“I’m happy to be writing from a city that nudges me to think about my work at every turn.”– 5in10 with Saima Akhtar
Saima Akhtar is an architect and designer whose research focuses on the relationship between the built environment, corporate enterprise, and labor migrations. She received a PhD in Urban Studies from the University of California, Berkeley and is currently Fellow of the program Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices (2014/2015). She has published in the International Journal of Islamic Architecture and the Journal of Urban History.
What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?
When I hear stories about myself as a child, one thing is clear: I had a wild imagination. I liked to pretend, explore, invent characters and games, and find ways to engage people in imagined scenarios. This was a creative way to keep myself busy, but I also think that towing the line between fantasy and reality was how I experimented with knowing how people, and the world in general, worked. I’d also like to think that this was how I expressed my love for the creative process, its whimsy, and the discoveries that it offered along the way.
How would you explain your current research to a stranger in an elevator?
It is a story about immigrant Detroit in the early twentieth century. I look at the involvement of the Ford Motor Company in the urban and social planning of Detroit as the company grew in influence on the world stage. I argue that the company’s use of visual materials, like film, photography, advertisements, and buildings, linked industry and technology with notions of Americanism and civility. Advocating for a national identity through advancements in technology was an important part of the American nation-building project, and was executed by corporate interests through a type of soft cultural imperialism that significantly shaped the course of twentieth century human and economic migrations. The most intriguing part of the story, for me, is that this history is read through the built environment, in planning and zoning decisions, factory spaces, the location of immigrant neighborhoods, and the condition of their homes. Moreover, what this urban history reveals about turn-of-the-century politics of race, immigration, and corporate growth very much informs the social problems of our present.
Which stations of your academic journey were extremely formative to you?
My undergraduate education in architecture was influential because it taught me the value of a strong work ethic and how to take criticism constructively. With these tools roughly in place, however, I didn’t learn how to fully utilize them in a critical way until I began my doctoral studies. My education at UC-Berkeley happened inside and outside of the classroom. My coursework and teaching coincided not only with the global financial crisis, but also the crisis of the public university, which drove students and faculty to organize, educate, and speak out about the importance of accessible public education. It is in this setting that I began to actively pursue questions that examined the effects of capital on culture, and connected the concepts and theories that I had learned to events that unfolded in the space of a city.
How is it to do research in Germany?
Writing about Detroit from Berlin has been wonderful, particularly with the support that I receive from the Art Histories and Aesthetic Practices fellowship and the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. As a native of Detroit, I enjoy the parallels I see between the city I grew up in and this one. They are both postindustrial cities that visibly show signs of social and economic fracturing. In the same instance, they are also cities that are presently thought to be undergoing some kind of cultural rebirth or revitalization – whether this is actually happening in Detroit is quite another story. Nevertheless, I’m happy to be writing from a city that nudges me to think about my work at every turn.
If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?
I’m hopeful that the tide is turning when it comes to studying North American topics, in that those who are examining the U.S. in a global context may still be considered as falling within the realm of American studies. My research, for example, examines Detroit vis-à-vis what the Ford Motor Company broadly called “the Orient,” and asks how corporate and national interests positioned the city in relation to this part of the world. My wish would be for this trend to continue; that growing interest in trans-regional relationships (and specifically for me, the place of the U.S. in the world and the world in the U.S.) loosens the definition of what kinds of topics count as “American.”