I recently completed my PhD in the History, Theory and Criticism of Architecture and Art program and the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at MIT. Focusing on the period between the First and Second World Wars, my PhD research lies at the intersection of American architecture, the history of philanthropy, theological history, and postcolonial studies.
Building Protestant Modernism: John D. Rockefeller Jr. and the Architecture of an American Internationalism (1919-1939) Doctoral Dissertation
Following the First World War, American philanthropist and heir to the Standard Oil fortune, John D. Rockefeller Jr., financed an international body of cultural and scientific institutions, which he presented as sites of global “brotherhood,” intellectual cooperation, and shared world heritage. Combining religious history with an architectural and urban-spatial analysis of the built environments associated with these institutions, this dissertation argues that Rockefeller’s putatively secular and inclusive promotion of culture and science was, in fact, designed to arrest the rise of “savage” nationalisms and a “godless” communism. While scholars have recognized the imperialism inherent in Rockefeller’s philanthropy, they have largely ignored its theopolitical dimensions and its unexpected instrumentalization of secular buildings and landscapes towards religious concerns. Focusing on the so-called Orient (which valued modernity, sought freedom from European powers, and understood Western Christianity as an accomplice to imperialism), Rockefeller, a devout capitalist and Baptist, underwrote projects reconciling Christianity with modernity. Simultaneously, he presented Protestant America as a new civilizational leader to diverse audiences, including nationalists in the former Ottoman territories abroad and students from China and other modernizing nations studying in the U.S. Concentrating on two groups of buildings from his larger patronage—the International Student Houses and the museums and archaeological expedition-houses of the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute—I show how Rockefeller leveraged architecture to present an American internationalism and its scientific and religious modernity as a “logical” fit for diverse regions and conditions. From the Pacific Coast to the Middle East, his team of architects, theologians, archaeologists, and social reformers attempted to harmonize each of their buildings within its immediate geopolitical and aesthetic site. I show how Rockefeller’s “re-Orientation” of Christianity (and America) coheres these eclectic, geographically dispersed buildings and landscapes into a rational or deliberate oeuvre, and is further revealed in specific erasures and accentuations of the built environment. Finally, this dissertation counters a widespread belief that religion in the modern era is solely contained within explicitly ecclesiastical architecture, or limited to societies “outside” the technoscientific modernity and secular progress of the global North.
Failure to Engage: The Breasted-Rockefeller Gift of a New Egyptian Museum and Research Institute at Cairo (1926) Master’s Thesis
In 1926, the United States’ first Egyptologist James Henry Breasted and the philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr., proposed to build a New Egyptian Museum and Research Institute in Cairo. The Egyptian government ultimately rejected the proposal and the museum was never built as suggested. The project’s failure was attributed to “suspicious” or “irrational” nationalism and “Egyptian vanity.” The archives, however, demonstrate otherwise. This thesis analyzes the Breasted-Rockefeller museum’s conception, trajectory and failure, using the team’s lengthy correspondence. The archives show that the project was an early example of U.S. cultural imperialism, disguised as a gift of “Science,” from the “Great Democracy of the West,” to an Egypt desirous of independence from British and French empires. Deploying the twin themes of post World War I “opportunity” (political) and “obligation” (civilizational, scientific, philanthropic) to demonstrate the imperial possibilities of the particular political and cultural moment in 1926, Breasted mobilized Rockefeller first and the U.S. State Department later, to pry open the political field in Egypt for U.S. entry through archaeology and appropriation of antiquity. The Breasted-Rockefeller team’s strategy was to create an Anglo- American alliance in the Near East, by beginning with the creation of a private-philanthropic corporation for the New Egyptian Museum, controlled by Western archaeologists, with token Egyptian representation. This ambitious and innovative approach to imperialism was spatially and architecturally revealed in the proposed museum’s design and in its location in Cairo. That this project failed when it would succeed in later iterations elsewhere, is to be ascribed both to the lack of U.S. power against competing British and French imperialisms at this early stage, as well as to Egyptian nationalism, which identified the Breasted-Rockefeller proposal for the imperial project that it was, and which had begun to recognize Egyptian antiquity as a metaphor for nationalism.
Rockefeller Archive Center Grant-in-Aid, Rockefeller Archive Center. Sleepy Hollow, NY (2015-2016).
SOM Foundation Travel Fellowship for Architecture, Design and Urban Design, 2010