In this moment, ‘Race and Modern Architecture’ is an essential addition to architects’ libraries, says Michael Badu


Michael Badu


‘Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present’
Eds. Irene Cheng, Charles L Davis, Mabel O Wilson
University of Pittsburgh Press, 424pp, £35

It perhaps only begins to be possible to discern the true size of the task at hand now, as the momentum for social change that gathered in the wake of the callous and racially motivated killing of George Floyd in May, begins to wane. High-profile hashtags notwithstanding, a clearer picture is emerging in the trajectories of institutions and of politics, in the more recent responses of public figures, work colleagues, some members of what might be called (for want of a better term) the ‘co-oppressed’, and even of some friends who – now that enough time has passed since Floyd’s televised killing – feel ‘safe’ enough to express their real opinions. It is evident that achieving a world where people are not judged by the colour of their skin is not so much a matter of resisting inertia –that more comfortable narrative of a war of attrition against certain stubborn but doomed-to-fail elements – but rather one of reversing entropy. The problem to be addressed does not concern activities and behaviour going on within the world, but rather the world itself. That is why the ‘calling out’ of institutions, constitutions and their histories is so often taken as a personal attack by people who identify with them, and why such people always feel justified in accusing those calling for change of whinging and complaining without offering solutions.


Top: Front view of the Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia, 1865. Courtesy of Library of Congress.
Above: An Overseer Doing His Duty near Fredericksburg, Virginia, circa 1798. Watercolour on paper by Benjamin Henry Latrobe.

As ‘moments’ (such as those of the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, the riots of 1980s and this one) continually pass and the ‘old world’ repeatedly reasserts itself, the argument for change has to be remade all over again. Hence the dismantling of ‘this’ world as it currently works – from the atoms up – is not just the only way to bring about the required transformation, but is also a treacherous task – professionally, psychologically and even physically – for those who attempt it. It is in this vein that a new collection of essays edited by Irene Cheng, Charles L Davis II and Mabel O Wilson, published under the title ‘Race and Modern Architecture’, should be seen.

The book shows why architects should not think that race has nothing intrinsically to do with architecture, and that the locus of the issue exists somewhere ‘out there’ in wider society”

The prevailing outlook is undoubtedly American but no one should conclude from this that the subject of the collection holds no relevance or interest for us on this side of the pond. There are 18 brilliant and varied essays spread over six sections covering a long period that starts with the Enlightenment (implicating the decidedly European origins of racism), takes in colonialism and ends by looking at more recent urban policy in America – and the explicit conflation of blight with Black life by political and economic actors. Most pertinently, these essays demonstrate why architects should not think that race has nothing intrinsically to do with ‘architecture’ as such, and that the locus of the issue exists somewhere ‘out there’ in wider society.

Interior view and child grilling hotdogs outside the United States Gypsum Co. Stubbins House at Research Village in Barrington, Illinois, April 12, 1955. “The ordinariness of the photo and the heteronormative, white family depicted is part of the rhetorical power of this photograph depicting the home designed by Francis Lethbridge”, say the editors of ‘Race and Modern Architecture.

For instance, Reinhold Martin, Peter Minosh and Mabel O Wilson herself highlight the importance of both the style and the taxonomical approach of Beaux Arts architecture (which ultimately foreshadowed Modernism) and the ideas of Boullée, Viollet-le-Duc and Mumford (to name just a few) to the making of a ‘white’ world. That this endeavour was carried out by Jefferson and his contemporaries on both sides of the Atlantic in the cold light of consciousness, is clearly demonstrated by the efforts of ostensibly progressive figures such as William Thornton – architect of the United States Capitol – to plan for the ‘cleaning of the conscience’ of the new white American Republic, once the slaves had finished building it, something that Thornton obviously understood as vital for the republic’s ongoing viability. Thornton hoped to achieve this by offering the slaves their ‘freedom’ in exchange for ‘repatriation’ to white-run colonies in Africa, thus ridding the new republic of its dirty little secret.  The idea didn’t take. It’s also evident in the development and employment of technologies such as the dumb-waiter at Jefferson’s eighteenth-century classical villa in Virginia, Monticello, which was designed to allow masters to be served by their slaves without being overheard by them, thereby keeping them ignorant and docile.

Detroit Eviction Defense, poster protesting eviction of Lela Whitfield, Detroit, July 2015. Image courtesy of Detroit Resists.

This last example is particularly pernicious, since it highlights the extent to which the construct that is ‘Whiteness’ actively manufactured ‘inhuman Blackness’, even as it passed laws and published scientific conclusions which lay claim to the naturally occurring nature of that inhumanity, and hence that of those racialised within its prescribed limits. It is a legacy which remains with us today, and from which even professorship provides no protection. During the weeks following the killing of George Floyd, Mabel O Wilson found herself suspended by Twitter, for commenting on an article by New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow on the subject of the Slave-Trade, stating: “The creation of the Negro out of the African fed the white imagination, their reason, their bellies, ‎their pockets, their passions, their inheritance and their nation. Race was/is as central to the ‎modern project as capitalism, humanism or democracy‎”. In order regain access to the platform, Wilson was forced to take this comment down.  This occurred at around the same time that President Trump retweeted and praised a golf-cart driving supporter of his who can be seen in a video chanting “White Power”.  Trump was apparently allowed to remove the video on his own volition three hours later, avoiding censure.

If the architectural profession is serious about playing its part in making change stick this time around, its members could do a lot worse than ensuring that ‘Race and Modern Architecture’ has a place in the libraries and bookshelves of its institutes, schools and offices.