Is Appropriation Appropriate?

NICK MCCLURE (MEM ’16)

When my housemate, a third year M.Arch I student, told me that historical appropriation was a major theme woven throughout his studies at the Yale School of Architecture, I was taken aback. As a student at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, I am used to the word “appropriation” having highly negative connotations, suggesting theft and violence.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first definition of appropriation is “the action of taking something for one’s own use, typically without the owner’s permission.” Cultural appropriation, the phrase I commonly associate with the word, refers to the practice of borrowing designs or motifs from another culture without permission. This is most problematic when a member of a relatively powerful group takes from a traditionally marginalized group without properly acknowledging their source or understanding the role they play in that culture.

That being said, the intent of historical appropriation at YSOA isn’t to trivialize, but to use styles from the past as didactic inspiration to drive effective design. Because the use of historical precedent plays such an important role in the Yale School of Architecture’s approach to design, perhaps it would be wise to find a way of discussing it without using the term “appropriation,” with all of its negative connotations. “Interpretation,” anyone?