Weitzman’s Vanessa Grossman on the cultural value of architecture

In a Q&A, the architect, historian, and curator discusses her research and published books, which explore the relationship between architecture, politics, and social movements.

Buildings are structures and shelters, but they are also statements that seek to define geographies and express power. The architect, historian, and curator Vanessa Grossman—who joined the Weitzman School of Design faculty as an assistant professor of architecture over the summer—has spent her career examining the successes and failures of such seeking. Her books include a forthcoming look at the connections between political communism and architectural modernism in 20th-century France.

Vanessa Grossman with Jean-Louis Cohen at Casa da Arquitectura.
Vanessa Grossman with Jean-Louis Cohen, a prolific architectural historian and curator who co-advised Grossman, at Casa da Arquitectura. “Collectively curated exhibitions were a central part of my doctoral studies at Princeton University,” Grossman says. “Exhibitions can mediate and spatialize knowledge for a wider audience, promote the cultural value of architecture and strengthen its institutions and its publics.” (Image: Ivo Tavares Studio / Casa da Arquitectura)

This fall, Grossman and longtime mentor Jean-Louis Cohen curated “Constructed Geographies: Paulo Mendes da Rocha,” a major exhibition on the Brazilian visionary architect at Portugal’s Casa de Arquitectura through Feb. 24, 2024 (and likely to be extended through September), and co-edited its accompanying edited volume.

“As a graduate student, I researched the Situationist International, a Marxist-inspired avant-garde movement formed in postwar France that formulated an early critique of modern architecture and understood processes of gentrification in Paris before the term even existed,” Grossman says. “I was also fascinated by how France was a laboratory for collective housing, because it was a very difficult task for Brazilian architects to work for the government or to promote any kind of difference in social inequality.”

“Affordable housing is a central issue for architects in the 21st century. In my forthcoming book, I show how for the architects who formed what I call a ‘concrete alliance’ with the French Communist Party, housing was not only a techno-political program, but also a culturally significant one. It was not just about housing, but also about a set of facilities and public spaces that really helped to maintain housing and that were also meant to convey a sociopolitical message and to rally the working class. How can architecture be discursive? This is a central question in my book. The Situationists anticipated how mass housing projects alienated people’s everyday lives because they were isolated, monotonous, and lacked social programs. Housing is a complex and very important program for architects to think about, not just in terms of affordability, but how to avoid a formula where people just live. For people to thrive, they need more than just shelter.”

Read more at Weitzman News.