Charles Davis, “Cannon Fodder: Debating the Racial Politics of Canonicity in Modern Architectural History”
The GSD is pleased to present a series of talks and webinars broadcast to our audiences via Zoom.
This talk introduces audiences to the antiracist framework for architectural history that guided the formulation of the recent monograph Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (2020). This revisionist intellectual history recovers the ways that architectural organicism provided a rationalist model of design to consciously relate the perceived racial and architectural “characters” of a nation to the people they served. From the ethnographic histories of style penned by Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc and Gottfried Semper, to Louis Sullivan’s Chicago Style, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Prairie Style, and William Lescaze’s organic interpretation of international style public housing, modern architects were heavily invested in biological and ethnographic interpretations of individual and national identity. Using textual and physical case studies, this research demonstrates one way of revising our understanding of the western canon to account for the role of racial ideas.
The anti-racist intellectual framework for this study implicitly challenges us to come to terms with the racial politics we have inherited from the past by devising new strategies and tactics to address the cultural biases embedded within the western canon. Is the canon so compromised by its associations with white supremacy that it necessitates the elimination of any mention of its heroes and concepts today, or is it still productive to index the progress of our discipline through the lens of a flawed but widely disseminated regime of knowledge? I will speculate on one potential way forward, which is to rethink whiteness entirely so that it operates as just one of many manifestations of “world cultures,” instead of as the privileged standard for western development as it did in the past. Though this strategy may seem to preserve the canon, the final state of this lineage must be radically transformed so that any reference to it will compel us to face the ideological function of architecture as a formal and aesthetic legitimation of empire. This part of my talk follows the implications of Linda Alcoff’s book The Future of Whiteness as it relates to the current projects of reforming the western architectural canon for use in the present.
Charles L. Davis II is an assistant professor of architectural history and criticism at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. His book manuscript, Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh, 2019) traces the historical integrations of race and style theory in paradigms of “architectural organicism,” or movements that modeled design on the generative principles of nature. He is co-editor of Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment (University of Pittsburgh Press). His current book project, tentatively entitled Black By Design: An Interdisciplinary History of Making in Modern America recovers the contributions of black artists in shaping the built environment from the Harlem Renaissance to Black Lives Matter. He has published articles and essays in multiple venues, including Architectural Research Quarterly, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Log and Aggregate. This research has been supported by grants from the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Graham Foundation, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina.
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