An Appeal to Protest

This essay is a longer version of one that will be published in the next issue of Harvard Design Magazine. I would like to thank the magazine for allowing me to publish this longer version on the blog.


The moral and intellectual complexities of safe spaces and physical violence in today’s campus protests may seem new to those experiencing them, but the stakes of such actions have been present at elite colleges for as long as people of color have been admitted to them. It was a desire to pluralize campus life that compelled Ivy League universities to actively recruit students of color in the 1960s. One of the most aggressive campaigns occurred at Cornell University under the leadership of president James A. Perkins. In a positive sense, this effort secured a strong cohort of young black students who earned both professional and doctorate degrees in a short period of time. Yet it also required many of the students, faculty, and college administrators involved to develop a more principled and cooperative means of detecting, articulating, and redressing the entrenched patterns of racism that were evident at one of the nation’s most liberal universities.

The political scientist Donald Alexander Downs has produced a detailed account of the institutional challenges this recruitment program presented during the fall of 1968 and the spring of 1969, which culminated in nearly 80 members of the Afro-American Society (AAS) engaging in a 36-hour occupation of the student union Willard Straight Hall. Downs’ account of these events and the circumstances that led to them provide us with a backdrop for reconsidering the contemporary role of universities in defending the principles of American democracy and the potential futures of campus protest.[1] It also provides students of the built environment with a specific model of activism in the figure of Thomas Wade Jones, a Cornell undergraduate who later enrolled in the Department of Planning shortly after participating in the 1969 protest. Much of our discussion on campus protest today hinges upon the continued structural and political role of universities as promulgators and protectors of American liberalism. As Caleb Rossiter reminds us in his essay on the Cornell protests, faculty claims of political enlightenment and academic freedom may parallel the broader aims of democracy, but they cannot be a substitute for the real thing: “A university is not a democracy with a rule of law, but a corporation that makes and breaks its own rules as its Board of Trustees sees fit. There is no mechanism available for democratic decisions other than perceptive administrators’ gauging of the majority will.”[2]

Downs traces the slow unraveling of Cornell’s campus life to several issues, including a simple point of pedagogy: Were the elite faculty and students willing to acknowledge the historical contributions of African Americans to American liberalism? Despite approving of a new Afro-American Studies program in 1968, the answer to this question became an explicit issue in 1969. Father Michael McPhelin, a visiting lecturer from the Philippines structured the principles of his Economics 103 course on an exclusive reading of the cultural achievements of Western civilization, which he restricted to contributions made by Europeans and European-American thinkers.[3] At least three of the AAS members enrolled in his course took this criterion as proof of an implicit Eurocentric bias or “institutional racism” within the broader university curriculum. They believed that the only path to reform was to establish an Afro-American Studies program based exclusively on black power politics, and they were willing to engage in protest to make it happen.

wstakeover_34d

AAS’s occupation of Willard Straight hall was so successful in part because it was a place-based strategy. The critical importance of this specific structure lay in its function as a symbolic space of inclusion and social integration on campus. It was constructed during the 1920s when student unions became a popular means of transferring the social pleasures of military canteens and the and civic responsibilities of recreational centers to the university. Though it began as a nearly exclusive recreational space for white male congregants, the gradual inclusion of people from different social, political, and economic backgrounds diversified Cornell’s student body. As a result, the postwar generation worked collectively to test the plasticity of the liberal ideals that operated at the university. The 1969 occupation of Willard Straight hall was another important test of this bond: I argue that it provided AAS members with a site for establishing a spatial allegory of the race relations on campus. They dramatized the colonized experience of black students enrolled at the university by essentially making Straight hall an exclusively black space, which forced elite white students and faculty to feel the negative effects of exclusion in a space they believed was entirely theirs. The fact that this protest occurred on parent’s weekend only elevated its rhetorical impact by implicating the wider university community of parents, sponsors and alumni.

Civil Rights March on Washington

Black Panther Protest

At least one precedent for AAS’s place-based strategy can be found in the patterns established by the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington, which used the National Mall—a symbolic space for representing the extent of the American body politic—to render the defense and inclusion of marginalized black citizens a fundamental right of American democracy. Unfortunately, this nonviolent precedent was overshadowed by the press coverage of guns used during the occupation. This choice was interpreted as an overt rejection of the nonviolent ideals of the Civil Rights movement; a visual image that was not completely accidental as student movements became more radicalized after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968. The most radical student leaders within AAS spent considerable time training with people such as Stokely Carmichael, the coauthor of Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (1967). Carmichael was a founding member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), which directly politicized its view of campus power politics. His use of the dilapidated state of minority ghettoes as physical evidence of the failures of American liberalism became a rallying cry for challenging unchecked patterns of institutional racism all over the nation.[4] Downs notes that radicalized Cornell students found local evidence of such claims in the town-gown divide within Ithaca, which was a major impetus for first-generation black college students who felt conflicted in their new elite context. The May 5th cover of Newsweek magazine went as far as completely removing the architectural backdrop of Willard Straight Hall from press images, which aesthetically decontextualized the spatial allegory established by AAS. This heavy-handed visualization limits our view of black masculinity by aligning all student protesters with the politics of the Black Panther Party nationally.

Newsweek cover 69

If violence was the main obstacle to support for AAS’s campus protest, then an earlier historical precedent can be levied in their favor in Samuel Adams’s defense of the Boston Tea Party in Griffin’s Warf. During the 18th century, Adams witnessed a few dozen white colonial subjects dress up in Mohawk costumes to throw British tea into the wharf in order to defend the democratic principle of no taxation without representation. Such an act provides a clear and popular European-American precedent for the direct use of force to defend American liberties. Yet this parallel results in a curious paradox: while the white settler’s actions seem to make room for the use of violence to protect the fundamental ideals of democracy, their donning of redface uses the ‘natural’ temperament of non-white peoples as a proxy for preserving the integrity of whiteness as a pure and untainted force in American politics. Using this logic, the main departure of the AAS takeover of Straight hall from American history is the racial identify of its perpetrators. These parallels reveal yet another twist in AAS members’ use of unloaded guns as props for their campus protest. In keeping with William T. Mitchell’s essay “The Violence of Public Art,” this rhetorical display of violence served pedagogical ends. The visual reenactment of an armed insurrection on Cornell’s campus revives the founding principles of democracy that require direct action when all of the institutional mechanisms of our democracy fails to create substantive change. Yet such democratic principles lose their power when they must bow to the decorum of the incorporated university merely because its members wish to remain above the tensions of “real life.” Instead of completely yielding to the rhetorical limits outline by the university’s administration, Cornell’s black student protesters used a convincing fiction of violence to remind European Americans of the inherent failures and hypocrisy embodied by the democratic credos of their university.

Boston Tea Party 1773

If we return to Thomas Wade Jones’ role in all of this and attend to his personal motivations and strategies we can illuminate a potential future for student protest in general and for students of the built environment specifically. Jones decided to pursue a degree in City and Regional Planning at Cornell following his participation in the takeover of Straight hall. This decision was partially based on his personal desire to assist in the creation and management of the Afro-American Studies program, for which he created oral histories of new faculty and examined opportunities for collaboration with existing departments on campus—including City and Regional Planning. Downs recalls how Jones was a very popular student at Cornell, as evidenced by his election as freshman class president and his ability to collect followers from black and white student leaders on campus. He was selected to serve as a teaching assistant in the Department of City and Regional Planning and later taught his own lecture course before completing a thesis that created a new model for preparing federal laws for funding that anticipated the needs of locally operated social-action programs.[5] Jones would later find professional success by applying these rules to a finance career as the chief operating officer for several banks and TIAA-CREF, an investment firm that manages the retirement funds of teachers and faculty across the United States. He was elected to serve as a trustee for Cornell University in 1993 and donated endowment monies in 1995 to establish the James Perkins Prize for Interracial Understanding and Harmony. Given Jones’s relative prominence as a Cornell alumnus, he has become a key figure within the historiography of the 1969 protests. However, it is only by studying his continuous commitments to social reform throughout his career that a clear model emerges for refining the ambiguous demands of youthful protesters into a lasting legacy of social and political change.

 

One issue that has dogged Jones’s status as a model figure of the Civil Rights movement has been his seeming abandonment of nonprofit activism for his later financial pursuits. The neoliberal directions of his later career appeals most to political conservatives looking for assimilated black role models as much as his student activism energizes radicals and liberals seeking models of student protest. It is possible, however, to avoid overly simplifying the social ethos behind Jones’s work by not dividing it into binary ‘radical’ and ‘conservative’ camps. Instead, we must understand his social activism as a continuous effort and search for an institutional basis from which to apply the increasing cultural and financial capital he has gained as a private citizen. In a 1995 interview with Charlie Rose, Jones explicitly articulates his desire to contextualize the optimisms of his youth within the changing tactics and strategies of his late career: “We need to acknowledge what we have accomplished even as we think about how far we have to go.”[6]

Jones’ decisive political vision was an important factor in his choices once he changed academic disciplines. In contrast to the politically outspoken faculty and students of the Department of Government, those affiliated with the College of Arts, Architecture and Planning tended to exhibit a more conservative or muted response to contemporary events. For example, many of the faculty and students connected to the Department of Architecture found it was possible, as Kent Hubbell has stated, to remain detached, or at the very least ambivalent about the role of social justice in the design curriculum.[7] The international reach of North American design educators and study abroad programs are routinely used in professional Schools of Architecture to support the notion that architects and architecture students routinely engage with the world’s problems, all while creating a curriculum that elides the racially politicized issues affecting citizens in the United States. This is not to say that there was a complete lack of awareness for social justice on the part of the faculty and students of Cornell’s program, but not everyone agreed that architecture or city and regional planning should be used to play a leading role in the reform of social problems. The architecture critic Colin Rowe’s biographical reflections on Cornell’s student protests betray the sense of reserve and disavowal held by him and some of his peers:

In spite of hostility to Le Corbusier and Ludwig Hilberseimer, in its early years the [urban-design] studio was still accustomed to long skinny buildings; but this Zeilenbau fixation seems absolutely to have disappeared as a result of Paris 1968/Cornell 1969. But if Paris 1968 must be one of the most crucial twentieth-century dates and the Cornell scene a year later must be an entirely minor affair, I should still say that when, after a few months in Rome at the American Academy, I returned to Ithaca in January 1970, it was to an entirely different body of students.[8]

For Rowe and many other avant-garde architects of the postwar period, the definitive challenge to the architectural establishment had already taken place in the Parisian student riots at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1968. In response to these European events, Rowe used several opportunities to cast his academic approach to urban-design as a moral and efficient means of revising the social mission underlying the practice of urban renewal. He debuted the work of his Urban Design studio at Cornell in a 1967 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art titled “The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal.”[9] The student team from Cornell focused on the racially segregated enclave of central Harlem as its site, making it a laboratory for demonstrating the efficacy of contextualism for accomplishing the traditional tasks of urban renewal. An interview with one emeritus faculty member at Cornell confirms the shift toward formalist solutions in the Department of Architecture as new elective courses led to the declining enrollment of architecture students in planning courses during the early 1960s.

Colin Rowe

While Rowe was unwilling to draw any immediate connections between the racial issues affecting Cornell in 1969 and the future directions of contemporary design, the graduate students enrolled in his studios apparently did see such relationships and demonstrated their willingness to use design as a mode of social experimentation. This awareness seemed to be built upon the negative connotations that had emerged for certain modernist housing typologies related to public housing, which polemicists associated with the ghettoization and white flight that hollowed out prominent inner-city districts: “A great cultural event had occurred; but the students were not at all hostile. Simply they had become determined that Zeilenbauen were not their thing; and, from then on, it was to be trad city with trad city blocks . . . and so we continued with some change of style and something of that attrition of quality which is always to be associated with a revolutionary aftermath.”[10] The doublespeak present within Rowe’s recollection of his urban-design studio, which has not been thoroughly examined by architectural historians, was also present in the form of conflicting course offerings and institutional positions within the college. For example, one of the most representative concessions the faculty made in light of student protests came in response to a student push to become more involved in faculty governance in the Department of Architecture.[11] Thus an institutional practice of electing student representatives for university governance was established, although it did not lead to any radical shifts in policy during its first five years. These internal changes were paralleled by a concentrated effort within the Department of City and Regional Planning to offer more courses on urban renewal, as well as several faculty members’ interest in collaborating with new researchers and staff at the Afro-American studies program initiated on campus. The results of these initiatives, however, were ultimately mixed as no official tie emerged between the Department of City and Regional Planning and Africana Studies within the five years that followed the close of the 1969 protests.

O M Ungers

The most outspoken and radical commitment to the disruptive aims of student protest came from a new chairperson to the Department of Architecture, German architect Oswald Mathias Ungers. In an oral history account kept in the university’s archives, Ungers recounts the many struggles he faced as a political moderate in Berlin, where students pushed for radical reforms of the architecture curriculum.[12] Yet even he recognized that black students in the United States were part of a larger system of inequality that nearly required them to disrupt the function of elite institutions in order to have their voices heard. He also believed that “there is a legal right to minority groups, if they have no other way to express their will, through normal democratic channels” to force elites to advocate for changes that affect their quality of life.[13] This outspoken and philosophically legalistic defense of the minority’s right to protest was by no means popular among faculty members at Cornell, who had their classrooms disrupted by sit-ins and shouting chants from a radicalized student body. Yet this document provides a powerful testimony to the presence of conflicting ideologies within the corporate personhood of the college.[14]

It is against this institutional backdrop that one can contextualize Jones’s investigations into the physical and financial management of the built environment. His 1972 master’s thesis investigates the relatively new phenomenon of federal funding for locally based Health Maintenance Organizations (HMOs). In preparation for this research, Jones served—at the tender age of 22—as Director of HMO development for the NY-Penn Health Planning Council, an HMO that served five counties in southern New York and northern Pennsylvania. He took the practical lessons of this job and applied them to a theoretical model of HMO management that would satisfy the general requirements of federal grants while enabling local organizations to “tailor themselves to the particular conditions of the communities in which they operate.”[15] While the immediate subject of his thesis was health management, he saw the broader principles of his research as applicable to the range of issues tackled by the architect and planner when managing the built environment:

While this thesis was developed around a fairly thorough analysis of one particular Federal program, its application has a much broader range. Virtually all Federal social service programs are subject to the same types of criticisms we have discussed for HMOs, and they are equally in need of monitoring and evaluations systems which provide planned flexibility. Federal programs in the areas of health, education, housing, manpower training, welfare, and community development are all under fire for their inability to substantiate their worth and effectiveness in terms of an acceptable cost-benefit ratio.[16]

This pragmatic approach to building a consensus for one’s program for social change is an excellent ethos for architecture and planning students to adopt as they try to implement the ideas of their formal educations, which rarely prepare them to operate within the economic and policy restrictions of their work. Jones closes his thesis by reviewing the “special role” of liberals to “justify these programs in terms of their effectiveness, social benefits, and cost.”[17] What he found was not a lack of grand ideals among his liberal colleagues, but a lack of understanding regarding how to implement these ideas outside the walls of the academy. In this sense, it is possible to interpret his enrollment in the Department of Planning as a transitional phase of development wherein he learned how to translate into the real world the broad liberal ideals he espoused as an undergraduate. What is most important about this period is that it combined the resources of the academy and those of private enterprise in a conscious attempt to integrate the ideals of both. There was no binary separation between his quiet contemplation of liberalism’s ideals and its application in the outside world. Instead, Jones presents us with a case of their mutual refinement.

In light of these lessons, it behooves us to reexamine the efficacy of student protest and the liberal posturing of private universities in light of contemporary challenges and events. At the scale of the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning, which naturally benefits from its international contacts and the global scale of its curriculum, it is important to find substantive ways of pluralizing the student body and subsequently enabling these students to bring the local concerns of their communities to bear on their education.

Since the history of architecture has privileged the creation of new modes of formal innovation as the knowledge base of our profession, and since its members are rewarded for their defense of these disciplinary boundaries, it makes sense that this will be the criterion upon which academic inclusion is based. Given these structural boundaries, we cannot forget about the important role that student protest can serve in democratizing this institutional practice. In this spirit, I make a direct appeal to all the young people reading this essay to find ways of protesting the exclusive climate of your discipline, both as a student and more pragmatically as you progress into your professional careers. Since the built environment encompasses more than novel form-making practices, it is possible to do this from as many allied positions as possible in the immediate future.


[1] Downs’s analysis pits the higher ideals of a liberal education against those of achieving social justice. For him, these ideals converged during the early years of the civil-rights movement, but calved off from one another during the anti-Vietnam years. See Donald Downs, Cornell ’69: Liberalism and the Crisis of the American University (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999), 1–22.

[2] Caleb Rossiter, “Cornell’s Student Revolt of 1969: A Rare Case of Democracy on Campus,” Progressive, May 5, 1999, 6.

[3] Downs 1999, 68-78.

[4] Stokely Carmichael and Charles V. Hamilton, “Dynamite the Ghetto,” Black Power: The Politics of Liberation (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), 153-161.

[5] Thomas Wade Jones, “Monitoring the Progress of Locally-Operated and Federally-Funded Social Action Programs” (master’s thesis, Cornell University, 1972).

[6] See Charlie Rose’s interview with Thomas Wade Jones. “Thomas W. Jones,” Charlies Rose, 14:30, May 18, 1995, https://charlierose.com/videos/29020.

[7] See video interview with, among others, Kent Hubbell, the former dean of students and an alumna of Cornell’s College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. “Witness: The Willard Straight Hall Takeover,” East Hill Notes with Gary Stewart, Cornell University video, 29:31, April 10, 2009, http://www.cornell.edu/video/witness-the-willard-straight-hall-takeover.

[8] Colin Rowe, As I Was Saying, ed. Alexander Caragonne, vol. 3, Urbanistics (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1995), 2–3.

[9] The New City: Architecture and Urban Renewal (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1967)

[10] Rowe, As I Was Saying, vol. 3, 3.

[11] See the meeting notes from faculty meetings at Cornell’s School of Art, Architecture and Planning in the Burnham Kelly Papers, #15-01-1633. Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Cornell University Library. See Box 46, folder: University Faculty – Policy, Minutes of Mtngs., etc., 1967–68; folder: Vice President for Student Affairs (Mark Barlow, Jr.), 1967–68; folder: Faculty-Student Liaison Committee, 1968–69.

[12] Oral history of Oswald Mathias Ungers by Sarah E. Diamant, July 22, 1969, Cornell University archives.

[13] Ibid.; emphasis mine.

[14] The archives at Cornell also reveal a continuing summer program in Chicago, which exposed students to contemporary projects that challenged existing patterns of racial segregation and gentrification. See the correspondence between Burnham Kelly and Rolf Ohlhausen in the Burnham Kelly Papers, box 45, folder: Visiting Critics, Architecture, 1967–68.

[15] Jones, “Monitoring the Progress,” 100.

[16] Ibid., 99.

[17] Ibid

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About cldavisii

Charles Davis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture History at the University at Buffalo. He has a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.Arch from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His specialization is the role of racial discourses in modern architectural style debates, including the ways that organic concepts of form allowed designers to invest buildings with racial and ethnic characters. In addition to maintaining this blog, his academic research and books reviews can be found in journals such as Architecture Research Quarterly (arq), the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Append-x and VIA. He is co-editor of Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden consequences (Routledge: 2015), a volume of fifteen case studies examining the influence of diversity of contemporary design. His dissertation research will be published in an upcoming monograph entitled Building Character: the Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press).