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BY-NC-ND 4.0 license Open Access Published by Deutscher Kunstverlag (DKV) March 9, 2023

Architectural History and Race

  • Regine Hess

    REGINE HESS is Senior Researcher at the Chair of Construction Heritage and Preservation at ETH Zurich. Her research interests are architecture history and theory from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, exhibition and museum studies, heritage and preservation, global architecture history, and methodology. She is the author or co-editor of Emotionen am Werk (2013), Geschichte und Gegenwart der Kunsthalle Karlsruhe (2014), Paul Schneider-Esleben: Architekt (2015), Architektur und Akteure (2017), Staatsbauschule München (2022), and two special issues of kritische berichte: Housing Regimes (2020) and Rassismus in der Architektur / Racism in Architecture (2021).

Reviewed Publication:

Cheng Irene, L. Davis II Charles, and O. Wilson Mabel (eds.), Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020, 447 pages, 97 illustrations, $ 45.00, ISBN 978-0-8229-6659-3

“Architectural historians have traditionally avoided the topic of race” (3). Thus Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson open their anthology on historiographies, ideologies, and space-making practices marked by racism from the construction of the capitol of what then was Richmond, Virginia, in 1788 to the International Building Exhibition in West Berlin in 1987. The volume is the result of a conference organized by the interdisciplinary Race and Modern Architecture Project at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation in 2016.

In their preface, the editors define the term race as “a concept of human difference that established hierarchies of power and domination between Europe and Europe’s ‘others,’ by classifying human subjects into modern/non-modern, civilized/primitive, white/nonwhite, and human/less than human binaries” (4). Accordingly, they highlight Hanno-Walter Kruft’s lenient treatment of Eugène-Emmanuel Violletle-Duc’s connection, mentioned only in passing, to Arthur de Gobineau in Geschichte der Architekturtheorie of 1985 as a striking example of a surprising lack of awareness when faced with the persistence of racist ideas in architectural theory (3).[1] Re-reading the passage in question, one cannot but agree: Kruft makes no attempt at a political contextualization of Viollet-le-Duc, and it is irritating to find that the open racism of his Historie de l’habitation humaine of 1875 remains unaddressed.[2] The same, it should be noted, applies to the brief introduction to the 1978 reprint by Geert Bekaert.[3] Further into the volume, in the article “Structural Racialism in Modern Architectural Theory” (134–153), Cheng even argues that Viollet-le-Duc’s entanglements with racist ideology are constitutive of modernist architectural theory (134).

According to Cheng, Davis, and Wilson, the concept of modernity hence should be reconsidered. To them, modernity meant establishing order in ever larger colonial empires with ever more languages, peoples, and artefacts through disciplines such as philology, anthropology, ethnology, archaeology, and art history. This process has taken place since the eighteenth century under steep power hierarchies and ruthless exploitative conditions, namely in the plantation economy and the transatlantic slave trade (5). How are the Age of Enlightenment and the origins of our sciences linked to this process? Is our postulate of a white modernity or a white city, viewed in this way, inherently racist, although at first glance it refers to the color of the houses? Sharon Rotbard has demonstrated how a white city is conditioned upon the existence of a black city as its pauperized twin.[4] However, the question must also be asked whether such binarity can still be maintained.

This also opens up new perspectives on the understanding of modernity, which is intertwined with racist thinking and a product of capitalism, slavery, and empire (5). To overlook race, colonial violence, and slavery is, according to the editors, to fail to grasp the role of architecture in global modernity. Localizing architecture within global expansion does not merely mean expanding the geographical spectrum of architects and works, and thus the canon, but also dealing with the constitutive meaning of race (10). Mabel O. Wilson’s essay “Nation, Race, and Slavery in Jefferson’s America,” which opens the first section, “Race and the Enlightenment,” thus raises a number of fundamental questions: Who was part of “the people” of Virginia and the United States as a whole, who was excluded, and how did chattel slavery influence the constitution of the USA and its representation, i.e., the emerging state architecture? As is well known, the granting of civil rights depended on the color of the skin. In part, enslaved black people owned by builders constructed the Virginia state capitol of Thomas Jefferson, the White House, and the U.S. Capitol. Jefferson himself owned over 600 slaves during his lifetime (40). He wrote the Notes on the State of Virginia, a treatise that, as Wilson shows, asserted the inherent inferiority of black people for the benefit of readers in Europe. The work and writings analyzed together establish the connection between architectural discourse, nationalism, natural history and philosophy, democratic ideals, and racial difference in the eighteenth century. Whilst this connection comes to no surprise, it must be pointed out that relevant scholars such as Fiske Kimball (1888–1955) and Frederick D. Nichols (1911–1955) failed to explore the fundamental relationship of chattel slavery and architecture, thus perpetuating the myth that slavery only took place in the remote plantations of the South.

Peter Minosh in his essay places William Thornton and his designs for the U.S. Capitol, with its front and back facades facing an urban and a pastoral landscape, respectively, on the territory of the Black Atlantic. They would represent “two distinct social, environmental, and economic systems,” based on the commodification of enslaved people (56). The American Enlightenment, which underlies the state’s political, economic, and social structure, is symbolized in Thornton’s unrealized Capitol plans and was “negatively determined through the absolute rejection of blackness as a site of political sovereignty” (ibid.).

Reinhold Martin’s contribution similarly anchors race in the discourse of enlightenment and civilization. The “Republic of Letters” that Thomas Jefferson engaged in from the country estate of Monticello, which was built by enslaved people, is countered by Martin in a most vivid way by the dumbwaiter, at whose cellar exit an enslaved man had to wait until his master ordered a new bottle. This spatial segregation and silencing of black voices in the discourse of the American Enlightenment is part of an impressive “object lesson … to mark Enlightenment’s contradictions” (60).

Addison Godel’s essay is dedicated to China and its reception in architectural treatises of the early modern period and the ancien régime. The chinoiserie in landscape architecture was not just a fashion, but rather a site for the theorization of Chinese difference (95). This had changed from admiration to racially based devaluation, and it legitimized the destruction of garden artworks such as the famous Yuanmingyuan by the British army, in whose eyes the garden was in a state of decay anyway. The section presents natural philosophical foundations from the Age of Enlightenment in connection with state architecture, which are carried over into modernity – as shown in the three essays of the next section, “Race and Organicism.”

Charles L. Davis II breaks with a concept of transfer that characterizes architectural history, in particular if understood as art history: that of the influence of European building styles on American architecture until the emergence of the International Style in the USA. In fact, American architecture as settler architecture is a topic hardly ever addressed in the historical overviews of our discipline. Who actually were the bearers of American architecture (or were propagated as such), who represented it in the European perspective, and for whom was it built? For Davis, it has been white nativists who demanded a white Christian nation in the sense of Manifest Destiny, which produced an architecture of the West that was to indicate the desired course of civilization for future generations as an “exclusively white definition of American character” (100).

Joanna Merwood-Salisbury focuses on Peter B. Wight’s National Academy of Design Building in New York City and its patrons and architects as members of the Northern antislavery coalition. The presence of racial thinking in the change from Neoclassicism (rejected as a national style associated with slavery) to the Gothic Revival can be seen in contrast to its prevailing interpretations as a homage to John Ruskin’s Venetian Gothic, spread over Europe and its colonies (Mark Crinson also discusses an example of this style from the postwar era in Kenya [268]). Cultural identity has been race-oriented, and in nineteenth-century evolutionary thinking a race was not fully valid until it had developed its own forms of artistic expression, while the architecture of Africa’s and America’s indigenous peoples would have been considered immature (121). Accordingly, as Merwood-Salisbury points out, its bearers were not recognized as free laborers or artists in the sense of Ruskin. Within this organizational thinking by abolitionist actors of American capitalism, the Gothic style, with its social values seemingly deriving from the Middle Ages, for Wight was the outcome of a “free ‘native’ American race” considered as white. He strongly influenced the Chicago School (133). This essay demonstrates exemplary methodology for embedding a building in its political and economic, but also aesthetic, context under the premise of revealing the inherent racism of its builders and founders.

This examination is followed by Cheng’s broader elaboration on “Structural Racialism in Modern Architectural Theory.” Its evolutionary development had led nineteenth-century architects to search for genetic principles of development and to turn to the concepts of racial theorists. (One can also observe such an association in Weimar Germany, when architects such as Paul Schultze-Naumburg, Paul Schmitthenner, and Paul Bonatz joined forces with the racial theorist Hans F. K. Günther in the group Der Block.) Examples are Quatrèmere de Quincy (Encyclopédie méthodique d’architecture, 1788), Edward A. Freeman (History of Architecture, 1849), Owen Jones (Grammar of Ornament, 1856), and again Viollet-le-Duc, especially in the Histoire de l’habitation humaine, according to which Gallo-Roman people, as descendants of the invented race of Aryans, would have shown a special aptitude for rationalism. For a small but influential group of architects, this was an anthropological-racial model within which they would experiment with glass, concrete, and iron. These, Cheng claims, were often the more progressive architects in search of legitimacy: “Over time, racial themes evolved from a nationalist emphasis on finding the appropriate architecture for a particular country to finding the best expression for the present – that is, for the modern period” (137). This finding can also be helpful in answering the question of why modern architects who were not Jewish could work, and sometimes indeed flourish, under the Nazi regime, and why they felt – at least publicly – no guilt after the dictatorship (from which they of course distanced themselves), and erased their racist terms and concepts while continuing to work with them.

Though Viollet-le-Duc’s racial approach to architectural theory did not remain unopposed, it conformed with the theory and practice of other architects such as Charles Garnier, who presented L’habitation humaine in an exhibition at the 1889 World’s Fair in Paris – for which the Eiffel Tower, then under construction, formed the backdrop. This juxtaposition of the “rational” monumental building and the huts and tents in its shadow illustrated the allegedly low civilizational level of so-called primitive peoples.[5] By and large, racial theories were less openly addressed in the twentieth century – instead, the “ideal of color blind ‘racelessness’ became the political teleology of modernization” (150). Cheng argues that “The notion of a temporal progression from primitive to modern was retained, but the attendant concept of inherent racial fixity was sublimated. In the process, race became first subtext and then a specter of modernism” (ibid.).

Section III, “Race and Nationalism,” is devoted to nation building and the meaning of the hybridization and/or segregation of races. Luis E. Carranza demonstrates how pre-Hispanic works and mestizaje architecture were crafted into a mythical single entity in order to forge the population into a nation. Brian L. McLaren addresses the political, racial-eugenic, and architectural discourse in Mussolini’s Italy after the conquest of Ethiopia. Tied to the issue of autarchy, architects were obliged to utilize materials and techniques “that moved architecture away from modern systems and toward more traditional building methods – in what can be considered a direct attempt to define its genetic material” (173). Lastly, Kenny Cupers explores the modern invention of “indigenous” architecture in service of the German colonial empire, and questions architecture’s claim to represent ethnic identity in general. This invention and its implementation would have legitimized the “self-evident spread of ‘international’ architectural principles, forms, and styles,” which became most problematic for the architectural history of imperial colonies (189). Be it in East Prussia or Namibia, the invention of indigenous architecture was a powerful tool of colonial rule in using “the accompanying architectural styles … against those who had indigenous rights to the land” (199).

Even the skyscraper merely seems to be an object to tell the story of race around 1900, argues literary scholar Adrienne Brown in the opening essay of Section IV, “Race and Representation,” because of the iconic image of the white architect on the one hand and the paucity of sources on the other. In her view, the racial perception of the built environment is determined by the latter’s operations, which is why scholars should think about race in more site-specific terms (205). With the help of the 1928 book Skyscrapers and The Men Who Built Them by William A. Starrett (whose construction company built the Empire State Building), which is largely free of the racialization of the workers on skyscraper construction sites, Brown points at “race’s strategic presences and absences,” which she also recognizes in the ornament theory of Adolf Loos (216). The latter strove to increase the functionality of buildings by keeping them free from (primitive) ornamentation and the “‘ornamental’ detail of race” while benefitting from the heroic “‘scale of bigness’” (ibid.). Starrett, when illustrating the reuse of materials from demolished buildings, depicts “racial colonies” with “grotesque and laughable” (ornamental) structures (217). Thus Brown highlights the function of the concept of race in seemingly color-blind considerations.

Dianne Harris’s essay, “Modeling Race and Class,” deals with the national suburban ideal of the model homes of the U.S. Gypsum Research Village in Barrington, near Chicago, a “sundown town” that kept out black and Jewish people in the 1950s. Their representation in the snapshot-like photographs by Hedrich Blessing serves to construct “truth claims” in order to “solidify notions that linked race, class, and gender to specific corporate capitalist ideals” (221). In temporal and spatial proximity to the U.S. Gypsum Research Village, the funeral of Emmett Till, a fourteen-year-old black boy who was lynched, took place in 1955, and a famous photograph of the traumatic event appeared in the press. Viewed in isolation, the – banal, therein particularly powerful – photographs of the model homes appear to be non-racist, and all traces of violence like those that led to Till’s murder seem erased from them. But in the parallelization with images showing the execution of racism their representative visual, rhetorical, and spatial codes become perceptible and examinable.

Section V, “Race and Colonialism,” is composed of essays by Jiat-Hwee Chang, Mark Crinson, and Adedoyin Teriba that demonstrate exemplary approaches to global architectural history focusing on colonial histories, actors, architectural design approaches, and knowledge contained in ornaments. Chang examines the South-North transfer in postcolonial Singapore between the architects Lim Chong Keat and Buckminster Fuller via craft and geometry. Southeast Asia was thereby recuperated as a zone of fundamental innovation and early civilization, Chang concludes (258). In Crinson’s essay on urban segregation in Kenya and tropical architecture in London, both the Law Offices in Nairobi by Amyas Connell, with an oriel window in the style of Ruskin’s Venetian Gothic on a postwar concrete building, and Richard Hughes’s plans for segregated housing in the new town of Maragua are interpreted in terms of “an organization formed to maintain British economic interest by staving off both white supremacy and black nationalism. It aimed to increase European immigration, and to control the transition from white rule in East Africa to power sharing via a multiracial electorate of the educated” (275).

In this section’s last essay, Teriba examines Mohammed Shitta-Bey’s mosque in the British colony of Lagos (today Nigeria) as the result of a South-South transfer between local Lagosians and settler groups from Brazil and Sierra Leone forming a “Lagosian elite” of òyìnbó dúdú (white-black in Yorùbá-language) – or, more broadly put, as the product of an exchange “about race, difference, and foreigners that relied upon a variety of visual markers including architectural styles” (286). After a brief yet insightful historical summary of the demographics and urbanism of Lagos, Teriba analyzes the spatial-racial setting of the mosque in the town’s fabric between the Lagosian king’s and the British colonial seat’s areas. Boasting elements of both classical and local architecture, its hybridized external appearance thus reflects a local racial discourse placing African and South American immigrants in the colony.

According to Andrew Herscher, urban “blight” signifies overcrowded or abandoned working-class neighborhoods housing the nonwhite labor reserve of the capitalist system – with the intention of eventually demolishing them. In his article, the first of the volume’s final section, “Race and Urbanism,” Herscher draws a genealogy of “blight” via the concept of structural racism (worth reading also for urban historians or preservationists of middle European neighborhoods), tying it to the current Black Homes Matter movement.[6] By recognizing that “blighted” homes are black homes, critical architectural historians can locate urban forms of oppression and resistance more deeply in the history of the city and migration, as hidden racial motives become tangible.

Lisa Uddin concentrates on the artist Noah Purifoy and his “junk” practice within the racial dynamics of architectural modernism in Los Angeles’s segregated Watts neighborhood. How, she asks, did it withstand “procedures of dereliction that yoked normative architectural modernism to whiteness and ravaged urban sites and objects to blackness” (310)? Living in Watts, Purifoy worked with discarded material of the area. In 1972, he was invited to exhibit at the German Industries Fair in West Berlin together with Ed Kienholz, Robert Rauschenberg, and John Chamberlain, but also alongside demonstrations of waste management and sustainable furniture by Frank Gehry. Purifoy was the only black artist in the show, and his works were located differently from those of his white colleagues; even garbage became racialized in press articles that reduced his “junk modernism” to “a viable genre of black humanity” (322).

Esra Akcan’s article on immigrant workers, citizens’ rights, and building politics at the Internationale Bauausstellung Berlin (IBA) 1987 ends the book. This is a welcome conclusion for the German reviewer, who would yet like to point out that the topics, methods, and approach demonstrated in this volume are transferable to the German-speaking architectural world.[7] Akcan makes clear that citizens’ rights, migration, dwelling, and the city are interrelated, be it in the run-down Kreuzberg district of postwar West Berlin or in prosperous Manhattan of the 1920s. The fact that the article is in part an excerpt from a book does not diminish its significance, but contextualizes the author’s research even more clearly within the broader context of race.[8] Based on a brief survey of the “historical connections between racism and anti-Semitism in Germany,” Akcan indeed attempts a site-specific “triangulation between German, Jewish, and Turkish populations in relation to discrimination” (330).

The volume provides a wealth of illustrative examples of research fields, theoretical approaches, and methods with which a wider range of issues beyond its scope could be addressed as well, such as the history of old-town redevelopment, postwar typologies of border sanitation, or so-called social hotspots and civil rights, to name but a few examples. However, Itohan Osayimwese recently formulated a general critique directed, among others, to the book under review.[9] Osayimwese problematizes the origins and filiation of race studies and postcolonial studies in architectural history when noting that “today’s decolonial approach in architectural history builds substantially on the work of non-Euro-American immigrant women scholars in United States institutions in the 1980s,” the acknowledgement of which she misses in major works including the book reviewed here – namely publications by Swati Chattopadhyay, Hannah Le Roux, and Ola Uduku.[10] Indeed, the contributions to Race and Modern Architecture build on works by classical philosophers and politicians such as Immanuel Kant or Thomas Jefferson, theorizing practitioners such as William Chambers and Owen Jones, and canonical emancipatory/postcolonial writers from W. E. B. Du Bois to Edward Said – all of which are contextualized through diligent cross-referencing of mostly European and American secondary literature. But what exactly is Osayimwese’s point here? Discussing sample texts by Chattopadhyay, Le Roux, and Uduku, she reminds us of the positionality of authors, questions the power of the architect’s selective personal archive, and points out the binaries at the core of our discipline, for example the dualism of black/white cities or the exclusion/inclusion of people of color with tropical architecture in Africa. She reminds us of earlier decolonization processes in the first half of the twentieth century and their incompleteness to this day, and at the same time points out that postcolonial and decolonial research often intersect but differ “in the degree of emphasis on the present, on praxis, and in geographical focus.”[11]

Thus, at the end of the review, a methodology and its representatives are introduced that broaden the scope of the previous discussion. This fruitful debate is necessarily unfinished. The importance of its knowledge production, and the fact that competencies can be lacking, is shown by the problematic handling of the global art show documenta and its curators in the summer of 2022. Race and Modern Architecture is a groundbreaking work for the inner-disciplinary discourse and offers challenging theses, but when curatorial practices fail and are criticized as they were in Kassel, it becomes obvious that voices and knowledge from the Global South are missing from the discussion.

About the author

Regine Hess

REGINE HESS is Senior Researcher at the Chair of Construction Heritage and Preservation at ETH Zurich. Her research interests are architecture history and theory from the eighteenth to the twenty-first century, exhibition and museum studies, heritage and preservation, global architecture history, and methodology. She is the author or co-editor of Emotionen am Werk (2013), Geschichte und Gegenwart der Kunsthalle Karlsruhe (2014), Paul Schneider-Esleben: Architekt (2015), Architektur und Akteure (2017), Staatsbauschule München (2022), and two special issues of kritische berichte: Housing Regimes (2020) and Rassismus in der Architektur / Racism in Architecture (2021).

Published Online: 2023-03-09
Published in Print: 2023-03-28

© 2023 Regine Hess, published by De Gruyter

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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