Dietrich Neumann, professor of history of art and architecture, engages with architecture on a level greater than just teaching theoretical and studio classes on campus. His research investigates the historical significance of architecture from the late 19th century to modern day, and he has published essays on architectural techniques and curated architecturally themed exhibitions.
Born in Germany, Neumann earned his Ph.D. in architectural history from the Technical University in Munich and came to Brown in 1989 as a visiting professor. He became an assistant professor in 1991 and a professor in 1999.
Known on campus for contextualizing the history of art and architecture in terms of urban studies, Neumann sat down with The Herald to discuss teaching, designing classes and the new architecture concentration.
What initially made you interested in architecture, and how old were you at the time?
I think it was early on. I played with Legos a lot and when I was four. I told everybody that I wanted to become an architect.
I have some photos of when I was building a skyscraper. I must have been five at that point, and that skyscraper is bigger than I am. I’m standing there as a little German kid with my Legos, and I decided I was going to be an architect then, and then I started studying architecture in London at the (Architectural Association School of Architecture) and started working in practice. I got a very nice teaching offer in Munich, and I finished my Ph.D. and then came to Brown.
Where specifically is your interest in architecture? Can you tell me a little more about the expansion of the architecture concentration that you are developing?
I’ve always felt that architecture is something that many Brown students are interested in. I’ve worked for a number of years on an attempt to grow this field, and I think that now we are at a point where this is actually happening in collaboration with the two departments I belong to — urban studies and history of art and architecture.
We are launching a new undergraduate track next year that will prepare students better for studying architecture or urban planning and will sort of integrate the humanities and architecture and urbanism. I think the idea is that many schools will give them advanced standing, which means they can get to their masters in two years, instead of three.
There will be more requirements (for the concentration, which) officially starts next year, but we are already organizing classes now. The official launch will be in April, when we are having a big conference jointly with RISD that talks about topics of architecture, urbanism and the humanities.
How much of an undergraduate response to the new concentration do you expect?
When we introduced these classes, all of them were over-enrolled multiple times and so I think there is clearly an interest there. I happen to believe that urban studies is an extremely important field — and architecture, of course, and the sort of affiliated sphere of art, too. And if you look at the world’s population and that half of it lives in cities, and how around 50 percent of our energy consumption goes into the making and maintenance of buildings and such, then you see sort of an important shoot of urban studies.
I’m curious about the many exhibitions you have designed. Which are you most proud of, and why? Can you describe the process of organizing and developing an exhibition?
I’ve done a number of exhibitions, and one was about the history of movie sets and it was called Film Architecture. It was great fun. We put together movie set designs and looked at architectural qualities and how they came about over around 100 years of film-making.
I did another one about architectural illumination called Architecture of the Night. One that I really enjoyed, here in Providence, was called Unbuilt Providence. It was about projects that were designed for the city of Providence and for the campus of Brown University by important architects that were never executed. So I thought about the mashing of the city and what the old campus might have looked like — what used to have been built.
So I think that a lot of what interests me in architecture has to do with the ephemeral — illumination at night, or architecture and film sets that are only important for that purpose and then taken down, the perception of architecture in other media.
Can you tell me a little bit about the classes you designed and teach here at Brown? How did you come up with such interdisciplinary topics?
I truly believe in interdisciplinarity. I think that context is one of the most important things to understand building, and for architecture it’s very important to understand how the object was used in different parts of its history, the conditions under which it was involved, financial constraints, the urban piece and so on. The class HIAA 0900: “City and Cinema” grew out of that exhibition project years ago on film architecture.
Can you tell me a little about the seminar HIAA 1910A: “Providence Architecture,” which examined Brown’s campus and recorded its architecture on a mobile app?
That seminar was taught last semester as well as two years ago, and we put together a very nice app called FACADES. It stands for “Facts About Campus Architecture, Design, Environment and Spaces.” If you open it up you find your position on campus and about 130 total described pieces. It’s been very successful — we’ve had about 2,500 downloads so far. And last semester we did a new round and we have about 100 new buildings that we’ll add. There will be a new edition with more features such as panoramic photography.
When you came up with the class, did you expect a mobile app to be the end result, or was this a consequence of seminar discussion?
I always wanted to do something like this. At first I thought we would do a printed guide to the campus, but it turned out that there was already a printed guide being written by an alum. And so we decided to do an app, which of course has great advantages because it means that you can always update it when there is a new building on campus. You can always grow it as you learn more about it. And I found a good developer up in Montreal, and a good photographer here in Providence. The new edition will be twice as big as the edition that is out now.
Why did you end up choosing to be a professor rather than a practicing architect?
When I got the offer to teach I realized that I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed researching and writing and so I think it just happened that way. I probably have a much less stressful life than I would working in architecture because I don’t have to constantly worry about the next commission, and they’re dependent more on the economy level than I am. I’m most grateful that I ended up in the position that I am.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.