In absence of...just stories

Ana Gisele Ozaki, Maura Lucking, Serena Dambrosio, and Sol Pérez Martínez on other accounts

This article is the first in our “In absence of…” series, authored by the participants of our 2019 Toolkit for Today and introduced by Rafico Ruiz in this primer. In the following, Ana Gisele Ozaki considers twentieth-century maps through the lens of climate change, Maura Lucking uncovers the politics behind two mansard roofs, Serena Dambrosio contextualizes a photograph from our Pierre Jeanneret fonds, and Sol Pérez Martínez considers the community behind Cedric Price’s Inter-Action Centre.

Page from Colonial Building Notes no. 32, September 1955. ARCH283133, Georg Lippsmeier Collection, CCA Collection.

In absence of…an environmental responsibility

Ana Gisele Ozaki

Tropical travel literature and iconography have largely expressed a Western sense of wonder regarding an inherent lavish nature1 and unknown and “exotic” dangers, which in turn generated many of the modernist hygienist and sanitary theories of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.2 Recent environmental disasters have foregrounded updated perceptions of the tropics, often intermingled with conceptions of a “Global South,” as the loci of environmental and humanitarian crises, where climate change shows its most violent effects.3

In the field of architecture, on the one hand, this perception has prompted work and thinking grounded in a sense of emergency and “preparedness.”4 On the other hand, some architectural histories backed by a postcolonial critique have followed up with intertwined accounts of the history of climatic adaptation from a Eurocentric perspective and its branches of “sustainable,” “green,” “international humanitarian,” and post-disaster architectures.

Despite critical work being done in the field, the connections between climate change and uneven historical environmental responsibilities to the current global crises have yet to be recouped. More specifically: what can we learn about climate change politics through the study of “tropical” architecture in different imperial and trans-imperial contexts? And what’s the role of building science in the context of climate change and environmental inequality?

The CCA’s Georg Lippsmeier and Coen Beeker collections provide some indication for how “tropical architecture” has shifted into the geopolitics of crises in the Third World. Permeating both practices and respective reference materials is the UN discourse of urgency in housing, the 1970s’ energy crisis, the British Colonial Building Notes (1950-1958) and subsequent Overseas Building Notes (1958-1984), which give evidence of such discourse’s dissemination across imperial lines. In this broad construction of a general aesthetics of disaster, “tropical” architecture, while “scientifically” justified, seems to have contributed to cementing neoliberalism and the institutionalization of international aid and technology within the “tropicalized Global South.” As shown in the above image, the “tropical zone” conceals a broader geopolitical classification that includes the Latin portion of North America, North Africa, the Middle East, and parts of South Asia, all above the Tropic of Capricorn.

Taking much of the critical work by environmental humanities scholars such as Naomi Klein, Christian Parenti, and T.J. Demos, architecture has the potential to offer a particular materialist insight on climate change and the absences of voices in official archives and narratives. Architectural historiographical work can provide direct insight into the social construction of the multiple climatic discourses,5 intermediated by Europe or not, that permeate the architecture of the Global South, across empires, and within the “tropical zone,” while laying out a critical path to reparations.

  1. For more see Mary Louise Pratt, Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. (London: Routledge, 2008) and Nancy Stepan, Picturing Tropical Nature (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2001).  

  2. Evidence of the influence of eugenics and the Musée Social in Paris in the planning and architecture of Latin America has been documented by Fabiola Lopez-Duran, Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018).  

  3. Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011), 9. 

  4. Anooradha Iyer Siddiqi, “Architecture Culture, Humanitarian Expertise: From the Tropics to Shelter, 1953-93,” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 76, no. 3 (2017): 367–84; Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience (New York City: Routledge, 2016); Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence (New York: Nation Books, 2011). 

  5. A growing body of work in architectural history has focused on the multiple geopolitical implications of “climate” in architecture, although histories centred by “tropicalized” subjects are still underexplored. For some good examples see, Jiat-Hwee Chang, A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience (Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge, 2016); Daniel A. Barber, “Le Corbusier, the Brise-Soleil, and the Socio Climatic Project of Modern Architecture, 1929-1963,” Thresholds 40, no. 40 (2012): 21–32. 

Recommended readings

• Chang, Jiat-Hwee. A Genealogy of Tropical Architecture: Colonial Networks, Nature and Technoscience. New York City: Routledge, 2016.
• Demos, T. J. Against the Anthropocene: Visual Culture and Environment Today. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2017.
• Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate. New York City: Simon and Schuster, 2014.
• Lopez-Duran, Fabiola. Eugenics in the Garden: Transatlantic Architecture and the Crafting of Modernity. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2018.
• Parenti, Christian. Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York City: Nation Books, 2011.
• Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd ed. London: Routledge, 2008.
• le Roux, Hannah. “The Networks of Tropical Architecture.” The Journal of Architecture 8, no. 3 (January 2003): 337–54.
• Siddiqi, Anooradha Iyer. “Architecture Culture, Humanitarian Expertise: From the Tropics to Shelter, 1953-93.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 76, no. 3 (2017): 367–84.
• Stepan, Nancy. Picturing Tropical Nature. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Unknown author. “Proposed Plan of Girls’ Dormitory for Livingston College,” Negro education; a study of the private and higher schools for colored people in the United States (Washington, D.C.: Bureau of Education, 1916).

André Baudet. Elevation and section for a tramway depot competition project, 1900. Mechanical drawing (tool-aided drawing), DR1987:0742, CCA Collection.

In absence of…racial politics

Maura Lucking

When is a mansard roof more than a mansard roof? Upon first glance, the two buildings illustrated here seem to have much in common, demonstrating the nineteenth-century fondness for historical revival in both its Second Empire and Neo-Grec inflections. Beginning with their steeply sloped rooflines and dormer windows, both drawings display impressive urban massing and heavily articulated coursing and window surrounds in order to create an imposing façade. They read to us as appropriate, if unremarkable, civic buildings of their era. Yet the two demonstrate radically different politics on the part of their American and French states, which only become legible upon a more contextual, even comparative reading.

The first drawing shows an abandoned design for a girl’s dormitory at an African American industrial school in North Carolina, published in a 1916 Bureau of Education report that made design recommendations for the appropriate campus planning and architectural styles for schools for black students. The authors of the report included this illustration as an example of how “not” to design: the building is critiqued as too large for its site and too ostentatious for its purpose–and, implicitly, its users.1 In a moment when the American university system was expanding rapidly to new kinds of students, lively debates over style sought to identify the most appropriate and legible expressions of a sudden multiplicity of racial identities. Oftentimes, such negotiations appear veiled through the technocratese of “consultation with expert architects” cited in reports such as this one.

The second drawing, held in the CCA collection, was produced for an end of year competition for a tramway station held in 1899 at the École Centrale des Arts et Manufactures. Certainly a more sophisticated representation and arguably a more finely-detailed design than the North Carolina dormitory, the proposed station makes one wonder why such a grand building would be used for modern transportation infrastructure—and why such a project was assigned in a school of engineering. Here, it is the explicitly colonial technology of the Second Empire style that earns it a stamp of approval from the instructor (an employee of the state) in the midst of the high-profile French imperial expansion of steam-powered tramways across North Africa, which included lines to el-Jazair in 1898 and Tunis in 1900.2 École competitions often drew from contemporaneous public works so a connection between the two is likely; concordantly, the circulation of the French within the region during the so-called Scramble for Africa needed to look explicitly French not only to European colonial competitors but also to local residents.

Neither of these short cases can be communicated within a purely formal reading of the mansard roof, yet both are explicitly about architectural style. Nor do they recover the subaltern subjectivity that is also assumed to understand the racial and social hierarchies embedded within these images. As such, they highlight the crucial significance of developing new research methods, forms of argumentation and theoretical frameworks to parse archival documents, such as architectural drawings, that retain a colonial organizing logic. Recent work by path-breaking scholars like Saidiya Hartman offers strategies for working through such problematic materials to reveal the racial politics of such documents as celebratory rather than only oppressive. In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Hartman sets out to recover young black women at the turn of the twentieth century as wild, queer and, above all, free. She scours sociology reports, police records, and reformatory case files for the remnants of their anonymous existence and fills out the details with reconstructed narratives of the drama and value that propelled their existence. “It was,” she writes, “my way of redressing the violence of history, crafting a love letter to all those who had been harmed, and, without my being fully aware of it, reckoning with the inevitable disappearance that awaited me…The story is told from inside the circle.”3 Integrating speculative reconstructions into historical practice has long been a hallmark of scholarship in the black radical tradition, one Hartman harnesses to atone for the latent precarity of her subjects’ formal records and which is also prominent in the contemporary scholarship of Tina Campt on photography and Adrienne Brown on architecture.

This is where, for architecture especially, historiography becomes crucial: not only the historiography of gentlemanly academic debate, but also that of the colonial archive, which requires our attunement to the techniques of argument, emplotment, and explanation that states, librarians, and, yes, architects, have embedded. How do we imagine our work as assembling counter-narratives to resist those hegemonic discourses while still approaching our research with rigour and ethics? What new methods of analysis within our field–of drawings, photographs, or buildings–would allow us to recover these politics, or listen for other subjectivities repressed within them?4 As our work takes on greater political stakes and strays further from the center of the historical discipline, we must take even greater care in articulating our strategies–not as a dutiful introductory aside but embedded within our reading of architectural objects themselves.

  1. This despite the American association of the mansard with the steeply pitched gambrel curb roof of Colonial-era barns as much as or more than its French cultural connotation. See, for example, The Gambrel Roof Barn: Plank Frame Construction and How to Build It (St. Paul: White Pine Bureau, 1917).  

  2. For more on this well-documented history of imperial infrastructure see Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991) or Paul Rabinow, French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995).  

  3. Saidiya Hartman, 8Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2019): xiv 

  4. Here I follow Tina Campt’s suggestion that the aural is always also at work within the visual.  

My thanks to CCA reference librarian Tim Klähn, who was instrumental in locating these student drawing sets, and to Charles Davis, who recommended that I consider the colonial competitions of the French Ècoles as endemic to their pedagogy and deployment of style.

Recommended readings

• Brown, Adrienne. The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.
• Campt, Tina. Listening to Images. Raleigh-Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
• Davis, Charles L. Building Character: The Racial Politics of Architectural Style. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019.
• Hartman, Saidiya. Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval. New York City: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019.

Photocollage of the dispersion ceremony of Pierre Jeanneret’s ashes in Chandigarh, India, April 25, 1970. Gelatin silver prints affixed on paper. ARCH269161, Pierre Jeanneret fonds, CCA collection.

In absence of…Chandigarh

Serena Dambrosio

The prevailing western architectural narratives around the Plan of Chandigarh have been built mainly on an authorial interpretation of Le Corbusier’s work.1 This tendency has endorsed an abstract and decontextualized understanding of his urban ideas, often closely associated with the retroactive category tabula rasa. Under this vision, Chandigarh, like a work of art, is described as “a new town planned literally from A to Z”2, without any kind of reference to local specificity. These “siteless” readings support a general approach to modern architecture and Le Corbusier’s oeuvre focused on universal and reductionist understandings of such issues as site, process, and local actors. Such mainstream historiographic narratives produced around the figure of Le Corbusier have been based on an intentional and constant absencing of wider contexts, in favour of a univocal reading centred on architectural objects, stylistic and formal concerns. These “suppressions” have generated a significant disconnect between the received understanding (and influence) of many modern works and their full value and meaning,3 as is the case with the Plan of Chandigarh.

The soft, reflective water in the photograph above mirrors the untold relation between one of the most representative modern urban projects by Le Corbusier, the Plan of Chandigarh, and the complex and local physical, cultural, and social contexts in the Indian region of Punjab. A small boat traverses Sukhna Lake on 25 April 1970. On the far left side of the photograph’s frame is Jacqueline Jeanneret, the niece of Pierre Jeanneret, who was the cousin and professional partner of Le Corbusier. Jacqueline holds a white box—containing the ashes of Pierre Jeanneret—and is slowly spilling its contents into the water. Pierre Jeanneret’s will stated that his ashes were to be spread in this lake adjacent to the city of Chandigarh, a place with which he had built a strong affective bond.

The story of Pierre Jeanneret develops in the shadow of his much more famous cousin. Although his name is often recognized as a co-author of many projects by Le Corbusier, his real contribution to these works remains difficult to trace. In the case of Chandigarh, the Pierre Jeanneret fonds at the CCA suggests an investigation of Jeanneret as an interface figure between Le Corbusier’s urban and architectural ideas and the Indian geographical but also cultural and political context. Jeanneret resided in India for the entire duration of the capital’s construction, managing its complex development. Jeanneret’s extensive documentation of this time—amounting to about 150 photographs—highlights his deep fascination for this place in which, as a foreigner, he developed a sense of his own belonging. The fragmented testimonies available on the role of Pierre Jeanneret in Chandigarh make it difficult to establish exactly what tasks and responsibilities were taken by the architect as his mandate. According to Maristella Casciato, his role was to mediate the two different cultural visions involved in the construction of the city, negotiating with Indian authorities, handling the local rhythm of life, materials, and expertise.4 There are documents in the Pierre Jeanneret fonds that evidence Pierre Jeanneret’s strong relationships with local colleagues and others involved in the project during his time spent in Chandigarh.5 We can argue that these bonds were the medium through which Jeanneret translated the western notion of “modern” into a new transcultural architectural and urban expression. As Le Corbusier wrote, “…without him (Pierre Jeanneret) this city would surely not appear today as a symbol of modern times…and the architecture Corbu in Chandigarh would probably not even exist.”6

If the importance of the figure of Pierre Jeanneret for the construction of Chandigarh is not questioned, it remains complicated to trace which version of the Indian city motivated Jeanneret to request his ashes be scattered there: Chandigarh as a symbol of Indian modern architectural and urban expression under the signature of architecture Corbu? Chandigarh before Chandigarh, depicted in the photos taken by Jeanneret prior to the construction of the city and represented by the Sukhna Lake? Chandigarh as the backdrop to Jeanneret’s human relationships? This text invites researchers to explore these fissures as new spaces to disturb the dominant Western narratives with which we were trained and propose simultaneously a more plural, contextualized and contested interpretation of such complex historical facts as the construction of a “new” city such Chandigarh.

  1. The early research of Maristella Casciato on Chandigarh in books such as Chandigarh 1956 and Le Corbusier - Chandigarh. Portrait of a modern city and books such Le Corbusier - Pierre Jeanneret. Chandigarh, India published by Galerie Patrick Seguin can be considered examples of this orientation. 

  2. Maristella Casciato, Ernst Scheidegger, Stanislaus Von Moos, Chandigarh 1956: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jane B. Drew, E. Maxwell Fry (Zürich: Scheidegger & Spiess, 2010). 

  3. Wendy Redfield, “The Suppressed Site: Revealing the Influence of Site on Two Purist Works” in Site Matter (New York: Routledge, 2005).  

  4. Tom Avermaete and Maristella Casciato, Casablanca Chandigarh. A report on Modernization (Zürich: Park Books AG; Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2014). 

  5. Some examples: an album containing a compilation of birthday cards prepared by local collaborators at the Architects’ Office in Chandigarh for Pierre Jeanneret on the occasion of his sixty-first birthday; a picture of Jeanneret’s 1961 birthday celebration, where he’s surrounded by local colleagues; thirteen photographs depicting Jeanneret in a series of social activities with local colleagues and politics. 

  6. Avermaete and Casciato, 175. 

Recommended readings

• Avermaete, Tom and Maristella Casciato. Casablanca Chandigarh. A report on Modernization. Zürich: Park Books AG; Montreal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2014.
• Burns, Carol J. “On Site: Architectural Preoccupations” in Drawing/Building/Text, ed. Andrea Kahn. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1991, 149–153.
• Cohen, Stuart. “Physical Context/Cultural Context: Including it All.” In Oppositions Reader: Selected Readings from a Journal for Ideas and Criticism in Architecture, 1973-1984, edited by K. Michael Hays, 65-103. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1998.
• Kalia, Ravi. Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City. Oxford: OUP India, 1998.
• Kalia, Ravi. Gandhinagar: Building National Identity in Postcolonial India. Columbia, South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2004.
• Kapur, Varun. 2010. “The city as Tabula Rasa versus the city as Mosaic: Chandigarh and modern Delhi,” in Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 22(1): 52–52.
• Leatherbarrow, David. Uncommon Ground: Architecture, Technology, and Topography. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

Talacre Action Group, Your Play Space Needs You. Poster, lithograph on paper. DR1995:0252:632:014:002, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection.

In absence of…alternative narratives

Sol Pérez Martínez

The history of Cedric Price’s Inter-Action Centre is dominated by a recurring narrative—a tale of flexibility, uncertainty, and participation that started with the Fun Palace and materialized with the Inter-Action Centre. At first sight, the repetition of this narrative makes the Inter-Action Centre an unattractive project to revisit as it seems overwritten. However, the shortcomings of this one-sided story become evident once in Price’s archive. The project was not just an achievement within Price’s career but was Britain’s first community arts resource centre and transformed the practice of community organizing during the 1970s. Why did only one narrative prevail?

Upon its opening in 1977, the press overshadowed other narratives of the Inter-Action Centre by describing the project as “Fun Palace Mark II”, a built smaller-scale version of Price’s vastly referenced project, Fun Palace.1 Designed with the radical theatre director Joan Littlewood during the 1960s, Fun Palace is endlessly reproduced to this day even though it was never constructed. The Inter-Action Centre, on the other hand, does not continue to circulate: it was a smaller project, less flexible, less uncertain and considered at the time “doggedly artless.”2 Its main legacy is as one of the only built proof of Price’s ideas.3 However, new archival findings reveal that the Inter-Action Centre, when not judged for its flexibility (or the lack of it), is a significant project for Price’s career and a relevant building in a broader British cultural context.

The center was not named after Price’s interest in interactivity as many assume,4 but after the Inter-Action Trust, a community arts organization led by theatre maverick and archaeologist, Ed Berman. Founded in 1968, the charity aimed to “make the arts, especially drama, useful and relevant to community life, young people and the educational process.”5 Initially described as a “neighbourhood action organization,” the Inter-Action Trust worked as an umbrella for multiple community arts projects.6 It championed an environmental approach to theatre in which people could learn “how to work together to improve their environment” through “experimental theatre” and “community self-improvement.”7

Thanks to the CCA’s Cedric Price Fonds, it is possible to understand the Inter-Action Centre as the product of a collaboration within a network of agents, rather than an architectural one-man show. Alongside plans and drawings, Price carefully kept pamphlets, reports, and grant applications that rarely survive a charity organization’s closure, creating a valuable collection that offers glimpses of a local history of community organizing. As a result of this compilation, three alternative narratives emerge.

First, a cautionary tale for practising architects: Cedric Price’s practice could have had a different history if a lawsuit brought by the Inter-Action Trust in 1979 escalated or if it was leaked to the press. Surprisingly, there is no published evidence of a four-year legal conflict that cost thousands of pounds and left Price without his fees for ten years of work. Was Price powerful enough to keep it away from the media? Or was it mutually beneficial for all the people involved to keep the battle quiet? Price’s meticulous archiving system allowed him to follow meeting minutes, letters, and drawings to build a defence with his insurers that limited further damages. The same arrangement in the archive today makes it possible to learn from both sides of the case.

Second, an account of the role of architecture in community organizing, in which the silo-ing of projects within one recursive narrative prevents other historians from analyzing them under a different disciplinary light. The Inter-Action Centre is not only relevant for being one of the very few projects built by Cedric Price but also because it encapsulates a pivotal moment in community organizing in Britain. It catalyzed a period of self-improvement for a working-class neighbourhood as well as changed the way that traditional art-funding bodies like the Arts Council of Great Britain and the UK’s Home Office granted funds to community organizations. Through his fundraising efforts for the building, Ed Berman paved the way for hundreds of other community arts organizations to receive grants usually reserved for the traditional art practices, institutionalizing the community arts movement.

Third, the story of Price’s participation in community action during the 1970s: the collection of the charity’s ephemera reveals Price’s involvement as an agent of social change, committed to his client view of the world. Between the clippings and the leaflets, we see an unusual version of Cedric Price who is far from Bloomsbury’s elite and closely involved with the local, the political, and the social aspects of community action. Through the archival material of the Inter-Action Centre project, it is possible to read an alternative history of Cedric Price; one that is relatable to anyone with an architectural practice, a difficult client, or a project that went wrong—a new take on a canonical figure that is relevant for architectural education today.

  1. Lyall, Sutherland. “Fun Palace Mark II,” Building Design, 22 April 1977. DR1995:0252, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection. 

  2. Silver, Nathan. “Hypercandid,” New Statesman, 6 May 1977. DR1995:0252, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection. 

  3. Mars-Jones, Tim. “The Price of Practice,” Building Week, 22 April 1977. DR1995:0252, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection. 

  4. Including Hans Ulrich Obrist. Cedric Price, Re: CP (Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, 2003), p.71. 

  5. Inter-Action Trust. “Inter-Action Request for Urban Aid through the London Borough of Camden,” September 1970. DR1995:0252, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection.  

  6. Friedrich, Liesel. “Stoppard’s Play Result of Berman’s Inter-Action”, n.d. DR1995:0252, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection.  

  7. Friedrich, Liesel. “Stoppard’s Play Result of Berman’s Inter-Action”, n.d. DR1995:0252, Cedric Price Fonds, CCA Collection.  

Recommended readings

• Alinsky, Saul D. Rules for Radicals: A Practical Primer for Realistic Radicals. New York City: Vintage, 1989.
• Bobo, Kimberley A., Steve Max, Jackie Kendall, and Midwest Academy. Organizing for Social Change: Midwest Academy Manual for Activists, 3rd edition. Seven Locks Press, 2001.
• Hardingham, Samantha, Eleanor Bron, Wayne Daly, Brett Steele, and Mirko Zardini. Cedric Price Works 1952-2003: A Forward-Minded Retrospective. London: Architectural Association Publications; Montréal: Canadian Centre for Architecture, 2017. • Price, Cedric. Re: CP. Berlin: Springer Science & Business Media, 2003.
• Trouillot, Michel-Rolph. Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History. Beacon Press, 2015.


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