Yale’s ‘remarkable’ collections illuminate the global turbulence of 1968

A collage highlighting cultural items from 1968.

Turbulent,” “shattering,” “unforgettable”: These are the words that are frequently used to describe the year 1968, when the United States and Europe encountered a range of social justice struggles — anti-war activist movements, student protests, militancy, and riots — that rattled these countries and forever changed the landscape at major universities around the globe.

Fifty years later, three Yale faculty members have teamed up to teach “1968 at 50: Architecture, Art, and Cultures of Resistance around the Globe” — a course that is designed not to commemorate 1968 and the wave of protests that took place during and around that seminal year, but to consider its afterlives and to examine its effect on the present day.

The seminar, say the organizers, gives the students the opportunity to work hands-on with archival research while at the same time studying targeted readings of primary and secondary literature to explore the historical moment in one of its principal aspects: the deployment of art and architecture as means of resistance in many sites of social upheaval. Each week the students study the social movements of 1968 in cities around the globe, including Paris, Berlin, New York, Berkeley, Rome, Florence, and New Haven.

The course, which relies primarily on a range of archives located at the Beinecke Library, is taught by Craig Buckley, assistant professor in the Department of the History of Art; Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen, associate professor in the School of Architecture; and Kevin Repp, curator of modern European books & manuscripts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

In fact, one of the main impetuses for the course, says Buckley, was to take advantage of the “remarkable” collections that Repp and his team have acquired for the Beinecke over the last decade. “These collections are about post-war avant-gardes and the relationship of culture and politics,” says Buckley. “When we were brainstorming about this course, we looked across the collections and were struck by just how many places around the globe the materials were coming from.”

Much of the material that is being used for the course is new to the library. Some was acquired so recently that it has yet to be catalogued. The course is, in many ways, says Pelkonen, an “homage” to and could not have happened without Repp’s curatorial vision.

The year 1968 is seen as a rupture moment in the field of architecture, says Buckley, explaining that the major course textbooks on architectural theory in the 20th century date from 1943 to 1968 and then from 1968 to the 2000s. “The year 1968 was a time when students began to challenge the status quo of their education. Different events took place in and around 1968 that changed the histories of architecture schools around the globe.”

A lot of the protagonists were students, and many of the social uprisings were as a result of student-triggered activism,” says Pelkonen.

The course not only covers different locales but also highlights the fact that there was a connective tissue that ran between all of the social activism that took place globally and the kind of solidarity that people felt, says Pelkonen.

In Paris, for example, students at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, who were studying under an antiquated system, occupied the school and shut it down for weeks to demand changes in the curriculum. The students’ protest was so powerful that to this day the solution that the Ministries of Art and Culture came up with to end the strife remains the basis for the current teaching landscape for architecture in Paris.

What has been really fascinating for me looking back on 1968 are the different ways in which students tried to redefine what it meant to be an architect at that time,” says Buckley. “They had to do that through entering — for the first time — into dialogue with their professors about what shape their curriculum should take. That also took place here at Yale in a very important way,” says Buckley.

For the session on the city of New Haven, “Panthers & Lipstick: Yale in New Haven,” the faculty members delved into the history of the School of Architecture, the Black Panther Movement in New Haven, and the May Day rally.

Many of the complaints in 1968 were about the financial and curricular issues, says Pelkonen, noting that students had the sense that they were in a holding period facing an uncertain future. To protest this injustice, students waged a peaceful student demonstration where they carried the fake coffin of a starving student through the streets of New Haven. On another occasion, a group of architecture students protested a studio assignment to design a shooting range by presenting a mock-Western skit in place of any architectural design.

In addition to social movements, there were other noteworthy events that took place during that time at Yale, notes Buckley. In 1967 the First Year Building Project was originated; it soon became an important aspect of architectural education at the university. Also during that time, the school’s controversial Department of City Planning was closed down, and the emphasis on urban planning at the School of Art and Architecture decreased. 

Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks
“Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” by Claes Oldenburg, now on display at Morse College. (Photo credit: Michael Marsland)

You see an important realignment within the school as a result of 1968. You also see certain events that are not necessary about the structure of teaching but that have to do with the larger culture of the school emerging out of 1968,” says Buckley. The most famous example, he notes, is the “Lipstick (Ascending) on Caterpillar Tracks” sculpture that was unveiled in 1969 but was designed in the wake of 1968 by Claes Oldenburg, working together with architecture students, faculty members, and other students at the university in protest of the Vietnam War.

Buckley notes that much is still not well documented about this time period, and that courses such as this one “are really precious opportunities to go back and try and locate documents, build a timeline, and get the students of today to think about this era through the archives — not necessarily through secondary readings — but through the documents that have been left behind.”

For Repp, one reason that it is now a good moment to consider this topic is that there are a lot of young people in America and around the world today who are feeling similarly about these topics. “I thought it might be encouraging for them to see that other people in the past had had similar feelings and had the courage and the creativity to confront an obstacle that seemed impossible to overcome but nevertheless tried very hard,” says Repp.

One of the questions that the organizers posed to the students enrolled in the course, is “what can and does ‘1968’ mean for cultures of protest 50 years on?”

That is why we teach history. There are lessons to be learned,” says Pelkonen. “It is important to understand that there are perennial themes and concerns, including the question: ‘Can art and architecture be political?’”

Access to archives that are found at the Beinecke and at other libraries at Yale, says Buckley, give students the capacity to change our view of the past by working on materials that have not been studied yet or are being seen in a different light. “Archival work is not pedantic; it is crucial to rethinking the past,” he says.

The material that we have in the collections at Beinecke are the ‘engine room’ for a rethinking of history that these students will hopefully go on to write,” says Buckley, who adds that he hopes this gives them the sense that even a date as seemingly unshakeable as 1968 is anything but a finished story. Buckley hopes that this course doesn’t end with final class in May. “Our hope is that it spurs a range of new projects that students can take on out of this archival material. Students have asked very important questions about the archives.

The further that students dive into a particular collection the greater the opportunity there is for them to rewrite the histories through which that collection has been seen,” says Buckley. “Those interpretations always emerge between the physical stuff in the archives and the climate in which one is writing. Students are the link between what is going on in culture and politics today, and what is sitting in boxes in the archive. It is that connective tissue that is going to change the way we write about this date, and the way we think about its implications.”

The students have expanded Buckley’s understanding of the materials in the class by looking at the documents with sense of distance rather than a sense of immediacy. “The people they see in the photographs or who write the letters in the magazines are people who for the most part could be their grandparents,” says Buckley. “They ask very basic kinds of forensic questions — to which we sometimes have answers and sometimes do not — but which lead to bigger questions about why each group chose to make the decisions that they did.”

Poster art for 1968 @ 50 events at Yale University.
“1968 @ 50” events have occurred throughout the spring semester, culminating with a day-long symposium and public reception at Beinecke on May 4.

Did the world change with their social protests? I think it did, though not completely, of course, and not necessarily in the ways that many participants at the time had hoped,” says Repp. “But what they certainly did accomplish is to change our attitudes about diversity, alternative lifestyles, about the need to speak out and recover repressed voices. These are a lot of things that today in 2018 we take for granted but that in the 1960s were anything but common sense and anything but accepted. This took a lot of courage on their part to do that. Although I feel that they made many mistakes and there are dark sides to those movements, there are also redemptive moments as well.”

Of the course Pelkonen says, “It has been a wonderful learning experience, and has been a luxury to teach this course. I have also learned to appreciate team teaching and the opportunity to collaborate. Everybody brings something different to the table.”

Repp, Buckley, and Pelkonen created an entire semester of programming surrounding the course, to “broaden the scope of inquiry to a global context while at the same time providing occasion for a detailed consideration of local events that unfolded on Yale Campus and its vicinity.” The students’ research findings will be presented at a concluding, full-day symposium on May 4.

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