Charles L. Davis II and Curry Hackett

Visualising the Racial Epistemologies of the Architectural Canon


The following diagrams redeploy the visual language of evolutionary histories of architecture to reveal the racial epistemologies that animated these discourses in the past. The scientific metaphor that subtends this imagery was directly borrowed from biology and racial anthropology in the nineteenth century, primarily because natural selection offered a teleological principle for explaining the production of cultural forms in the present. From Sir Bannister Fletcher’s ‘Tree of Architecture’, first published in 1929 in the sixth edition of A History of Architecture, to Charles Jencks’ ‘Evolutionary Tree to the Year 2000’, architects, historians and design critics have used the imagery of evolutionary development to legitimise a fixed set of architectural projects and ideas that have constituted the canon of architecture. Given the white cultural pedigree of these canonical histories, however, such a totalising presentation of the discipline inherently serves as an ideological tool for legitimising racial bias, including the archival erasure of competing cultural traditions that are omitted from this field. As Frank Lloyd Wright attested in the introduction to his Wasmuth portfolio of 1910, Western architectural theory has long performed the cultural work of erasing the native at the symbolic level: ‘His machine, the tool in which his opportunity lies, can only murder the traditional forms of other peoples of earlier times. He must find new forms, new industrial ideals’ to make his mark.’1 The very construction of an evolutionary diagram is a visual operation of violence that symbolically constitutes the membership of who is privileged to operate as an insider and who is positioned outside of that history.

As a corrective to the Eurocentric world view proffered by evolutionary diagrams of architectural history, we have created a set of diagrams that limns the racial epistemologies operating within the foundations of architectural history. While our current focus is on revealing the hidden discourses embedded within modern paradigms of architectural tectonics, our method of visual ideology critique can be used to analyse a wide number of historical movements. Our approach was inspired by a set of analytical diagrams found in the social sciences and the humanities that analyse the influence of race, gender and class on aesthetics and social distinction, including Pierre Bourdieu’s visualisation of social habitus, Peter Bürger’s categorisation of the social tendencies of bourgeois art, the visual diagrams of Rosalind Krauss’s ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’ and Claire Jean Kim’s ‘The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans’.2 Each made strategic use of the visual language of Cartesian representational systems to critique the racial and class biases that have animated disciplinary cultures in the past. In a sense, they redirected the ‘certainty’ associated with the Platonic reasoning of Cartesian diagrams toward what was hidden in plain sight. Using these examples as a prompt, we have sought innovative ways of turning the certainty of the evolutionary diagram on its head to reveal the racial charge of canon building in the field. The results enable us to reveal the disciplinary function of race in the binary constructions of primitive and modern cultural traditions, as well as identify the racial origins of disciplinary terms such as tectonic, typology, vernacular and physiognomy.

The Middle Passage of Vernacular Art

This diagram records the ‘primitive’ motifs of vernacular art and architecture that have collectively served as an oppositional category to the advanced or ‘modern’ culture that dominates most canonical histories of Western architecture. Using a three-dimensional reconstruction of Brookes slave ship as a model, the Vitruvius is subdivided into three main decks that are organised to house increasingly complex artefact types: the ‘Main Deck’ contains artefacts created for direct use on the body; ‘Below Deck’ contains various categories of the practical arts that exist at a scale between the body and the building; and the ‘Cargo Hold’ houses samples of the primitive huts that provide a mythological starting point for Western architectural history. The manifest for each deck is illustrated by a horizontally branching genetic tree diagram, which serves as both a visual reference to Charles Jencks’ evolutionary diagrams of the 1970s as well as an explicit reference to the notational systems most commonly used by nineteenth-century race scientists. While horizontal connections represent the division of various rubrics of primitive motifs on each deck, dotted vertical lines connect artefacts on separate decks that are associated by the scientific language of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Collectively, this visual library provides a sampling of the origin myths that European settler subjects have used to measure their ‘progress’ toward a technologically advanced future. The artefacts contained within it are enslaved to operate as a negative category within Western architectural history, forever frozen in a primitive state of development.

The Racialisation of Architectural Tectonics

This diagram visualises the racialisation of historical paradigms of modern architectural tectonics, or the poetics of structure, from the eighteenth century to the present. Key architectural projects, treatises and manifestos are arranged vertically along an xy axis according to the extent to which the race concept and/or scientific race theory is explicitly cited in each case. A pendulum rises and falls to measure the extent of change that is manifest between the racial content of architectural theories and building projects at each moment in time. When connected together, the resulting sine curves of architectural building and theory demonstrate the parallel racial epistemologies that emerged between periods when proponents of national architecture movements openly cited the findings of racial anthropology to develop a comparative interpretation of world cultures, and periods when avant-garde movements primarily developed formalist criteria based on a teleological interpretation of advanced technological development or materialist concerns.

The Discursive Footnotes of Tectonic Theory

This diagram visualises the hidden racial content of tectonic theory during four historical periods of development: the original German language debates on style (c.1828–63); ‘truth to material’ discourses (c.1890–1923); post-modernist re-evaluations of tectonics (c.1970–95); and contemporary theories on digital tectonics (c.2004–15). Each period is represented by a ‘gear’ that is placed in relation to its predecessor as it responds to new scientific and philosophical discourses on ontology: gears move downward, for instance, when architectural critics employed more universal analytical language to describe human experiences, and upward as critics returned to individual and nationalist case studies as evidence for their work. A single line connecting these gears is annotated with the string of scientific discourses that were influencing tectonic discourses in each period. Each discourse is marked with (+) when it is explicitly based on theories of racial difference, and conversely marked with (–) when it is not overly based on race theory. A partial bibliography of sources is listed on the right to give an indication of where architects have found their ideas on race. A final category, (*), indicates the social critiques of architecture that emerged in the 1990s that paved the way toward the race-conscious histories of the canon that are just now beginning to clearly indicate the racialisation of tectonic theory.

Chronograms of Architecture is a collaboration between e-flux Architecture and the Jencks Foundation.

  1. Frank Lloyd Wright, Ausgeführte Bauten und Entwurfe von Frank Lloyd Wright, ed. Ernst Wasmuth (Berlin: Ernst Wasmuth, 1910), 7.

  2. Pierre Bourdieu, The Field of Cultural Production (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 38; Peter Bürger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, trans. Michael Shaw (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 48; Rosalind Krauss, ‘Sculpture in the Expanded Field’, October, 8 (Spring 1979), 38; Claire Jean Kim, ‘The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans’, Politics & Society, 27/1 (March 1999), 108.

Charles L. Davis II and Curry Hackett
Visualising the Racial Epistemologies of the Architectural Canon
Diagrams, Chronograms of Architecture