Archaeology, architecture joined
by theories of culture, ideas
Photo by Peggy Harrison
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
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.
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
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..