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Charles L. Davis II: American architecture is a settler colonial project (September 30, 2020)01:02:19

Mira Henry introduces Charles L. Davis II, explaining that this lecture starts a series of workshops with Davis for the SCI-Arc community. She notes that “Race and modern architecture: a critical history from the Enlightenment to the present” which Davis co-edited and contributed to, appeared this summer – a timely intervention at a moment of heightened awareness of race in America.

Charles L. Davis II begins by outlining the trajectory and range of his writing and activism. He identifies two key ideas. First, “settler colonialism,” understood as “a distinct type of colonialism that functions through the replacement of indigenous populations with an invasive settler society that, over time, develops a distinctive identity and sovereignty in its place”. Second, “the phenomenology of whiteness,” as discussed by Linda Martin Alcoff and Sara Ahmed, that focuses on racial embodiment through the lens of everyday life, bodily practice, and place-making.

Davis reviews how these ideas inform his discussion of 19th century European and American architectural discourse in his book, “Building character, racial politics of modern architectural style” (2019). He argues that the racial discourse of 19th century natural science and ethnography informed contemporary architectural discourse. The belief that the physical appearances of race and style categories were regulated by a common set of organizational principles in nature led to the development of design strategies abstracted from nature, and also to a view of architectural history as a form of natural selection, in which buildings were treated as natural history specimens.

As an example, Davis outlines Gottfried Semper’s appropriation of Aryan migration theory in his development of a vernacular architecture of the French-Swiss and Bavarian Alps. Davis also discusses Viollet-le-Duc’s development of a Swiss chalet from contemporary ethnographic history.

Davis demonstrates how these ideas migrated to the U.S., from which emerge self-proclaimed “American” architectures. Davis discusses the influence of physiognomic theory on Louis Sullivan, as demonstrated by Sullivan’s Kehilath Anshe Ma'arav synagogue (1890) in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago (which in 1922 became the Pilgrim Baptist Church, celebrated as the birthplace of gospel music).

Davis discusses his essay on Henry Van Brunt (1832-1903) that appears in “Race and modern architecture”. He discusses Van Brunt’s railroad depots as part of a wave of White cultural nationalism, replacing earlier settler cultures as wells as indigenous cultures, while also inaugurating a new historical narrative.

Davis concludes with a mention of the work of the Society of Architectural Historians (SAH)’s Race and Architectural History Affiliate Group, exploring the enduring legacy of racial discourses within architectural history.