Seeing Race in Architectural History — A Review of Race and Modern Architecture

Cheng, Irene, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson, eds. Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.

Reviewed by Vita Baselice

When I proposed to organize a symposium on the topic of race and architecture, I received some resistance. One colleague asked what race had to do with architecture, suggesting that the answer, in fact, was “nothing.” This is by no means the first time that I’ve heard opposition toward such interdisciplinary thinking. Indeed, many architectural historians of more traditional persuasions term studies of race and architecture as more “sociological,” in other words not “real” architectural history. 

The latter is instead defined by in-depth analysis of notable architectural works by well-known designers whose structures transformed the technologies and cultures of building. This attitude is misleading because architects never work in isolation and instead function as part of broader ecosystems of construction labor, including architectural teams, materials manufacturers, contractors, sub-contractors, builders, real estate developers, loan officers, urban planners, demolition workers, and scores of other nameless laborers. 

This is precisely why Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson’s edited collection,  Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present, is so important and timely—it articulates the voices of scores of young and emerging scholars who seek to understand the built environment as a rich resource for thinking through dynamics of labor, capitalism, race, and culture. Indeed, the collection aptly illustrates that the topic is not a contemporary invention or a reflection of our current concerns for social justice, but rather a fundamental and centuries-old relationship that has shaped both architecture and racial categories alike. 

The book’s immense contribution to scholarship is evident already—its first printing was sold out within weeks of release, and the Society of Architectural Historians hosted a book talk with the editors. Undoubtedly, Race and Modern Architecture will be a key text assigned in architecture and cultural studies courses that aim to reframe the study of high architecture or examine vernacular built landscapes. 

The book’s eighteen essays are organized thematically and chronologically. They address topics like the Enlightenment, organicism, nationalism, representation, colonialism, and urbanism. Scholars of all stripes will have much to bite into topically, from landscape design and sculpture to urban renewal, as well as geographically, from built landscapes in all parts of the United States to Mexico, Germany, Italy, Malaysia, and Lagos. Some essays also engage with interdisciplinary theoretical frameworks, including W. E. B. du Bois’s discussion of the color line, Frantz Fanon’s analysis of colonialism and compartmentalization, Saidiya Hartman’s reading of the depictions of tortured Black bodies, and Michel Foucault’s classic theorizing of biopolitics. Irene Cheng’s contribution directly examines the importance of theories about racial typologies and hierarchies for developing romantic nationalist architecture. 

Thomas Jefferson makes an important appearance in both Mabel O. Wilson and Reinhold Martin’s contributions. Indeed, architectural historians have long considered Jefferson to be the father of American architecture, thanks to his eclectic yet practical repurposing of European forms. However, they have rarely considered how Jefferson created a foundation for how race would function in the broader American building culture. Wilson therefore examines how the neoclassical aesthetics of the Virginia Capitol presented democratic values on the surface, but hid critical Black enslaved labor—a dynamic she also detailed in her plenary talk for the Society of Architectural Historians 2020 annual conference. Martin connects Jefferson to architectural historian and theorist Lewis Mumford, thinking through the related structures of civilization, technology, and race. 

Confederate celebration of the first battle of Manassas at the Virginia State Capitol, designed by Thomas Jefferson and built in Richmond, Virginia. David H. Anderson,”State Capitol” (ca. 1861), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Urban historians will be especially interested to read about blight in Detroit and renewal in Berlin, narrated by Andrew Herscher and Esra Akcan. Herscher examines ideas about property and value to describe how “blight” continues to be a term reserved for Black and hence less valued homes. Akcan echoes Herscher’s concerns for how language about renewal is impregnated with racial assumptions. She discusses how Turkish immigrants in Berlin were removed from their homes due to their placement in the inferior category of refugee and noncitizen. 

Many essays are also individually fascinating: Adrienne Brown’s focus on the “cowboys of the sky” who constructed skyscrapers highlights how the large scale of construction made disposable the lives of individual Black and immigrant laborers. Dianne Harris’s detailing of the photographic representations of the mid-century U.S. Gypsum Research Village and its “sanctioned domestic voyeurism” illustrates the continued importance of the mid-century landscape to the study of race and architecture.  

Collectively, Race and Modern Architecture makes a clear case for the importance of race to the development of the built environment on the global scale. The issue, then, is not about writing race into architectural history, but rather finally seeing it for the foundational role that it played in structuring all building traditions. The editors conclude that “sometimes [race] was there all along, but we did not know how to ‘see’ it.” It also articulates the importance of shifting scholarship and teaching in architectural history away from celebrity designers—and designers in general—to focus on lesser known actors whose presence has been not merely overlooked but, in some cases, actively erased. Especially exciting will be new works that build upon this volume to address other topics, for example, race, gender, and architecture. 

Vyta Baselice is a doctoral candidate in American Studies at the George Washington University, where she is completing a dissertation on the cultural and social history of concrete, titled “The Gospel of Concrete: American Infrastructure and Global Power.” Her research is centered on twentieth-century architecture and urbanism, with a particular focus on the manufacture and dissemination of construction materials and their effects upon built, social, and natural environments.

Featured image (at top): “Frederick Douglass Housing Project in Anacostia, DC” (1942), Gordon Parks, Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

One thought on “Seeing Race in Architectural History — A Review of Race and Modern Architecture

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.