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Charles L. Davis II Lecture

American Architecture is a Settler Colonial Project: Locating the Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style

Watch Live:

September 30, 2020 at 7:00pm
September 30, 2020 at 9:00pm

Charles L. Davis II is a designer, architectural historian and cultural critic at the School of Architecture and Planning at SUNY Buffalo, where he teaches design studios and courses in history & theory. He received a Ph.D. in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and an M.Arch from SUNY Buffalo. His academic research examines the racial discourses of the modern architectural style debates and its long-term effects on the cultural biases of contemporary practice. His book manuscript,Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (2019) traces the historical integrations of race and style theory in paradigms of “architectural organicism,” or strategies of design that personified buildings to mirror the essential characteristics of the populations they served. He is also co-editor of the forthcoming book Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present, which challenges designers to “write race back into architectural history.” This research has been supported by grants from the Canadian Center for Architecture, the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.​ Davis also manages the academic blog “Race and Architecture” and the experimental design practice Studio DaSP (Design as Social Praxis), which expands the ways architecture serves as a tool for mediating social needs. His work has been exhibited at galleries in New York State and North Carolina.

Living room brown
Frank Loyd Wright Fire Place, Martin House

In the past, architectural historians have been quick to interpret American architectural movements through the lens of an inclusive liberalism that embraces people of all colors, nationalities and religious creeds. Yet few have examined these architectures from the other perspective, namely in terms of how they promoted exclusion by materializing the white nativist tendencies of American democracy by privileging the political values, social mores and cultural practices of white elites. This presentation examines the influence of settler colonial politics on the historical formation of American architecture through the work of two canonical architects: the Irish-American Louis Sullivan and the Welsh-American Frank Lloyd Wright. Each architect based their vision of American architecture on a romantic portrait of life in the Midwest prairie, the supposed heartland of America. While the prairie was spatially defined by the wide-open spaces and an abundance of resources each architect valued, it was also the site of a tragic social struggle between white settlers and non-white natives competing for land, resources and cultural representation. Davis argues that Sullivan and Wright’s visions for American architecture reifies a racially exclusive conception of the body politic that continues to introduce cultural bias in architectural discourses today. This reading invites a reassessment of the long-term effects of modern architecture's racial biases, including the perceived cultural pedigree of contemporary architecture culture.

Charles L. Davis II