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Louis Nelson

University of Virginia

Architecture and Control

While architectural histories through the 1980s could remain content to document the oeuvre of an architect or stylistic and design traditions, such representations today find their home on the American coffee table and not in the university scholar’s library. Contemporary architectural history has absorbed the lessons of critical theory and answers the demand that any telling of public history attend to questions of power. Even so, the mechanisms of this relationship remain in my mind less well understood. How does architecture exert power? This is a question I have had to confront in numerous ways over the past decade or more through my field and archival research into the architecture of early Jamaica. Fueled by a lucrative sugar monoculture maintained by an enslaved majority and controlled by a colonial and creole minority, early Jamaica was a landscape so rife with power imbalances that its architectures necessarily worked to produce and preserve the thin veil of stability. This brief essay is a survey of recent architectural histories that do more than just assert the claim that architecture has power, and instead demonstrate the mechanisms by which architectures accomplish that work. I have organized the following into three categories, but I recognize that these groupings are by nature imprecise and often difficult to distinguish.

Physical Control (containment)

The clearest expression of control over another is by physical constraint, a process with obvious architectural implications. And while the institution of slavery is probably the clearest manifestation of such conditions, it is when the slave is more of a commodity and less a source of labor that the need for physical constraint is greatest. The west coast of Africa—and especially the coastline now claimed by Ghana—is home to an astonishing array of “castles” that once serviced the trans-Atlantic slave trade, a process that forcibly moved at least 11 million Africans across the ocean to work sites in the Americas. The nineteenth-century internal American slave trade—the process of sale, transportation and resale from Richmond to New Orleans—has been carefully explicated by Maurie McInnis and her article should serve as a model for more work on the slave trade, ancient, early modern, and modern. But slavery is not the only context in which containment is an essential function of architecture. In Another City, Dell Upton offers a detailed account of Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary, describing not just its architecture but also the social and political conditions that gave rise to the building and determined its form and operations. Upton ties the solitary confinement of the Penitentiary to the broader early nineteenth-century drive by urban American elites to form, reform, and segregate, an impulse that generated new architectures for schools, prisons, commercial spaces, and public parks. The utopianism that drove such broad urban transformation was more explicit in the architecture of the Shakers, whose communitarian utopianism necessitated separating men from women and between religious ranks or orders. Other important spaces that necessitated containment include the harem, Japanese internment camps, and, of course, Nazi concentration camps.

Containment finds its counterpart in exclusion. Mark Girouard’s Life in an English Country House was an early architectural history that took seriously the power of architecture and social practice to segregate and divide even within the same house. Chapter 5 documents the removal of servants from the seventeenth-century hall, redefining the space from common to genteel. Numerous other architectural historians have deepened our understanding of the particular alignment of architecture, refinement, and mechanisms of social exclusion. Dell Upton’s chapter on social exclusion and “public” spaces in early nineteenth century cities, also from Another City, is an excellent example. The narrative of exclusion in the broader context of the early modern landscape comes through beautifully in the recently published Wasteland: A History. This nuanced discussion of the subject as ideology and as simultaneously physical and social space examines the use of the term in English literature, art, and common law, documenting the enclosure and improvement of “wasteland” (formerly common lands) as productive privatized land. Of course, exclusion as both social and architectural practice has not waned in the twentieth century, as Andrew Kahrl’s excellent work on segregated African American beaches makes clear. Containment and exclusion as mechanisms of power have a robust if emerging architectural history.

Implied Control (surveillance)

Since Michel Foucault’s 1975 publication of Discipline and Punish, the architectural implications of surveillance and the gaze have been of growing interest among architectural historians. The mechanism here is one of implied control. To see is to control; conversely, to be seen (or even to think you are being seen) is to be controlled. Alice Friedman was among the first to seize the interpretive potential of the gaze and surveillance in architectural settings to great advantage. House and Household in Elizabethan England, her first monograph, benefitted richly from thinking about the relationships of space, power, and (in)visibility. But a number of scholars have also demonstrated the failures of surveillance as an effective tool of control. In his reading of the trial testimonies after the 1822 Denmark Vesey insurrection in Charleston, South Carolina, Bernard Herman finds that while the white Charlestonians saw surveillance as a means to control the movement of slaves, their African American subjects saw its shortcomings as an opportunity to evade them. Similarly, Rebecca Ginsburg demonstrates the failure of surveillance through interviews of domestic servants who had formerly labored in Afrikkaner houses in Apartheid-era Johannesburg. Anna Andrewjewski’s Building Power deals explicitly with surveillance and its potential to control mid-nineteenth century Americans at sites ranging from post offices to camp meetings. Most recently, Lauren Petersen has examined visibility in the ancient Roman house, using surviving examples from Pompeii, to understand the potential and limitations of surveillance over slaves in that context as well. Visibility and surveillance are important sources of inquiry for architectural and landscape historians concerned with questions of control, and there is much more work to be done in this field.

Asserted Control (authority)

A third and final strategy for investing architecture with the power of control is to use it as a public sign of social and political power. This very fruitful avenue of investigation has the healthiest historiography of these three modes and is populated richly by work from what Kathleen James-Chakraborty has called the Berkeley School. As she points out, this work has tended to examine the urban worlds of nineteenth and early twentieth century colonialism and has produced celebrated volumes on Bombay, Beijing, Istanbul, Calcutta, Lahore, Kuala Lampur, Izmir, and other cities and colonial zones. But such strategies were not always about imperial action in an occupied space. Sheila Crane’s powerful book on Marseille observes the ways that the French port city was under perpetual contest and revision as a space at the boundary between the mainland and French North Africa. Nicholas Temple’s Renovatio Urbis documents how Julius II’s city functioned as a terrain for material and performative papal propaganda. The architectural authority of the British Empire, a favorite topic, has been most recently documented by Alex Bremner, first through churches in his Imperial Gothic and through all forms of buildings in the just published edited collection, Architecture and Urbanism in the British Empire. In this latter collection, Bremner’s essay, “Stones of Empire: Monuments, Memorials, and Manifest Authority,” especially reminds readers of the power of monuments to claim contested territory by inscribing one body of collective memory over others. In this work, architecture as inscription is over-inscription, even erasure.

Last month saw Washington D.C. become a flurry of activity as the capital city prepared for another inauguration. In these times, we are more poignantly reminded of the capacity of architecture to reify power. Soaring domes, marches of columns, and fields of marble framed the installation of another U.S. President. Permanence and antiquity collude to assure Americans of the stability of American democracy. But in the Women’s March through the streets of the same city and around the world that followed, the same visual cues were used to contest that installation. Our capital city was designed for the first, but the second is a critical place-making act of American democracy. And this is the lacuna in our scholarship: how is the power of architecture contested, undermined? How will the architectural history of resistance become canonized? It can only be so as we learn to write histories less of design and production and more of place, occupation, and re-inscription.


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