Charles Davis II, leading scholar on race and architecture, to address Class of 2022

A distinguished alumnus and faculty member of UB's architecture program, Davis will also receive the Dean's Medal at Friday's ceremony

by Rachel Teaman

Published May 16, 2022

“Charles is at the forefront of a powerful movement to imagine a new narrative for our discipline and catalyze action toward a more inclusive understanding and practice of architecture. His work has transformed our discipline, changed us as a School, and shaped the next generation of architects in profound way. ”
Robert Shibley, Dean and SUNY Distinguished Professor, who will present Charles Davis with the Dean's Medal at Commencement

Charles Davis II, a UB associate professor of architectural history known worldwide for his work on race in architecture, will address members of the Class of 2022 at the School of Architecture and Planning’s 50th Commencement on Friday, May 20, 2022.

In this moment of a new racial reckoning for our country – and, now, in our own city after Saturday’s horrific mass shooting in Buffalo – Davis reveals just how far racism extends in the history and contemporary culture of our disciplines and across our communities.

Specifically, through teaching and research, Davis works to critique whiteness in the disciplinary norms of architecture and to make visible Blackness and the historical contributions of people of color across modern architecture. Ultimately, the work has revealed that racial thinking, and racism, is deeply woven into the narratives, policies and practices of our built environment.

Davis will be honored at Commencement with the 2022 Dean’s Medal, the highest honor bestowed by the School of Architecture and Planning, in recognition of his exemplary contributions to the study and practice of our disciplines and to the betterment of our world.

Among his most notable works is “Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present,” which traces the historical influence of race thinking in modern architectural discourses. Co-edited by Davis with fellow historians Irene Cheng and Mabel Wilson (Pittsburgh University Press, 2020), the book is widely acclaimed for provoking a new racial discourse in architectural education.

Charles Davis.

Davis focuses his research on the historical integrations of race and style theory established within the paradigm of architectural organicism – a philosophy of making that sought to translate the generative laws of nature into a rational process of design.

His current book project, tentatively entitled “Black By Design: An Interdisciplinary History of Making in Modern America,” recovers the overlooked contributions of black artists and architects in shaping the built environment from the Harlem Renaissance to Black Lives Matter. He has published articles and essays in Architectural Research QuarterlyJournal of the Society of Architectural HistoriansHarvard Design MagazineLogAggregateAppend-x, and VIA. His 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.

In the classroom, Davis has played a lead role in the School’s movement toward a more racially just curriculum and learning environment through his seminars on race and place and graduate studios in inclusive design. A Buffalo native, he has used the surrounding city as a study site, leading to designs and installations that define a genuinely Black space for our community.

In the public sphere, Davis has widened the conversation about how we teach, study and practice architecture. He has been invited to speak at dozens of prominent institutions and has published across academia and the mainstream and professional press. Through the Society of Architectural Historians, Davis produces the "Race &" podcast on the influence of race on the built environment. He has been recognized for his work with the Association for Collegiate Schools of Architecture's Diversity Achievement Award (2021) and the College Art Association's Charles Rufus Morey Book Award (2020).

Davis is also a distinguished alumnus of the School of Architecture and Planning, where he received a Bachelor of Professional Studies in 2000 and a Master of Architecture in 2002. He earned his PhD in architectural history from the University of Pennsylvania.

Dean Robert G. Shibley will present Davis with the Dean’s Medal at Commencement, when nearly 200 graduates will cross the stage as the School's 50th graduating class (at 251 graduates, it is the School's largest ever graduating class).

“Charles is at the forefront of a powerful movement to imagine a new narrative for our discipline and catalyze action toward a more inclusive understanding and practice of architecture," said Shibley. "His work has transformed our discipline, changed us as a School, and shaped the next generation of architects in profound ways.”

Past recipients of the Dean’s Medal include such notable figures as artist and landscape architect Walter Hood, architect Toshiko Mori, environmental leader Bill McKibben, and Futurists R. Buckminster “Bucky” Fuller and Magda Cordell McHale.

Prior to joining UB in 2017, Davis held faculty positions with the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, The Ohio State University's Knowlton School of Architecture, and Parsons School of Design, The New School. He was an inaugural member of the School of Architecture and Planning’s Dean's Council.

As of Fall 2022, Davis will begin the next chapter of his career with the University of Texas at Austin, where he will join the faculty of architectural history.

Student tributes to Professor Davis

"Profesor Davis is one of a select few individuals who I can confidently say has made a profound impact on not only my academic career or professional trajectory, but my life in general. The passion and dedication with which Dr. Davis advocates for issues of equity, equality, representation, and diversity both inside and outside the classroom have helped to fundamentally reshape my worldview for the better. And for that, I will be eternally grateful.

- Nicholas Eichelberger (MArch '22, BS Arch '20), whose passion for architectural history was cultivated by Davis's teaching and mentorship. Davis also served as chair of Eichelberger's thesis on "Reconstructing Black Space: Creating a Public History of Black Life in Niagara Falls"

"Charles was an outstanding professor with incredible patience and intellect. I’ve been honored to have had him as a professor twice now. He  taught me how to take a position on the world and to listen to how others may perceive that position so that we may be able to change and adapt as designers of physical and social space."
- Katelyn Broat (MArch '22, BS Arch '21)

"Professor Davis turned our eyes towards a different way of seeing. Challenging what we thought we knew and shedding light on those often cast in shadow."
- Sean Brunstein , current MArch 3.5-year student

"My senior quote in high school was 'Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.' Professor Davis's course on Race and Place opened my eyes to the relationship of architecture and culture, and reminded me that change takes place at its finest when we're most uncomfortable."

- Cindy Mierzwa, current MArch student

"Charles showed me the significance of history within architecture and how I can incorporate it into design."

- Christian Perrone (MArch '22, BS Arch '20)