An immigrant’s journey means making more than one place home.
In the late 19th century, Greece was in a state of economic crisis, leading many families to flee and eventually settle in the urban neighborhoods of eastern Pennsylvania. Their migration spanned continents and cultures, required sacrifices and hard choices, and inspired renewal and hope. And for Kostis Kourelis, associate professor of art history at F&M, their stories are told in their domestic architecture and objects.
Through a Hackman summer research grant, Kourelis and two students, Elizabeth Wood ’17 and Cassandra Garison ’18, explored Philadelphia, Harrisburg, Lancaster, and then Greece to investigate these transnational narratives of immigration. Their fieldwork began in Philadelphia, where they examined the city’s census in the early 20th century. Matching the names of migrant families to current addresses in the community, the team investigated row houses for evidence of material culture—any signs of former possessions or architectural changes—to glean how rural Greek families might have adjusted to urban houses in the United States.
It is common, Kourelis says, for first-generation immigrant families to send their earnings to relatives in their home country, a practice that grants them fewer resources to invest in new homes. Creative cultural expression, then, is often harder to detect in the American houses. Back in Greece, however, where families received remittances, the unique art and architecture had more opportunity to grow.
In the Greek villages, Kourelis, Wood and Garison flew drones to map the housing plans. They surveyed the quality and upkeep of individual homes as well as the possessions that families valued. Wood and Garison delved into not just the physical evidences of life in the buildings, but also the implications of choice, style and history of families in their homes.
Wood, an art history major, focused on domestic culture and objects that reflect the lives of women. She catalogued materials and artifacts in the homes, comparing them to their American counterparts, to curate a digital museum. Garison is a Classics major whose own family members emigrated from Greece. Her interest in language, ancient cultures and historical architecture led to the documentation of Greek buildings for the Geographic Information Systems database.
“As much as I love it when students get answers right in the classroom, the ‘aha’ moment that happens when reading the physical architectural fabric on site is magical,” Kourelis says.
To investigate the complexities of immigration as part of economic, political, cultural and even architectural change, Kourelis sought out the collaboration of two students with different backgrounds. Their research generated even broader questions about the current climate of Greece; they explored architectural effects of the modern economic crash, and they visited Syrian refugee camps that were formed within those harsh economic conditions and global crisis.
Kourelis has collaborated with six students on research projects overseas in recent years. “Nothing gives me more satisfaction than holding one end of a measuring tape with a student documenting walls of human creation that embody historical process,” he says. “Teaching students how to read international social processes onto the daily fabric of architecture is my favorite thing in the world.”