Welcome Dr Steven Parissien

Cultural historian Dr Steven Parissien joins us as a Departmental Lecturer in Architectural History.  

He brings a wide range of valuable experience in the heritage, arts and education sectors – including six years spent as Deputy Director at Yale University’s Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art in London, three years as Dean of Arts, Humanities and Architecture and Professor of Architectural History at the University of Plymouth and ten years as Director/Chief Executive at Compton Verney Art Gallery and Park in Warwickshire. 

Joining the Department for Continuing Education is a return to Oxford for Steven, who obtained both his undergraduate and doctoral degrees from University College, Oxford. 

We asked Steven to tell us more: about Architectural History at Oxford, his own background – and the future. 

First, why study Architectural History? 

Architectural History is an invaluable introduction to who we are and what we’ve done. All Known Life is there! It is effectively the study of humankind, embracing not only architecture itself – how we’ve shaped, planned and moulded our immediate living and working environments – but also social history, politics, the history of landscape and of gardens, interior design, fine art, psychology, climate change, geology, natural science… this list is endless. In essence it’s the history of human civilization, and thus the best primer to the world we inhabit that I can think of. Only by understanding how we’ve constructed our physical surroundings can we fully appreciate where we’ve been, where we are and where we’re going. 

Your considerable experience in the academic and conservation sectors seems a good fit for this Department’s students – an international cohort of adult learners studying for both professional development as well as personal enrichment.  

My personal background has proved invaluable in informing my new role at the Department. For many years I worked in architectural conservation, which is a natural professional partner to the study of building history, while my years as a senior academic manager have helped me to understand how universities and their constituent parts work – in theory and, perhaps even more helpfully, in practice.  

More recently, my role as a museum director has given me an experience of design, display and interpretation – all vital aspects of historic and contemporary architecture – as well as (particularly during my ten years at Compton Verney) how the different aspects of a historical site interrelate. 

Understanding how buildings work, and why they have been designed in the way they have been, is very fortunately an international language – one that changes very little from nation to nation. As a result, some of the most perceptive work on British architectural history is now emanating from overseas academics. 

Your biography and publishing history include Georgian architecture, twentieth-century design, and the architecture of railway stations among other things. Is there a connecting thread between these diverse topics? 

I suppose the connecting thread is that they all showcase good, aspirational design that actually works – whether it’s accommodating the aspirations of the Georgian middle classes, communicating important social or political messages, or persuading customers to use the railways. The key element that sets Architectural History apart from, say, Fine Art is that buildings not only have to be aesthetically pleasing but also have to function properly for the purpose for they were designed. It’s often a difficult tightrope to walk. 

What research and other projects are you involved with at the moment?  

Currently I’m working on a diverse range of subjects, including an exhibition for the American Museum in Bath on the design and photography of the 1970s – an era which, of course, I’m far too young to remember. 

I’m also writing a personal memoir of the development of the Metropolitan Line and related architectural development in the area of mid-Buckinghamshire in which I grew up.  

And I'm working on an ambitious project tracing the social and political history of Britain through just 25 key buildings. 

The history of Britain is, perhaps more than any other nation, defined by its architecture. This book seeks to examine not just how these seminal buildings were constructed, but why: for what reason they were built; what they were designed to do and to mean at the time of their creation; and, crucially, what they represented to later generations eager to trace an evolving sense of ‘Britishness’ from the past. 

How do you see our Architectural History programme at the Department evolving over the coming year (or more)? 

Continuing Education has an excellent pedigree in Architectural History, on which I think it’s important to build as we all grow more aware of the importance of our built environment.

To that end, I would hope that over the next few years we are able to extend the progression routes through the subject – extending the current Postgraduate Certificate into a full Master’s programme, for example – while broadening the range of the non-award-bearing weekly and weekend courses that we offer, particularly in the area of sustainable urban development. 

And on a professional development front: it’s crucial that we inform tomorrow’s professionals in the building, sustainability and conservation fields. As more and more architectural practices get involved with historic buildings and sites, it’s important that we join the historic dots for them so they fully understand what they are dealing with. 

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Published 18 February 2021