Architect, historian, and activist, Jessica Varner is a Ph.D. Candidate in the History, Theory, and Criticism of Art and Architecture at MIT. Her dissertation titled, “Chemical Desires: Making Building Materials Modern (1901-20xx),” exposes the opportunistic actions of chemical corporations—BASF (Germany), Monsanto (United States), and Dow (United States)—as chemical engineers promoted coal-tar and petrochemical inventions in building products, resulting in a material monoculture with transformational consequences. By analyzing a range of archives, from corporate records to design specifications, she uncovers the uneasy marriage between architectural materials, modern desires, chemical engineering, experimental processes, controversial building codes, and dark chemical lands, revealing an entangled new chemical modernism, marked by catastrophic effects with aesthetic, cultural, political, economic, and environmental dimensions, built on the relentless quest to make building materials modern.

Her research has been supported under an MIT Presidential Fellowship, the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science Pre-Doctoral Visiting Fellowship, a Fulbright Germany Research Fellowship, and she is currently a Fellow in Martin Society of Fellows for the Environment. Her work has also been supported by research grants from the MIT MISTI India and Germany Programs, the Canadian Centre for Architecture, and the Graham Foundation. Ms. Varner received a B.S. from the University of Nebraska, a Master of Architecture degree, and a Master of Environmental Design from Yale University. Jessica’s writing has appeared in numerous edited volumes and publications, including the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Journal of Architectural Education, Yale Constructs, Art in America, the Architects Newspaper, and the forthcoming edited volume the Chemical Anthropocene. She has taught studios and seminars at the University of Southern California, Woodbury University, and MIT, where she was the Presidential Fellow for 2014-2015. Jessica is also a founding partner of Smallerlarge, a research studio currently completing an artist-in-residence complex in rural Connecticut—the Black House Project—a 2-acre artist-in-residence, located on the tidal flat wetlands of coastal Connecticut.

Before joining the Ph.D. program at MIT, Jessica’s professional experience included over eight years of producing architectural publications, exhibitions, and buildings for an international audience at Michael Maltzan Architecture in Los Angeles and Yale University. Her projects included an editorial collaboration with Hatje Cantz, No More Play, voted one of the best books of 2011 by LA Times critic Christopher Hawthorne; Star Apartments, an award-winning 102-Unit Skid Row No-Income Housing project; the LA River Piggyback Yards, Industrial Waste Remediation/Water Retention Park; and Writings on Architecture (a Paul Rudolph Monograph) with Yale University Press. Most recently, she was a curatorial assistant for the Yale School of Architecture Gallery working on projects such as, “George Nelson: Architect, Writer, Designer, Teacher” and “White Cube, Green Maze: New Art Landscapes.” She is currently the chief curator for the upcoming Yale Architecture Gallery exhibition, “Room(s),” the first-ever show entirely focused on Yale women alums. 

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