In reporting on the impact of embedded racism in architecture, RECORD convened a panel of architects last June—Mabel O. Wilson, Mario Gooden, and Justin Garrett Moore—and published their discussion online and in the September issue. Now, in a second conversation, two scholars and a practitioner analyze the history of white supremacy in the built environment and in architectural education. Dianne Harris, a senior program officer at a social-justice philanthropy, is an architectural and urban historian whose books include Little White Houses: How the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America. Louis P. Nelson, professor of architectural history and vice provost for academic outreach at the University of Virginia, has researched spaces of enslavement in West Africa and the Americas as part of his scholarly work. Damon Rich is a partner at HECTOR, an urban-design, planning, and civic-arts practice, and was formerly the planning director for Newark. He was named a 2017 MacArthur Foundation fellow. Harris, Nelson, and Rich spoke with RECORD editor in chief Cathleen McGuigan. The following is a condensed version of their conversation.
Cathleen McGuigan: How do you see whiteness, white supremacy, and anti-Black racism shaping and operating in architecture, not only as a discipline and practice, but in the built environment?
Louis Nelson: Since my Ph.D is in art history, I first encountered architecture as a field of study teaching at the school of architecture at the University of Virginia. When I asked my colleagues what were the parameters of architecture, I quickly learned that defining architecture was the critical question that haunts the discipline: what is, or what is not, architecture? Their answers assumed there were discrete categories of good architecture, not-good architecture, or not architecture at all. And when I asked what defined “good architecture,” I often heard about proportional nuances, or a sophistication that relates to certain aesthetics.
Those aesthetics were—and are—presumed to be acultural: that good architecture rises above a cultural context and lives in a pure, intellectual sphere of the acultural. But because architecture is part of the Western tradition of power, it is not acultural but white. It’s important to position racism as a cultural structure together with whiteness. Whiteness is really critical.
As we train students, conversations about aesthetic excellence often ignore cultural and political context—the context of an inherited whiteness—that is part of architecture. There is no such thing as acultural architecture, and talking about design as pure aesthetic masks a dominant Western, white framework that, once we expose it, helps us look at how all architecture is a cultural product and cultural agent, as well as political and racial.
Dianne Harris: That was a great opening frame, but I approach these questions a little differently because I do have design degrees; I studied landscape architecture and have a master’s degree in architecture. I veered off that professional path to become an architectural historian, but I did practice landscape architecture long enough to know what it feels like to be in an architecture or landscape-architecture office. That the demographics of those offices have changed so little in the nearly 40 years since I practiced is deeply disheartening. We are looking at a profession that has quite willfully remained predominantly white and male, especially in the ranks of its leaders.
When you don’t have diverse voices around the table designing the built environment, people who have experiences other than those of white men—and now maybe some white women—are left out of those conversations. I taught an introductory landscape-architecture studio for many years, as well as landscape-history courses, and a graduate seminar on “Race and Space.” My undergraduate studio students were mostly white, and the seminar students somewhat more diverse, but studio students tended not to enroll in the seminar. They seemed at that time to feel that a seminar focusing on race and the built environment wasn’t part of their professional purview. I think we are finally seeing that change. But one challenge was to help those students see—just as we now have to help many more people see—that what to look for is not what you can see, but what’s invisible. Who’s not in the room? Who’s not in the building, who’s not in the neighborhood, and who has been systematically harmed by being shut out of those places?
One of the great writers on race and space is the scholar George Lipsitz, who wrote a book I found transformative called The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (1998). What Lipsitz shows us is that where you live—your address—is basically a life-and-death matter, because it makes a difference in determining what he calls “life chances”: it shapes your access to healthy food, fresh water, clean air, good health care, job opportunities, opportunities for a good education. Architects have the potential to engage with all of those matters through their interventions in the built environment. When white architects refuse to see who’s not at the table, and refuse to acknowledge that structural racism is a critical issue for professional practice, they reinforce white supremacy over and over again, both in the profession and in the built environment.
So, when you ask, “In what ways is racism shaping and operating in architecture as a discipline and a professional practice?”: in every way it is. We have to stop even calling it racist; we have to call it white supremacist, because that is functionally what it is. And if we don’t get this conversation started, it’s never going to end: racism is never going to be dismantled until we dismantle white supremacy and whiteness.
Damon Rich: I grew up in a postwar suburb of St. Louis, Creve Coeur, where today over eight in 10 people mark the box “white” on the U.S. census. My early experience of white supremacy in the built environment was most of all the architectural and ideological devices that were necessary to make what was clearly a racialized, exclusionary arrangement of living seem unremarkable and justified. But I’m grateful to anti-racist thinkers and doers outside of architecture—like Jane Elliott, whose “Brown Eyes/Blue Eyes” workshop I attended in high school—and inside of architecture, like Craig Wilkins, who have fed my attempts to unlearn sanctioned ignorance about how goodies are allocated in our country.
In practice at HECTOR, our design work often concerns uncovering aspects of a site or program that have been similarly covered over or ignored due to a system of values—and valuing humans—that the client initially understands and presents as unobjectionable. In Newark, for example, where almost half the households don’t have regular access to a car, a seemingly unobjectionable value for 50 years has been to privilege the convenience of people arriving by automobile, excluding others along lines of wealth, status, and complexion. In lots of places, it’s still an issue of how tall the fence is going to be that the city allows the developer to install, and how spiky.
For me, it is these everyday environments—and not only around Confederate monuments—where the architectural effects of whiteness and white supremacy are felt most strongly, specifically because so many of us who have come to be known as “white” work hard to make them seem normal.
History still tells us so much. Louis, your research has looked at early examples of white supremacy in architecture.
Nelson: My work is rooted in the 18th and very early 19th century, in fieldwork in South Carolina and then in 10 years of work in Jamaica, which was transformative for the design students who went with us, because they were dropped into a context in which being an architect didn’t really matter. In the field schools in Jamaica, we engaged in community and social-justice work, and I recorded oral histories to better understand how the history of place is not necessarily going to come from archives but also from buildings themselves, as evidence, as well as the remembered history from the community that currently occupies that place. I’ve been doing a little work in Africa as well, looking at how the transatlantic slave trade transformed the coast of the continent—this massive economic machine and the international powers in the 17th and 18th centuries that left a material footprint. Architecture and landscapes played a critical role in producing the commodity called the “slave” on the continent and in realizing the institution of slavery across the Americas.
More recently, my work at UVA—which likes to think of itself as an institution committed to the unfolding arc of democracy but is simultaneously a plantation landscape, a landscape of slavery for its first half-century—helped press the university toward truth-telling, acknowledging mythological narratives and grappling with that past. Our telling of Jefferson now includes the ways that the man often identified as America’s first architect, and certainly the architect of American democracy, designed the campus to hide the laboring Black body. He used design to mediate the hypocrisy in the grand scheme founded on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
In the neighborhoods immediately around UVA lives a community of descendants of the enslaved who know the history I’m seeking to tell, and this legacy shapes our city right up to the present.
The university’s commitment to building the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers is an incredibly important material gesture, now inscribed in our landscape. UVA did that with some serious trepidation, but real courage. It’s already transforming some of the social behavior towards justice in our community.
Harris: A common thread in my work and Louis’s is that we’ve both been trying to make visible to white folks the spatial histories that have always been visible to people of color. When I talk about erased landscapes—such as so many sites of violence against African Americans, including historic locations where they were torn from their families and sold into slavery—they’re not visible to whites because whites either erased them or didn’t want to see them or didn’t deem them important enough to warrant preservation and commemoration. But they are landscapes that are incredibly important to communities of color—and should be to all of us because they are part of our shared history.
I started out, 30 years ago, thinking about those little houses in the new suburbs available to so many white people right after the Second World War. When I began my research, I was astonished that I could only find a couple of sentences in a book that would say, “Of course, these houses were largely available to whites.” And I kept thinking, “That’s it?” Now, of course, there is a wealth of scholarship about the practices and structures that created all-white suburban communities and all-white neighborhoods, not just suburban.
I studied with some wonderful scholars—Dell Upton among them—who were writing about race in the landscape and in architecture long before many others were. Part of my training was to think about places that were made to exclude or include, and to ask how signals were conveyed through the built environment. How do people know when and where they belong? How do they know when they don’t?
What’s an example of that?
Harris: One tremendous unearned privilege of whiteness is freedom of mobility. I am identified as white, so I can pretty much go where I want and not be worried about being stopped by the police or being presumed to be a criminal, or being a threat in any way. If I go to a shop where you have to ring the bell to get in, I know they’ll look out the window and let me in. That’s frequently not true for people who aren’t identified as white.
Think about what happened to Trayvon Martin. He was simply walking in a suburban gated community, and he was literally and tragically seen by the man who murdered him as being out of place. So many Black men and women who’ve been murdered by law enforcement have been seen as being in some way out of place, as literally not having a right to exist on a sidewalk, in a car, in a public park, and even in their own homes. There is a complete denial of the right to space, which is directly linked to a denial of the right to breathe and exist.
The subtle cues of belonging and exclusion in the built environment are everywhere. When I worked on the book about Levittown [Second Suburb: Levittown, Pennsylvania (2010)], which was created as an all-white community, that was very explicit. You had to buy the home at a sales building in Levittown, so that salespeople could see you. And if you weren’t white, you didn’t get to buy a house. When the first Black family, the Myers family, bought a house there, in 1957, it was previously owned, and the sale was facilitated by the American Friends Services Committee to help integrate the community, so they bypassed that sales office. It caused an uprising that was rightfully characterized by the Myers family as a riot, that lasted for many weeks; the National Guard had to be called in. A documentary was made while it was going on called Crisis in Levittown. (You can find it on YouTube.) The NYU sociologist who made the film interviewed people in the town during the riot, and it demonstrates a range of views that were held then, as now, about the connections between race and homeownership in the United States. It’s a great teaching tool, but the more times I used it to teach students about racism in suburbia, the harder it was to listen to the horrifically racist neighbors who were interviewed for the documentary. But there was also a very progressive woman interviewed, and even in 1957, she said, “This isn’t a Black problem. This is a white problem.” So some people have recognized this for a long time. And it’s well past time now to pay attention to the white problem.
Rich: One bottom line is that we, as architects and related professionals, have to understand race as a system—a system built around the idea of whiteness, a system of power. I try to convince my students that if we, as architects, overlook how humans have invented and enforced concepts of race and racialization, applying them to places as well as people, it’s like ignoring that humans breathe oxygen, or that there’s gravity. Anti-racism is not just a series of ethical vows that we might post online in moments of crisis, such as we face today; just like airflow or structures, it’s something we need to study.
Nelson: When you are ignorant of the localized systems that block people out—systems of place, of policy, of infrastructure, of access—you’re likely to perpetuate damage. And that goes back to education: are we training students to be aware of, to interpret, and then to positively engage those systems through their work as architects? If not, we’re perpetuating widespread racism.
Harris: My daily job is to think about higher education and the humanities. So, I’ve been watching the ways universities are reacting to the protests of this past summer that have continued into the fall, and thinking about what I hope will be robust and sustained conversations on campuses and online about racism and white supremacy in design and education.
One thing I hope is becoming clearer to faculty, students, and administrators is that having implicit-bias training—as a session, or one conversation a year about diversity and inclusion, or having a committee, or having one course in the curriculum in an architecture school about architecture outside the Western canon (that’s usually an elective)—is just not going to do it.
These conversations about race can’t be an add-on, they can’t be one class. It has to be everywhere in the curriculum. Those of us who’ve worked on race and architecture are used to being brushed off: “Oh, she sees race in everything.” Well, race is in everything. So let’s start facing it and building critical examinations of race into the curriculum of architecture schools. The curriculum requires extensive revision if it is to address and dismantle the enduring white supremacy of the profession.
And if we’re thinking about changing architecture as a profession, we have to look at the pathway for students from K through 12. We need to ask why there are so few students of color in design schools and then think about the culture that exists in those schools and how that needs to be revised in order to recruit, retain, and help more students of color succeed—and become faculty. Then we must provide robust support for their long-term success, to deeply, truly, and rigorously support them, so they can get tenure and can have prosperous, fulfilled careers.
Rich: Although few of them were highlighted in my architectural education, you don’t have to look too far to find architects who have been doing the work for decades. It was a revelation to discover—via the German architecture magazine An Architektur—the community-design tradition in the U.S., from the Architect’s Renewal Committee in Harlem [founded in 1964] and The Architects’ Resistance [formed by students in 1968] through organizations today like the Association for Community Design, and NoMA [the National Organization of Minority Architects].
But some of our difficulties in talking about the white-supremacist landscape stem from our own historic and current roles in conceptualizing and creating it. We can talk about how architects and planners promoted a problem like “urban blight” and then secured a role and resources in supposedly solving it. It’s great to see increased skepticism about this kind of “solutionism”—although I’ve gotten e-mails in the last few months about how we can undesign racism. This kind of heroism recenters an imaginary role for us that, without a lot more modesty in terms of our place in a broader context of racialized and other oppressions, hinders our vision and our impact. The only “solution” that has worked for me, as “a person who has come to be known as white,” is to learn from, and work with, others in coalition.
Nelson: I could not agree more. I don’t often think of architects and humility in the same sentence. Architects have remarkable power to shape communities and, as Damon has said, to perpetuate inequities in those same communities. This is going to take a reimagining of what it means to be an architect—deep listening and skill sets that perpetuate community-design processes.
The legal profession did this in the turmoil of the late 1960s, when there emerged a whole lane within law called public-interest law. For a discipline that thinks of itself as politically progressive, that failure in architecture is kind of astonishing.
But architecture is considered a service profession, usually subject to the will of the client. What can the profession do to actually change course?
Harris: That’s a huge question and a difficult one, but there are theoretical models that can be helpful for rethinking that. Architects need to understand racial capitalism, a concept developed by Cedric Robinson: we have to acknowledge that the economy of this country was built on slavery—there is no getting around that—and, in many respects, that structure continues into the present in various harmful incarnations. Architects have to look at the role they have played in that. As Louis said, the profession has positioned itself as progressive, as always thinking outside the box and reforming all kinds of structures—but never the social structure or the underlying tenets of the market in which it works.
You have this field full of incredibly brilliant innovators, whose whole model for design is about breaking the rules and making something new. Yet that model has almost never extended to questioning the social, cultural, economic, or political matrix in which it has functioned, nor to a serious reckoning with past harms.
And this goes back to architectural education. Especially in professional bachelor’s programs, students are quickly funneled into courses required for accreditation (which really needs to be reexamined as well). How many opportunities do students have to take the humanities and social sciences courses, the ethnic-studies courses, they would need for background to question and think differently about how they’re working?
Rich: We need to make it clear to students that attention to the mechanisms of racialized oppression can make us better architects. We can share stories of amazing projects that only could have resulted from designers working intimately with community organizations and coalitions around environmental justice and affordable housing. One lesson of these successes is to take ourselves out of the center and develop more complex ideas of how we fit into what is happening.
What have been some of your other encounters with racism and architecture?
Harris: Everyone has encounters with racism and architecture, whether those encounters are acknowledged or not. We can vividly see the links between architecture and racism in our country’s architecture of mass incarceration, which overwhelmingly and disproportionately affects people of color. As some have pointed out, the massive system of prison architecture constitutes a 21st-century version of the plantation landscape, which perpetuates the same systems of oppression and violence against people of color as did the first plantations.
And even just thinking about college campuses—we like to think of public colleges and universities as points of access to social mobility, but if we look at their architecture and how they’re planned in cities—is there public transportation and access to that campus for everybody? The answer is often, absolutely not. We’re not always thoughtful about how hard it is for students from various parts of cities to get to the campus, access its spaces, and find a place where they feel welcome.
Rich: In line with much of our discussion’s focus on structures that allow us to overlook racism—expecting Black people, and other people of color, who bear the brunt of oppressive racial systems to continue in the role of explaining that history and existing conditions to those of us who have come to be known as white—that has to be over. We have to look more closely and talk more openly about the people to whom architecture already responds: what are the fundamental ways we decide what is valuable? Let’s keep pushing to expand the brief and expand the client base. Let’s bolster community-design infrastructure and fund organizations and practitioners that are changing the structure of our profession to be more accountable to everyone and everything it impacts.
Nelson: I had a student come up to me after we walked the academical village at UVA, with its white columns and red brick—the celebration of democracy and so on. He said, I’m so grateful for having spent time with you to see this, Professor Nelson, but I’m also grieved, because now I can’t unsee slavery at the University of Virginia. Right, I said: that’s the point.
I don’t want to end with hopelessness, but we have to have the courage to see the failures and the hard histories embedded in the landscape before we can begin to cast a hopeful vision for the future.