Research

Elaine’s research focuses on the design politics and design thinking that shaped twentieth-century suburban development and affordable housing agendas in the US. Her secondary areas of research include the history of big-box retail development, owner alteration and personalization of tract housing, and other forms of artistic expression centered on mass produced housing forms and environments. She also remains active in the historic preservation community, offering critical perspectives on professional practice and its social and cultural outcomes.

 
 Flat Top Dwelling, El Sobrante, Contra Costa County, California designed and built by Earl W. Smith (1948)

Flat Top Dwelling, El Sobrante, Contra Costa County, California designed and built by Earl W. Smith (1948)

Suburban Design and Development

Elaine's dissertation in progress, “Suburban Design Thinking: Home Builders and the New American Domestic Landscape, 1934-1955,” examines the mid twentieth-century American home building industry as a design community, tracing the political, practical, and social aspects of their design values and product development processes. The analysis examines national-level political activism, market synthesis, and design discourse among professional home builders between 1934 and the mid-1950s, as well as the work of three prolific home builders active during those years in the San Francisco Bay Area. By approaching tract housing from the perspective of producer rather than consumer, Elaine's research demonstrates the complexity of the suburban tract home as an flexible, evolving design object imbued with resonant political, economic, and sociocultural values. The goal of this research is to move beyond overly simplistic Fordist, demographic, and institution-based interpretations of period suburban housing development to provide a more holistic interpretive frame for commoditized dwellings rooted in period political economy, design thinking methods, and social aspects of market economics. The research also offers insight into the cultural and social resonance of market-driven versus artistic architectural design and the formative aspects of perhaps the single largest transformations in American housing culture.

 

 costco 

costco 

Spaces of Consumption

Elaine's research on spaces of consumption focuses on the evolution of big box and hypermarket retail in the United States. Her work on the development of warehouse hypermarket retailers such as Costco demonstrate that the spatial and visual character of no-frills retailers are critical, but under‑recognized factors in their success. Drawing on analysis of Costco’s retail operations and consumer relations, this research examines how hypermarkets like Costco creatively fashion and exploit rationalized interior space and product display, redeploying traditional retail spatial and display tactics in ways that belie their very existence. This research also explores the way warehouse retailers rely on staged authenticity and the permissiveness of carnivalesque atmospheres to foster liberal and satisfying consumption behavior, and proposes that Costco’s ‘stock room as sales room’ model represents an important shift in the kind of design, aesthetics, and theater capable of sustaining contemporary consumption environments.

 The abandoned, partially demolished Vesey Street Survivors Staircase on the world trade center site in 2006

The abandoned, partially demolished Vesey Street Survivors Staircase on the world trade center site in 2006

Historic Preservation

Elaine's scholarly work in the field of historic preservation examines subject-object relationships in the historic built environment and the expansion of the concept of historic place and space from one of canonical to personally experienced history. Her research includes critical analysis of the concept of time-based thresholds for consideration of historic significance and how changing demographics in suburban districts will impact the tenor and subject matter of the historic preservation movement in the next several decades. Elaine has also examined the increased use of ruined building fabric in commemorating tragic events since World War II. Her research on transformation of the Vesey Street Survivors’ Stairs - a late, fraught addition to the 9/11 Memorial and Museum - from abandoned, invisible “thing” to an affective “object" championed by attack survivors traces the ideational effects of the ruined object and the dialectic between material agency and affective practice.  For information on professional preservation projects, please visit the Historic Preservation page.