Inaugural Global Urban Humanities (Un)Conference Draws Emerging Scholars and Practitioners to the Desert

March 2nd, 2023

From FORGE, a remodeled 1929 Montgomery Ward building in the heart of downtown Tucson, to the geodesic domes of Biosphere 2, the inaugural Urban Humanities Network “(Un)Conference” will draw close to a hundred scholars, practitioners & community leaders to the Sonoran desert to chart a path forward for the next generation of spatial transdisciplinary research, design and public engagement.

The newly established Urban Humanities Network (UHN) is a consortium of campuses, including the University of Arizona, Harvard University, Princeton University, UC Berkeley, UCLA and Washington University in St. Louis. Faculty members in the Department of Public and Applied Humanities (PAH) in the College of Humanities, along with colleagues in the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture (CAPLA), organized the "unconference" for March 3 - 5, with Tucson as the inaugural host city. 

Nominally an academic conference, the event experiments with the form, as an intersection point for emerging scholars and practitioners in architecture, urban studies, and the humanities to gather and exchange. Attendees are “urban humanists” who will remix the work they bring to share in a range of place-based workshops and site visits planned for them. In three days, this cohort of scholars, graduate students, artists and community leaders, envision a new field while in the field — in roundtables and lightning talks, panels and field-trips, in performances and salons, across the city.

The cultural and environmental landscape of Southern Arizona inspired the organizers. “We wanted to center the complexity of our site as hosts to this inaugural event,” said Jacqueline Barrios, assistant professor of Public and Applied Humanities, and one of the organizers of the gathering. “There’s incredible pay-off to sustained, collective attention to space in our Southern Arizona context." 

The uniqueness of the gathering insists on an attunement to site-specificity, said Jonathan Jae-an Crisman, fellow organizer and also assistant professor of Public and Applied Humanities.

“Before the pandemic, it was typical for hundreds of academics to fly to a city and spend the whole time in a generic conference hotel, but given the risk of disease, a warming climate, and how precarious so many of our financial situations are, this is now just a non-starter," Crisman said. "We wanted to flip the script on the conference, and really make our travel meaningful — by engaging with the place of Southern Arizona, and critically reflecting on our shared urban future, and creating space for community building, we’re hoping that the ‘unconference’ will become the norm."

The region’s austere ecological frailty and fraught borderlands history, its dys/utopian imaginaries and its endurance as homelands for tribal nations since time immemorial, all shaped the (Un)Conference’s agenda. In walks through the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum or in a guided immersion through Cecila Vicuna’s monumental Sonoran Quipu at the MOCA Tucson, in salons and workshops at FORGE, a historic building designed by renowned Tucson architect Roy Place, to a closing reception at basement of the Citizen Hotel, the remodeled offices of Tucson’s first newspaper press, the (Un)Conference seeks to provoke, unsettle, collectivize and dream.

A centerpiece of the (Un)Conference is a “micro field studio,” where attendees will test new methods for studying space in the largest enclosed environment on Earth, the Biosphere 2. While under the glass, participants will use narrative, sound art, even gleaning, to consider urban space in a structure designed to escape it.

“The micro field studio will give all conference participants a chance to reflect on both the site of Biosphere 2 and the future of Urban Humanities, creating a hopefully productive dialogue/conversation between place and conference content,” said Kenny Wong, lecturer in Sustainable Built Environments and Urban Planning at the College of Architecture, Planning and Landscape Architecture (CAPLA). Five teams have been invited to test a specific place-based research or experiential method that they have developed at the Biosphere 2 site, with the aim being to see how the method works in engaging with this new environment.

Barrios, Crisman and Wong represent UArizona as members of the steering committee organizing the event. Gus Wendel (UCLA), Jonathan Banfill (Champlain College) and Sai Rojanapirom (Kalm Village) complete this transdisciplinary team. All steering committee members shared the experience of spatial transdisciplinary graduate study at UCLA’s Urban Humanities Initiative (UHI), a main sponsor of the (Un)Conference.

"The training at UCLA’s UHI, to experience the study of space with colleagues from across disciplines, was transformative. It altered the DNA of how I approach the work of knowledge production and community building, and this was something I wanted to bring to my new field of work in the Southwest," Barrios said. 

The urban humanities are a series of practices located at the intersection of architecture, urban studies, and the humanities. Over the last decade, it has been institutionalized as a field through the support of the Mellon Foundation (AUH grant), creating pedagogical programs, research centers, and community engaged scholarship. These efforts have yielded a cohort of scholars and practitioners spread around the world who have pushed the field in new directions, creating more explicit orientations towards race, class, gender, and social justice, while seeding urban humanities in new institutions and new cities.

The (Un)Conference organizers hope that in manifesting this cross-campus, local and global, and transdisciplinary network, new affinities and openings for collaboration will continue, both on the ground in Tucson, and across the close to 30 institutions and organizations represented at the gathering.

"We believe a lot can happen in three days," Barrios said. "We hope the community we create here lives on ‘outside of the glass’ of this temporary laboratory we’ve conspired to make. We hope we come away with new partners for shaping the spaces we want to inhabit together."