Private Homes, Public Lives: Houses of Cultural Icons

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Back by popular demand! Discover (or re-discover) some of the most popular Curious Minds courses from the past year.

Based on his popular book The Kitchen, which explored the world’s most perfectly designed domestic spaces, this series from architectural adviser and critic John Ota will use the houses of some of history’s most celebrated figures to explore the meaning of home. As we journey from George O’Keefe’s desert ranch to the aromatic kitchens of Julia Child and Louis Armstrong to the mid-century modernist rooms designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, we’ll examine the role that architecture, food and household objects played in their daily lives—and how these domestic spaces reflected their wider societies. Perfect for fans of our past Curious Minds courses on architecture, food and pop culture, this dynamic new series will offer a unique perspective on some of history’s most fascinating people, places and homes.

John Ota

Led by John Ota, an architecture writer and consultant who has worked in Toronto, New York and Vancouver, and has degrees from the School of Architecture at Columbia University and the University of British Columbia. A frequent contributor to the Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail and Canadian Architect, he has chaired the awards committee of the Ontario Association of Architects and served on the Toronto Historical Board. 

Course registration: $49 (Hot Docs Members: $33, $27, Free)

Curious Minds Speaker Series sponsored by

Hollywood Suite

The six lectures in this series are now available to stream. You can access each lecture at your leisure by clicking on links in your confirmation email, or by visiting your My Shows page.

Lecture 1: Thomas Jefferson, Monticello House, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1809
The author of the Declaration of Independence was a man of contradictions and they were on full display at his opulent Palladian mansion. As John guides us through Monticello’s gilded libraries and studies, its trailblazing kitchen and the living quarters of the enslaved people who made the whole place run, he’ll reveal a home and a man that left their mark on history, shaping the future course of American architecture, cuisine, race relations and politics. 

Lecture 2: Georgia O’Keeffe House, Abiquiu, New Mexico, 1949
When the celebrated painter renovated an adobe house in the late 1940s, it marked a return to her rural roots and a bold new phase in her art. As we explore its high-desert gardens, its piercing skylights and its spacious and rustic kitchen, we’ll discover how this sun-dappled home, with stunning picture windows, reaffirmed O’Keefe’s relationship with the natural world and introduced generations of art lovers to the wonders of the desert.
Lecture 3: Frank Lloyd Wright, Kentuck Knob House, Mill Run, Pennsylvania, 1956
This mid-century modernist masterpiece, designed by the legendary architect to meet the needs of a typical middle-class family, marked a bold new approach to domestic living. With its arresting merger of Prairie and Japanese architecture, nature and technology, the house is a fascinating lens through which to understand the revolutions in work, food and family relations unfolding in post-war suburbia.

Lecture 4: Louis Armstrong House, Queens, New York, 1970
The jazz icon’s sturdy house on a quiet street in Queens masked the creative explosions within its red brick walls: the constant innovations he brought to American music; the lip-smacking southern foods simmering in the kitchen; and the unique and colourful designs that filled its domestic interiors. As we survey Armstrong’s life at the forefront of pop culture, we’ll retreat to the domestic sanctuary of this 20th century legend.

Lecture 5: Julia Child House, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1962
From her modest Cambridge kitchen, cluttered with pots and pans, Julia Child introduced North America to the joys of French cooking and became one of America’s most successful businesswomen. As John reconstructs a menu of her edible wonders, he’ll explore a house that reflected the humility of its occupant, as well as the cultural changes she brought forth into the world.

Lecture 6: Elvis Presley at Graceland, Memphis, Tennessee, 1970s
Elvis Presley was an all-American hybrid—a white boy from the south who was steeped in black culture; a child of poverty who grew incredibly rich—and his 70s-era mansion reflected his country’s extremes. As we survey Graceland’s riotous decorations, the gut-busting southern meals whipped up by its chef, and the notable cultural icons who visited Elvis there, we’ll examine a home as gaudy, and irresistibly charming, as the beloved musician who lived out his final years there.

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