Here’s something to look forward to in 2022: Some of what I teach may be illegal. The governor-elect of the Commonwealth of Virginia, Glenn Youngkin, has made one of those “Day One” pledges as politicians are wont to do—As soon as he is inaugurated in January, he says, he will outlaw the use of critical race theory in all state institutions. Although I do not teach a course or even a topic on that “theory” at Virginia Tech, I certainly do impart some of the truths about the oppression of Black and other people in this country, especially as that injustice has been and continues to be perpetrated by architecture and design.
Often misunderstood and misrepresented, critical race theory is the attempt to show how laws, policy, language, arts, and culture—including architecture—have been part and parcel of efforts to keep subjugating Black people. That does not mean that all laws and buildings are part of the history of slavery and racism that has wound its evil tendrils around the fabric of our country. Instead, it means that we must find out which institutions, both in words and built environments, perpetuate this history and reckon with them.
In truth, I probably do not have much to fear. The governor-elect won his race by concentrating on secondary education, convincing enough suburban voters that their and their children’s minds were in danger from the corruption of critical thinking. There are few examples of professors in other state institutions where governors have already put into effect similar bans being called to task, and of these none have been censured or fired.
That does not make the disconnect between the reality of what we—and any self-respecting school of architecture and design—teach and what at least a significant part of the public seems to think is some form of pernicious propaganda that will erode their sense of accomplishment. Not that you can blame them: as is made clear in the first essay of The 1619 Project—the 2021 book version of the 2019 New York Times initiative and podcast series that has caused much of the uproar on the subject—enslaved people were first sold in this state of Virginia in the year of the title. The Commonwealth, after its tobacco farmers had depleted its soil to the extent that growing that crop was no longer economically feasible, made a fortune as the prime breeder (yes, breeder) and exporter of human beings to the Deep South. This state was also, of course, home to the capital of the Confederate States, and until recently, the war criminals who fought for that defeated rebellion were still honored with statues in our state capital.
Moreover, Virginia Tech was built mainly on the land of two plantations. Black people could not attend this institution until the 1960s, and discrimination remains an issue here, including at the School of Architecture + Design where I teach—as we found out when we did a survey of our faculty, staff, and students last year.
What does all this have to do with architecture? Quite a lot. As one of the chapters in 1619 makes clear, the oppression of Black communities has been built into American design and zoning for almost as long as this country existed. Using the example of Atlanta, for instance, historian Kevin M. Kruse shows how racial policies dictated much of how the city and its suburbs were developed in relationship to the freeways that deliberately wiped out Black communities and established “safe” havens for white people beyond the downtown core.
As the book makes clear in other areas, though, the true nature of oppression is even more pernicious than these kinds of overt policy decisions. Black lives, and thus, Black architecture and design, are largely still invisible. As Nikole Hannah-Jones, the creator and reporter of the project, says: “The vision of the past I absorbed from school textbooks, television, and the local history museum depicted a world, perhaps a wishful one, where Black people did not really exist. This history rendered Black Americans, Black people on all the earth, inconsequential at best, invisible at worst.” That means that we have not had a history of Black architecture or landscape architecture to speak of, although there are many ongoing attempts to counter the “history of the victors.” There have been few Black architects, period, and even fewer who have received recognition. There is also no “Black architecture,” although critics such as Darell Wayne Fields are attempting to define what that might be.
We cannot turn away from the fact that many of the structures we hold up as examples, like Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, were instruments of oppression, rape, and forced labor, and that even what we think of as neutral models, in whatever style, were the built affirmation of wealth built on violence. What we also must recognize is that the forms we think of as “good” architecture, from the layout of our houses and offices to the white columns that festoon classical buildings, cement the culture of whiteness, based on European models, in stone, concrete, wood, glass, and steel.
That does not mean we should not look at these buildings, but that we need to do so with open eyes, questioning what is good about them, from their proportions to their layout. Do we want to design our houses today based on models that assumed servants and enslaved people, and a "place" for women and their activities that was imprisoning? Do we want to accept that many of the buildings we study and adore were built with slave labor, whether in fact (such as the White House and the Capitol) or because corporations and banks that had the money to commission them gained those resources from slave trade or sugar plantations manned by forced labor? Do we want to accept that "good" aesthetic relations and color combinations perpetuate the ideals and “sense of rightness” that comes purely from Western European models?
Then there is even more insipid racism, disguised as something else. One Black faculty member here, who has since left the school, was reportedly told by another professor, who was white, that his ideas and methods, which were different from what has been the means here of teaching, meant that “perhaps you do not belong here.” Another white faculty member bemoaned the supposed lack of “farm kids who have the skills we need, the ability to fix things and figure things out,” as opposed to the “suburban and urban students we get now.” “That is the real diversity problem,” he concluded.
Luckily, there is hope. The awareness of the racism baked into architecture and urbanism is not new, and in recent years journals central to the discipline, such as the Journal of Architectural Education and Places, have produced a stream of article delving into many different aspects of these forms of exclusion and oppression. Most universities, including Virginia Tech, are aware of the issues and are trying to address them. The percentage of students of color is rising, although from a very low base, and C.L. Bohannon, my successor as director of the school, is an eminent scholar and landscape architect who is also Black.
With a little bit of luck, neither I nor any of the other faculty members here and at the University of Virginia and Hampton University will be fired for teaching what is evident in the history of architecture and important to acknowledge, discuss, and act upon in the classrooms. Let’s then hope that the students who graduate from our universities today will help the firms and organizations that are the core of the discipline recognize the role they must play to create a more equitable, inclusive, and diverse society for all of us.
The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.