Capturing Ethylene:

Torkel Korling's Photography and Making Architecture from Oil and Gas at Dow Chemical (1923–1962)

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October 12, 2023
6:00 PM
Architecture Center Houston
902 Commerce St
Houston, TX 77002

Brought to you by the ArCH Exhibitions and Programs

Capturing Ethylene:
Torkel Korling's Photography and Making Architecture from Oil and Gas at Dow Chemical (1923–1962)

with Jessica Varner, Ph.D

Join us for a conversation with author and scholar Dr. Jessica Varner to discuss mid-century artist Torkel Korling’s photographs of Dow Chemical’s
ethylene industry in Texas and Michigan. Known for depicting SOM’s skyscrapers or LIFE magazine covers, Korling’s images also captured Dow’s production ethos as the company shifted to use a limited palette of petroleum derivatives (oil and gas) from new cracking techniques for a growing market—building materials.

Rereading Korling’s photographs, along with other landscape, environmental, and marketing media from the 1940s and 1950s, Dr. Varner will share significant issues of disinformation and how images act politically by naturalizing both the products they advanced and the rapidly transforming petrochemical industry.

More broadly, she situates architecture's materiality in ethylene plastics, revealing how new Dow building materials came to undergird the chemical industry's success and its ecological catastrophe in plastics amidst global mid-century material shortages, as industrial photography changed the nature of the “goodness” of chemicals. Finally, the talk examines the representational challenges posed by the escalating problems of the fossil fuel industry still
evident today.

The talk is part of a chapter from Dr. Jessica Varner’s current book project, Chemical Desires: When the Chemical Industry Met Modern Design (1870-1970).

Image: Torkel Korling, “Texas Finishing Stills,” Science History Institute, Dow Chemical Collection.

About the Author 
Jessica Varner explores the intersections between architecture history, chemical engineering, building materials, and product regulation. She received her Ph.D. in the History of Art and Architecture (HTC) from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2021.

Her current book project, Chemical Desires, uncovers the ties between corporate chemical firms and architecture at the turn of the twentieth century in the United States and Germany. The research reveals how companies employed novel research strategies, exhibitions, advertising campaigns, and sponsorship to conscript architects and engineers as enthusiastic exponents of their novel synthetic compounds. In doing so, her work exposes how chemical corporations promoted desires for “new” engineered qualities that aligned with growing modernist expectations while simultaneously unknowing harm—creating a new chemical modernity embedded in modern design. This work received generous support from the Fulbright Foundation, Max Planck Institute for the History of Science (MPIWG), National Science Foundation, MIT Martin Society of Fellows, USC Society of Fellows, Getty Institute, ACLS, and the Graham Foundation (Carter Manny Dissertation Award, Citation of Special Recognition).

She is also an architect, Environmental Data & Governance Initiative Advisory Committee member (since 2020), co-curator for EDGI’s A People’s EPA public history project, and Coming Clean collaborator.