Book Review: Architecture in Black

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Darell Fields, Architecture in Black (Athlone Press, 2000)


It is somewhat curious that Architecture in Black has not received more recognition for its study of race in architecture. Not only does it have a critical Introduction by Cornell West, but it is an unconventional take on architectural history. This text is a Janus faced contemplation of racial discourses on modern architecture theory: it begins by analyzing the present, only to make a prosaic return to the past. Yet, by analyzing the past, Architecture in Black affects our perception of contemporary events: its clever critique helps us to detect the influence of ‘blackness’ on architectural discourse.

For architecture students and professionals working within the expanded terrains of postmodernism, it is important to note that Architecture in Black critiques architectural history by using the formal language and strategies of semiotic theorists. This approach to architectural history enables Fields to identify the latent racial structures of historical formalisms, a considerable feat if one recalls the apolitical pedigree of semiotic theory in architectural postmodernism.

The main textual strategy of the book, the ‘tropological study’, consists of a simultaneous reading of historical texts that establishes the racial themes operating within modern architectural discourses. Fields openly admits that his discoveries are just as much creative interpretations of the past as they are rigorous inventories of the latent themes of architecture theory. The first tropological study consists of a comparison of G.W.F. Hegel’s publication of The Philosophy of History (1837) with his Lectures on Aesthetics (1835). These separate texts are read as a single text because, according to Fields, Aesthetics is a visual illustration of the historical models found in the Philosophy of History.

The racial trope of Hegel’s work is manifest in the dual representation of Egypt as the literal and symbolic image of ‘blackness’ in the ancient world. Fields argues that Hegel is forced to geographically separate Egypt from the rest of ‘Dark Africa’ because of its lionized place in Etruscan and Greek history. However, due to its apparent competition with Greece as an origin point for Western civilization, a stereotypical notion of ‘Egypt’ is invented to solidify its aesthetic inferiority to European sources.

After locating the abject parallels between ‘race’ and ‘architecture’ in Hegel’s philosophical-aesthetic project, Fields employs the lessons of linguistic theory to turn Hegel’s critical assumptions on its head. In lieu of following Hegel’s abject estimation of ‘blackness’, Fields constructs a productive black figure for architecture theory. Ferdinand de Saussure and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. provide the primary models for this revision: de Saussure stands in for linguistics in general and Gates is referenced for his application of semiotics to the theme of ‘blackness’ in literature.

The final chapters of the book return to modern architectural theory, revisiting the question of racial discourses in the nineteenth century architectural style debates. This theme is explored in three historical essays that ask the question ‘In Which Style Shall We Build?’, including the canonical text written by Heinrich Hübsch in 1828. Although this textual analysis uncovers the relevance of race in architecture, one wishes that Fields decided to use images to illustrate his text. Not only would this appeal to the general architectural reader, but it would provide them with the means of realizing the material consequences of race theory in architectural discourse.

After reading this text, it seems natural to ask if it is possible to think of a contemporary racial semiotics in architecture?’ This may very well be the case, as Fields has just completed an artist in residence project in Houston, Texas entitled “The Black Architecture Project.” The designs of this show are his first attempts to formalize the themes of Architecture in Black. Perhaps a reissue of this text with explanations of his most recent designs would breathe new life into its critical reception in architecture.

 

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About cldavisii

Charles Davis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture History at SUNY Buffalo. He has a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.Arch from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His specialization is the role of racial discourses in modern architectural style debates, including the ways that organic concepts of form allowed designers to invest buildings with racial and ethnic characters. In addition to maintaining this blog, his academic research and books reviews can be found in journals such as Architecture Research Quarterly (arq), the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Append-x and VIA. He is co-editor of Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden consequences (Routledge: 2015), a volume of fifteen case studies examining the influence of diversity of contemporary design. His dissertation research will be published in an upcoming monograph entitled Building Character: the Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press).