Theses Doctoral

Unsettling Colonial Science: Modern Architecture and Indigenous Claims to Land in North America and the Pacific

Blanchfield, Caitlin

Unsettling Colonial Science: Modern Architecture and Indigenous Claims to Land in North America and the Pacific examines the contested landscapes of research infrastructure and settler colonialism.

During the 1950s and 60s, as the Cold War accelerated, Big Science sought new frontiers both conceptual and spatial. While the alliance between modern architecture and postwar scientific research has been the subject of significant historical work, the settler colonial politics and land relations ingrained in these large-scale laboratories and research stations has gone under-discussed. Investigating federally-funded research installations constructed from the 1950s-1990s, this dissertation addresses how Cold War-era science participated in the settlement of landscapes perceived as inhospitable through discourses and practices of “modernism.”

It also examines Indigenous opposition to these land occupations as acts of self-determination. Covering a wide geography—from the Kitt Peak Observatory on Ioligam Du’ag in the Tohono O’odham Nation, to the Inuvik Research Laboratory in Inuvik in the Northwest Territories of Canada, to the Mauna Kea Observatories on the Mauna Kea volcano on the island of Hawai‘i this dissertation moves between spaces where the universalism, modernism, and colonialism of the postwar settler colonial project are contested through material practices in the landscape and built environment.

These places reveal how settler colonialism contributed to US empire in the twentieth century. Importantly, they also broaden discourses of resistance and refusal, showing how traditional land use, material culture, and mobility practices give rise to resistance movements. This dissertation investigates how different resistance movements protested the construction of research infrastructures on their lands.

Across these cases, modern architecture does not operate uniformly. In some instances it is part of a state-initiated modernization project; in others affiliated with military-industrial architecture; and others an aesthetic exercise in a romanticized landscape. But in all, architecture is used to reify a division between Western modernity and “traditional knowledge” that undercuts land-based claims to sovereignty. Tohono O’odham, Kānaka Maoli, and Gwich’in activists and practitioners, along with environmental advocates and allies, mobilized grounded forms of refusal to insist that land use is political. I argue that these places and their histories reveal how modern architecture orders the land and its political meaning within settler colonial contexts. In the mid-twentieth century, federal science agencies, engineering departments, and architecture corporations deployed modernism as an instrument to make public and trust lands productive and national. Architecture is also a site where jurisdiction, land use, and the relationship to land is contested. These contestations open on to anticolonial histories of the built environment.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Scott, Felicity Dale
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 26, 2024