Published December 3, 2019
In his recently published book, assistant professor Charles Davis II reveals the ways in which parallels between racial and architectural characters provided a rationalist model of design that fashioned some of the most influential national building styles of the past.
In Building Character:The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019), Davis traces the racial charge of the architectural writings of five modern theorists—Eugene Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, Gottfried Semper, Louis Sullivan, Frank Lloyd Wright, and William Lescaze—to highlight the social, political, and historical significance of the spatial, structural, and ornamental elements of modern architectural styles.
The book has already received attention from the design community and was was featured in a recent episode of the podcast Interstitial, a program on "space and the consequences of our designs" affiliated with the online magazine Thinkbelt.
Davis says his hope is add a dimension of critical understanding to North American architecture and the racial and social context in which it was designed.
"When I look at the history of North American architecture...and specifically highlight the racial discourse, the white [nativist] discourses that accompanied manifest destiny and other forms of white southern colonialism, it allows me to introduce an intellectual history to Modern architecture that’s very different - it's race conscious," he says. "And so when we think about 'architecture for democracy' we consider who were the people it was built for? And if [these buildings] have become pluralized…how did they become that way?"
"If your’re an architect or an architecture student, I want this to weigh on your mind so that you recognize there’s a responsibility to what you’re doing," says Davis, reflecting on his book in the Interstitial podcast. "The strategies and techniques, they're not apolitical but borne of a political moment. They tend to reproduce those conditions in our mind, because elite cultures tend to reproduce themselves. If nothing else comes from this I at least want that moment of hesitation when someone is designing."
Through his research and teaching, Charles Davis examines the integration of race and style theory in paradigms of “architectural organicism,” or design movements that emulated natural principles of development to produce a "living architecture." This research has been published in academic journals and magazines such as arq, Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Log, Aggregate, ASAP/J, and Append-x.