Campus & Community

Intersection of race and architecture

6 min read
Darell Fields on architecture and culture: “Architecture, although it seemingly appears to be alien and somewhat autonomous, is always activated and is affected by culture,” he says. “I would argue that architecture is culture in its most concrete form.” (Staff photo by Justin Ide)

Darell Fields does not see in black and white, but in “blackness.” The term, according to the associate professor of architecture at the Graduate School of Design (GSD), refers not to the color of his skin, but to the curious intersection of race and architecture.

That volatile intersection, Fields believes, is littered with specious intellectual arguments throughout history that have failed to elucidate the subject matter in any culturally significant way.

“Issues of race and the way that we discuss them in architectural discourse are faulty, short-lived, and to a certain extent patronizing, and I think it’s a popular technique to chastise various disciplines for not being more ‘inclusive,’” Fields says as he peers out at the sidewalk below his wide office windows in Gund Hall. “That sociological dimension is necessary, but it’s not the only way to go about that kind of critique.”

Contrary to many of his peers, Fields believes architecture is “not necessarily exclusionary to anything. It embraces anything as long as you can somehow see it … and I believe that if you can get at the aesthetic fundamentals of a discipline, such as architecture, then you can critique it from the inside out, and bring that to bear on the sociological disposition.”

It is an intellectual game that Fields is playing, he admits, but a crucial one, he believes, because of the high stakes involved.

“Architecture, although it seemingly appears to be alien and somewhat autonomous, is always activated and is affected by culture,” he says. “I would argue that architecture is culture in its most concrete form.”

Most historians would probably agree that the world’s greatest buildings have always spoken as much about their times as about their function, whether it’s the Colosseum in Rome, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, or the Empire State Building in New York. The challenge for Fields is to place blackness into its proper architectural and historical context, using terminology that students will understand.

“Architecture, as a discipline, describes itself as a language, and that language is based principally on the deployment and interpretation of signs, so it’s a semiotic definition,” Fields explains. “If you look at Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s book ‘The Signifying Monkey,’ he describes the black discourse along a similar line.

“Blackness, as I attempt to use it in architectural discourse, is along the semiotic paradigm because I attempt to fuse these two things together. … My take on it is to use blackness as an aesthetic device,” he says. “It’s not about numbers for me. It’s about trying to understand and cultivate what the discipline is about as a whole, not just its professional aspect, but its aesthetic disposition.”

‘Of monkeys, men, and great edifices’

Fields’ seminar course, offered jointly by GSD and the Department of Afro-American Studies, is titled “Of Monkeys, Men, and Great Edifices,” and is typically offered during the spring semester.

“It’s not persona-driven,” Fields says of the course. “It’s driven by ideas, and most of the ideas that are presented are semiotic. … We try to get at the crux of how one interprets and how one constructs interpretations in architecture, and that’s where you can move laterally into Afro-American studies.”

The course attracts a mix of students from both departments, who, according to Fields, are able to commingle after a brief introduction. “You can be a black student coming from Afro-Am, or you can be an architecture student, either white or black, coming from those dispositions, and the first three or four classes are actually going to get the students to understand that there is this moment within their various intellectual activities in which one can be talking about blackness, about race, and about architecture, and using the same language and techniques to do so.

“There’s a sort of a double-voiced aspect to the seminar, which allows black students and white students, particularly architecture students, to comprehend what blackness means within the discipline,” he says.

“People who take the course understand that architecture is more than the profession of architecture,” Fields explains. “Obviously we’re in an academic environment and that is part of it. There is also the historical component. There is a theoretical component … and I think the course is important because it uses those aspects of the discipline which are not so common in terms of how we understand or perceive architecture.”

For Fields, linear dimensions and designs are almost secondary in importance to the theories that architects bring to the drafting table.

“The dominant way that architecture is perceived is through buildings, but if architecture were just about buildings, there would be no reason for this school to be here,” he says. “This school deals with so much more, and it, in and of itself, is a microcosm of a type of culture which then produces architecture, and that culture, which is played out in this school, is perhaps the broadest I’ve ever seen.”

Fields, who earned both his master’s degree and Ph.D. at Harvard, commends the Graduate School of Design for its support of his research.

“I guess the thing I appreciate the most is that I have an opportunity to teach a course like this at the Design School,” he says. “I don’t know of anyone else who’s [teaching] it in this way … it’s a very daunting task because you’re faced with territory that has never been discussed in this way or presented in this way.”

Treading on virgin territory can be terrifying in academia, but it can also produce some remarkable results. Fields beams with pride when he tells the story of one of his former students – a white woman who submitted her paper for publication. “The paper was about blackness and she was white, but she was writing about [the subject] in the way we had discussed in class.

“What was most exciting was that she did not feel alienated any longer from that subject matter because she had a way to discuss it. For me personally, as a teacher, that’s pretty cool.”