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How do you define ‘Architectural Representation(s)’?

Image for Oxford Medieval Studies Programme

This was one of the questions discussed in a collaborative session during the ‘Architectural Representation in the Middle Ages’ conference, held at University College, Oxford, on 7th–8th April. This conference was the latest activity of an ongoing interdisciplinary research network on medieval architectural representation which began its life two years ago as a Balliol Interdisciplinary Institute project and which is currently funded by University College, Oxford. The question was designed to expose our disciplinary biases. Depending on your disciplinary background, you might assume that ‘architectural representation’ refers to architectural plans or images of buildings, the values or power-structures conveyed by actual buildings, or architectural metaphors that ‘represent’ ideas about the mind or the cosmos. We hoped that by recognizing and challenging those biases we can develop a more accurate understanding of what architecture meant to the medieval people who built, inhabited, depicted, and wrote about it.

The conference was framed by two fantastic keynote papers given by Robert Bork of the University of Iowa and Christiania Whitehead of the University of Warwick. In the first of these, which opened the conference on the Friday morning, Robert first gave an overview of medieval architectural representations, before expertly taking the audience through the geometric processes behind medieval architecture and technical drawings. Christiania closed the conference on Saturday afternoon with an exhilarating examination of how the relationship between architectural representation and narrative creates meaning in medieval hagiographical texts.

The keynotes’ very different interpretations of ‘Architectural Representation’—on the one hand, imagistic depictions, on the other, verbal-textual accounts—mirrored the diversity of materials and approaches featured in the conference papers. The speakers included historians, art historians, literary critics, archaeologists, and anthropologists, and their papers took in real and imagined architecture from Iceland to the Holy Land. We heard about architectural imagery, metaphor, and allegory in texts ranging from the age of Bede to the era of Caxton; we heard about visual and physical representations of architecture in manuscripts, on monastic seals, and on iron bag-frames; we heard about the form and decoration of real structures; we heard about images of architecture employed in the decorative schemes of actual buildings.

That diversity prompted the discovery of surprising cross-disciplinary and cross-period connections. We saw the unexpectedly architectural and the unexpectedly domestic in Italian images of St Jerome and a Middle English text about Christ. We saw architecture repeatedly figured as an object of desire. We saw it repeatedly figured as a tool of control—it was particularly exciting to see the same mechanisms used in very different times, places, and cultural contexts to construct landscapes and viewscapes of power. We were asked to think about how architecture exists in time, through time, and out of time.   

At the end of the first day of the conference, we were treated to an exhibition of architectural materials from the archive of University College, courtesy of librarian Elizabeth Adams and archivist Robin Darwall-Smith. The exhibition displayed plans, models, and documents relating to the various building campaigns of the college from the medieval period, as well as other material related to the theme of the conference, including the oldest architectural model in Oxford. This was followed by the conference dinner, held at Wadham College and enjoyed by all.

The afternoon of the second day of the conference included a session in which we broke up into small groups for discussion of the themes of the conference. The groups were given four questions to kick off the discussion. Two questions asked people to speak about their own work, and about interesting connections they’d made with other people’s work over the course of the conference.  Many of the people attending the conference who weren’t giving papers are also doing very interesting work in this area, and this session offered an opportunity for them to share their research (and in some cases, photographs!). The other two questions sought the delegates’ perspectives on issues that had come up in previous projects of the Architectural Representation network. Asking delegates to define ‘Architectural Representation(s)’ elicited responses that varied considerably along disciplinary lines; some people spoke of having the assumptions they’d brought to the conference challenged. The final question, stated simply as: ‘Interdisciplinarity?’ encouraged broader discussion of any theoretical or practical aspect of attempting interdisciplinary work. These four questions offered a starting point, but the discussion ranged widely—one group discussed parallels between castles and churches and churches as defensive structures in fact and rhetoric, while another debated the orientation of the planks in Anglo-Saxon wooden buildings. Researchers made connections with people working on different times and places, or in different fields, which we hope might spark future collaborative projects.

Being early career academics ourselves, the organizers felt strongly that the conference should be accessible to academics at all career stages. The conference expenses were substantially covered by generous support from the John Fell Fund and University College. Thanks to additional assistance from Oxford Medieval Studies and the Society for the Study of Medieval Languages and Literature, we were able to offer a total of 12 bursaries to graduate students and early career academics without research allowances. We are grateful to Oxford Medieval Studies, and to all of the various institutions, societies, and individuals that contributed to the tremendous success of the conference. Moving forward, we are currently speaking to publishers regarding a collection of essays built around the theme for the conference. We hope to publish this in the near future, providing a lasting legacy for a thoroughly enjoyable and productive conference.