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Remembering Eleni Bastéa

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Bastéa in Oxford, 2015, and below in 2004 (Mark Forte)

Friends and colleagues gathered at the Stanford Humanities Center last Wednesday to honor Professor Eleni Bastéa, who passed away on January 12, after a long illness. 

Bastéa, who was Regents Professor of Architecture at the University of New Mexico, was in the middle of yearlong residency at the Center as a Marta Sutton Weeks Fellow. Over a celebratory dinner, tributes and remembrances poured in about a woman who loved poetry and the sea, who always thoughtfully shared little things that her colleagues would enjoy, and who managed to remain unfailingly positive.

“From the moment she walked in the door, it was clear that Eleni was going to connect with everyone,” said Kelda Jamison, the Center’s Fellowship Program Manager. “The curiosity was palpable.”

And connect she did. More than one of her fellow colleagues described Bastéa as a kindred spirit, including Rima Greenhill, a senior lecturer in Stanford’s Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures. “We were drawn to each other,” Greenhill said. “Eleni had these magnetic eyes.”

"From the moment she walked in the door, it was clear that Eleni was going to connect with everyone."

Greenhill also spoke of Bastéa’s kindness. When she learned that Greenhill collected antique fountain pens, Bastéa soon brought in five of her own favorite pens to share. And Peggy Phelan, a professor in Stanford’s Departments of Theater & Performance Studies and English, talked about how they would exchange poems, though she lamented the fact it wasn’t done over email so she didn’t have a record of it.

Eleni Bastéa was born in Thessaloniki, Greece. Growing up, she was keenly aware that her grandparents had emigrated to Greece during forced population exchanges from the other side of the Aegean, from the city of Smyrna (now Izmir) and Cappadocia, both in what is now modern Turkey. In Thessaloniki, she witnessed the many cultural and social changes in her neighborhood, and their impacts on her family. The connections between individual experience and larger historical contexts remained a focus of Bastéa’s scholarly work throughout her career. 

After relocating to the United States, Bastéa received a BA in art history from Bryn Mawr College, and a master’s and Ph.D. in architecture from UC Berkeley. In 2001 she joined the faculty of the University of New Mexico, where she served as both a Regents Professor of Architecture and the Director of the International Studies Institute. 

Her books include The Creation of Modern Athens: Planning the Myth (Cambridge University Press, 2000), also published in Greek (Libro, 2008, author's translation), Memory and Architecture (University of New Mexico Press, 2004), and Venice without Gondolas, a poetry collection (Finishing Line Press, 2013).

During her fellowship at the Humanities Center, Bastéa was focused on a book project titled Geographies of Loss, which concerned the memory of lost places among refugees and examined the politics of commemoration. 

While the plight of refugees has been the focus of many scholarly studies, Bastéa argued that we know relatively little of how these refugees remember the places they left behind, and how those memories continue to shape them following displacement. Bastéa insisted on the importance of examining the limits of commemoration, asking how populations who have suffered losses of their own acknowledge the loss of others’—for example, enemy soldiers killed by “our” troops, or homes in “our” cities that used to belong to others. 

Addressing the limits of commemoration, she argued, will deepen our understanding of social and national memory. Bastéa’s research incorporated oral history archives, interviews with refugees and their descendents, and wide-ranging literature in history, architecture, and anthropology.

Bastéa is survived by her husband, Mark Forte, and their sons Marcello and Mario, daughter-in-law Yizhuo, and grand-daughter Alinea.

Speaking about her fellowship at the Humanities Center, Forte said, “I was happy to see that Eleni connected in the way that I knew she would connect. She was so excited to come here, and she did make some kind of difference.”