Past Events

Material Cultures of Climate and Health in Architecture

Research Lunch – Dustin Valen

  • 24 November 2023
  • 1:00 – 2:00 pm
  • Online

This talk explores how nineteenth-century medical epistemologies spurred the development of new environmental technologies and their integration into British and American building culture. It highlights how encounters with cholera and yellow fever, in particular, established building interiors as a terrain for the preservation of human health, using technology to mediate the body’s relationship to urban and suburban environments. In the first part, air and vapour baths are examined – popular medical devices used to combat cholera during the 1830s by passing hot or cold air charged with steam over a patient’s skin – and their role in transmitting environmental medical principles into British building culture. Secondly, American-led efforts to eradicate yellow fever in Cuba at the beginning of the twentieth century are considered, and the concomitant rise of insect control technologies for use in domestic settings throughout continental United States. The two case studies highlight technology’s role in establishing environmental mediation as an underlying principle of modern British and American architecture, and in making architectural interiors a key site for the formulation of western ideas of public health. Together they offer evidence of how emerging notions of environmental health in architecture grew out of a confluence of medical ecology, moral demography and technical innovation, cementing a politics of air linked to the racialisation of sick bodies.

This talk will be chaired by Rixt Woudstra, Assistant Professor in Architectural History, University of Amsterdam.

Image credit: A woman covered in an oiled silk cloak with a vapour machine which is linked to fireplace in front of her. Engraving. 1828, Jekyll, John. Wellcome Collection

About the speaker

  • Dustin Valen is an architectural historian and design educator in the Department of Architectural Science at Toronto Metropolitan University. His research and teaching addresses the intersection of architecture, imperialism and the environment during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and spans several geographies including Canada, Britain and the United States. He is particularly interested in how architectural responses to climate shape socionatural and sociopolitical boundaries in colonial settings, and in how material cultures of climate intersect discursively with narratives about race and health in architecture. Dustin has presented original research papers across Canada and internationally and has published essays in such topical forums as the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Architecture Beyond Europe, Urban History Review, RACAR, and the Journal of Architectural Education. His research has been recognised through numerous grants and awards, including from the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Harvard University’s Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, and (most recently) the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art.