Missing Masses Symposium: Architecture of the Unseen

The symposium addressed the question—What is missing or previously unseen from the discourse and practice of architecture in the built environment?

Missing Masses Symposium: Architecture of the Unseen

“All of my work starts with a story. Everything starts with a narrative because I feel in order to be a successful architect you have to tell a story about something — whether its materials or space or process or labor or people or masses. And for me that story was that there are distinct things found in Italy that were taken from North Africa that do not get proper attribution. And those are things that we use and we see and we step on and we ogle and we take photographs of and we say, this is incredible, but never say who the true author is.”

Germane Barnes
2023–24 Trott Distinguished Visiting Professor,
Principal, Studio Barnes

Missing Masses, hosted by the Architecture Section of the Knowlton School, invited participants to explore the question: “What is missing or previously unseen from the discourse and practice of architecture in the built environment?” Framed by Bruno Latour’s sociological exploration of the role of human and non-human actors in societal networks, the symposium investigated how physical, material, or spatial “missing masses” participate in shaping our social and environmental constructs.

During his keynote address, Germane Barnes discussed the evolution of his Griot project, which was displayed in the 18th International Architecture Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Researching the porch and its role in the African-American community led Barnes to examine its history in West Africa. A 2021 residency at the American Academy in Rome allowed Barnes to further explore the chronology and influence between the porch and Roman porticos, and to “understand the missing histories and missing legacies of the African diaspora within the larger ethos of classical architecture.”

Griot evolved as a response to the classical column order—Doric, Ionic, Corinthian—by proposing a “columnar disorder” whose goal would be to “break all the rules” and design a new order that eschews European antecedents and articulates forms prevalent in Black culture. Barnes’ presentation highlighted the design process and complex construction of the Identity Column, the centerpiece of his Biennale installation. In speaking about the installation’s other elements, including his drawings and masks, he emphasized how appropriation and omission within the Western classical canon have obscured the architectural legacy and story of North African innovation in the built environment.

Michelle Franco presenting to audience during Bodies program at Missing Masses Symposium

The second day of the symposium was structured around three critical dialogues under the headings of Commons, Matters, and Bodies. Each session was comprised of three presentations from visiting scholars and designers, followed by a moderated panel discussion.  

Iman Ansari, assistant professor of architecture at the Knowlton School and symposium coordinator, framed the three dialogues by stating that what makes us human—our identity, culture, and technology—is signified by the world we have created around us.

“The social, cultural, and technological systems we build outside of us now have as much influence over our social and moral attributes as we do in shaping them,” said Ansari. “So, we ask our participants what and who are the missing masses of architecture, and how do these unseen elements contribute to shaping our social and environmental constructs?”

Commons, the first of the program’s three sessions, was moderated by Curtis Roth, associate professor of architecture at the Knowlton School, and examined how design informs and transforms community dynamics and responsible environmental stewardship at both global and local scales. Presenters and panelists included Anthony Acciavatti (Yale), Armando Hashimoto (RISD), and Lily Wong (University of Miami), whose subjects included work on mapping the Ganges River Basin in India, low income housing development in Mexico, and understanding urban land as a living, multispecies community in Hong Kong.

Lindsey Wikstrom presents at Missing Masses Symposium

The second panel, Matters, was moderated by Knowlton School Assistant Professor of Architecture Erik Herrmann, and examined what constitutes and contributes to the very matter of contemporary architecture, mindful of what Latour distinguished as matters of fact and matters of concern. Panelist included Christopher Otter (OSU), Lindsey Wikstrom (Mattaforma), and Amelyn Ng (RISD), and topics ranged from the multi-scalar complexity of the techno sphere, renewable building materials, and the potential of architecture where local processes of unmaking and remaking become key economic drivers.

Bodies, the final session, was moderated by Senior Lecturer in the Architecture Section Sandhya Kochar and focused on the synergy of human and non-human agency in the act of building. Panelists included Michael Osman (UCLA), Michelle Franco (Knowlton School), and Sarah Aziz (University of New Mexico), with presentations addressing a paper-trail documentation of the Erie Canal’s construction, the landscape industry's labor exploitation of often unseen H-2B visa workers in the U.S., and the interplay between human, nonhuman, and corporate entities in the formation of culture, architecture, and national identity.

Erki Herrmann moderates Matters panel discussion

“Our speakers, ranging from scholars to designers, each bring a unique perspective and expertise to the table. But what this assemblage of individuals and ideas share in common is a commitment to charting and mapping the unseen territories that bridge our disciplinary specialties and to exploring how we might navigate the new and altered domains of our field today,” said Ansari at the conclusion of the symposium.