Expanding Agency is a five-year research project (2022-2026) that explores the role women and members of ethnic minorities played in transmitting modern architecture and design internationally between 1920 and 1970.

Image: Negro Contractors’ Conference, Hampton, Virginia, 1928. Source: Ethel Bailey Furman papers and architectural drawings, 1928-2003, Accession 41145, Personal Papers Collection, Library of Virginia, Richmond, Virginia.

Expanding Agency: Women, Race and the Global Dissemination of Modern Architecture explores four ways in which women and ethnic minorities had an impact upon the global dissemination of modern architecture and design.  These include journalism, patronage, entrepreneurship, and institution building.  The role of design businesses, real estate developers, and philanthropists will be addressed alongside that played by the shelter press in order to demonstrate the impact, largely unacknowledged, that women, African Americans, and other overlooked groups had and to explore their motivation, which often included, but was seldom limited to, the necessity to earn a living. This ERC research project is hosted by the UCD School of Art History and Cultural Policy in collaboration with the UCD Humanities Institute. It is led by Professor Kathleen James-Chakraborty.

Project Overview

The research to be undertaken by Expanding Agency is divided into five parts.

The role of ethnic minorities in commissioning modern architecture will be explored principally by considering the patronage of African Americans.  The campuses of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the United States present an under-explored opportunity to examine architecture that profoundly shaped African American experience and was often commissioned and/or designed by African Americans.  Postdoctoral fellow George Francis-Kelly will research this subject, paying particular attention to the degree to which changes in style do or do not relate to emergence of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.  Kathleen James-Chakraborty will oversee the writing of a book on the Belgian Building at Virginia Union University, designed by Henry van de Velde, with the assistance of Victor Bourgeois and Léon Stynen for the World’s Fair held in New York in 1939.  Her co-authors will be Bryan Clark Green and Katherine Kuenzli; members of the Virginia Union community will also be asked to contribute.  James-Chakraborty will also publish about the design of synagogues in the United States, which provide another window into the way in which specific communities used modern architecture as an expression of identity.

Doctoral students Nokubekezala Mchunu and Pooja Sastry will analyze examples of mass-market publications targeted at women to address how modernism was marketed to them.  They will pay particular attention to the contributions women journalists made to this effort and to the extent that these journals and newspapers showcased the work of women designers and other entrepreneurs.

Women founded, co-founded, or directed a number of design businesses, including Artek in Helsinki, Svenskt Tenn in Stockholm, and Knoll in New York.  Operating as real estate developers, they also commissioned landmark buildings such as the Edificio Kavanagh in Buenos Aires.   The role played by Phyllis Lambert in the creation of the Seagram Building in New York is especially well known.  In 2023 we will advertise for a postdoctoral fellow who will work on at least one case study and also share responsibility for organizing an international conference on this subject, to be held in June 2024, and for co-editing the resulting book.  The call for papers for the conference will be issued in autumn 2023.  The conference will be accompanied by tours of the Eileen Gray collection in the National Museum of Ireland, and of the work of local architectural firms, including Grafton Architects, Heneghan Peng, McCullough Mulvin, and O’Donnell Tuomey.

Kathleen James-Chakraborty will write a monograph that addresses the role of five women in transmitting modern architecture and design to, within, and from the United States.  These include Ethel Power, an editor of House Beautiful; Estrid Ericson, the founder of Svenskt Tenn; Ethel Furman, who designed houses and churches in and around Richmond, Virginia, for fellow African Americans; Chloethiel Woodard Smith, who from 1963 to 1983 ran the largest woman-led architectural practice in the country, and Gira Sarabhai, the co-founder of the Calico Museum and Indian Institute of Design in Ahmedabad.

Finally, in 2025-2026 an exhibition of the results of our research will travel to architecture schools in Europe and the rest of the world.  Expanding Agency will support related programming at five architecture schools located in the European Union and five in the Global South.

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