Architecture and Racism: A Much Needed Conversation

gsapp race and modern architecture

As I am currently working on the next issue of The Funambulist Magazine dedicated to Design and Racism, I was particularly interested to listen to the video of the recent round table organized by Mabel O. Wilson at Columbia GSAPP about “Critical Dialogues on Race and Modern Architecture” (see below). This enriching conversation between the guest speakers, Adrienne BrownMark CrinsonDianne HarrisSaidiya Hartman, and the two discussants, Irene Cheng and Charles Davis is self-explanatory and I simply encourage readers to take the time to listen to it — I particularly/personally recommend Hartman’s intervention, as well as the discussants’ inspiring formulation of additional questions. What triggers my need to write an article about this conversation is therefore much less the vain idea that I would have anything to add to these works, than the shock of seeing the amount of empty seats during the conversation in Columbia’s school of architecture’s main auditorium. Of course, there are always circumstantial reasons that can explain such a low attendance: the time of the event (lunchtime), the lack of publicity (although I did hear about it while living almost 6,000 kilometers away), or the various deadlines that students and professors may encounter at various times of the semester. However, hiding behind this contingency would be ignoring the reality of things: not only do architects rarely address the relationship between their discipline and racism, they seem to ignore it when the topic is finally raised in this kind of occasional events. The small audience gathered around this topic in a school that has the ambition to present a vision of architecture’s future is painfully symptomatic of this problem.

At the base of this problem, there is this eloquent figure of 91.3% of American architects being White, as Wilson recalls in her introduction — figures in most European countries are likely to be even more overwhelming. Just like when it comes to statistics of gender inequality, it is easy to understand that challenges to patriarchy and white supremacy, although not necessary actively prevented — they often are but this is beyond the point here — are mostly ignored in a profession that is mostly composed by bodies benefiting from such systems of inequality. The more this disproportion in the composition of who is architect will tend to disappear (as it is likely to happen, in particular when it comes to gender), the more we can expect anti-racism and feminism to be addressed by the profession. However, considering the problem only through this angle as it is often done (focusing on who can be considered as Black and/or female successful architects, for instance) is not enough (although, again, crucial too) and would ignore the essential function of architecture.

Architecture is an instrument of domination. It organizes bodies in space with a varying degree of coercion, from what may appear as voluntary to the most extreme instances of violence. It does not invent racism, but it provides the spatial and territorial conditions for racism to exercise itself. Without architecture, racism would not be able to sustain itself, as explained in a few past articles about the extreme historical example of the slave ship. This does not mean that architecture cannot serve an anti-racist agenda, it simply means that its essential function allows more ‘willingly’ the conditions for racism (i.e. for a domination) to be perpetuated than dissolved. We might add to this that an architecture oriented against a given system of domination would contribute to produce new norms that are not deprived of forms of violence, which would need to be also addressed: this is what an instrument of domination fundamentally does.

The relationship of architecture and racism is therefore a difficult topic to address for many architects. Of course, this difficulty is somehow proportional to their own position within the system of domination, in particular within the most abrupt one, namely white supremacy; yet it is not exclusive to those who benefit from such a position, since the very profession of architect constitutes itself a position of power in any given society. This observation does not intend to go back to the disused figure of the architect as god but, rather, insists on the fact that architecture extends much beyond the architect’s personal agency — the very idea of speaking of the architect as a sole person is a laughable one — and that it therefore requires a significantly strong intentionality in order to challenge a given system of domination; racism in particular. While intention may be irrelevant in the justification of an architecture’s effects on bodies, in particular when this intention is in discrepancy with these effects, it is fully relevant when it is considered in the strategic construction of a counter logic. Just like we should be less focused on who can be labelled as racist (as we recently saw in one of the U.S. Democratic primaries’ debates), instead of how we take position in a fundamentally racist system, we should as well also take position as architects, with the knowledge that ignoring this question necessarily puts us in the position of reinforcing this system, regardless of the way it itself considers us.

Video of “Critical Dialogues on Race and Modern Architecture” at Columbia GSAPP (February 26, 2016) ///

Friday, February 26, 2016 12:30pm
Wood Auditorium

Adrienne Brown, Assistant Professor – Department of English Language and Literatures, University of Chicago
Mark Crinson, Professor, University of Manchester
Dianne Harris, Dean of College of Humanities, University of Utah
Saidiya Hartman, Professor of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University

Response by
Mabel O. Wilson, Professor, Columbia GSAPP
Irene Cheng, Assistant Professor, California College of the Arts
Charles Davis, Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina, Charlotte

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