Laure Katsaros Receives Mellon New Directions Fellowship to Study Architectural Design

Associate Professor of French Laure Katsaros has received $262,500 from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation through its New Directions Fellowship program, which exists to “assist faculty members in the humanities … who seek to acquire systematic training outside their own areas of special interest.” Katsaros’ award will support her in earning a master’s degree in the history and philosophy of design from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design in 2014–15, and in traveling around France to visit several distinctive architectural sites. Her goal is to produce a final project for the master’s program, and eventually a book, tentatively titled Glass Architectures: Utopian Surveillance from Fourier to the Surrealists.   

Close-up of Laure Katsaros in front of a bookshelf
Associate Professor of French Laure Katsaros

The courses Katsaros has taught at Amherst since 2002 generally concern 19th- and 20th-century French literature, culture and art. She has developed a scholarly interest in a “distinctly utopian” concept that she calls “self-surveillance”: “the idea of opening up your life for everyone to see.” Today, this might take the form of sharing one’s opinions, interests and biographical data on social-networking websites. But French Surrealist artists of the 1920s and 1930s also embraced opportunities to expose their most intimate thoughts and experiences, going so far as to analyze one another’s dreams. Around that same time, thanks in part to advances in technology, it became relatively easy and fashionable for architects to incorporate large amounts of glass into their building designs. “And, obviously, glass, being transparent, speaks to that new theme of transparency, openness, not keeping any secrets,” Katsaros says. In the summer of 2015, upon completion of her year of coursework at Harvard, she hopes to tour Paris’ famed Maison de Verre (“House of Glass”), which was commissioned by a physician and his wife in the 1920s, designed by Pierre Chareau and used as an artistic and literary salon by the Surrealists.

Katsaros traces the theme of self-surveillance back to radical utopian socialist philosopher Charles Fourier in early-19th-century France. “He absolutely rejected the idea of privacy, of hiding, which we’re so attached to,” she says, and so he outlined a theoretical “architecture that would allow for communal living and the sharing of everything—not just property but also [sexual] partners and children.” Among the short-lived utopian communities later founded by Fourier’s disciples was Le Familistère de Guise, north of Paris, the buildings and grounds of which have recently been restored as a museum. Katsaros (who is originally from a suburb of Paris) would like to visit and study Le Familistère as well.

Also on her itinerary are buildings in the south of France designed by renowned 20th-century architect Le Corbusier—particularly a communal structure in Marseilles.

“I’ll never have another chance to do something like this,” Katsaros says of the study and travel her New Directions Fellowship will afford her. “I’m really excited about the upcoming year and excited about the ways I hope this is going to enrich both my teaching and my research.”

The professor will be on sabbatical from Amherst for the year and will live near Harvard with her husband and three children, as a full-time graduate student. When she returns to teaching, with her master’s-level understanding of architectural design, she would like some of her courses to focus on buildings in addition to poetry, prose and visual art. She is open to the possibility of teaching courses for Amherst’s architectural studies major. And she believes utopia would be a fruitful subject for a series of guest speakers at the college—invited, perhaps, through its Copeland Colloquium or the planned new Humanities Center in Frost Library. “I think that would be a great topic, because it’s very interdisciplinary: it involves political science, literature, the arts, architectural studies,” she says. “And it also goes across borders—there are utopias in every country, every language. I see the move toward a new Humanities Center as a very positive one for these kinds of interdisciplinary, cross-departmental initiatives.”  

The Mellon Foundation invites select colleges and universities to nominate faculty members for the New Directions Fellowship annually. Amherst’s Dean of the Faculty Gregory Call nominated Katsaros, who then spent the summer and fall of 2013 preparing a proposal with the help of Mary Ramsay from Foundation & Corporate Relations. After a proposal-review process by scholars in related fields, as well as some budgetary negotiations, Amherst officially received the fellowship award in March. Katsaros is one of only 12 recipients nationwide this year.  

Photo by Rob Mattson