A Window Into Architecture, Literature and Race

by Alex Mason

There is a clear yet underexamined relationship between systemic racism, architecture, and literature. A long line of literary writers have explored architecture’s role in perpetuating racial oppression and utilised architectural metaphors to expose and subvert racist mechanisms operating in society. In an essay entitled ‘Home’, for instance, Toni Morrison addresses structural racism through ‘the metaphor of the house’. She writes:

If I had to live in a racial house, it was important, at the least, to rebuild it so that it was not a windowless prison into which I was forced, a thick-walled, impenetrable container from which no cry could be heard, but rather an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and doors.

Here, core components of the domestic space – walls, windows, doors – are used to represent the oppressive structures that are foundational to modern society and subsequently engender the coercion, containment, alienation and isolation of Black women and other marginalised peoples. At the same time, Morrison plays with these architectural objects to motion towards a more liberational social framework. Her call for “an open house, grounded, yet generous in its supply of windows and door” not only enables greater access to social privilege, protection and opportunity for those currently denied it, it also seeks to dismantle the public/private binary which creates the conditions for exclusion in the first place. Morrison reinforces her radical vision at the end of the essay by impressing the need for a space where “one can imagine safety without walls, can reiterate difference that is prized and privileged, and conceive of a third…world ‘already made for me, both snug and wide open, with a doorway never needing to be closed.’ Home”. This idea is expounded in Morrison’s novel Paradise, which centres on a group of subversive women who, refusing to cohere to racial, patriarchal and heteronormative expectations, seek refuge in a mansion called The Convent. This domestic space opens its doors to all women in need, no matter their personal differences, but is ultimately unable to protect its residents from the mercilessness of their surrounding society. By demonstrating the inadequacies of The Convent, Morrison asserts her view that securing a truly liberating home space requires a more radical break from traditional power structures. Simply supplying more doors and windows is not enough. A space must be sought that is completely open, communal and without borders or boundaries.

What this very brief analysis of Morrison’s essay and novel illustrates is that architectural metaphor is utilised by writers to capture the complexities of a racist society (its problems and its prospects for a radically different reality) in a compelling and provocative way. Authors also help uncover the material role architecture plays in shaping racially oppressive environments and engendering negative affective experiences of place for Black and other people of colour. Though typically seen as passive and politically neutral, architecture projects values, determines patterns of movement and significantly impacts the formation of social relations and systems of power. This point was powerfully enforced by the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and, most recently, protests around the Edward Colston statue in Bristol. By commemorating prominent slave traders, the Edward Colston and Cecil Rhodes statues celebrated a history of antiblackness and glorified the logic underpinning this dehumanising system. On public display in Bristol and Oxford University respectively, they violently impressed a non-ontological status onto Black people in the city and academic institution. This led to reported feelings of alienation, rage and cognitive dissonance amongst Black people and negatively impacted their experiences of each place. Though much less discussed, the presence of these statues will also have had an affective impact on the white and non-Black people engaging with them; helping to determine their racial attitudes and beliefs, as well as their sense of self and status within each setting; fortifying the racial hierarchy already in existence. These processes, whilst very real, are often intangible. To identify, make sense of and explain them consequently requires a heightened criticality, sensitivity and creativity, which is the purview of fictional writers.

Several architectural scholars have already made this point, arguing that the specific skill set possessed by authors is particularly well suited to analysing physical structures and their relationship with various social processes. According to Klaske Havik: “literary writers prove to be able to read places and spaces, cities and landscapes at different levels…(they can) describe other sensory perceptions of space (aside from visual and formal) with great detail and intensity”. As such, “literary narratives often reveal the social aspects of architecture – it is through the literary accounts of such places that we can learn about the socius of architecture”. Crucially, writers convey the socius of architecture through striking images which actually resonate with the reader and compel them to deliberate on instead of dismiss the important revelations being made. Despite this fact, literature has rarely been used to examine the relationship between architecture and systemic racism. William Gleason notes that “although race has been one of the most important analytic, theoretical, and historical categories in literary studies for more than a quarter of a century, it has played only a small part in the interdisciplinary study of architecture and literature – or, to borrow a phrase, the study of ‘buildings and books’”. This is perhaps due to Darell Fields’ observation that, fundamentally: “architectural history is white. Architectural theory is white. And architectural practice, no matter what colour the ‘owners’ and ‘workers’ is white”. For Fields, those who want to readdress the whiteness of Architecture need to “formulate not on the basis of ‘examples’ but on experience – experiences that reveal the malicious operation of the regime”. By prioritising experience over examples, Fields is effectively calling for a critical analysis that is dynamic, nuanced, intimate, sensitive and personal in its exploration of race. These are features that characterise some of the best works of literature.

It is for this reason that I used literature to examine the relationship between race, architecture and higher education for my PhD thesis. As well as reflecting on work by Toni Morrison, W.E.B. Du Bois, Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie and Paul Beatty, one book that I focused on was Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, which takes place against a university backdrop and is centrally concerned with issues of access in higher education. As well as highlighting how intersections of race, class, gender, nationality and citizenship status determine individual relationships with academia, Smith interrogates the motivating factors that underpin institutional moves to incorporate Black, working-class students into predominately white universities and cautions against the uncritical advance into such spaces. She does so primarily through the character of Carl, a young Black Hip Hop artist who is invited to attend a university poetry class by a white liberal teacher, Clare, who sees him perform at an open mic night downtown. Despite declaring her unwavering commitment to Carl, Clare quickly abandons him when put under pressure to dispense of a non-tuition fee paying student. Eventually, after leaving the poetry class, Carl is employed on a part-time basis to work in the university library, where he decides to focus on researching Hip Hop rather than performing it. Until, that is, he realises the university does not actually value his intellectual or artistic insight, and is simply interested in him representing the progressiveness of the institution whilst assimilating into its status quo culture.

Significantly, Smith uses architecture at key moments in the novel to express the conditions of Carl’s relationship with Clare and the university more generally. There is one particularly striking moment when the author uses a university window to crystallise her point about the perils of assimilating into university culture. Sitting in the library excitedly explaining the significance of Hip Hop’s “crossroads” trope to a half-listening Zora Belsey, Carl is interrupted by a noise outside: ‘man, those brothers make a lot of noise! I can’t hear myself thinking here!’ Identifying the noise as ‘some kind of Haitian protest’, Zora proceeds to close the nearby window and shut out the disturbance so Carl can continue with his explanation. This act carries great symbolic significance. Windows can be considered thresholds that separate inside from outside and subsequently set in motion binaries such as private and public, access and exclusion, power and disempowerment. Smith directs attention to the window in this scene to centrally define the dynamic between social world and academic world, which makes the decision to close the window amidst political protest an extremely charged moment. It suggests that for Smith, the practices of academia produce a fundamental apathy for those facing pressing problems out in society and a disinterest in dismantling structures of power. This point is reinforced by the fact Carl is only able to close the window half-way and needs Zora to complete the job for him. As a full-time student, who is the daughter of a leading lecturer at the University, Zora is entirely immersed in the academic world and so shutting out the reality of political and social struggle is shown to be a simple and well-practiced enterprise. ‘There’s a knack to it’, she states, demonstrating the technique to Carl who, as a new addition to the university, is not fully acclimatised to the culture that has been established there. This moment feeds into Smith’s general message in the novel that simply diversifying universities does nothing to change inherent structures and oppressive power dynamics. It certainly cannot be considered a liberational move to assimilate Carl into a conservative culture. If anything, by convincing him to give up performing Hip Hop (at its core a dynamic, communal art form) attending university actually prohibits progress by perverting or nullifying once transformative practices. As with Morrison, Smith’s play with architecture form and function suggests that a more radical rupture from social structures is needed to effect genuine change.

It is quite striking how many writers draw attention to windows when exploring structural racism in higher education. This realisation compelled me to consider the material role such architectural objects play in perpetuating racial oppression and, crucially, provided me with the tools to do so. In the contemporary era, one clear aspect of the window’s function is to help project a post-racial ideology. Whilst this might seem an outlandish claim, Hisham Elkadi highlights that glass is increasingly being used by architects around the world because of its associations with moralistic ideas like transparency and equality. According to him, it ‘represents the “high tech” movements in architecture, the global neutral architecture of the international style and the liberal views of multi-cultural societies’. The current popularity of glass in architecture is therefore inherently political. We see this trend in unfolding in higher education as well, with universities keen to impress their openness and inclusiveness to members of the public; particularly historically marginalised students. It does not seem a coincidence to me that the grand new building at my own university is literally called The Diamond and features large glass windows across its structure so people can clearly see inside. This is quite the departure from the red bricks of older buildings that were once a symbol and even moniker for Russell Group universities and therefore an exclusive educational experience. Glass seems to elide the distinction between inside and outside, dismantling binaries which underpin current systems of power. However, the sense of openness and inclusiveness that glass creates is entirely superficial. Elkadi notes in his analysis of architectural changes made to the Reichstag in Berlin, for instance, that ‘the glass dome…has replaced one form of representation or presentation of power with another illusive and more subtle one’. As he points out, ‘while glass seemingly provides a wider transparency and social transformation, it actually denies any real interaction’. An increase in glass windows does nothing to alter racial hierarchies in higher education and, in fact, by subtly projecting a post-racial ideology, serves to obscure the continued operation of racial oppression. That is where literature comes in. Literature brings background objects into focus, provides a vital new perspective, and impresses the political significance of ostensibly benign architectural features.

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The print and digital literary review by Black, Asian, and racialised community writers.