Nov. 14 on “Signs Taken for Wonders: Learning from Las Vegas?” at 5 p.m. in Campbell Hall, room 153.

By Jane Ford and Emma Edmunds

Dell Upton brings new perspectives to architecture. From vernacular buildings to today’s urban environment, Upton builds a social history of the effect people and the built environment have on one another.

Upton’s work incorporates the history of ideas and perception. “I look at the ways people physically engage the world and the way that shapes the sense of who they are, very literally their selves.”

An authority on America’s built environment, Upton joined the University faculty in 2002 as the David A. Harrison III Professor of Historical Archaeology and Architectural History with appointments in the School of Architecture and the Department of Anthropology. The dual appointment reflects his broad, interdisciplinary approach to architecture.

The dual assignment also reminds Upton of his debt to world-renowned historical archaeologist James Deetz, who held the Harrison Archaeology chair before him, from 1993 until his death in 2000. When Upton was pursuing a Ph.D. in American studies at Brown University, Deetz was his mentor and one of his greatest teachers.

“He was a pioneer in what he called ‘above-ground archaeology,’” said Upton. “As a result of working with him, I am interested in material culture — things that people make and use.”

After completing his studies at Brown, Upton moved to Virginia in 1974 to work for the state Department of Historic Resources. Lacking formal training as an architectural historian and influenced by Deetz’s teaching, he was able to see historic buildings in a broader cultural context, an approach that still informs his scholarship and teaching.

“Traditionally, architectural historians have studied what the designer wanted, and everything else would be an afterthought,” he said. “I’m interested in the intellectual history of building and architecture — the ideas of people and how people use buildings.”

One example is a scene from Henry James’ novel, “The Bostonians,” in which a group of people enters Memorial Hall at Harvard — a building dedicated to the memory of Harvard graduates who fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War. “James’ description of the feelings this group exhibited are the same as those felt by people who visit the Vietnam Memorial today. But today, we would not experience those feelings when we visit Memorial Hall,” said Upton.
He brings these same perspectives to the classroom. A course he teaches on everyday life incorporates ideas about public space, public life and ideas of democracy.

Over the years, his focus has shifted from an examination of individual buildings in the 17th and 18th centuries to the consideration of 19th- and 20th-century urban landscapes in a global context.

To teach architectural history, you cannot be confined to one country, he said. “You have to think globally, to make people see connections and the ideas of architectural spaces and how they move over time.

The generic value history has for architects is that they see how hard it is to design buildings. They must take into account a lot of issues.”
Upton’s approach has had a profound impact on architectural historians and designers alike.

“One, as a human being, ought to have curiosity about other human beings, to understand their circumstances and logic of their thinking. That can only make one a better human being, and the best human beings make the best architects,” he said.

Upton is an acclaimed author whose books have won the Society of Architectural Historians’ Alice Davis Hitchcock Award and the American Studies Association’s John Hope Franklin Award, among others. Before joining the U. Va. faculty, he was a professor of architecture at the University of California at Berkeley.

His five books and numerous articles range from a study of Colonial Virginia churches to critiques of new urbanism. His most recent book is “Architecture in the United States,” a volume in the Oxford History of Art series.

The proliferation of military monuments recently built and under construction on the National Mall in Washington, has given Upton an idea for a new book. “The militarization of the Mall has to do with the idea that the military is the highest form of patriotism in our culture today,” he said..


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