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October 24, 2002 Nobel Prize goes to a Concordia collaborator



Cynthia Hammond

Governor-General's Gold Medal winner Cynthia Hammond.

File Photo

by Carol McQueen

Cynthia Hammond will be awarded this year’s Governor-General’s Gold Medal for the most outstanding graduate student at Fall Convocation. Her Humanities PhD thesis, entitled Wings, Gender and Architecture: Remembering Bath, England, adopts an exciting interdisciplinary approach that is guaranteed to intrigue.

Not only does the thesis present a feminist inquiry into how a modern tourist town neglects part of its architectural heritage in an attempt to selectively showcase the past, it also includes art works that Hammond created as a means to redress these omissions.

“Bath is a tourist city known for its Georgian architecture and its roster of male architects,” said Hammond, who now teaches art history at Carleton University. She added that the town’s 21st-century economy is very much dependent upon this 18th-century product. Yet, according to Hammond, by creating such a seamless image of the past, “the practices of heritage and conservation with regard to architecture in Bath neglect the 19th century, which is hugely important for women’s and working-class history.”

Hammond’s thesis uncovers how women influenced Bath’s 19th-century architecture. She writes about Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntington, who built over 60 buildings in England — one of which was in Bath — but is not recognized as an architect.

“It’s because of her gender that she is not ascribed an authorial role,” said Hammond, “a very old and persistent belief is that if there is going to be an artistic genius, it’s going to be a man and not a woman. I wanted to deconstruct and critique that idea in my thesis.”

Hammond also analyzes how the architecture of a 17th-century house was gradually transformed during the 19th century in order to accommodate its female occupants.
Taken over by a philanthropic organization in 1805, the dwelling in question became a reform house for prostitutes. Although its official purpose was to help these so-called fallen women, its actual goal was to intern them in a prison.

“The common view of prostitutes at this time was that they were socially disruptive. They had the potential to destroy the family and the nation,” explained Hammond, “they were considered to be a social cancer.” The reform house’s inmates were held against their will, yet contributed to the institution’s operating expenses by working in its laundry facilities.

During its century of existence, the reform house became more and more prison-like in its physical attributes. “For example, its windows were nailed shut, the façade was raised, walls were built that enclosed the entire place,” explained Hammond.

“The windows were constructed at a great height after about 35 years of the penitentiary’s operation so that the prostitutes inside couldn’t look out onto the streets and no one could look in, because the idea was that they would either be tempted back to their old ways or tempt men in to their doom.”

Although these changes in the architecture might seem to be small details, they are not to be ignored. “When interpreted in conjunction with the kind of people who were inhabiting the building and how they were perceived by society,” said Hammond, “these little changes become very meaningful and tell a much larger story.”

Not content to simply reveal that story in her thesis, Hammond also wanted to generate awareness of the plight of these women within Bath and to reincorporate their legacy into the city’s architectural history.

“Whenever I was in Bath,” said Hammond, “I was continuously engaged in the practice of making alternate memories available, creating alternate heritage practices of my own.”
She organized, for example, a temporary outdoor exhibit called A Woman Was Here that brought together the work of five overseas artists asked to respond to the theme of the fallen woman and architecture.

She also prepared and left for the public to pick up hand-crafted envelopes containing texts, images and art objects she had created in memory of the prostitutes.
“It was my way of making a gift to the memory of these women who were otherwise forgotten or remembered badly,” she explained.

With her thesis so well received, Hammond’s goal now is to continue to allow the artist in her to thrive within an academic context. In the new year, she’s off to Winnipeg for a 10-day residency at the St. Norbert Art Centre, where she will create an exhibit to accompany a medical conference being held in the city. Entitled Breathing in the Cold aims to address how precious the breath of life is.