Race, Space, and Architecture

Colleagues Huda Tayob and Suzanne Hall have been at work since autumn 2018 on a transdisciplinary open-access curriculum in Race, Space, and Architecture. Incorporating history, critical race theory, and studies of cities from Beirut to Dakar to Kuala Lumpur to New York, the project also gives prominence to fiction, biography, poetry, and film. With Thandi Loewenson, they are now developing the curriculum into a free, web-based platform that invites further engagement from readers and users. As part of our occasional series of conversations, Tayob spoke by email with Places senior editor Frances Richard about the inseparability of place-making and racialization, and the importance of polyvocality and transdisciplinarity in architecture and design education.

“Ma race, la race humaine,” Aimé Césaire. Mural collage, Ménilmontant, Paris, 2013. [Jeanne Menjoulet © via Flickr under license CC BY-ND 2.0]

Frances Richard: I want to talk about the readings, images, and so forth that will be made available to students and teachers — and anyone, really — through your open-access website, and to hear more about the nuts and bolts of what you and Suzi Hall have assembled, the categories and typologies you’re setting forth for students to think through. But first, let’s talk a bit about the conceptual linkages among “race,” “space,” and “architecture.” You, Hall, and Thandi Loewenson have framed the proposal for decolonial and antiracist curricula in architecture and design schools by noting that such materials take up three broad and complicated tasks. These pedagogical projects point, as you explain it,

first, to a recognition of and engagement with entanglements and multiplicities; second, to an understanding of race-making and space-making as foundational to modernity (and intimately present in architecture, whether spoken or not); and third, to a conscious questioning of boundaries between methods or fields or archives — asking in particular what it means to talk of these methods or fields or archives from their margins. 1

Could you hone in on this triple agenda? Specifically, could you say more about how race-making and the kinds of space-making that attend it are “intimately present in architecture,” and what this means for teaching young designers and architects?

Huda Tayob: To consider race-making and space-making as intrinsically entangled is to draw on a long tradition of Black radical thought. In The Critique of Black Reason (2017), Achille Mbembe builds on work by scholars such as Frantz Fanon, C.L.R. James, Aimé Césaire, and Édouard Glissant, who have argued that constructions of the raced body and of Blackness emerged with the development of the Atlantic slave trade; the Middle Passage helped to establish racial capitalism, modern systems of banking and insurance, and the concept of particular bodies as available for dispossession. Saidiya Hartman takes this on too, bringing in questions of gender and showing that the Middle Passage was in many ways the “belly of the world,” where the raced body was produced through a violent rebirth. 2 Mbembe’s argument extends to what he calls the “becoming Black of the world” in the contemporary context, pointing to increasing precarity in which large populations can be deemed superfluous. 3

To consider race-making and space-making as intrinsically entangled is to draw on long traditions of Black radical thought.

At the same time, much of this writing speaks not only of structural violence and inequality, but also open-ended possibility. For Glissant, “the open boat” and the archipelago of the Caribbean are simultaneously sites of extreme brutality and of potential for a radically inclusive remaking of reality — as he writes, “Our boats are open, and we sail them for everyone.” 4 Treating race as foundational to modernist epistemologies responds to a rich tradition of sociological, historical, and poetic thought, and asks what this tradition might mean for architecture. The study of these histories demonstrates, we hope, that by paying attention to the violence in our economies, institutions, and curricula, we can begin to generate alternative approaches.

Students' architectural drawings.

Students' architectural drawings.
Catherine Anyango-Grünewald and Hannele Mikaela Taivassalo, from the graphic novel Scandorama, about “a perfect Scandinavian city achieved through dystopian means,” 2018. [Catherine Anyango-Grünewald]

We encourage students to consider a variety of constructed and entangled methods, fields, and archives, and to engage with both the materiality of architecture and the ways in which the discipline is defined. What counts as “architecture” and where do we find it? These curricula ask students to consider the labor that lays the foundation or forms the backdrop for architectural undertakings — whether those are important buildings by major practitioners, or marginal constructions; whether suburbs or slums; city centers or peripheries; detention centers or so-called black sites; and so on. This work asks young architects to understand all building practices as enmeshed with one another, as racialized, and as constitutive of the world that we inhabit.

Since the 1990s, we have seen a series of efforts to globalize architectural history, including the recently published and reworked edition of Banister Fletcher’s A History of Architecture (2019), and establishment of the Global Architectural Teaching Collaborative. These have offered insightful critiques of 19th-century approaches to the discipline and are incredibly ambitious in their scope. Yet they tend to maintain very particular ideas about architecture as a discipline, and about the survey course as central to how architectural history might be taught. In contrast, what is important in the “Race, Space, and Architecture” curriculum is not to diversify a set of teaching materials in order to include “non-western” geographies, but rather to question the underpinnings of the discipline in the first place. This is a significant shift in that, as I said before, the imperative is to question not only where we find knowledge, but how we produce it. This reframing acknowledges racialized absences as implicit and structural, and asks students and teachers to see geographies and institutions as interconnected by systems of global capital. For, as Edward Said reminds us, “to read Austen without also reading Fanon and Cabral — and so on and so on — is to disaffiliate modern culture from its engagements and attachments.” 5 Said is making a larger argument, but in regard to Jane Austen he is talking about the novel Mansfield Park (1814), where the beauty and stature of the English country house Mansfield Park is dependent on the fact that its owner, Thomas Bertram, also owns a slave plantation in Antigua. So Austen’s story is in part about how one apparently non-racialized architecture depends directly on another, violently racialized one — even while the novel almost completely glosses over the issue.

FR: I have two questions, and they seem to pull in different directions. But maybe they’re more related than I think; maybe, ultimately, they’re parts of just one question.

What does it mean to encourage an architecture or landscape student to read Aimé Césaire or Édouard Glissant — or to make a decolonial reading of Jane Austen?

First, I’d like to hear more about what it means to encourage an architecture or landscape student to read Césaire or Glissant — or, for that matter, to make a decolonial-architectural reading of Austen. Do architects learn differently when they learn from poets or novelists, and how so? And, further: Do you think that architects can be more intelligently critical about racialized histories and spatialized inequities when they learn from “entangled methods, fields, and archives” that exist outside the discipline’s conventional boundaries? What particular lessons or insights do such “creative” texts make possible for architects?

The second question is to ask more about the discursive and historical archives you mention that originate in South Africa, or elsewhere in the global south. What are the key ideas or technics or epistemologies you are referencing? And how does the definition of “architecture” change when these traditions are included?

HT: I’ll try and answer these two questions in one, as I do think they are closely related.

For Césaire, poetry is transformative and, indeed, potentially revolutionary. It is not simply a way of talking about or to a world, but also a laying-out of possibilities for a different future. Our argument for understanding architecture in part through other disciplines is guided by an interest in that which is silenced in the architectural archive. We ask students to pay attention to those spaces, practices, and subjects that are typically erased when lineages are constructed, or never considered in the first place.

New Orleans bounce club, 2011.
Bounce Night at Republic NOLA, New Orleans, 2011. [Caitlyn Ridenour © via Wikimedia under license CC BY-SA 2.0]

Tuff Gong International Studio, Jamaica 2015.
Tuff Gong International Studio, Kingston, Jamaica, 2015. [Takehiko Ono © via Flickr via license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]

Incorporating poetry in architectural curricula is a way of speaking back to disciplinary boundaries and epistemic framings. Africa, for example, does not even appear on Fletcher’s Tree of Architecture (1896). When we look to other archives and epistemologies, we interrupt assumptions that these disciplines or traditions include no content relevant to “architecture.” We insist instead that these bodies of knowledge can tell us about building and space-making practices; offer commentaries on urban experience; and instantiate creative means of world-making.

We interrupt assumptions that these disciplines or traditions include no content relevant to ‘architecture.’

Let me describe two essays included in our curriculum, both of which present these kinds of expanded possibilities and definitions. One is “Kitchen Language” (2014) by Gabeba Baderoon, which discusses the intimate space of the domestic kitchen. The other is by Nadia Ellis, titled “New Orleans and Kingston: A Beginning, A Recurrence” (2015), which compares New Orleans “bounce” hip-hop with Jamaican dancehall reggae. Each deals with plantation or post-plantation society. Baderoon draws on visual art, fiction, community cookbooks, and interviews with cooks to consider the violent histories of domestic labor at the Cape — where, as she writes, “From the period of slavery to apartheid, the South African kitchen has been a site of harrowing intimacy, power, knowledge and invisible ideological contest, with profound cultural effects.” 6 Baderoon might not be talking about rooms as designed by architects. But we can read her work as architects, and this can help to unsettle typical architectural-historical understandings of the Cape Dutch gabled homestead. Ellis’s essay on New Orleans and Kingston is not an architectural text per se either — but it compares musical cultures in two post-plantation situations, taking the reader through performance and dance venues, street festivals, and other city scenes. These two examples move between popular culture, field or site, and colonial inheritances. They don’t return to groups of architects who might not be fully represented in disciplinary history — however important that work of revisiting disregarded careers might be. Instead, essays like these point to creative and embodied acts on the part of ordinary people, processes of claiming and making space in various contexts of extreme repression. This is what I mean when I speak about recognizing alternative archives.

Plate from Historic Homes of South Africa, Dorothea Fairbridge (1922)
Gateway at Boshof, in Dorothea Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1922). [Herbert Baker Papers, Kendall and Earle Collection (BC206), Special Collections, University of Cape Town Libraries]

Plate from Historic Homes of South Africa, Dorothea Fairbridge (1922)
Speir Homestead and slave bell, in Dorothea Fairbridge, Historic Houses of South Africa (Oxford University Press, 1922), and slave bell in 2018. [Herbert Baker Papers, Kendall and Earle Collection (BC206), Special Collections, University of Cape Town Libraries, and Huda Tayob]

Gabled homestead at Speir, South Africa.
Gabled homestead at Speir, South Africa, 2018. [Huda Tayob]

A further example is the 1966 film by Ousmane Sembene, La Noire de…. This film follows the protagonist, Diouana, as she moves between multiple locales in post-independence Dakar, Senegal: her home in an informal settlement; the city center; the suburban house where she works as a nanny; and eventually an apartment in Antibes, in the south of France, where she moves as a domestic helper.

Materials like these point to creative and embodied acts on the part of ordinary people, processes of claiming space in contexts of extreme repression.

In the 1960s, there were very few African commentaries on urban or architectural space that explicitly positioned themselves as such, and for me, this film is a really important archive of modern architecture. Many of the scenes are constructed to mimic the orthographic projections that are foundational to architectural description, with lingering shots that celebrate the materiality and technics of tropical architecture in West Africa and high-modernist apartments in France. Yet the film simultaneously critiques the racialization of modern cities, in both the global south and north. Sembene looks at spaces that are fundamental to the reproduction of cities as such, yet often ignored in architectural discussions. At the same time, what distinguishes La Noire de… from documentary is its imagining of possibilities for living otherwise, within and around the built spaces where Diouana finds herself. While essentially a tragedy, the film depicts an embodied view of the modern city with a protagonist who is an African woman and a migrant worker, pointing to the centrality of Blackness to modernity more generally.

Still from La Noire de... Ousmane Sembene, 1966.

Still from La Noire de... Ousmane Sembene, 1966.
Stills from Ousmane Sembene, La Noire de…, 1966. [Criterion Collection]

Part of this curriculum project, then, is to suggest a reading of architecture — as a discipline, a history, a set of practices, and a way of teaching and learning — that does not just point to the epistemic violence we commit when we absent discussions of race and racialization, but rather suggests a reappraisal of archives, to allow for what Said calls a polyphonic reading.

FR: I was in a meeting recently (on Zoom, of course), where a sizeable group of senior academics, most but not all from the U.S., were discussing the many calls for proactive antiracist change that have been resounding in design schools since the murder of George Floyd. One dean summed up what he was thinking in this way: “Curriculum, curriculum, curriculum.” So let’s talk about what the “Race, Space, and Architecture” curriculum contains.

The resources are divided into seven parts or “frames”: Centralising, Circulating, Domesticating, Extracting, Immobilising, and Incarcerating, as well as a section on General Readings. The Baderoon and Ellis texts are part of the Extracting section, and Sembene’s film is in the Domesticating section. Altogether, there are some 180 entries. Could you talk about the choice to structure this huge amount of material around these “frames”? It interests me that all your key terms have to do with movement. And the movements are transitive; you centralize or circulate or extract something; you domesticate or immobilize or incarcerate someone.

HT: In working through the relationship between race and architecture, we are questioning the production of both, and asking how race and architecture coalesce in order to render populations disposable. These processes are not fixed, but reproduced across space and time. Racialized populations are relegated to the “edge,” or “outside,” to positions as “other,” through cultural patterns that prioritize ownership and property, yet extend far beyond. This wider framing or extension beyond the literal foregrounds antiracist and anti-colonial resistance.

Each of the six frames contains, in turn, a series of sub-framings of spatial processes, along with a set of spatial typologies. For example, sub-framings in the section on Extracting include “mining, industrializing, disaccumulating, harboring, farming, scaling, dumping, and off-shoring,” along with the spatial typologies of “factories, ports, plantations, mines, zones of exception, and tax havens.” Extractive mining might be understood in relation to practices of off-shoring, and plantations read in relation to tax havens. Some of the framings overlap (and certainly they also omit). But each helps students to think about particular arrangements of political and economic power, arrays that move from the intimate to the national and global, and back.

Schematic drawings of black sites.
Tom Morgan and Darren Dharmadasa, A Bipartisan Policy of Care, 2016 [via blacksites.org]

Port of Long Beach Terminal. 2014.
Port of Long Beach Terminal, 2014. [Charmaine Chua]

Each section aims to bring together a range of geographies, which enables us to consider very different situations and locations as being in conversation. To start with a spatial process as a verb is to emphasize that racial ordering does not end with colonialism or slavery, for instance, but is repeated continually into the present. Such ordering is not arbitrary or incidental. It operates at the level of the raced body — but also, decisively, at the level of social structures that (following Christina Sharpe) define the raced body as “constitutively outside.”

FR: Would you say that an aim of the curriculum is to bring variously raced bodies “inside” architecture, “inside” the academy? Or does a pedagogy like this aspire to unravel the discourses of architecture and the academy, their power as conceptual and practical locations, more comprehensively? It’s true, of course, that a discipline changes when its practitioners change; the classroom changes when students who haven’t always been in the room are reading texts that haven’t often been taught. But are your aims still broader?

Is there a sense in which the aspiration is to move beyond the university?

I realize I’m asking a version of the old “reform or revolution” question. Update or undo? Enlarge or dismantle? In a sense, I think the answer is always both. And I guess we have to ask if it’s even possible, in the deepest sense, to bring an “outside” “in” — given what Sharpe says about the constitutive role of  that-which-is-marked, as establishing and protecting that-which-is-centered, that-which-is-unmarked … Still, I’m moved to ask, because you’re making the curriculum open-access. How does this choice inform the project as a whole? Is there a sense in which the aspiration is to move beyond the university?

HT: I don’t see this as project at seeking to further diversify architecture curricula. The aim to diversify often maintains the status quo, where difference is still “other” and only tolerated in a limited sense. I think a project of this nature has to have broader aims; perhaps it is about “undoing” architecture as it exists within its disciplinary constraints. Both our assembling of the curriculum and its circulation in an open-access format aim to challenge institutional cultures of containment and limited access.

Centering race means dealing directly with the violence of modernity and history. At the same time, in the curriculum we write, “architecture is a way of imagining, building, and validating a world. It is bricks and mortar; the interior arrangements of culture in the positioning of thresholds, openings and objects; and the accumulation of these built forms and practices into social forms of association and dis-association.” And so, while we talk to the violence of modernity, it is also important to recall anti-colonial and antiracist practices of resistance, and other ways of imagining the world in both the past and present. I see the beginnings of this in the inclusion of texts, projects, films, and other material that recognize spatial practices of resistance, maroonage, and creativity, despite extreme deprivation.

Centering race means dealing with the violence of modernity and history. At the same time, architecture is a way of imagining, building, and validating a world.

Making this curriculum open access draws attention to the economies of higher education, in which so many lack access. Paywalls and restrictions on library are institutional architectures that operate on a global scale. So while we are fully aware of limitations of online platforms, it remains important to make as many of these resources as possible downloadable and open-access. The curriculum was first developed through a series of workshops in London with varied groups of contributors and respondents. And Suzi, Thandi, and I all see the online version, launched just recently, as part of a larger set of projects too. The website format allows us to make this constellated form visible, and to continuously build links and add resources. Tariq Jazeel (in the Centralising frame) refers to Gayatri Spivak’s concept of “planetarity,” in which radical alterity is seen as offering expanded possibilities for justice. For us, this curriculum is not a singular answer to architecture’s complicity in structures of race and power. Rather, it is one additional resource among many other efforts that already exist, and those that are being built as we speak.

Data visualizations by W.E.B. Du Bois, 1890.
W.E.B. Du Bois, data visualizations from The Georgia Negro, ink and watercolor, 1890. [Library of Congress]

So in addition to the six “frames,” there are three sections of the website that, as we go forward, will be populated with expanded responses and elaborations. The section titled Constellations contains a growing list of extra references, resources, and projects. There is also a series of Soundings, short recordings or voice notes from authors whose work is included in the curriculum, and from students who have engaged with the project in beta form at the School of Architecture at the Royal College of Art and the Graduate School of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg. The third response section is Engagements, where we will soon post an initial trio of commissioned pieces by Tinashe Mushakavanhu, Gloria Pavita, and Sara Salem (we hope to have these live in October 2020). These three sections of the curriculum look outward, opening up dialogue with still wider ideas — so that all of us who take part in the project can continue to develop our world-makings.

  1. Huda Tayob, “Entangled Architectures: Pedagogies of Refuge and Displacement,” presented at the conference Schools of Thought: Rethinking Architectural Pedagogy, Christopher C. Gibbs College of Architecture, University of Oklahoma (March 5 – 7, 2020).
  2. Saidiya Hartman, “The Belly of the World: A Note on Black Women’s Labors,” Souls, 18:1 (2016), 166-173, https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2016.1162596.
  3. Achile Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, trans. Laurent Dubois (Duke University Press, 2017), 1.  First published as Critique de la Raison Négre (Paris: Editions La Découverte, 2013), https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822373230.
  4. Édouard Glissant, “The Open Boat,” The Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (University of Michigan Press, 1997), 9.
  5. Edward Said quoted in Brennar Bhandar, Colonial Lives of Property: Law, Land, and Racial Regimes of Ownership (Duke University Press, 2018), 38.
  6. Gabeba Baderoon, “Kitchen Language,” in Regarding Muslims: From Slavery to Post-Apartheid (Johannesburg: Wits University Press, 2014), 52.
Huda Tayob in conversation with Frances Richard, “Race, Space, and Architecture,” Places Journal, September 2020. Accessed 01 Jun 2023. https://doi.org/10.22269/200915

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