Sophia Razzaque, AIA, NOMA, recently sat down with Charles L. Davis II, a new tenured faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. An associate professor of architectural history and criticism, he is currently teaching his first semester. His area of focus is rooted in the role of racial identity and race thinking in architectural history.
Sophia Razzaque, AIA, NOMA: What led you to study architectural history and wanting to teach? When did you start studying race and architecture?
Charles L. Davis II: My interest in architecture is probably very typical. When I was thinking about what to do for graduate school, I wanted to do art, but my parents were not very comfortable with that. I thought that it was a nice in-between where you have art and business together. And so that’s how it started, really.
Along the way, particularly as a minority student — and I think I share this with the other Black and African students who were in my degree program — there was an emphasis on teaching the “universal standards of design,” the rules of architectural formalism, but they were not really specific about what cultural pedigree these rules came from or whether that cultural pedigree was fitting for the types of spaces you would be designing for.
Towards my junior and senior year, I took a gap year working for the one Black architect in Buffalo, New York, at the time: Robert Coles who had graduated from MIT. We were doing projects like the Apollo Theater in the city. He was working on the Frank E. Merriweather Library, which was inspired by the concept of an African village. It was a series of concentric spaces all under one roof with a modernist twist, so using modern materials and tectonics but with a kind of pre-modern spatial program. That inspired me to think about the types of ways that different civilizational history has really impacted the rules of design and how one might adjust for those things. I think my professors knew before I did that I was probably a pretty good historian, and so they encouraged me to do the Ph.D. program after the master’s. It was during the Ph.D. period that I really got to explore this subject.
SR: It seems like you had a really good experience that led you on a path.
CD: Well, I had good mentors. There were two faculty members at SUNY Buffalo, both of whom were in planning but did research on new cities and affordable housing. There was Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and Alfred Price. His father was a local representative for the Buffalo Common Council. He had worked to get affordable housing in a modernist idiom for Black Americans, one of the first ones in the city. They weren’t able to save it, but they were able to save some of the artworks and things that were there recently.
They really helped me to understand what redlining was, the history of racial education, the ways that policy affected space. They pointed me towards a community development history of places and the ways that Black entrepreneurs, Black businesspeople, Black lawyers, and even Black designers worked together to shape space. And so, that was always in the background. I wanted to fill in the architectural side of that — what the kind of counter history is, the counter-cultural history of architectural formalism. How can one really prescribe a line around the whiteness of our discipline? What does that affect in terms of what we think about and what vocabulary we have? What’s missing in those terms? And how can that enable us to both revise and to complement that with other forms of engaging the built environment? So, it’s been a long string of very useful mentors and folks who’ve been helping me along the way in that sense.
SR: What drew you to the University of Texas? And what will you be teaching?
CD: There are two levels of classes. One includes the survey courses for history, and I’ll be teaching both the initial survey, which is pre-modern to 1750, and then 1750 to post-modern. One of the reasons that I decided to come to UT Austin was because there was a concentration of Ph.D. faculty teaching architectural history who were engaged in revisionist histories of the Americas.
There are recently two Latin Americanists, and there are two historians who are engaging in revisionist histories of the architecture in the United States. There’s a concentration here that would allow us to establish a revisionist narrative that could actually be national. But even when you compare this with the folks who work at other exclusive Ph.D. granting institutions, most of them deal with European modernism or post-colonial spaces, not necessarily revisionist histories of the Americas. I really wanted to use that as an opportunity to teach, in the history sequence, our revisionist history of American architecture.
So in their History I course, students will be spending the first half of the semester investigating American architecture as a settler colonial project, and understanding how a White European settler narrative is established as an American architecture, to replace an Indigenous architecture but also to displace any competitor. Chinese architecture, African architectures (all the different forms), Latinx architectures — they were never allowed to establish themselves without being Europeanized. I want my students to understand that. Because when they look at the architecture on campus or they look at the ways that cities are established and settled, what we call American is really a European American tradition. Understanding it and just calling it by what it is — it’s a kind of an occidental tradition as opposed to one that’s universal — it allows us to then ask, where are the other histories? And how can we start to fill those in?
For me, that’s a really important element that I want to give my students so that when they take studios, which occasionally do venture into East Austin where the historic Black neighborhoods are, they can ask these critical questions like what are we making for that space? Who is there, or who was there? I want them to be able to fill that discourse in their mind in a critical way so they can be specific in all those areas.
SR: That’s really interesting. And I wasn’t aware of that critical mass.
CD: Well, there are fluctuations, but my current peers are Fernando Lara, who researches histories of modern architecture in Latin America. There’s also Bryan Norwood, who has a really interesting dissertation project on the ways that whiteness informed the professionalization of our discipline, and the ways that the disciplinary and professional culture built themselves around the notion of a white professional class. This was happening at a time when a lot of the construction industry was diversifying.
In the post Civil War years, you have Black master craftsmen and you have women doing interior design — all of whom could call themselves architects. During this time period, though, who can be identified as an architect starts to winnow down. So what were the professional models, and what were the racial discourses around it? That’s really informative to his work.
There’s also Tara Dudley, whose first book is on the architectural contributions of free people of color in New Orleans. She essentially went and discovered that archive and put it together. She showed how they were master craftsman, but were also apprenticed with licensed architects from overseas — people like Benjamin Latrobe and others. Then they combined those two cultures, the ones coming from Black craftsmen traditions and European architectural traditions, to make their own space. I think her book is on its third prize. It’s a really good concentration of scholars, and we’re hoping to rebrand the Ph.D. program to recruit students from HBCUs and from African American studies and other spaces to be able to help extend these kind of disciplines.
Like I tell my students, most of them are going to be engaging in a global practice, even if they work locally. You’re going to have a project that’s somewhere that you’ve never been, and you need to have a critical way of understanding how to engage with that place. This is really good practice for now, I think, to stop the reproduction of European modernism everywhere. Thinking about what different types of things can happen, it’s a pressing intellectual challenge for this generation and those that are following. I’m just getting to know the Texas landscape, but I’m hoping that there are mentors here as well in that kind of discipline.
SR: Have you visited the new John S. and Drucie R. Chase Building for UT Austin that Donna Carter, FAIA, recently renovated?
CD: I know that Tara Dudley is working on a monograph on John Chase’s career, particularly starting at his entry into the School of Architecture and then moving forward. I know that his children have been really seminal in providing archives and access for that kind of project. But what really interests me — moving to Austin and seeing the history of the city with the 1928 plan that essentially racialized East Austin, erased memory of the freedom towns and other spaces of Black occupancy, and then the late edition of someone like John Chase being a licensed architect — it makes me wonder, and this is what my second book project is about, what kinds of alternative forms of expertise were used by Black communities to build themselves up and to shape spaces? Of course they would consult with architects and hire architects, but since there was a slow increase in the number of licensed African American architects living in that space, what other avenues did they use? What other networks did they have, and how did that inform their use of space and how they commanded and shaped their space?
I think there’s probably a complex story there about the types of professionals who were proxy designers because of the need and because of the segregation that was there during that time period. A city like Austin becomes a kind of archive that one can visit and really understand how this works, but, I think, in a positive sense, in a way that pluralizes who we think of as the natural partners of the architectural professional. So instead of thinking, how can the architects be the sole designer and monopolize things, the more interesting question is, who does the architect need to collaborate with to make right these really meaningful spaces? I feel like there probably already is a history here that would tell us. We don’t even have to invent it or imagine it. We can just look at the record if we pull up that archive and document it.
SR: Tell me about the work you are doing around documenting the way the Black community designed and built the spaces they were allowed to occupy.
CD: One of the things we’ll be starting here will be called the Black Space Archive, and it will be documenting the contributions of people who are not licensed as architects, but who worked as architects or at the scale of architecture. So Black artists like Smokehouse Associates in New York City, who helped to establish the Studio Museum of Harlem — they started off by filling these empty lots, turning them into these super graphic spaces and sculpture spaces — or people today that we would recognize as engaged in alternative practices, like Theaster Gates or Rick Lowe. These are folks who are working at the architectural scale, but they’re heavily engaged with Black history and materializing it. They’re not interested in the credential of being an architect or instantiating their project within a kind of officially coded language of architecture. To me, they help to expand that practice.
One of the things that we’ll be doing is we’ll be mapping the physical sites of the “Green Book,” particularly in Austin, that were spaces of entertainment, so they were entertainment blue spaces, jazz spaces, but they would double as spaces for civil rights activism or local activism. There’s a programmatic typology that’s emerging, these kinds of multifunctional spaces — flex spaces that on the outside were segregated because of the laws of the time and the official uses but that allowed cover for other types of activities. This would include spaces like funeral homes and salons and barbershops, anything that was sort of segregated during that time period.
I think that landscape, in Austin, is still being celebrated. We have the Victory Grill, which people know of and have tried to preserve. That layered history of both the social programming and the alternative notions, the alternative maps of space that were there, particularly for the “Green Book” and how you have to double the white downtown or business districts with Black business districts, and we still live with them. I think that that kind of archive, putting it all in one place so architects can flip through it, could be useful as well.
SR: How did the movement for social justice following the murder of George Floyd in 2020 affect your work? Did you see a difference in the students’ interests after that point?
CD: This question, for me, is layered because 2020 happened at a moment which was almost accidental in what I was working on. For a long time, I had been working on completing my dissertation book project, and also working as an editor on the volume, “Race and Modern Architecture.” When we started that project, we thought it was going to be finished in the Obama years, and it did not happen that way. It happened to move into the Trump years, and then George Floyd happens, and then it gets released.
It might seem in retrospect that we saw the moment, but these things take like six, seven years to complete. It just so happened that the arc of it was there. Mabel Wilson, Irene Cheng, and I were well poised to comment on these things. In terms of Black architects who have been my mentors, who I’ve worked with or learned from, they’re primarily of a civil rights generation. They’re primarily folks who have attended one HBCU or more. Their solution has always been one of demographic shifts within the profession: If we can get more Black Americans to be licensed, the discourse will change. I’ve always had a slightly different perspective, which is, I always thought that the demographics would shift when the discourse shifts. It was actually an uneven discourse that made it so hard for a lot of Black Americans to see architecture as a career for themselves.
Sophia Razzaque, AIA, NOMA, is an associate at Lake|Flato Architects in Austin and the president-elect of AIA Austin.
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