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Professor Debates Racial Politics of Canonicity in Modern Architectural History

A Graduate School of Design virtual event Tuesday examined race and architecture.
A Graduate School of Design virtual event Tuesday examined race and architecture. By Kai R. McNamee
By Emmy M. Cho, Contributing Writer

Professor of Architectural History at the State University of New York at Buffalo Charles L. Davis II discussed his research on antiracist architecture in an online lecture hosted by the Graduate School of Design Tuesday evening.

His lecture, entitled “Cannon Fodder: Debating the Racial Politics of Canonicity in Modern Architectural History,” called for an antiracist framework when viewing architecture both in the past and the present.

Davis said in an interview with The Crimson the word “antiracist” is a term contemporary theorists use to “revise our understanding of what racism is and how it operates in our world.”

“When I am talking about an antiracist architectural history, I am actually talking about the ways that architectural history is used instrumentally, as a kind of ideological tool to reaffirm certain forms of privilege or power structures in our discipline,” he said.

An antiracist study of architectural history would be aware of racial bias, Davis added.

“From my perspective, an antiracist architectural history is conscious of this bias, and tries to make up for it by critiquing that worldview, and then presenting us with alternative examples that both expand our sense of what architecture is, and what makes good design,” he said.

Davis argued conventional understandings of architecture are entrenched in ideals of the Western canon and white supremacy. European standards of architecture made their way to the United States, further contributing to the erasure of Native Americans and other non-white peoples.

“European ideas and European customs were transformed first into a new native form of culture through the material culture of white settlers, pilgrims and those who are settling the so-called virgin landscape,” Davis said, adding that this “then erased the memories of Native Americans and those who were here before European settlers.”

Despite the cultural replacement caused by foreign settlers, Davis cited famed American architects Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright — who were champions of a uniquely American style of architecture which took place predominantly in the Midwest — as offering “something that was unique from European revival styles that were occurring on the east coast.”

“That was uniquely American, both vernacular to the place and also modern to the time period,” Davis said.

He emphasized the necessity of interrogating what American architecture signified and which communities, cultures, and lived experiences the umbrella term excludes.

“I am really trying to isolate and then push back against exclusively white definitions of national character that define who was American and whose character was most central to how it is that we understood what American architecture was,” he added.

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