The Berlage

Session Room K

On Accident

Edward Eigen

There is little in general to be said about the topic: On Accident. Therein lies the inviting difficulty. The objects to be investigated (some of them broken, others lost or merely terminally out of place); the protagonists (by turns unreliable and entirely too authoritative); and the non-straightforward narratives they mutually configure, emerge from and ultimately recede into distinct settings whose own meanings require special tools to survey and analyze. Sharing elements of the detective story and insurance claim, the catalogue entry and the unwritten and thus potentially definitive monograph, each attempt at understanding finds interpretive value in the overlooked detail, with the remainders and holdouts of ready categorization, indeed with the seeds of significance that fall by the wayside. The overriding concern is not merely with what has been left out of history, but what is lost to history by insisting on stable structures of causality and rationality, cycles and sequences of time, and long-standing or rather more newish judgments of what merits attention. Recast in the subjunctive mood, lessons derived from the natural and the human sciences combine to raise questions about what counts as evidence, and the difficulty of knowing what it is that is already or rather remains to know about buildings and landscapes, both familiar and not so. In this episode, we watch a great fire unfold (sort of), its fuel an invaluable and/or valueless archives, and how the tides of time colored the outcome, and as a result a great national, architectural monument is (re-)made.

Edward Eigen, Associate Professor of Architecture and Landscape Architecture at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, is a historian and scholar whose work focuses on intersections of the human and natural sciences with the built environment in the long nineteenth century. His book, On Accident: Episodes in Architecture and Landscape, was just released by the MIT Press. His current research examines the landscapes of the modern American presidency, including studies of the “grassy knoll” and Watergate.

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