In Conversation with Charles L. Davis II

Abolition in Practice?

Volume 9, Issue 03
December 1, 2023

Charles L. Davis II is an associate professor of architectural history and criticism at UT Austin’s School of Architecture. He is the author of Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019) and co-editor of Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020).

NOMAS: How might an abolitionist architecture reconsider the knowledge systems that were denied for centuries by the white architectural profession?

Charles L. Davis II: There are several aspects to it that I want to isolate before providing an answer. One is the fact that Black architectural talent—Black design— has existed in the United States for a long time, but only in certain forms is it formally acknowledged by the discipline of architecture. Only when someone is licensed or trained— at least at the time, in a Beaux-Arts style or a particular kind of methodology that yields monumental projects that are akin to the types of projects that were celebrated within the United States. From my perspective, this is sort of a simulative model of the settler-colonial project. If you can build just as good as white Americans, then you can be included in the professional space that was originally preserved for white male practitioners.

It was a gentleman’s profession that allowed for the colonial function of Beaux-Arts pedagogy. Start within a French state institutional context to formalize and standardize the aesthetic standards of elite state projects both at home and in colonies, then have Americans coming over, learning these values, going home, and doing the same thing. Daniel Burnham can design Washington, D.C., at the same time that he designs the center of the Philippines. It is interesting that we expect Black practitioners to enter and emulate the settler colonial ideology, mindset, and practices that would literally render them invisible in that space, and there is no critical vocabulary or formal language to express their own unique cultural standards. Black architects labor under this disciplinary definition and professional practice that tends to render them invisible, and they have to use those tools in a countercultural way to both show outsiders that they’ve assimilated this language, but to still satisfy the cultural and programmatic needs of their people.

That’s a pretty demanding set of requirements for anybody just to enter a profession to be called an architect, let alone try to win awards. In my mind the definition of architect as a specialist, as a technician, as a professional, is a racially exclusive term. It writes out the Black master craftsman and artist operating on an architectural scale. It writes out the Black entrepreneur or the Black activist operating at an urban scale. It only gives credit to people who can formalize those dynamics in a particular aesthetic language that perpetuates the supremacy of Western architectural forms, ideologies, aesthetics, et cetera

What needs to be abolished is the monopoly by which the architect is thought to shape the built environment. The discipline routinely critiques the world that they live in because it is not either aesthetically harmonious in the ways that they might imagine in utopian sense, or aesthetically rigorous in the ways that they reward in the profession. But it’s never been that way and when we look at the built environment, much of it is not designed by architects. They’ve painted themselves into a small corner, but then want the whole world to give them all this power. It prevents public engagement, it prevents dealing with people on equal terms. Black entrepreneurs, Black activists, had to be the white state structure that neglected their space. Within that space architects worked collaboratively with others. I think that it’s a really good civic model to understand what the social role of the architect could be.

The definition of the architect—the person who leverages the knowledge of techne, who turns that into formalist practices in the current moment, who creates the monumental building—there’s so much investment in that. Not just as an idea, but literally at the institutional basis. There’s an investment in this idea that the architect is a genius who thinks differently from the general public. They produce iconic forms, and that gives them the cultural prestige that they need to make these projects. Without that mythology, we have a broader sense of who has expertise. We invented measured drawings as a single aesthetic medium by which the architect could separate their intellectual labor from manual labor and forever created a separation between the contractors, the subcontractors, and the architect who speaks with the client in the smoking rooms. I think that’s the system that needs to be abolished. I don’t know that architecture as a profession and discipline can do that. I think that radical experiments will have to happen in allied fields outside, and architecture will have to appropriate those things and by degree things might change for the general practitioner.

The cynical part of me believes that architecture as it is currently defined within the discipline is inherently racialized to privilege certain types of practices, and that we are very far behind because of our reliance on money, neoliberal practices, and monumentalism—the kinds of things that literally only thrive when you reproduce privilege. If you’re expecting someone to still be able to make a monumental project and to do so without creating peonage at the level of manual labor and creating a symbol that does not reproduce any element of white supremacy, I think you’re fooling yourself. Your expectations are out of whack with what is possible. I think that our field quite radically needs to abolish itself. It has to abolish this idea that the architect is the prime mover of these things, that the designer is something that is necessary.

The short answer to your question is we need to abolish the label of architects and replace it with something that is more inclusive. The only way to do that is to experiment radically outside the profession but compel the profession to reclaim and reintegrate these beacons of experimentation. That is the only way that I think architecture will sufficiently change. I say this because we’ve put people of color at the top of institutions, we have tenured people of color in the profession, and whenever there’s a kind of social turbulence around race relations, we give them a call, they come and give a lecture, they teach a guest studio, they come to a guest exhibition, and then people feel like they’ve done the best that they can. But the center of the discipline doesn’t shift, the values of the discipline don’t shift, and how we give awards doesn’t shift. I think what we need to do is even more radical.

People of color who are no longer deemed architects by our discipline and profession because they’ve gone to art school spaces, they teach postcolonial theory in different art history programs, or they are doing nonprofit work that seems to deal more with program or social sustainability than form making—I would argue that they never stopped being architects. They’re actually reforming the label of the architect, and it’s when we finally acknowledge them that we recuperate the benefits of their work. In terms of Black creatives, people like Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, Tyree Guyton, Olalekan Jeyifous, and Amanda Williams are out here doing God’s work for our profession. Black people have been making architecture, art, and spaces for a long time. We need to abolish the exclusive definitions. We have to include them in our historiography.

NOMAS: The wave of reforms that swept the nation after the uprisings of 2020 has now given way to a period of reaction and treatment. Do you think this is true for architectural practice and pedagogy? What comes next?

CD: This is an interesting question, and I think it is true of our profession and our discipline. Now that doesn’t mean that we don’t have long term effects from the wave of protests and the wave of consciousness raising, and even the wave of reform that has taken place. But I think what we forget is that social movements are messy. They are literally responses to current conditions. Very rarely have people who participated in them gotten together beforehand and had a list of demands that was perfect for the moment. Usually that emerges organically from the process, so that’s the messy part. People wanted Black Lives Matter to be more articulate, more defined, to have their set of demands ready. It took them a few years after things started occurring to have that and then when you have those changes, you have people who are bad actors in good spaces who bring a bad name to that, and you also have people who are good actors who only reform to a certain extent, so the change is partial. This is why, at least in my mind, the need for activism, both at a societal level and at a disciplinary level, is persistent. It’s not like we win these victories and then we can go back to normal. That’s what people want to have happen, and I think because architecture is filled with such privileged actors, you can actually be in a space where you’re insulated from these things. But the more we include folks who come from different backgrounds, who actually have family members who still live in these spaces, who actually know people who are still affected by these conditions, there is no possibility of retrenchment. There’s only the possibility of being doubly conscious, of knowing how to behave in these elite spaces, knowing how to behave in the spaces you come from, and knowing that you want these two worlds to come together, but that the present conditions don’t allow you for that.

For a few years we saw a lot of hires both at the studio level and the administrative level—deans of social outreach, community outreach, and diversity, equity, and inclusion. We also saw a concerted effort to recruit people of color into spaces and to increase the porousness of our profession. Usually, you’d find those hires in history/theory positions, but you also saw them in design positions, which I thought was kind of unique. There are also some schools that established either post-doctoral or one- or two-year teaching fellowships where that kind of thing will always be part of the curriculum. But, to me, those are patterns of reform that are tacked onto the outside. The efforts that we saw were people hiring women or people of color as deans or chairs. Then, there was a huge moment where a lot of them were leaving their positions. Some of it was because people believed that they were encountering very sexist, masculinist attitudes or people thought that the bureaucracy and the corporate culture among tenured faculty was too intransigent for them to change. I think that this comes in waves, unfortunately, and I think that we’re in a wave now where at least a broad part of the academy—broader than the minority who wants to continue this work anyway—will want things to return back to normal.

There’s a wonderful volume that’s just come out in architectural history on the tradition and lineage of world history surveys of architecture. In that volume, the idea of racial difference, of white supremacy, of Eurocentrism is sort of baked into the volume. Every single section talks about these elements, and in some ways, you know, that is a kind of institutionalization of the changes that people like me and others are calling for. There’s a self-conscious attempt to deal with these issues. If I were to characterize Race and Modern Architecture, I would say that it was an attempt by many practitioners within the discipline to look outside of the discipline in an interdisciplinary way and to bring critical paradigms to bear on our professional practice and on the ways that we create historiography for the field. In a way, for me, it felt like the profession and the discipline were attempting to be open with the rest of the world.

When I look at this new volume, it feels very much like a disciplinary history that only looks to other architectural histories to explain itself. I think that’s a kind of assimilation of this call for action in a way that renormalizes the separateness of our discipline. At first, I looked at the volume, and I was like: “Oh my god! These people I respected are cited in this volume! It’s a beautiful volume. It’s dealing with race. It’s dealing with colonialism and Eurocentrism!” Then I think to myself: “Who’s going to buy this book?” It’s going to be primarily architectural historians and Ph.D. students at exclusive elite institutions, many of whom are not people of color. We’ve pluralized the discourse without pluralizing the actors. There is one step forward, but I feel two steps back in the closing ranks and the solipsistic way that we continue to look only at architecture and architectural history to explain itself. There will be institutionalization but a loss in terms of the broader ways that people are doing this work unless we keep licensing and we keep tenuring people who have a different experience. It’s the new names on that list that I’m most excited about, not the established ones who were writing disciplinary histories previously, and honestly when you look at their endnotes, which I spent like an hour and a half doing, they are the ones who are citing people from outside, not the same folks. There is an impulse there.

I feel like building that impulse might allow us to continue this activism until the next cultural flashpoint is inevitable we’re going to have it. Someone’s going to be unjustly killed. Someone’s going to be unjustly incarcerated. Something is going to happen that will cause the world to look at us and be like, “What is wrong with you, America?” And then you’ll have the same people who think that they’re progressive and innovative in terms of technology and form going, “Oh my God, what are we doing in our profession? Who can we talk to?” And then another crisis will happen, and we’ll drop that for another crisis narrative just like clockwork. But there will be those people who will keep their heads down and keep doing that work, and I think as long as their institutional foundation has grown and they can foster and mentor others who can become a permanent part, we haven’t lost, we’ve actually gained in that sense. The more experiments you see outside that are radical that we come back and try to incorporate, then we’ve won. That’s what I think comes next. I think that’s the next step.

For me personally, I want to produce as many monographs and studies as I possibly can of the Eurocentrism of American architecture, of the design expertise and genius within African American spaces, and to keep producing those books, so the next time this moment comes, we have a broader base to call upon to rationalize and reason our way through this moment. I think that’s as optimistic as I can be. I’m becoming this kind of curmudgeonly, middle-aged person who’s like when another architect gets up there and shows you slides of their work and says, I use this program, and here’s the material… I’m like, oh, please! I’ve already read that on your website, Why are you here? What is the point of you coming here besides to indoctrinate master students to think like you?

After you’ve seen it for 20 years, it’s a rare figure who’s really impressive, who’s doing something interesting. When Eyal Weizman comes along and talks about things that forensic approaches can help you to think about—thinking about the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, some of which is controversial because they make claims that are counter to government intelligence—that truly is exceptional. It’s not something that you can get from just about any graduate with design talent. There’s a social agenda associated with it. For me, that’s when I get excited about our discipline again when we’re not just producing the same old kind of stuff. I’m seeing more of that, especially in contrast to when I finished school in the 1990s and early 2000s. Starting my PhD program, the opportunities for Black practitioners were extremely low.

The people who are now graduating from school, and especially Black women practitioners, there are more of them, so I have to be fair and say that things have improved, but I do see a kind of apathy. And it’s a practiced apathy. There are people who have been waiting: “Can I just talk about formalism again? Can I just talk about materials and how beautiful the building is? Does it make me a racist just to want the regular things?” They’re waiting, and they’re going to get their opportunity again. But I think that they better be ready to be critiqued for that trained apathy. Because I’m going to talk about it, and it’s going to be pretty fucking obvious who didn’t really care and who wasn’t trying to contribute to those things versus who was. I think you have to do that truth-telling—that’s part of the uncomfortable part of your job. Even for people you work with who you respect, just say, “You know, when I brought this up, you weren’t super comfortable. You didn’t want your students to pursue that, and they responded to that.” So I think that that’s what happens. Like Derek Bell, there’s a naturalism to the up and down and the retrenchment—that is the democratic experiment. But I think that there’s also a kind of continual building for communities of color and for the disenfranchised. At least in architecture, depending on how we look at the next moment, it could actually be foundational for greater opportunity. And I say this because I want to end on a somewhat positive note and not just be all doom and gloom. I think that we are making certain types of progress, but some of it, I think, will benefit people 25 years from now, not next year. That’s the time frame we need If you’re in this kind of activist movement.