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Reviewed by:
  • "Until the Lord Come Get Me, It Burn Down, Or the Next Storm Blow It Away" by Michael Osman
  • Avigail Sachs (bio)
Michael Osman Modernism's Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018 xxiv + 280 pages, 70 black-and-white photos ISBN: 978-1-5179-0098-4, $30 PB ISBN: 978-1-5179-0097-7, $120 HB

"This is not a history of enthusiastic people doing interesting things" writes Michael Osman in the preface to his excellent book Modernism's Visible Hand, Architecture and Regulation in America. This declaration, however, is misleading; the protagonists of Osman's book—engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, industrialists, and architects—were doing very interesting things. Each in their own discipline, they all engaged with then- novel technologies and made these developments (and the epistemology underlying them) a part of their professional practice. The innovations they proposed, from heating and cooling mechanisms to systems of notation, were often mundane, but their impact was far-reaching. As such, they are of special interest to anyone studying the history of the built environment, making Osman's book an invaluable contribution to this field.

Osman's central inspiration is the work of Reyner Banham, which he describes elsewhere as an attempt to produce a counter- canon, defined by the "most significant changes in the technologies designed to produce environments for human comfort, replacing what he saw as an outmoded hagiography of the lives of great architects."1 Banham did not realize this goal, but it forms a premise for Osman's study and leads him to begin the book with a fascinating discussion of methodology and the differences between "heroic" and "non-heroic" histories. As he explains, widening the consideration of architecture to include both the built form and the advanced technical systems housed within it requires going outside traditional architectural references to include diverse information such as scientific theories, legal codes, and technical instruments as historical evidence. This methodology greatly enriches the work, but also highlights a persistent gap between regulatory thinking and architectural discourse born not from the "the disengagement of architects from technological action" but rather from "fundamental differences in the ways different professions produce knowledge" (xvi). Most importantly, unlike artistic developments, not all conceptual developments were registered directly (or at least clearly) in architectural form and style.

Osman addresses this epistemological discrepancy by putting architectural style aside and focusing instead on the changes that were registered in buildings, such as office organizations and air conditioning systems. Even more importantly, he follows a wide range of actors, the aforementioned engineers, entrepreneurs, scientists, and industrialists, and investigates their role in shaping buildings. In doing so he recognizes, with Bruno Latour, that technological objects are "collective things" and that it is impossible to differentiate between objective material and symbolic human constraints, or to focus exclusively on one set of goals (such as iconic form or human comfort). Osman applies this cultural analysis, which will be familiar to readers of Buildings & Landscapes, to great effect. His central contribution is to focus on the term regulation and use it to weave together a series of well-researched case studies, which illuminate the ways in which technological and epistemological changes impact architecture.

Regulation is a powerful term that ties together the different strands of Osman's study, [End Page 127] but it also introduces its own methodological quandary. As Osman explains, regulation, unlike images of grain silos or ocean liners, did not offer a stable model for architectural design but rather a dynamic infrastructure. It also precludes an emphasis on one development or discovery and instead necessitates attention to a slow diffusion of ideas and attitudes. To counter this, Osman circumscribes his study to the United States in the years between the Civil War and World War II, a period of substantial commercial expansion. In this historical context entrepreneurs valued and sought regulatory practices that would "constrain the errors and deviations endemic to a society invested in growth" (xiii). The book is thus as much a history of culture as it is of architecture, or, as Osman explains, it "begins with the premise that paying close attention to the changes made in buildings and...


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pp. 127-128
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