Book Review: Three New Books on Race and Architecture

Gleason, Sites Unseen

William A. Gleason, Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature (New York: NYU Press, 2011)

  • Introduction: Race, Writing, Architecture: American Patterns
  • Cottage Desire: The Bondwoman’s Narrative and the Politics of Antebellum Space
  • Piazza Tales: Architecture, Race, and Memory in Charles Chesnutt’s Conjure Stories
  • Imperial Bungalow: Structures of Empire in Richard Harding Davis and Olga Beatriz Torres
  • Keyless Rooms: Frank Lloyd Wright and Charlie Chan
  • Coda: Black Cabin, White House
Dianne Harris_Little White Houses
Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013)
  • Preface
  • Introduction
  • 1. The Ordinary Postwar House
  • 2. Magazine Lessons: Publishing the Lexicon of White Domesticity
  • 3. Rendered Whiteness: Architectural Drawings and Graphics
  • 4. Private Worlds: The Spatial Contours of Exclusion and Privilege
  • 5. Household Goods: Purchasing and Consuming Identity
  • 6. Built-Ins and Closets: Status, Storage, and Display
  • 7. The Home Show: Televising the Postwar House
  • 8. Designing the Yard: Gardens, Property, and Landscape
  • Epilogue
Wilson, Negro Building
Mabel O. Wilson, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012)
  • Introduction
  • Prologue
  • Progress of a Race: The Black Side’s Contribution to Atlanta’s World’s Fair
  • Exhibiting the American Negro
  • Remembering Emancipation Up North
  • Look Back, March Forward
  • To Make a Black Museum
  • Epilogue



While scholarly interest in the critical intersections of race and architecture is by no means new within the humanities, there are hints of some new horizons in contemporary scholarship. Earlier studies in North American architectural history have primarily focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, including the racial segregation perpetuated by urban renewal policies. Sociological studies have tended to focus on the structural and institutional causes of racism or have presented ethnographic accounts of minority groups that proved their resilience under oppression.1 More recent studies have built on these investigations with new cross-cultural and transnational analyses, as well as brought the material environments produced by such processes under greater scrutiny. For example, in the past ten years, scholarship in visual studies has isolated the hegemonic function of whiteness in visual contexts seemingly unmarked by the presence of white and nonwhite figures. Martin Berger’s Site Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture is representative of such scholarship, and his work has paved the way for both William A. Gleason’s Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature and Dianne Harris’s Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America.2 While Gleason most closely emulates Berger’s theoretical approach (as evidenced by the similar titles and methodologies of both works), Harris takes Berger’s conceptual focus on whiteness in American visual culture and extends it through a sustained archival study of material culture taken from everyday life. Also anchored by a deep analysis of historical archives, Mabel O. Wilson’s Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums will no doubt become a fundamental reference book for future studies of black self-representation in the field of architectural history. Her work follows that of scholars who have used material culture to describe the historical transition of public debates between and within racial and ethnic groups in the United States.

Gleason’s Sites Unseen is a thematic exploration of the racial discourses perpetuated in houses, or what he calls “American vernacular forms,” created between 1850 and 1930. He concentrates on the representation of these architectural vernacular forms in literature, although he also includes other fragments of material culture that contain images of architectural space such as architectural pattern books. The central argument of Sites Unseen is that depictions of architectural space in literature and in architectural pattern books directly enabled readers to negotiate the set of racial identities that emerged in the post-Reconstruction period, the time Gleason associates with the “pattern book era.” This period began when the loss of black liberties forced racial lines to be redrawn in the American South. While citizens struggled to consolidate new political identities in light of recent changes, architectural pattern books presented a concise visual summary of the social norms contained within domestic architecture. Gleason’s study is concerned with the construction of racial identity in the Americas, which include the United States, the Gulf of Mexico, Hawaii, and other territories. In order to demonstrate the formative role of architecture in constructing racial identity, Gleason interprets both novels and architectural pattern books as social texts that clarify the racial content of everyday spaces. This textual approach encompasses the meaning of cottage houses for the white and nonwhite readers of Hannah Craft’s slave narratives; the racial nostalgia surrounding Charles W. Chesnutt’s literary reconstruction of slavery and Reconstruction-era porch culture; the imperial politics evinced in the bungalows recorded by Richard Harding Davis and Olga Beatriz Torres in travelogues of trips taken from Central America to the United States; and the floating Oriental signifiers of the Hawaiian interior spaces depicted in Earl Biggers’s Charlie Chan novels and Frank Lloyd Wright’s turn-of-the-century Usonian houses.

Gleason’s focus on (mostly) familiar spaces is an effective strategy for recovering the architectural contributions of social minorities, who produced few commissioned projects and were routinely shut out of property ownership after Reconstruction. While buildings are expensive, architecture in the form of the social texts Gleason describes was almost equally accessible to the rich and poor, a fact that expands the potential for marginalized groups to make claims on membership in the American body politic. Chapter 1, in which Gleason studies the architectural settings depicted in Hannah Craft’s mid-nineteenth-century novel The Bondwoman’s Narrative, illustrates this situation beautifully. According to Gleason, Craft synthesized the central character’s desire for a quaint and safe cottage with the literary models of cottage life outlined in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House and Andrew Jackson Downing’s The Architecture of Country Houses, despite her status as a runaway slave. In contrast to the intended white readership of these two latter sources, Craft’s book establishes a rhetorical site for black cultural production that architectural historians have largely ignored. While it is possible to criticize Gleason for not offering a comprehensive overview of the racial discourses apparent in architectural pattern books, he is largely successful in preserving the richness of his material, despite a lack of historical exposition. In the end, Sites Unseen is an innovative set of literary case studies that inscribes the parameters of future research on race, literature, and architecture without exhausting its possibilities. Gleason is most comfortable treating material culture at a conceptual level, where the network of associations between his subject matter is most legible and suggestive. His approach recalls Nell Irvin Painter’s observation that “race is an idea, not a fact, and its questions demand answers from the conceptual rather than the factual realm.”3 Sites Unseen is less useful as a straightforward reference work on the racial content of domestic architecture in the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—a fact that Gleason acknowledges in his introduction.

Dianne Harris’s Little White Houses examines territory that many of us will likely feel we already know: the postwar American suburbs. Its scholarly contribution provides readers with a more detailed look at the material codes embedded in suburban landscapes and houses, as well as the social codes that performed the function of defining the prevailing features of whiteness in postwar America. Most of the structural features of housing development in this period are implicit in her reading: they include the rising demand for middle-class housing immediately after the war, the race to reuse wartime technologies and manufacturing processes in new segments of the commercial market, and the exclusion of nonwhite home buyers in the form of restrictive covenants and discriminatory mortgage-lending practices. Within this structural context, however, Harris delves deeply into the aesthetic regimes that structured the market’s iconographic formulation of middle-class prosperity, focusing her attention on the domestic buildings and the representations that trained and molded the modern consumer. Although Little White Houses examines images of architecture in the form of magazine advertisements, television programming, set designs, trade journals, and architectural drawings and models, it does not lose sight of the physical sites themselves as primary source material. Harris’s treatment of the physical form and placement of buildings, including the technologies for interior storage and the placement of interior furniture, is a refreshing change from the detached quality of previous studies. The accessibility of this material archive results in a far more extensive portrait of the mutually constitutive role of race, place, and visual culture than seen before.

Referencing the struggles of white ethnic minorities in concealing the social practices that fell outside the accepted visual codes embodied by postwar housing, Harris reveals precisely how exclusive the racial codes of suburban housing were in the mid-twentieth century. This is keenly illustrated by her visual analysis of such things as fencing appearing in advertisements for Ranger homes, which concealed exterior clotheslines that were typically left out in the open in less affluent urban neighborhoods. Her analysis demonstrates that the cultural scenes presented in advertising and the popular press normalized a narrow band of representations for white nuclear family life. Advertising practices in magazines such as Better Homes and Gardens and Popular Science trained consumers to accept white normativity, preying upon middle-class social anxieties for acceptance and social mobility. Countering claims that the heteronormative, middle-class standards of whiteness embodied in postwar housing were invisible to American consumers, Harris claims that “white Americans of European descent” were “so committed to the national formation of whiteness that they saw it everywhere, acknowledged it only in exceptional instances, and participated in the privileges it conveyed largely without question” (12). Such a claim suggests that whiteness became a self-reinforcing ideology not because it remained invisible to consumers, as is commonly claimed, but by being universally understood yet unspoken in everyday contexts. In this sense, the social construction of white aesthetic norms trained and disciplined (through economic penalties and the threat of lost social acceptance) the public into conformity. In the end, Little White Houses compels readers to ask new questions of old material, perhaps even some that are not raised within its pages. What, for example, happens to our perception of whiteness when it is actively constructed in proximity to minority spaces or mastered by minority designers? And did alternative spheres of housing culture emerge during this time, ones in which nonwhite racial norms were also encoded?

The issue of constructing a black counter-public sphere is central to Mabel O. Wilson’s Negro Building. A productive way of interpreting the title of this book is to think of it as a literal description of a set of physical spaces that emerged after 1890 (primarily in fairs and expositions), and more broadly as an exploration of the social activities that were required to sustain public interest in the architectural expression of black culture from the nineteenth century to the present. In this sense, Wilson builds upon more familiar research in the field of African American studies and presents a legible chronology of the social and aesthetic strategies blacks have used to represent themselves to the American public. Wilson begins this journey by recalling Booker T. Washington’s Atlanta Compromise speech of 1895. This speech, delivered at the opening of the Cotton States and International Exposition in Atlanta, outlined Washington’s political program of vocational training for black Americans, which reinforced the informal ethos of “separate but equal” that would be legalized in a Supreme Court ruling just one year later. While the segregationists’ response to Washington’s ethos is probably not surprising, what is less known is the round of criticisms that began to circulate within the free black press, criticisms that roused protests and boycotts of the Negro Building exhibit constructed in Atlanta as part of the exposition. Detailing such public debates, Wilson reveals the diversity and strength of the black counter-public sphere. An official counternarrative to Washington’s compromise appeared as early as 1900 in the American Negro exhibit at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. While European expositions were by no means free of racial essentialisms, as Patricia Morton describes in her study of the Paris Colonial Exposition of 1931, the American Exhibit in 1900 situated black achievement squarely within the American body politic.4 During the same time period, W. E. B. Du Bois’s Pan-African conception of black identity was on display in scientific and political studies documenting the ways in which racial laws limited black achievement in the United States. Considering Wilson’s emphasis on the black counter-public sphere, it is hard not to think of Du Bois’s sociological study of the Georgia Negro exhibit as an explicit critique of the Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition and the beginning of his mature attempts to promote Pan-Africanism in world’s fair venues.

A noteworthy aspect of Wilson’s study is her demonstration of the range of material forms that were used to promote the black counter-public sphere in the twentieth century. After the popularity of Negro exposition buildings had begun to wane, Du Bois experimented with black pageants and plays. The display of black cultural history at these pageants combined African themes, including the use of Egyptian iconography on temporary pavilions, and plays such as The Song of Ethiopia, performed over a three-hour span. Wilson details the political implications of Du Bois’s use of North African props that augmented the civilizational origins of Western European culture in the United States, which “hinted at racial assimilation” for African Americans “in the American melting pot” (158). This bid for acceptance was also counterbalanced by the promotion of Black Nationalism and protest within middle-class communities. As Wilson points out, the temporality of these early twentieth-century pageants were echoed in postwar plans for the International Afro-American Museum (IAM), which was deployed in a mobile home to disseminate oral histories of black leaders to the black diaspora spread across North America. In this way, her history resonates in the present, anticipating, for example, the Pan-African themes of David Adjaye’s design for the new Smithsonian Museum for African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The one thing this otherwise excellent volume lacks is an appendix listing all the buildings and spaces covered in its nearly 500 pages. As it stands, it requires readers to keep careful notes as they progress through its many pages.

These three books advance the presence and importance of race and ethnicity studies in architectural history in important ways. They fill obvious gaps in the field and invite scholars to reexamine existing archives with new eyes. One can only hope that we will take the invitation seriously, as more work is yet to be done on such a serious subject.

Charles Davis
University of North Carolina at Charlotte
Note: This book review originally appeared in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians (volume 73, no.3)


  • 1. See St. Claire Drake and Horace R. Clayton’s Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, rev. ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), as an example of ethnographic research that attempts to present a sociological portrait of a people, with some indication of its architectural environs.

  • 2. Martin Berger, Site Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005).

  • 3. Nell Irvin Painter, The History of White People (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010), ix.

  • 4. Patricia Morton, Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2003).

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