Theses Doctoral

The Psychotechnical Architect: Perception, Vocation, and the Laboratory Cultures of Modernity, 1914–1945

Graham, James D.

The opening decades of the twentieth century saw the marked rise of three interrelated fields—applied psychology, vocational education, and occupational therapy. This dissertation explores the effects of these emerging fields on architectural modernism, as it turned to perceptual science and vocational bureaucracy as a means to judge not just design but designers. This took shape especially in a field known as psychotechnics, a discipline that blended industrial management with applied psychology and was a central but understudied legacy of the First World War. This research explores the links between architectural design (in practice and pedagogy) and the emergent bureaucracies of vocational placement and occupational therapy in the Soviet Union, the United States, and Germany, showing the sympathies between psychophysiological research (particularly that of Hugo Münsterberg) and the designs and teaching methods of figures like Nikolai Ladovsky, Moisei Ginzburg, Hannes Meyer, and László Moholy-Nagy. In the search for a modernism beyond the formal precepts of the “modern movement,” the architectural laboratory became a central scene of action, grounding architectural production in new models of research that redefined architecture’s status as a discipline.

Each chapter traces a particular thread of this encounter between psychotechnics and architecture. Chapter One explores its implications for pedagogy, exploring the influence of applied psychology (explicit and latent) in two much-discussed sites of interwar European architectural education, the Bauhaus in Dessau (particularly under Meyer) and VKhUTEMAS in Moscow, where Ladovsky instituted a Psychotechnical Laboratory of Architecture. Chapter Two asks whether Münsterberg’s psychotechnical work on distinctly urban occupations, notably those having to do with operating vehicles, implies something of a theory of the city, tracing the influence of psychotechnics in projects of urban design, whether by the Soviet ARU or in the planning of the German Autobahn. Chapter Three focuses on an emerging understanding of disability in the years following the First World War, asserting that the new fields of rehabilitation and occupational therapy are unspoken but central participants in shaping the modernisms of figures like Moholy-Nagy. What these episodes illuminate is a vision of an architecture whose modernity is not defined on the visual or technological grounds of the building, but rather in the nature of architectural “work” itself, understood in the aftermath of the First World War on a newly vocational basis.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Scott, Felicity Dale
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
November 9, 2018