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The Race of Architecture

Craig E. Barton, ed., Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001)

Lesley Naa Norle Lokko, ed., White Papers, Black Marks: Architecture, Race, Culture (University of Minnesota Press, 2000).

Since their arrival in the sixteenth century, Africans and Americans of African descent have been involved in American design, first as free and slave builders, carpenters, blacksmiths and later as architects. The American architectural profession as it is recognized today—a system in which one attends an accredited design school, interns under an architect, and passes an examination to become licensed—took shape after the Civil War. The very act of professionalization involved a desire to limit access. Largely unable to obtain admission to white architectural schools such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology (the first American school to offer architectural degree in 1865) or obtain employment under white architects, African Americans found it difficult to gain entry into and acceptance by the profession. With few exceptions, it was not until Tuskegee Institute began offering courses in the building trades in the 1880s that African Americans acquired architectural training. Additionally, African American architects were able to support themselves financially by teaching at the school and designing campus buildings.

Where white architectural schools such as MIT trained students in the Beaux-Arts style, Tuskegee Institute taught its students through more pragmatic methods. At Tuskegee, students under the tutelage of African American architects learned by making bricks, constructing the campus buildings that had been designed by their professors. Some students, like John Lankford (the first African American architect in Washington, D.C.), would return to teach. As the campus grew, students, alumni and professor could see their own fingerprints in the campus landscape. While a small percentage of architects were able to succeed in mainstream society despite their race (e.g. Los Angeles Architect Paul Revere Williams, noted in Architectural Digest as an architect for Hollywood stars, and Julian Francis Abele, architect of Philadelphia’s Museum of Art and Philadelphia Free Library, and Duke University Campus), more were limited to building for the parallel landscape of segregated Black America: black churches, universities, and the homes of the few African American wealthy elite, such as Vertner Tandy’s mansion for black hair care millionaire Madame CJ Walker.  

illustration by Mance Swainsson
illustration by Mance Swainsson

Despite this rich history, the dominance in architectural discourse of the white European male architect has only recently been challenged, allowing for exploration of the alternative issues of gender and sexuality, as evidenced by recent works including Kathryn Anthony, ed. Designing for Diversity, Beatriz Colomina, ed. Sexuality and Space:Gender, Race, and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession,  and Joel Sanders, Stud: Architectures of Masculinity. With the publication of Sites of Memory and White Papers, Black Marks, architectural historians are now beginning to ponder a relationship that has long been ignored—that of architecture and race. As an historically white male profession, architecture has never been a discipline open to examinations of nonwhites in architecture as anything other than exotic and primitive. The study of traditional, vernacular designs by nonwhite groups in such seminal books as Dell Upton, John Vlach, eds., Common Places: Readings in American Vernacular Architecture served to identify historic architectural contributions: Vlach, in Back of the Big House: the Architecture of Plantation Slavery explored the architectural landscape of the plantation from the slave’s point of view. His study began a compelling conversation relating the impact of slaves, race, and racism on the plantation architectural environment. But the idea that race continues to affect design, and that the desires for racial separation, distinction, and superiority could manifest themselves architecturally in anything other than the order of the “Big House” and the slave quarters, the separate entrances and facilities of the Jim Crow South, or the redlining of twentieth century urban centers, has only of late begun to be explored.


Craig E. Barton’s edited collection Sites of Memory examines how race contemporarily and historically shapes the development of the American built environment as well as the existence and mythology of dual, parallel Americas that are split along a racial divide. Sites of Memory’s interdisciplinary essays examine the African American cultural and built environment so that the reader begins to fully comprehend the American city and how both racial ideology and majority as well as marginalized cultures have shaped the urban landscape. Turning the pages, the reader enters an alternate reality. Within this reality, the urban fabric is defined through visibility, or lack thereof, as explored in Barton’s Duality and Invisibility: Race and Memory in the Urbanism of the American South. Barton seeks to reveal how racism has historically been built into Southern architecture, with plantations being only the most primary example.


The very idea that the built environment is a reflection of societal attitudes toward race has only recently found a place in architectural discourse. In the last ten years, books, articles, and conferences exploring race in architecture have focused on identifying and analyzing African American architects and their work. The primary rationale was that the contributions of African Americans in architecture had been invisible, and by bringing the architectural legacy of American nonwhites to the foreground, a broader discussion and debate would be sparked. Clearly the publication of Sites and White Papers suggests that the interest garnered by books such as Jack Travis’s African American Architects in Current Practice and Karen E. Hudson’s study of her great grandfather’s life and career, Paul Revere Williams: Legacy of Style, has not dissipated.


African American culture’s relationship to the urban landscape is defined in terms of visibility/invisibility, or opposition; it is understood in terms of what it is not. In “Duality and Invisibility,” Barton explores how space is manipulated to control African Americans in some cases, to render them invisible as at Jefferson’s Monticello, one is able to survey the vast landscape. Yet through a manipulation of landscape elevations and the placement of wings, the slave workforce would have been invisible. Despite the dependence of Monticello on its large number of slave laborers, Jefferson succeeded in rendering them visually non-existent. Barton notes that this is ironic since “there are few locations within the composition where black and white bodies were in closer proximity.” Through such devices, it is possible to spatialize race, to build segregation and racial hierarchy into architecture.


The contemporary spaces of separation are investigated in Nathaniel Q. Belcher’s “Miami’s Colored-Over Segregation: Segregation, Interstate 95 and Miami’s African American Legends.” Known as Colored Town, numerous Black communities existed in the heart of Miami only to be dissected and disrupted by the introduction of Interstate 95. As occurred in countless minority, middle-to-low income neighborhoods through the process called Urban Renewal, which more often meant “Negro removal,” Overtown’s central district was destroyed by I-95. Now the bustling center is recalled only in memories and photographs.


The idea of a generic walking tour through Manhattan hardly sounds revolutionary. Yet simply scanning Felicia Davis’s list of sites owned by freed slaves or that housed slaves in “Uncovering Places of Memory: Walking Tours of Manhattan,” the reader is amazed by how many slave sites the city has. The land forming present-day Gramercy Park was sold to a former slave by Peter Stuyvesant’s widow? Land from the Bowery to Broadway and Prince Street to Astor Place was given to freed slaves? The Harlem Road, or today’s Boston Post Road that includes parts of Park Avenue, Madison Avenue, 5th Avenue and the Bowery, was constructed by Dutch West India Company slaves in 1658? How is it possible that this history of the city has been secret? Our monuments should not only serve to celebrate our past, but should also enlighten us about our most complex and unsavory history. How is the location of a freed slave community less significant than the residence of a Rockefeller or JP Morgan? The collective memory of Americans should include the African American presence—person, site and mythology.


Where Sites of Memory focuses on collective, architectural, historical, and ephemeral memory of African Americans in the American built environment, the essays of White Papers, Black Marks explore race as a construct for control established by white European colonists. Not limited to how race and architecture intertwine in America, the authors explore global and diverse situations from South Africa to Australia. Architects and architectural historians have failed to explore the significance of race and cultural identity in architecture internationally. The contributors to White Papers, on the other hand, delve into the ways that architecture has served to enforce racial ideology, separation and superiority. Lesley Naa Norle Lokko orders the text architecturally using scales: 1:125,000 as an urban scale, 1:1,250 a street scale, and 1:1 an intimate scale. The authors’ diverse backgrounds are illustrated by both their different emphases and usages of architectural imagery to reinforce their words. And Lokko’s own understanding of the challenge presented by this first step in the architectural discourse of race, as well as her openness to the diverse and conflicting voices within this discourse, helps provide a fascinating and overdue architectonic conversation.


Architectural organization can, in the case of Colonial schools in west and southern Africa, serve as the manifestation of racial hierarchy. In Dr. N. Ola Udku’s “The Colonial Face of Educational Space,” the school is viewed as a citadel, a purveyor of Western, “developed” knowledge. Because of their use of durable, prefabricated materials, the Western schools appear symbolically and physically to be more permanent than the indigenous buildings such as the fattening houses of southeastern Nigeria that fattened and taught young women marital skills or the diverse sacred and traditional rituals that were housed in temporary structures. The newer schools, however, have been uncritically perceived as methods of attaining modernity, or development.


Issues of professional diversity are discussed by Malindi Neluheni in “Apartheid Urban Development.” As the South African planning profession opens to nonwhites, the message is clear that emerging nonwhite planners are required to conform to the status quo. There is a division between the acceptable and traditional African settings. The conflict for Neluheni rests in the question of whose standards one is required to conform to or to adhere. Contemporary South African planning continues to be performed in a vacuum without any attention or interest in the needs of the nonwhite residents. The challenge to the profession is how to involve and incorporate the needs and voices of the majority into the planning and design solutions for the country.


As one reads Felicia Davis’s “(Un)covering/(Re)covering,” the extent to which African American’s lives and contributions have historically been removed from and displaced within the American urban fabric again becomes clear. Regarding the uncovering of the African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan in 1991, Davis the architect of the Memorial and Museum for the African Burial Ground, recounts her own attempts to recover this space through architectural representation that resisted ownership, as well as representation simultaneously ubiquitous and ambiguous such as the Muslim replacing his surname with X. Taking design cues from West African funeral cloth and the drawings by archeologists of the excavated bodies, Davis begins to appropriate symbols and patterns that might explore the problems of African American identity.


Monuments detailing civic, historical or cultural identity in America have traditionally ignored nonwhite identity. Until recently, nonwhites have memorialized their existence and history in non-architectural ways—music, literature, poetry, storytelling, and memory. With the design of such monuments as the Memorial and Museum of the African Burial Ground, Center for Nonviolence, and the establishment of African American historic tours and trails, interest in both manifesting the African American existence architecturally as well as understanding architecture in terms of race has increased. These two volumes address that growing interest, representing an elemental shift among both architects and scholars toward understanding the built environment in terms of gender, sexuality, and race. As the authors reference pop culture icons, poets, architects, writers, philosophers and historians, it is clear that to understand ourselves and our architecture one must look through a broad lens. These volumes provide an introduction to a discourse that in order to remain relevant must incorporate the vibrant, hitherto silent histories, stories, and structures of the diverse and the marginalized into the global built environment.


Tia Blassingame


The Brooklyn Rail


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