Preston H. Thomas Memorial Symposium: Labor Un:Imagined

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Wood formwork under construction with workers visible

Wood formwork under construction, Cuernavaca, Mexico, 1959. image / Courtesy of Félix Candela Architectural Records and Papers Collection, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Drawings and Archives, Columbia University


A symposium to reimagine the ways in which building labor has been made to appear and disappear in the tales, archives, images, and spaces of modernity — and through the histories we write.

Imprints of labor are all over the place in the spaces of modernity. Welding seams and concrete surfaces, the clerical specifications of capital economies, and the bureaucracies of empire and state are evidence of the kinds of material and bodily processes that go into building; they also attest to the modes of invention, extraction, and abstraction associated with it. Notably, photography has long reveled in building labor. For over 100 years now, images of workers astride daring structures or jam-packed in labor camps have helped in the spectacular representation of architecture, its virtues, and its violence — and a counter-visual to the lone architect who stands by wittingly glancing past the camera lens. In architectural schools, we have overwhelmingly explicated the ideas, experiences, and aspirations of the latter, even as activist collectives such as Who Builds Your Architecture? and Blood Bricks call our attention to the exploitations ever ongoing in construction sites. Still, building workers and their perspectives rarely register in the ways we teach, historicize, and imagine the built environment. Such an eclipse of labor is, of course, not accidental but designed, an occlusion central to a discipline preoccupied with heroic, innovative, and progressive tales of modernization and capital without much regard for the coloniality of power that is their underside. While labor is over-imagined in the spaces, archives, and media of modernity, building workers and building labor remain glaringly underrepresented.

"Labor Un:Imagined" brings together scholars whose research pushes against the over-imagination and under-representation of building workers in architecture and in the writing of its histories by delving into the experiences, actors, technologies, and geopolitics of construction labor. In a series of panels and conversations, historians of architecture, technology, and neighboring fields will share current work in episodes spanning constructions of freedom and unfreedom in 1800s US and 1950s Brazil; the aspirations and migrations of workers in the building industry in 20th-century Mumbai and 21st-century Mexico; and the ingenuity of female workers in interwar UK, of slaved workers in Mauritius, and of freed Black workers in colonial Sierra Leone. These and other episodes in the history of building labor will shed light on the racial and gender implications of conceptions of skill and technology; on the political economies of manual and mechanical production; and on the adjudication and extraction of architectural value, among other issues. In offering historical nuance and a global perspective on the shifting nature of building labor, speakers will push the debate beyond relations of oppression to show how, when it comes to architecture on site, a lot more than utopias and exploitations are often at stake. More fundamentally, in sharing the historians' craft and critically pushing its boundaries, the symposium calls for acts of historiographical un-imagination — that is, for critical reflection on and delinking from the archives, categories, narratives, and perspectives that have helped write labor out of architectural history to begin with, all the while hiding building stories and building workers in plain sight. 

The Preston H. Thomas series is funded through a gift to Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning from Ruth and Leonard B. Thomas of Auburn, New York, in memory of their son, Preston. The symposium events are free and open to the public and will take place in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium in Milstein Hall.  This is a hybrid event. Attend in person or register to access the programming via Zoom.

Organized by María González Pendás, Assistant Professor, Architecture History and Urban Development and &Lab codirector, Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning

Coordinated by Emma Silverblatt, Visiting Critic, Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, and principal at POST-

In collaboration with the curatorial and design team for the accompanying exhibition Who Built Cornell?


Thursday, March 7   

4–5 p.m.
Bibliowicz Family Gallery
Welcoming Reception and Exhibition Opening for Who Built Cornell?
with gallery talks by &Lab, JE-LE, and Andrew Scheinman, HAUD Ph.D. at AAP

5:15 p.m.
Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium
Symposium participants are invited to attend:
"Freedom and Unfreedom: The Construction of Washington City in the District of Columbia"
The A.D. White Professors-at-Large Keynote delivered by Mabel O. Wilson

Friday, March 8

All events held in the Abby and Howard Milstein Auditorium, Milstein Hall         

This is a hybrid event. Attend in person or register to access the programming via Zoom.         

9 a.m.
INTRODUCTION by Caroline O'Donnell, Edgar A. Tafel Professor of Architecture and Chair of the Department of Architecture, and María González Pendás, Architecture Assistant Professor

9:20–10:30 a.m. 
Moderated by Tejasvi Nagaraja, ILR School, Cornell University

The Pain of Unlimited Resources: Logging and Mining in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius
Dwight Carey, Amherst College

"The Gentlemen have not used us well": Black Colonial Freedom, Architecture, and Security in Early Sierra Leone
Jonah Rowen, The New School–Parsons School of Design

10:35 a.m.–12:10 p.m.
Moderated by Esra Akcan, AAP, Cornell University

Racial Ontologies of Building in the United States
Amy Slaton, Drexel University

From Native Labor to Native Lumber:  School-building in the U.S. Colonial Philippines 
Maura E Lucking, Columbia University

Women in the Factory: Extending sites of building-related work in interwar Britain
Katie Lloyd Thomas, Newcastle University

2–3:15 p.m.
Panel #3: IMAGE WORK
Moderated by Sarah Ann Wells, Cornell SHUM Fellow and Associate Professor, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Histories of (the) architecture behind the scenes
Silke Kapp, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

Who builds your 'Concrete Monsters'?
Notes on investigating the 'Geopolitics of Concrete' in Mobutu’s Zaïre

Johan Lagae, Ghent University

3:25–4:40 p.m.
Moderated by David Costanza, AAP, Cornell University

Reflections on Labor and Value in India: 
Officials, Activists, and Construction Workers, 1960s to the present
Rachel Sturman, Bowdoin College

The Labor and Love of Construction/Constructing Binational Futures
Sarah Lopez, University of Pennsylvania

4:45–5:30 p.m.
Closing Remarks by Mabel O. Wilson

Introduction by Visiting Critic Emma Silverblatt


A Black woman wearing a blue shirt with her hand resting on the side of her face.

Mabel O. Wilson, Cornell A.D. White Professor-at-Large, Columbia University

Freedom and Unfreedom: The Construction of Washington City in the District of Columbia

An A.D. White Professors-at-Large Keynote Public Event

In March of 1792, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson hand-wrote an advertisement that he sent to President George Washington and the three commissioners charged with overseeing the construction of "Washington City in Territory of Columbia." That announcement advertised a competition for designs of "The President's House" (White House) and a "Capitol" (US Capitol). All five of these men, from Virginia and Maryland, were politicians, planters, and enslavers. Wilson's lecture will examine how enslaved and free Blacks became essential for the construction of the new federal city, from clearing land to making bricks. This dependency continued after the government arrived in 1800, as a Black workforce maintained the city and serviced its white population. Her talk will consider how Washington City's captive Black population, one that lived intimately with white residents, became a source of financial investment and moral peril. She explores how Black residents–free and enslaved–exploited opportunities of urban life such as greater mobility and "living out" to abscond or to self-purchase. Lastly, she asks: How were freedom and spatial practices of liberation, guaranteed politically, economically, and juridically, dependent on the unfreedom of Blacks in Washington City?

Mabel O. Wilson is a multi-disciplinary professor and highly esteemed scholar of the American built environment whose research investigates the intersections between the built environment and Black culture and history. Since 2007, Wilson has held appointments at Columbia University in the departments of Architecture and African American and African Diaspora Studies. In 2020, Wilson was named director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS), also at Columbia. Since 2009, she has served as the codirector of Global Africa Lab (GAL), an innovative research initiative that explores the spatial topologies of the African continent and its diaspora. Wilson is also a founding member of Who Builds Your Architecture?, a coalition of architects, activists, educators, and scholars that examines the connections between labor, architecture, and the global networks that form around building buildings. Among her many accomplishments, Wilson cocurated a seminal exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in 2021, which showcased the work of African American and African Diasporic architects, the first exhibition of this kind in MoMA's history. In addition, Wilson was awarded the National Building Museum's Vince Scully Prize, which recognizes exemplary achievement in the built environment, also in 2021. Wilson earned her Ph.D. in 2007 in the American Studies Program at York University. She received her master's in architecture in 1991 from Columbia University and a B.A. in architecture in 1985 from the University of Virginia.

Black man with a dark moustache and beard wearing glasses and a striped white button down shirt

Dwight Carey, Amherst College

The Pain of Unlimited Resources: Logging and Mining in Eighteenth-Century Mauritius

With a large fringing reef, forests covering the entire island, and a crust made of sturdy basalt, the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius seemed like a territory of unlimited resources when colonizers first landed with the aid of enslaved people in 1638. From that point on, this formerly uninhabited island withstood the bleaching and obliteration of much of its coral reef, massive deforestation, and the extensive mining of its basalt deposits. All of these activities transpired because successive generations of colonizers ordered their captives to log, mine, and extract these resources and then use them to raise the administrative structures of this early modern commercial node. Since enslaved people were the ones who performed the labor needed to procure these materials, it seems, to some scholars at least, that they were partly responsible for the destruction of the island's endemic habitats. This paper argues against this view. Chronicling the settlement of Mauritius, this essay explains how the island owed its growth to the painful and exacting labor of the enslaved construction workers who turned local raw materials into a usable architecture. Today, the story of their expertise, their labor, and their relationships with plants, rock, coral, and the land itself reveal a Mauritian counter-history — an alternative narrative of architectural development and ecology that centers the essential role of enslaved workers in making life possible on a harsh, remote, and strategic island. This essay shows how enslaved laborers supported the lives, actions, and goals of people of all ethnicities who lived on the land that the enslaved created and subsequently conceives of enslaved expertise and labor as socially and ecologically generative responses to colonial environmental destruction. 

Dwight Carey is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art and the History of Art at Amherst College. He is an architectural historian who works on issues of slavery, colonialism, and empire worldwide. Currently, he is completing a book manuscript titled The Island of Bound Masters: Slavery and Construction Labor in Mauritius. This text follows the diverse group of enslaved building laborers whose environmental knowledge of the once uninhabited Indian Ocean island of Mauritius made life and settlement possible in the 18th and 19th century. He lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.

Smiling man with short brown hair

Jonah Rowen, The New School–Parsons School of Design

"The Gentlemen have not used us well": Black Colonial Freedom, Architecture, and Security in Early Sierra Leone

From its inception in 1792, the Sierra Leone Company was a profit-generating venture, its capacity to produce wealth in the colony a measure of worth for its Evangelical abolitionist investors. Yet the profits they sought to harvest from freed Black American migrants were not just for profit's sake. Rather, they would demonstrate self-sufficiency: a rebuttal to British enslavers' fabrications of benevolent enslavement. The company's model city required physical infrastructure, first shipped as components for prefabricated buildings that the settlers would assemble in their attempt to demonstrate the viability of an economically productive Black society in a territory shared with active slave traders and Indigenous African groups. Under enslavement, productivity and profitability presupposed coercion; now, the gradual liberalization of the labor force necessitated modes of extraction new to the African nodes of the British imperial apparatus, such as novel conceptions of security. By analyzing the architectural features of the Sierra Leone Company's model city, Rowen draws out who and what was perceived by the colonists to pose threats, and how architectural production was reconfigured amidst abolition to still secure, and project into the future a model of agricultural colonial extraction—one that would allow Black settler-builders to legitimize their standing as British subjects.

Jonah Rowen is an architectural historian whose work concerns the British Atlantic World during the late era of enslavement and abolition. Taking into account the labor and materials necessary for building production, his research focuses on intersections between the aesthetic, technical, and economic dimensions of architecture through close analysis of drawings and other visual forms. He is developing a book project on 19th-century, Anglo-Caribbean colonial exchanges and building design and production, figured as technologies of risk management and security.

Woman smiling wearing a bright red jacket and glasses

Amy E. Slaton, Drexel University

Racial Ontologies of Building in the United States

Slaton considers the ontological character of technical skill in the United States, an economic system historically dedicated to ensuring differential life circumstances for communities of different ascribed races even as it has claimed, over many generations, a meritocratic basis. She focuses here on the particular forms of technological capacity involved in construction, as an enterprise central to capitalist growth and, in the US, to majority wealth accumulation. Rather than stable and singular positions within a solidified occupational hierarchy, somehow regrettably "contaminated" by racial bias, she states that we can instead understand the work involved in building industries (as in all other fields) under racial capitalism as an ongoing project of enacting difference. A relational accounting of the history of building demonstrates that identifying the successful architect, owner, engineer, manager, or skilled laborer on the construction site simultaneously defines non-members of those groups by way of demarcated knowledges, skills, and material effects. In this work, Slaton asks how epistemic conditions seen in US building fields over the long 20th century have supported white occupational attainment and security. She specifically considers how instrumentation, measurement, testing, and other deployments of empiricism on the building site may be read historically as racialized projects, tracing arbiters' delineations of meritorious technological practices, reliable actors, and well-performing materials and structures as matters of racial authority and marginalization.

Amy E. Slaton is a professor emerita of history at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She holds a Ph.D. in the History and Sociology of Science from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on the history of technical expertise and labor, seen through the lens of historical ideas of human difference—asking, that is, how ideas of race, gender, disability, and queer identifications have operated in settings of scientific and technical learning and work. Her last book, Race, Rigor and Selectivity in US Engineering: The History of an Occupational Color Line (Harvard University Press, 2010), follows racial ideologies in engineering higher education since the 1940s. Her current book project, All Good People: Diversity, Difference and the Invention of Opportunity describes the constrained character of US commitments to displacing racism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism since the Civil Rights era. Offering a critical history of so-named projects of STEM Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, it delineates the role of stratified labor systems and epistemic authority in racial capitalism from the 1990s onward. She is also the editor of New Materials: Towards a History of Consistency (Lever Press, 2020), a collection focused on the nature of novelty and materiality in global historiographies of technology; and coeditor with Tiago Saraiva of the journal History & Technology.

Woman with long hair and bangs wearing a floral shirt with a grey cardigan

Maura Lucking, University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee

From Native Labor to Native Lumber: School-building in the US Colonial Philippines

In 1912, the US Philippines Bureaus of Education and Public Works published fifteen standardized school designs. The plans were intended to remedy bottlenecks from Manila to rural barrios on the government's largest infrastructural project–thousands of schools built over five years across the archipelago. The publication included drawings, specifications, and bills that implicated American contractors bidding on these modest, yet collectively lucrative, projects. Lucking looks at the ways these documents reveal colonial attitudes toward racialized labor power as well as resource extraction and management embedded in construction processes. She inserts this school-building project into the US technocratic systems—here, the Land Grant colleges and industrialized construction—as it moved alongside the "transit of empire." Lucking shows how, in the process, new hybridized conceptions of skill and capacity, or their supposed absence, were assigned to "native" or "tropical" actors. The status of Filipino workers and Filipino materials, for instance, were especially intertwined. Schools were specified with indigenous hardwoods and skilled carpentry that, while integrated into otherwise unadorned concrete, precluded the use of local labor in American eyes. Only as workers became 'Filipinized'—the colonial term that signaled the assimilation of multi-ethnic peoples into the dominant language, religion, and culture of Luzon—do they appear in records as foremen and laborers, also largely technicians trained in architecture, engineering, and building trades in the US. This paper builds on recent architectural histories of the colonial Philippines to challenge the role of the urban 'construction site' in processes of modernization, focusing instead on the diffuse, rural network of school-building sites as sites of value, labor-power, and social and technological order.

Maura Lucking is a historian of architectural modernism and the 19th-century US. She is interested in design as the intersection of connected histories of race, craft, land, and labor. Her book, Settler Campus, provides an architectural history of the Land Grant college movement. This work studies the relationship between government policy, land use, campus planning, and design pedagogy at schools founded after the US Civil War, considering the role of design practices in Black and Native dispossession as well as the construction of new racial identities and settler colonial hierarchies. Another interest is in sociotechnical and media histories of architectural representation, including mechanical drawing and blueprinting, architectural photography, and mortgage and loan documents. Her research considers the paperwork practices of state and philanthropic institutions organizing homebuilding projects in Indian country. Lucking's scholarly work has been supported by the Winterthur Museum, the Huntington Library, the Graham Foundation, the Society for Architectural Historians, and the Getty Research Institute and has appeared in Grey Room, the Getty Research Journal, Thresholds, Faktur, and the Journal of Architectural Education. She holds a B.A. from Boston College, an M.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and a Ph.D. in architectural history from UCLA where her dissertation was awarded the 2024 David B. Brownlee Dissertation Award from the Society of Architectural Historians. She is currently an assistant professor of architectural history at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee and a fellow of the Temple Hoyne Buell Center for American Architecture with dual appointments in the Society of Fellows/Heyman Center for the Humanities at Columbia University.

A white woman wearing black and red glasses in profile speaking

Katie Lloyd Thomas, Newcastle University

Women in the Factory: Extending Sites of Building-related Work in Interwar Britain

Sérgio Ferro has shown how techniques of architecture have been agents in the deskilling of building workers and the dismantling of cooperation on site—from the off-site drawing that emerged in the late Gothic and the rules of Classical treatise to the recent promotion of reinforced concrete. Labor is not merely forgotten by architects and architectural discourse but is structurally erased so that architecture can devalue and re-organize the work of building under capital. Thomas identifies the rise of proprietary building products in the UK during the interwar period as another such technique. Lubricated by architects whose specifications helped broker competing manufacturers, these phenomena meant that a greater range and number of materials and commodities destined for the building site were made in the factory, thus extending sites of building-related work. Moreover, there is evidence that many of these factory workers were women, who did not threaten to disrupt the higher-paid skilled work of male building workers on site. Following Miriam Glucksman's study, Women Assemble, Thomas shows how women workers contributed to interwar building culture well beyond the few hundred architectural practitioners quite extensively researched. Female factory work was considered semi-skilled, a category largely overlooked in labor studies because of the field's fixation on capital's deskilling of the (male) artisan. In calling attention to this history, these workers, and these categories, Thomas argues that we need to go beyond the mental/manual labor distinction and the skilling/deskilling binary to develop an architectural history that can help us trace architecture's role in capitalist divisions of labor.

Katie Lloyd Thomas is Professor of Theory and History of Architecture at Newcastle University and a founder member of the feminist collective Taking Place. Her research is concerned with materiality, labor, and technology, as in her most recent publication Building Materials: Material Theory and the Architectural Specification (Bloomsbury, 2021). Notable edited collections include Material Matters (Routledge, 2007) and Industries of Architecture (Routledge Critiques, 2015) with Tilo Amhoff and Nick Beech. From 2020-2024 Katie has been Principal Investigator (UK) for the project Translating Ferro / Transforming Knowledges of Architecture, Design, and Labour for the New Field of Production Studies, a UK-Brazil collaboration that debates and explores the cross-cultural potential of the unique and significant body of the work of the architect, artist, and theorist Sérgio Ferro for understanding art, architecture, and design through the lens of labor and production.

Woman with short grey hair wearing round black glasses

Silke Kapp, Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais

Histories of (the) architecture behind the scenes

Two layers of labor have remained hidden in the historiography of architecture. One is labor on building sites, around which techniques of revelation have preoccupied Marxist architect and theoretician Sérgio Ferro for some time. The second, beyond Ferro's concerns, pertains to the maintenance of the site itself, the labor necessary to (re)produce the labor-power expended on these construction sites to begin with. Kapp illustrates these two layers of labor and the mechanism of their invisibility through a revision of Brasilia's construction sites—where Ferro himself first experienced the contradiction between an architecture designed to accommodate a democratic society and the absolutely undemocratic conditions under which these visions were carried out. An expansive archive of visual and material media helps rewrite the history of the first hidden layer of labor: documentaries, photographs, oral histories, and the buildings themselves. As explicit as these sources might appear, their interpretation still requires a theory of history—and, as Ferro argues, a Marxist one at that. The second layer of labor demands a more exhaustive rewriting of the official archive and discourse, which stated that only men migrated to Brasilia's building site to live in camps provided by the state, and that the few women who came did so essentially as sex workers. Yet census records show many of the male workers brought their families and lived in self-built settlements maintained and cared for by women and children. These other, hidden builders of Brasilia produced their own cement spaces and technologies, inventing in the process a self-sustained, communal, and recycled architecture—one that would be violently erased by flooding to create the artificial city lake of Brasilia.

Silke Kapp is an architect and professor at the School of Architecture of the Federal University of Minas Gerais. In 2004, she cofounded the research group MOM (Morar de Outras Maneiras/Living in Other Ways), focusing on critical theories and practices for an emancipatory production of space. Her recent books include Canteiros da Utopia (2020) and Moradia e Outras Margens, coedited with Ana Baltazar (2021). As part of the international research project Translating Ferro/Transforming Knowledges of Architecture, Design, and Labour for the New Field of Production Studies, she led the team that translated Sérgio Ferro's work into English.

Man with very short hair wearing glasses and a dark suit

Johan Lagae, Ghent University

Who builds your 'Concrete Monsters'? Notes on investigating the 'Geopolitics of Concrete' in Mobutu's Zaïre

A 2008 drawing by the renowned Congolese artist Mega Mingiedi presents us with a striking image of Kinshasa in which a series of key edifices constructed during the late 1960s and early 1970s are clearly recognizable. In its emphasis on the vertical dimension of the cityscape, thereby erasing the bulk of the largely horizontal urban tissue, Mingiedi's map is very much a political image, depicting a city which, as Dominique Malaquais once remarked, is haunted by the ghost, or spectre, of president Mobutu Sese Seko. Architecture was indeed a key instrument in Mobutu's nation-building project, which he launched in the second half of the 1960s under the label recours à l’authenticité and included a new toponomy for the nation, Congo being renamed Zaïre. It resulted in the construction of a number of large-scale public buildings, which complemented the unfinished skyline of what during colonial times was the capital city of the Belgian colony. By focussing on the materiality of Mobutu's spectre, this paper contributes to writing a more global history of what Adrian Forty termed in his 2012 book Concrete and Culture the "geopolitics of concrete." Archival material found both in the papers of architects involved and in the archival funds of construction companies which were active in Mobutu's Zaïre in the 1960s and '70s, provide us with information on the architectural and engineering labor involved in erecting such spectacular complexes as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (1968–1974), the Monument to the heroes of the nation (1970–1974), or the extension of the National Bank (1978–1981), projects which one can easily fit into the category of "Concrete Monsters" popularized by the 2017 publication and exhibition project SOS Brutalism. A Global Survey. Yet, archival sources on such projects remain conspicuously silent on the modes of production of these buildings, and, more specifically, on the organization and division of labor on the building site. Who built these "concrete monsters," therefore, remains a challenging question.

Johan Lagae, Senior Full Professor at Ghent University, teaches 20th-century Architectural History with a global focus. He holds a Ph.D. in colonial architecture in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and has published widely on the topic, as well as on 20th-century architectural and urban history in Central Africa, including the notion of colonial built heritage and photography in (post)colonial Africa. He has coauthored two books on the architecture and urban landscapes of Kinshasa and most recently coedited, together with architect Nina Berre and anthropologist Paul Wenzel Geissler, the volume African Modernism and its Afterlives (2022). He currently acts as coeditor-in-chief of ABE Journal. Johan Lagae has cocurated several Congo-related exhibitions and has collaborated with several artists from the DRC, among others including Patrick Mudekereza and Sammy Baloji (most recently for the latter's Aequare: The Future That Never Was project at the Venice Architecture Biennale 2023). Johan Lagae has been the recipient of various grants, has held a Francqui Chair at the Université Libre de Bruxelles in 2020, and was a 2019-2020 fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Paris.

Woman with short brown hair and bangs wearing a dark jacket and glasses

Rachel Sturman, Bowdoin College

Reflections on Labor and Value in India: Officials, Activists, and Construction Workers, 1960s to the present

This paper takes up one angle of a modern historical dilemma, a broad and diffuse problem that was palpably "in the air" in India, circulating across diverse social and political contexts, since even before independence: the question of the value of manual labor and laborers to the nation-state. Construction labor, especially in large infrastructure projects, formed a key site where the gap between the value of the work to the nation and the value of the work as expressed in the worker's wage became highly salient for a set of activists, economists, and government officials by the 1960s. This emergent visibility would eventually form the basis for a decade-long national campaign to enact legislation to ameliorate the labor conditions and welfare of construction workers, culminating in the passage of the Building and Other Construction Workers (Regulation of Employment and Conditions of Service) Act in 1996. Alongside these efforts, other government agencies sought to lay the foundation for construction workers' uplift through programs aimed at technical training and skill building. Perhaps unsurprisingly, both these educational and legislative initiatives have had little impact on many (probably most) workers. Nonetheless, in present-day India, construction workers and their families do articulate a range of ideas about the work and relationships they are engaged in, what flourishing might look like in this context, and possible pathways as well as impediments to it. These insights and sentiments may be interpreted as a small-scale, everyday politics that refuses both the image of denigrated labor and the vision of uplift that elite discourses and policies have held out to them. Yet more than this, these fragmentary comments are a largely indirect set of reflections on at least three facets of construction labor and value: (1) how workers themselves have been shaped by their embodied work with and on the materials of the world; (2) the role of this work in sustaining life, paying off debts, and other forms of social reproduction, and (3) the experience of value gaps, for example, between the wasting of their bodies and the wages compensating their labor, or contrarily, between the necessary pragmatic habits of attentiveness to the compulsions of wages and prices, on the one hand, and what actually proves possible in their lives on the other. Notable across all these types of reflections, however, at least among the people I was able to interact with, was a sense of disengagement from the objects they built. Those powerfully space-making durable structures were instead primarily (and astutely) cognized as a collection of agglomerations of time per task.

Rachel Sturman is a historian of colonial and post-colonial India whose research interests center on everyday material and experiential engagements with modern economic and legal thought. Focusing on the city of Bombay/Mumbai and its broader region, she has published on 'skill' in the contemporary construction industry, on labor processes and technologies on natural resource frontiers, and on indentured labor and modern rights regimes. Her first book, published with Cambridge University Press, was a study of the intimate and wide-ranging political effects of colonial British property law in India. She is currently writing a book on the history of Mumbai's present-day building construction industry, as a multi-stranded story of imaginative, conceptual, and material resource-making. She received her B.A. from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. from the University of California, Davis. She teaches at Bowdoin College.

Woman with shoulder-length black hair wearing glasses and a green sweater vest

Sarah Lopez, University of Pennsylvania

The Labor and Love of Construction/Constructing Binational Futures

In her talk, Lopez explores the history of one family of stonemasons from Zumpango, Mexico who build opulence in Austin, Texas. Lopez argues that Mexican migrant construction labor is the gravitational center of histories of the racialized job site, showing the intra-ethnic hierarchies of labor that are at the heart of binational construction knowledge and practices and today sustain large-scale environmental transformations.

Sarah Lopez is a built environment historian, as well as a migration scholar. Lopez's research focuses on material histories of US-Mexico migration. Her first book, The Remittance Landscape: The Spaces of Migration in Rural Mexico and Urban USA, explores the impact of migrant remittances—dollars earned in the US and sent to families and communities in Mexico—on the architecture and landscape of a "rural" Mexico and an "urban" US. Lopez is currently working on two book projects. One examines the long history of migrant incarceration in the US from the docks of Ellis Island to the privately run mega-detention facilities in rural Texas. The second book tracks the development, over the last fifty years, of a network of Mexican stonemasons, quarry workers, homebuilders, architects, and businessmen who primarily provide services to Mexican and Mexican-American clientele in the American Southwest. Lopez's research and teaching interests include architectural and urban histories of the Americas; the history and interface between migration, architecture, and cities; the use of interdisciplinary methods (including ethnography) to study space and society; and spatial and urban justice. Lopez has been awarded a Princeton-Mellon fellowship in Architecture, Urbanism, & the Humanities; a Dumbarton Oaks fellowship in Urban Landscape Studies (Harvard affiliate); a Center for the Study of Visual Arts (CASVA) fellowship; and her book, The Remittance Landscape, won the 2017 Kostof Book Award from the Society of Architectural Historians.  

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Esra Akcan, Cornell University


Esra Akcan is a Professor and the Michael A. McCarthy Professor of Architectural Theory in the Department of Architecture, and the Resident Director of the Institute for Comparative Modernities at Cornell University. Her research on modern and contemporary architecture and urbanism foregrounds the intertwined histories of Europe, West Asia, and East Africa, and offers new ways to understand architecture's role in global, social, and environmental justice. Her book Architecture in Translation: Germany, Turkey and the Modern House (2012) offers a new way to understand the global movement of architecture that extends the notion of translation beyond language to visual fields. It advocates a commitment to a new culture of translatability from below and in multiple directions for cosmopolitan ethics and global justice. Her book Abolish Human Bans: Intertwined Histories of Architecture (CCA, 2022) builds on her theory of architectural translation to construct an activist gesture against the racist anti-immigration policies of ruling powers. She has edited Art and Architecture of Migration and Discrimination (with Iftikhar Dadi, Routledge, 2023). Currently, she is writing Right-to-Heal: Architecture in Transitions After Conflicts and Disasters. Other publications include  Open Architecture: Migration, Citizenship and the Urban Renewal of Berlin-Kreuzberg by IBA-1984/87 (2018) and Building in Exile: Bruno Taut (Niggli, with Bernd Nicolai). Akcan has also authored more than 150 articles and essays in scholarly books and professional journals of multiple languages on critical and postcolonial theory, racism, immigration, architectural photography, translation, neoliberalism, and global history; and has participated in multiple exhibitions as both curator and exhibitor. She has received awards and fellowships from The Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies, the Graham Foundation, the Canadian Center for Architecture, the American Academy in Berlin, the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin, the Clark Institute, the Getty Research Institute, the Mellon Foundation, and others. She has also participated in finding academic homes for scholars at risk.

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Sarah Ann Wells, Cornell University


Sarah Ann Wells is the author of Media Laboratories: Late Modernist Authorship in South American (2017) and coeditor of the volume Simultaneous Worlds: Global Science Fiction Cinema (2015). Her scholarship on Latin American literature and cinema has been published in venues such as Modernism/Modernity, South Atlantic Quarterly, The Global South, Comparative Literature, Luso-Brazilian Review, and the edited volumes Cosmopolitan Film Cultures in Latin America (Indiana, 2017) and Comintern Aesthetics (Toronto, 2020). She is currently writing a book titled The Labor of Images: Strike Films, World Cinema, and the Collective Encounter, which has been supported by an ACLS Fellowship and the Institute for Research in the Humanities at UW–Madison, and editing a dossier in Hispanic Review on collectivity in contemporary Latin American literature and political theory. 

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David Costanza, Cornell University


David Costanza is the principal of David Costanza Studio (DCS) and the director of the Building Construction Lab (BCL) based in Ithaca, New York. Through practice and teaching, his research addresses the emerging digital and technical advancements reshaping the architecture discipline. His work aims to establish a dialogue between representation, computational design tools, digital manufacturing, and the innovative use of building materials. Costanza is a graduate of MIT, where he received a Master of Architecture with a concentration in computation and a Master of Science in architecture building technology. Costanza has previously taught at Rice University, The University of Texas–Austin, and the University of North Carolina–Charlotte.

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Tejasvi Nagaraja, Cornell University


Tejasvi Nagaraja is an assistant professor of history at Cornell University's ILR School whose research and teaching explore the intersections of US labor and African American and foreign relations history. Investigating both "top-down" public policy and "bottom-up" social movements, his work considers how class, gender, and race evolve within a changing global division of labor and geopolitics. As a scholar of empire, he interprets the United States both in and of the world, across both connection and comparison, especially through a focus on war and the military. In addition to labor and working-class history, Nagaraja's teaching has highlighted the Black freedom movement and US wars, including interdisciplinary courses on global capitalism; race and war; gender and geopolitics; the military- and prison-industrial complex; and freedom struggles and international social movements. He is currently writing a book about America's World War II global experience and generation that braids military-industrial labor battles, Black soldiers' protest against policing and incarceration, veterans' debates about America's role in the world, and struggles that took place from Pennsylvania to Panama, Georgia to Germany, Michigan to Manila. He received his Ph.D. from New York University and has held fellowships at Harvard University, The New School, and the New-York Historical Society.



Ask a Cornell University student who built Cornell and, in response, you are likely to hear a pair of names: Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, the university's two heroic cofounders. One of Ezra Cornell's most prominent biographies, written in part to reflect on the university's trajectory from a remote upstart to a modern research behemoth, even dubs him "the builder." But who, in fact, did the building work? Whose hands, tools, and knowledge put together the storied campus buildings we now think of as synonymous with Cornell University itself? Who Built Cornell?, an exhibition launched in parallel to the 2024 Preston Thomas Memorial Symposium "Labor Un:Imagined," attempts an answer to this question by tracing three important episodes in the early construction of Cornell's Arts Quad. Beginning with the founding and funding of the university under the terms of the Morrill Land-Grant Act of 1862 and the construction of its first dedicated building, Morrill Hall, Who Built Cornell? follows the largely unknown history of student laborers on campus who, for a few years in the 1870s, were able to pay for their education by doing building and landscaping work. The exhibition also identifies some of the earliest visual documentation of campus construction in several turn-of-the-century photographs of its laborers as they build Goldwin Smith Hall, completing the Arts Quad. Placed together, these moments in Cornell's building history help us interrogate the complex relationship between land, labor, and the construction of American modernity in university education. They also point to the archival records and practices that have long kept Cornell's architectural builders out of the historical narrative of the university's development.

Curation by Andrew Scheinman and María González Pendás with Alexandra Ciobanu and Marina Bernardi Peschard  

Research by Andrew Scheinman with Juliana Zalzman. With contributions from students of Histories of Architecture, Land and Labor (fall 2022 and spring 2024)

Exhibition design by JE-LE, Suzanne Lettieri and Michael Jefferson's design and research office 

Design coordination by Eduardo Cilleruelo Teran

Fabrication by Maxwell Cole Rodencal and Nicolas Iyad Moussallem 

Graphics by Alexandra Ciobanu and Marina Bernardi Peschard

The Preston H. Thomas series is funded through a gift to Cornell's College of Architecture, Art, and Planning from Ruth and Leonard B. Thomas of Auburn, New York, in memory of their son, Preston. This semester's accompanying exhibition is also sponsored by &Lab


María González Pendás, Symposium Organizer and Exhibition Cocurator 

María González Pendás is an Assistant Professor in the History of Architecture and Urban Development Program at Cornell University and codirector of &Lab, which promotes new intersections of humanistic and design practices around projects of public engagement. Trained as an architect and a historian, her research concerns histories of modernity and coloniality in the Spanish transatlantic world, turning practices and archives related to the built environment towards new histories of Hispanidad — the figment of imperial imagination that helped preserve tactics of Spanish colonization throughout modernity. Her various projects trace remnants of this imperial logic in the architecture that shaped fascism in Spain; in relations of labor in developmentalist Mexico; in the politics and technologies of thin concrete shells; and in the religious politics that endured through secular conceptions of modern architecture and technosciences globally. Recent publications include a coedited special journal issue Pious Technologies and Secular Designs and the essay "Labor Unimagined" for the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. Other publications have appeared in Bitácora, Positions, Grey Room, The Social Research Quarterly, and anthologies including Architecture Against Democracy, Spatial Concepts for Decolonizing the Americas, Rethinking Global Modernism, and Latin American Modern Architecture: Ambiguous Territories, among others. She is currently finalizing her first manuscript titled Holy Modern: Hispanidad, Fascism, and the Architectural Formations of Opus Dei. González Pendás has received grants and fellowships from the Einhorn Center for Community Engagement, the Society of Architectural Historians, the Graham Foundation, and the Fulbright Foundation, among others, and was a member of Columbia University's Society of Fellows in the Humanities from 2016–19, where she also coordinated the public humanities initiative of the SOF/Heyman Center for the Humanities to promote civically engaged forms of scholarship and pedagogy. She received her Ph.D. in Architecture History and Theory from Columbia University and her Master of Architecture from the Polytechnic University in Madrid. 

Emma Silverblatt, Symposium Coordinator

Emma Silverblatt is a Visiting Critic at Cornell and an architectural designer with a focus on participatory, community-based, and cultural forms of construction. Her current firm, POST-, expands the boundaries of practice to exhibition, media, writing, and installation. Her personal research centers on alternative forms of housing and public space development, grounded in the perspective that architects have agency as organizers. Prior to Cornell, Silverblatt worked as an associate at SO – IL and a designer at REX in New York City. She holds an M. Arch. I with Commendation from the Harvard Graduate School of Design and a B.S. in Architecture from The Ohio State University.

Andrew Scheinman, Exhibition Cocurator and Lead Researcher 

Andrew Scheinman is a Ph.D. student in the History of Architecture and Urban Development program at Cornell University, where his current research traces the role of building labor in rendering land as property in 19th-century North America. Prior to his time at Cornell, Scheinman was editor at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, helped develop exhibitions with the Foundation for Achieving Seamless Territory (FAST) at the 2021 Venice and 2022 Rotterdam Architecture Biennales, and edited a range of publishing projects on art and architecture including, most recently, Mindy Seu's Cyberfeminism Index. He also writes on heritage, popular media, and the politics of memory, and his work has been published in Thresholds, Migrant Journal, and feeeels, and by the Canadian Centre for Architecture. Scheinman received a master's in design studies with distinction and the Dimitris Pikionis Award from Harvard's Graduate School of Design and a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis.

Alexandra Ciobanu, Exhibition Cocurator

Alexandra Ciobanu is a fifth-year B.Arch. student at Cornell AAP. Through her studies and research, she explores relationships between technology, labor, and sustainable practices within the histories of architecture and construction. As a research assistant for the Circular Construction Lab, she is involved in projects evaluating equitable practices and legislature in the AEC industry. She has also completed a minor in Real Estate, helping her further understand the dynamics between stakeholders and emerging architecture business models.

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