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Faculty

Brian Katen, ASLA

Associate Professor

B.A., English Literature, George Washington University
MLA, University of Virginia

Brian Katen is an Associate Professor in the School of Architecture + Design at Virginia Tech. A graduate of George Washington University, Professor Katen received his Master’s of Landscape Architecture from the University of Virginia. Prior to joining the faculty at Virginia Tech, Professor Katen directed the Landscape Design Program at George Washington University and was a principle of Brian Katen, Landscape Architecture, in Arlington, Virginia. With over 20 years of practice experience, Professor Katen’s research explores the everyday landscape, community identity and conceptions of place, and the complex relationship between the landscape, its archives, and memory. His current research is focused on the African American landscape of Virginia and those everyday gathering places that have both defined and celebrated community and cultural identity throughout the state.

Contact information:

Brian Katen, ASLA
School of Architecture + Design
121E Burruss Hall
Virginia Tech
Blacksburg, VA 24061
bkaten@vt.edu
540.231.7505

Research:

African American Landscapes

Contemporary research into the history of regional, state, and national parks has left a lasting body of scholarly work. However, that body of work, focused on the traditional parks canon, presents only a partial record of our country’s recreational landscape. Professor Katen’s on-going research into the African American recreational landscapes of Virginia’s era of segregation is revealing an important but hidden layer of Virginia’s park and recreational landscape.His research has focused upon the rich body of evidence found in Virginia’s African American newspapers including the Norfolk Journal and Guide, the Roanoke Tribune, the Richmond Planet, and Richmond’s Afro America. Measured against the extant record of limited segregated facilities in state and national parks in the region, his research is revealing a vital and widespread network of African American owned and developed recreational sites including parks, amusement parks, mineral springs and camps. Presenting a second recreational landscape in the Commonwealth, Professor Katen’s research challenges the completeness of our park histories and the contemporary discourse on the social, economic, and political dimensions of our recreational landscapes.

The recreational sites identified thus far reveal insights into community spirit, entrepreneurial energy, and the richness of daily life in the Commonwealth’s African American communities. Created outside the recognized canon of the park as public art, these African American sites have all but disappeared from our collective awareness. Abandoned soon after the insidious restrictions of segregation were lifted, to outsiders they are today places of the kind described by Charles Merewether where at first glance “… there is no evidence remaining … but rather a fracture, a discontinuity, the mark of which is obliteration, erasure, and amnesia.” But they remain, for many communities, powerful places that gather memory, shared history, imagination, and community conceptions of place.

The Virginia Speedways Project:

The spirit and energy of a community are legible in the landscapes it creates. In the years following World War II a significant social and physical landscape developed in the communities of Southwest and Western Virginia - the Virginia speedways. The speedways’ featured event, stock car racing, quickly carried the special spirit and energy of the mountain region throughout the Commonwealth. The Virginia Speedways Project is dedicated to understanding the Virginia speedways as a significant physical and social Virginia landscape neglected in contemporary scholarship. This on-going research is documenting the lost landscape of Virginia’s early speedways and fairgrounds, their relationship to the Good Roads Movement and automobiles role in changing experience and perceptions of the landscape. The research is revealing the Virginia speedways as active, energized gathering places, deeply rooted in their communities. Rooted in their communities through strong family ties, the speedways served an important community social and recreational gathering places. The remaining Virginia speedways are landscapes of community pride, social intercourse, ritual, and entertainment. The Virginia Speedways Project is revealing the sites, energy and spirit of the speedways to be a significant contemporary layer of the Virginia landscape, a regional landscape of historical importance and significant economic impact.

The Landscape and the Archive

Landscape as archive has captured the attention and imagination of landscape architects, artists, and theoreticians across a range of disciplines. Collecting, classifying, and controlling, the traditional roles of the archivist, give way to more creative endeavors in the landscape where the archival “original,” is a site of invention and discovery focused on questions of history, memory, identity, and place. This on-going research is exploring the landscape’s complex relationship to its second, simultaneous archive, the writings, photographs, oral histories, and art that capture a landscape in time and circumstance.

The landscape’s second archive is being revealed as an equally significant “site” for creative inquiry into questions of memory, identity, and place. The role of the archive, to collect, record, preserve, and to offer witness and evidence, resonates most strongly in these everyday landscapes that collectively inform the nuanced “ground” of place. This research, in collaboration with the Harrison Museum of African American History in Roanoke, Virginia, the Newman Library at Virginia Tech, and the Roanoke Public Library is focused on two important but unrecognized twentieth century vernacular Virginia landscapes, the Commonwealth’s African American landscape and its landscape of automobile racing, each an “original” archival record of its identity, history, memory, and evolution. The documentary evidence of these landscapes, including, private journals, photograph collections, oral histories, period newspapers, literature, and music constitutes a second, simultaneous landscape archive. Like the archival original, this simultaneous archive resides outside of traditional institutions. Scattered, and fragmentary, it exists without a curator as well. This archival project is constructing a digital record of this documentary evidence. This digital record, an archive neither “fixed in meaning or material” is being revealed as a rich “ground” for improvisational, inventive, and subversive explorations of place.

Selected Presentations:

  • “Preserving Virginia’s African American Landscape Heritage”
  • “Making Virginia Visible: The African American Landscape”
  • “African American Gathering Places in the Virginia Landscape”
  • “Recovering Virginia’s African American Landscape”
  • “Parks Apart: African American Recreation Landscapes in Virginia”
  • “Archiving the Landscape: A New Site for Intervention”
  • “Real Places: Discoveries in the Vernacular Landscape”
  • “Stock Car Racing Tonight! Speed Power and Community at the Virginia Speedways”
  • “Racing’s History in the New River Valley”
  • “The Virginia Mineral Springs: Virginia’s Lost Healing Landscape”

Selected Publications:

  • “Racing’s Roots in the Virginia Landscape,” in Horsehide, Pigskin, Oval Tracts and Apple Pie: Essays on Sports and American Culture, Dr. James A. Vlasich, ed. McFarland and Company, 2006.
  • “The Roots of Oval Track Racing in Virginia,” in Car Crazy: Racing and Rodding in Southwest Virginia, Art Museum of Western Virginia, Roanoke, Virginia, in collaboration with the Blue Ridge Institute and Museum of Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va.
  • “Richmond’s Oval Track History,” in Capital Car Crazy; Racing and Rodding Around Richmond,” Exhibit Catalogue, Virginia Historical Society, Richmond, Virginia. Blue Ridge Institute and Museum of Ferrum College, Ferrum, Va., 2005

Selected Thesis Directed:

Virginia Speedways Project: Links:

http://lar.vt.edu/academics/faculty/brian-katen-asla-la/