Essentializing Identity

Publication Date
November 12, 2020

In a year of racial tumult, schools of architecture have gone through a reckoning. At the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), Notes on Credibility, co-written by the African American Student Union and AfricaGSD, was the catalyst: syllabi have been scrapped and reworked, inadequate BIPOC representation has been spotlighted, and explicit “anti-racist” instruction has been demanded. As the memo’s introduction makes plain: “[the school] cannot claim academic excellence while maintaining silence…[as] silence is complicit in anti-Blackness.”

In response, the GSD this semester has piloted new “module” studios, many of which place notions of identity and race at their center—a first attempt, one might say, at not remaining complicit. Opinions vary, but following final reviews, they seemed to share at least one fault: the explicit and overly-ambitious conviction that architecture-as-building could confront and radically alter race relations. The user, or identity of the user, had become the focus, and, I would argue, subsumed the architecture and design discussion. In turn, no building could ever be adequate. Thus, the most successful projects proved to be the ones that didn’t seek to suggest a building at all but instead focused on the capacity of images as images, identity in representation alone—something, I think, more akin to the production of art.

This, of course, is a disciplinary corrective. Two years ago, Bryan Norwood, as guest editor of Log 42, attempted to expand the journal’s discourse by including writers from outside of the discipline, such as critical race scholar Adrienne Brown and feminist theorist Sarah Ahmed. These scholars sought to “disorient phenomenology” with the varieties of bodily experience—that of black, white, queer, and otherwise—and untangle what’s been deemed “normative” in space and acknowledge privilege by putting the assumed body, power relations, and all “effects of history”1 in question.

Though now, in order to deal with these nuances and to discuss them in architecture school, the discipline has resorted to distilling bodies to an essence, which has resulted in essentializing. And with this has come the creeping assumption that formal intent can somehow correspond to a group at all, that one can truly design a “Black” or “indigenous space,” for example, and imbue architecture with an identitarian magic.

So, it seems we’ve landed back where we started. We’ve transcended a cis male euro-heteronormativity to fall back on identity as the end-all, be-all. Instead of acknowledging the differences of experience of all people, we’ve further categorized the bodies of building occupants into new typologies: x-type moves like this and thinks like that, thus corresponding to x-architecture. Person as identity and identity as programmatic fodder.

Despite this necessary reckoning, the body has become just that: a body, stripped of autonomy, receiver of bespoke building. And this has led, I emphasize here, to a new type of privilege: what Brown University’s social scientist Glenn Loury calls “racial epistemology”—the claim that identity gives you some insight on “what is true”—which intertwines the author of a project with the project’s validity, and more generally makes conversation around these topics exclusive, emotional and fraught.

Our scope of our work as students and as architects has been confused. Schools have committed to reveling in the project’s capacity to account for identity without making sense of what this actually means. Especially when leaning into identity seems to trivialize individuals and reify group differences. It shines a new light but also draws a new line. And this is to say nothing of what we might actually see in a space, as we architects are not in control of how our work is received and subsequently used. Our projects and buildings do take on identities, yes, but not as prescribed by us.

So where do we put our efforts? Do we dive back into the discipline like previous generations: the architecture of elements, architecture as autonomous pursuit? The stuff we know we can control, but what some might call a form of isolationism. Or do we keep prying? Do we claw away at culture and experience and bodies and art, and hope that these studios and our best attempts just might poke through to something real?

  1. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 56.
Publication Date
November 12, 2020
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