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Modernism’s Visible Hand reveals how regulatory governance has shaped American architecture

Michael Osman’s book, “Modernism’s Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America” breaks down the regulatory practices that have affected American life at the urban level.

An ad for an early home thermostat. (American Homes and Gardens 3; 1906)
An ad for an early home thermostat. (American Homes and Gardens 3; 1906)

By Jesse LeCavalier

Modernism’s Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America
By Michael Osman
University of Minnesota Press
$30.00

Thermostats, refrigerators, dioramas, slide rules, organizational charts, paperwork—these are some of the elements Michael Osman scrutinizes in his book Modernism’s Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America, which examines the “crossing points among architectural design, management, and environmental control” to reconstruct the regulatory apparatus of American architecture between the Civil War and World War I. Osman is part of the architecture history collective Aggregate, whose 2012 book, Governing by Design, significantly reconfigured the field by asserting a “shared conviction that agency is complex; that authorship of the built environment is dispersed across multiple registers comprising not only architects and designers but also many other kinds of producers and consumers, along with a multitude of associations, institutions, and bureaucracies.” Osman’s latest book takes up a similar approach to explore the ways in which an emerging regulatory imagination at the turn of the 20th century shaped the built environment at range of scales and levels: domestic interiors, industrial warehouses, natural history museums, laboratories, factory floors, and finally the architectural office itself. Osman animates this material to dazzling effect, showing how management of the built environment enrolled people, commodities, nature, time, labor, and design in regulatory regimes, often by transforming them into legible and fungible economic units.

Modernism’s Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America (Courtesy Amazon)
Modernism’s Visible Hand: Architecture and Regulation in America (Courtesy Amazon)

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