Racial Evidence

The following “Field Note” was co-written with Irene Cheng (CCA) and Mabel Wilson (Columbia University) in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians. This essay discusses the content of the publishing workshop for our forthcoming volume on Race and Modern Architecture with the University of Pittsburgh Press, as well as the broader need within the discipline to reconsider the historical archives that demonstrate the role of racial discourses on architectural practices. I wish to thank the Society for granting me the permission to post this essay on my academic blog. This essay was published in Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol.76, no.4 (December 2017): 440-442.

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Our four-year project to research and compile the forthcoming volume Race and Modern Architecture, a collection of nineteen essays by distinguished scholars who explore the critical role of race in architectural discourse from the Enlightenment to the present, has raised several important questions about the methods historians employ and the archives we mine to write histories of architecture.1 In spite of the recent global turn in the discipline, many architectural historians still ignore the constitutive importance of race within modernity. To understand the role of racial thought in shaping modern architecture, it is not enough to incorporate objects, buildings, and designers from Asia, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East into our canonical histories. We must also contend with the complex history of racialization—specifically, how European colonial expansion and the subsequent development of racial slavery, mercantilism, and industrial capitalism depended indispensably on the creation of ideologies of human difference and inequality—and how this history of racialization shaped the very definition of what it means to be modern. We must also examine the ways in which the disciplines of art and architectural history themselves emerged from the racial-nationalist logics embedded, for example, in eighteenth-century ideas about the climatic determination of standards of beauty, or about the coherence of nations’ mentalities and their material cultures.

To write a critical history of race in modern architecture therefore requires at least two transformations in how we deal with evidence. First, while it is imperative that we expand our archives to include the architectural works and engagements of nonwhite subjects—peoples previously deemed “outside history,” whose records were seen as not worthy of preservation—we must go beyond merely enlarging the canon and make visible the ways in which race explicitly affected the legitimation and selection of the canonical buildings and spaces of modernity. Second, we must develop, or adapt from other disciplines, critical methods that will enable us to recognize the role of racial thought in familiar objects and narratives, including—perhaps especially—those in which race does not appear at first glance to be operative.

Efforts toward the first transformation—expanding the archive—have taken many forms, and further work and experimentation are needed. Beginning in the 1980s, historians of “folk” and “vernacular” architecture did much to recover the material records of minority subjects, including the enslaved builders and inhabitants of Southern American plantations. Scholars like Dell Upton and John Michael Vlach applied techniques of architectural historical documentation and analysis to buildings previously regarded as not meriting scholarly attention, such as slave quarters, overseers’ dwellings, and smokehouses.2 Beyond exploring new objects of study, these researchers confronted a methodological challenge similar to those wrestled with by historians of medieval European popular culture like Carlo Ginzburg in reconstructing historical narratives out of both extant written evidence and meticulous analysis of absences and silences in the historical record.3 Archaeological records and oral histories supplemented the kinds of drawings and documents more commonly utilized by modern architectural historians. These approaches challenge the supremacy of material archives that merely preserve architects’ design intentions, seeking instead to construct a comprehensive account of how the built environment is coauthored by a diverse range of constituents, including nonwhite and female builders and inhabitants.

Another important body of work that seeks to expand the archive comprises scholarly studies on the construction of racial ideology in the architecture of international, colonial, and national exhibitions and on colonial building practices. Zeynep Çelik, Mark Crinson, Patricia Morton, Mabel O. Wilson, and others have uncovered how ideas about race, modernity, and progress were mutually constructed through social, political, spatial, and architectural means at fairs from the 1850s through the late twentieth century.4 This scholarship adds to the growing body of critical explorations on colonial and national architecture that recovers the racial discourses that subtend European modernity more generally.5

Besides incorporating previously untapped archives and hitherto excluded constituents, to understand the racial structures embedded in modern architecture we must also return to familiar canonical figures and interrogate their racial assumptions and ideas. One of the defining characteristics of this approach is that it requires looking beyond architects’ archives or buildings (the fodder of classic connoisseurial and monographic studies) and delving into the wider cultural field to understand the ambient racial ideologies circulating in specific cultural and intellectual contexts.6 Martin Berger has written about the necessity of combining close analysis of the visible evidence in artworks with an explication of the tacit, “unseen” discourses and structures that guide and delimit the meanings of the works. In his book Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture, Berger reveals racialized perspectives in cultural products that ostensibly have nothing to do with race.7 Race is there, even when we think it is not. And sometimes it was there all along, but we did not know how to “see” it. Twenty years ago, a scholar could dismiss the allusions to race in Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc’s writing as “only later accretions to his work.”8 More recent studies, however, have shown how the French architect’s many explicit references to race were drawn from contemporary nineteenth-century racial theorists like Arthur de Gobineau and were much more central to Viollet-le-Duc’s seminal ideas about style than previously thought.9 Dianne Harris provides another model of how historians might relate architecture to larger contexts of cultural values and beliefs. In her book Little White Houses, she utilizes analytical methods from the field of whiteness studies to show how 1950s advertisements and magazine layouts depicting postwar American suburban homes projected a cultural ideal of white identity associated with cleanliness, order, property, and the nuclear family.10 Lastly, theorists like Darrell Fields have incorporated methods drawn from literary deconstruction and critical race studies to uncover the racial logics behind Hegelian universal history and postmodern aesthetics, as well as a racial model of dialectics fundamental to architectural discourse.11

Today, race and racialization continue to be suppressed and marginalized in most modern architectural histories. It is possible to read many recent architectural history surveys and never come across any mention of race. Yet the wealth of scholarly work cited above has begun to demonstrate convincingly how the modern canon of exhibitions, housing, skyscrapers, urban plans, and infrastructural projects was premised on an ideology of modern progress whose terms—whiteness, style, hygiene, order, and transparency—were thoroughly imbued with race. This scholarship has employed new evidentiary practices that have both expanded the kinds of archives and materials on which architectural historians draw and applied new and borrowed analytical methods to uncover the racial subtexts embedded in modern architectural discourse. Both approaches to evidence call into question the neutrality of the historian’s task and critical tools of investigation, as well as the hierarchies that those tools help to maintain. These approaches have been successful in diagnosing a blind spot in modern historiography, but the onus remains on historians to be resourceful, imaginative, and critical in seeking out evidence to illuminate the unwritten histories of race and modern architecture.


  1. Irene Cheng, Charles L. Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson, eds., Race and Modern Architecture(Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming).
  2. See John Michael Vlach, Back of the Big House: The Architecture of Plantation Slavery (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993); Dell Upton, “White and Black Landscapes in Eighteenth-Century Virginia,” Places 2, no. 2 (Nov. 1984), 59–72; Dell Upton, ed., America’s Architectural Roots: Ethnic Groups That Built America (Washington, D.C.: Preservation Press, 1986).
  3. Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John Tedeschi and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1980).
  4. Zeynep Çelik, Displaying the Orient: Architecture of Islam at Nineteenth-Century World’s Fairs(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992); Mark Crinson, Empire Building: Orientalism and Victorian Architecture (London: Routledge, 1996); Patricia A. Morton, Hybrid Modernities: Architecture and Representation at the 1931 Colonial Exposition, Paris (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2000); Mabel O. Wilson, Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).
  5. The literature is by now too vast for us to name all the important contributions, but the following are some representative examples: Tom Avermaete, Serhat Karakayali, and Marion von Osten, Colonial Modern: Aesthetics of the Past—Rebellions for the Future (London: Black Dog, 2010); Zeynep Çelik, Empire, Architecture, and the City: French–Ottoman Encounters, 1830–1914 (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2008); Crinson, Empire Building; Gwendolyn Wright, The Politics of Design in French Colonial Urbanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).
  6. See, for example, Irene Cheng, “Race and Architectural Geometry: Thomas Jefferson’s Octagons,” J19 3, no. 1 (Spring 2015), 121–30; Charles L. Davis II, Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style, 1860–1945 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, forthcoming); Mabel O. Wilson, “Rosenwald School: Lessons in Progressive Education,” in Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive, ed. Barry Bergdoll and Jennifer Gray (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2017).
  7. Martin A. Berger, Sight Unseen: Whiteness and American Visual Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 1–2.
  8. Hanno-Walter Kruft, History of Architectural Theory (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 1996), 285.
  9. Laurent Baridon, L’imaginaire scientifique de Viollet-le-Duc (Paris: Editions L’Harmattan, 1996); Martin Bressani, Architecture and the Historical Imagination: Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, 1814–1879(London: Ashgate, 2014); Charles L. Davis II, “Viollet-le-Duc and the Body: The Metaphorical Integrations of Race and Style in Structural Rationalism,” Architectural Research Quarterly 14, no. 4 (2010), 341–48; Lauren M. O’Connell, “A Rational, National Architecture: Viollet-le-Duc’s Modest Proposal for Russia,” JSAH 52, no. 4 (Dec. 1993), 436–52.
  10. Dianne Harris, Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America(Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
  11. See Darrell Fields, Architecture in Black (London: Athlone Press, 2000), and the work published in the journal Append-x (1993–95). Fields’s work has been influenced by the work of critical race studies scholar Henry Louis Gates.


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