2020 Rapid Response Grant: “Sick Architecture” Publishes Series of Essays Exploring Illness

November 13, 2020
A field hospital with 5,500 beds and an Intensive Care Unit for patients with COVID-19 at the Ifema exhibition complex in Madrid, March 22, 2020. Photo: Borja Sanchez-Trillo/Comunidad de Madrid via Getty Images.

Health crises have reshaped spaces, making all architecture sick. This idea underlies a new set of articles for “Sick Architecture,” a Rapid Response Magic Project of the Princeton University Humanities Council.

The initiative invited nine Princeton University graduate students and five outside scholars to write interdisciplinary essays about disease—understood as not just viruses or bacteria—infecting buildings, cities, territories, protocols, logics, political systems, and more. Beatriz Colomina (Architecture) led the team in collaboration with the publishing platform e-flux Architecture, as well as with the Princeton University PhD Program in the History and Theory of Architecture.

To launch the series, Colomina released an “Editorial” on Monday, November 9. She notes a widespread tendency to forget the “medical emergencies that encrust themselves one on top of another over the centuries.” By seeking to restore that memory, “Sick Architecture” will enable people to rethink both architecture and sickness, she adds.

Vivid excerpts of history enliven many of the installments. One such tale opens “Touching, Disease, and the Sacred Artifact” by An Tairan, a doctoral candidate in History and Theory of Architecture at Princeton University.

“As the plague smoldered in Milan in 1630, three French youths—a scholar, a painter, and an artisan—journeyed to the city from the north, in the hope of surveying famed Milanese monuments. Contemplating the bas-reliefs on the still-incomplete façade of the Duomo, the foreign admirers were seized with a sudden impulse to stroke the sculptural figures with their hands. In wordless awe, they rubbed the Candoglia marble as if sight alone could no longer suffice, unaware of a leery crowd of locals who distrustfully clustered around them. Scowling at the alleged evildoers, they quickly overwhelmed the young Frenchmen with furor and violence. Wronged as members of the untori, or ‘plague greasers,’ a mythical group widely believed to have surreptitiously spread the contagious disease by daubing buildings with poisonous ointments, the visitors would have been lynched had the magistrates not apprehended the three of them.”

Tairan’s article plumbs the distinction, recognized by literary theorist Gabriel Josipovici, between “touching as antidote to incredulity, and touching as encounter across space and time.” In the former, people use their hands to verify the existence of things they see but do not believe in. Josipovici gives the example of St. Thomas, who doubted the resurrection of Jesus, poking his finger into Christ’s side to gain evidence. Meanwhile, the other sort of touching connects people to what they value with certainty, as when pious pilgrims reach for relics from which they expect healing. Epidemics like the coronavirus complicate the interplay of these two tactile practices, Tairan argues.

Other contributions include “Ellis Island: Architecture at the Service of Biopower” by Guillermo Sánchez Arsuaga, a PhD student in History and Theory of Architecture at Princeton University. The piece recounts details surrounding the medical admission of working-class immigrants into the United States, often on surreptitious or nefarious grounds. “Chronic Whiteness” by Mark Wigley, Professor and Dean Emeritus at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, challenges a longstanding tradition of whitening buildings in the name of health and morality.

Additional essays will emerge in the coming weeks. Furthermore, “Sick Architecture” will host a virtual roundtable, sponsored by the Program in Media and Modernity as well as e-flux Architecture, on Thursday, November 19 at 5 pm.

Humanities Council Logo
Italian Studies Logo
American Studies Logo
Humanistic Studies Logo
Ancient World Logo
Canadian Studies Logo
ESC Logo
Journalism Logo
Linguistics Logo
Medieval Studies Logo
Renaissance Logo
Film Studies Logo