In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Architecture and Blackness in the United States

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Databases and Image Collections
  • Builders and Skilled Craftspersons
  • Contemporary Design Directions
  • Architectural Landscapes: Park, Beach, Campus, and Interstate

Architecture Planning and Preservation Architecture and Blackness in the United States
Lauren M. O'Connell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 May 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190922467-0096


Scholars have focused in recent decades on the multiple ways in which racially based social hierarchies are reflected in and reinforced by the built environment. George Lipsitz encapsulates their premise in his important How Racism Takes Place (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011). “It takes places for racism to take place” (5), he explains, highlighting the role played by physical space in concretizing racialized barriers to daily comfort and lifetime success. Like Lipsitz, our focus is on the architecture/race relationship in the United States, and as it affects Africa-descended American populations in particular. While racial hierarchies can be read across ethnicities and histories, the devastating impacts of the transatlantic slave trade represent a specific case with distinctive characteristics. While the term “race” enjoys wide currency, as though it referenced a clearly definable category, the contours of that category remain contested. It is taken here as a given, in keeping with current scientific research, that race is a social, rather than a biological category, referring to human differences that have been incorrectly perceived as delineating biologically distinct groups. As Isabel Wilkerson puts it, “Race is what we can see, the physical traits that have been given arbitrary meaning” (Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of our Discontents [New York: Random House, 2020], 18). That racial difference is constructed socially gives it no less force; Ta-Nehisi Coates captures this tension in a prospective letter to his young son: “And still and all I knew that we were something, that we were a tribe, on the one hand invented, and on the other, no less real” (Coates, Between the World and Me [New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015], 56). Ibram X. Kendi similarly characterizes race as “a mirage, but one that humanity has organized itself around in very real ways” (Kendi, How to Be an Antiracist [New York: One World, 2019], 54). The legacy of discrimination based on perceived race has severely constrained opportunity for the Black community in the United States, long after slavery was abolished in 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment; in the studies analyzed here, these long-term effects are persuasively read in our built environment—which has itself exacerbated them. The topic lends itself to two broad lines of inquiry: first, barriers to architectural practice that have resulted in a dramatic underrepresentation of persons of color in the profession and its corresponding impoverishment; and second, myriad ways in which racial inequity has been spatialized, from the antebellum plantation to 20th-century urban renewal. For related resources, see also the separate Oxford Bibliographies article “Vernacular Architecture.”

General Overviews

Cheng, Davis, and Wilson’s Race and Modern Architecture is a landmark in the literature of architecture and race, assembling important theoretical and historical investigations that span geographies from the eighteenth century to the early twenty-first century (Cheng, et al. 2020). These provide critical intellectual framing for many specialized studies that have appeared before and since by attending to historical and political contexts in which modern conceptions of “race” and its relationship to architecture emerged. Its editors invited further exploration of its important topic; in response the Society of Architectural Historians published a wealth of additional studies by leading scholars in the following year in its flagship journal (Karmon 2021a and Karmon 2021b). Summarizing the state of research at a moment in time, the Cheng, Davis, and Wilson book and the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians essays shed considerable light on the historical origins and constructedness of racial identity categories. The most accessible overview of the historical barriers that have drastically limited the participation of persons of color (and other marginalized groups) in the architectural profession is Kathryn Anthony’s Diversity in Design (Anthony 2001), which collates findings of Bradford Grant (Grant 1996) and Jack Travis (Travis 1991, see Reference Works) and analyzes a vast cache of interview data generated by her own research team. Grant 1996 integrates the question of unequal access to the profession with the historical trajectory of the Black experience, and Melvin Mitchell’s African American Architects, covering parallel territory, culminates in a call for the further integration of architects’ work with segregation-rooted problems faced by the Black community today (Mitchell 2020). For a wide-ranging survey of the concerns and design philosophies of Black architects in practice today, see Anderson and Wilson 2021, the rich catalogue of the Museum of Modern Art’s Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America exhibition, which rivals the museum’s International Style exhibition of 1932 in its significance to the field. Gleason 2011 engages the subject from the perspective of a literary scholar, scrutinizing textual sources that surface and articulate the experiential dimensions of exclusionary space. Nieves and Alexander 2008, conversely, focuses on placemaking within and by the Black community. Additionally, there is no better place to launch an investigation of the imbrication of architecture and race than George Lipsitz’s How Racism Takes Place, which brings an interdisciplinary, American studies perspective to bear on a question of keen interest to architects, architectural historians, and “consumers” of the built environment alike (Lipsitz 2011).

  • Anderson, Sean, and Mabel O. Wilson. Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2021.

    Catalogue of the landmark exhibition hosted by the nation’s premier venue for the study of modern architecture, conceived as corrective to the marginalization of Black American practitioners in the museum and the field at large. Features new projects by contemporary designers reimagining space and heritage in ten US cities; well-illustrated and accompanied by scholarly essays. Inspired the Black Reconstruction Collective, dedicated to reframing architecture as a “vehicle of liberation.”

  • Anthony, Kathryn. Designing for Diversity: Gender, Race and Ethnicity in the Architectural Profession. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001.

    Important survey quantifying and beginning to explicate historically limited access to the architectural profession for groups marginalized by race, gender, and sexuality. Focus is on “gateways and roadblocks” to practice (power structures, workplace barriers); includes proposed remedies to diversify representation in the profession. Data drawn from multiple rounds of interviews conducted between 1990 and 2000; sparsely illustrated.

  • Cheng, Irene, Charles Davis II, and Mabel O. Wilson. Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2020.

    Indispensable essays exploring the architectural impact of Euro-American conceptions of race under colonialism, nationalism, and capitalism. Includes a timely review of existing literature, extensive notes, and a useful topically organized bibliography. Topics include Mabel Wilson on racialized motives that undergird Jefferson’s design for the Virginia State Capitol and occlude the role of Black labor, and Irene Cheng on racist contours in the 19th-century history writing of Viollet-le-Duc and others.

  • Gleason, William. Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race and American Literature. New York: New York University Press, 2011.

    DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9780814732465.001.0001

    Reveals the shaping power of race in the built environment through the lens of literature. “Coda: Black Cabin, White House” synthesizes preceding case studies on space and belonging with reference to the inclusion of a slave cabin in Barber’s Downing-esque pattern book of 1891 to highlight the otherwise “advanced” state of American architecture; applies similar framework to the semantic and physical evolution of the White House. Available online by subscription.

  • Grant, Bradford C. “The Built Environment and the African American Experience.” In Reconstructing Architecture: Critical Discourses and Social Practices. Edited by Lian Hurst Mann and Thomas A. Dutton, 202–233. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

    Historically framed synthesis of the experience of Black Americans as makers and consumers of architecture in the context of a 1990s volume dedicated to contemporary architectural theory. Barriers to practice and “spatial manifestation of racial distinctions” are grouped in three chronological periods (slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights era) to illuminate the close tracking of architectural opportunity and race relations in the United States.

  • Karmon, David, ed. “Constructing Race and Architecture 1400–1800, Part 1.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 80.3 (2021a): 258–279.

    DOI: 10.1525/jsah.2021.80.3.258

    Concise state-of-the-field essays exploring directions charted by the publication of Cheng, Davis, and Wilson’s Race and Modern Architecture in 2020. Geographical scope is global and time frame early modern, thus offers rich comparative material for the US context (which is featured specifically in Louis Nelson’s discussion of “whitewashing” at Jefferson’s University of Virginia and Tara Dudley’s look at free women of color as property holders in antebellum New Orleans).

  • Karmon, David, ed. “Constructing Race and Architecture 1400–1800, Part 2.” Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 80.4 (2021b): 385–415.

    DOI: 10.1525/jsah.2021.80.4.385

    Like Part 1, explores the architecture and race relationship on a global scale during the formative early modern period. Architectural implications of the Atlantic slave trade are approached through multiple lenses: Rachel Engmann provides a West African optic on coastalforts; Mark Hinchman addresses methodological challenges of in situ research on the slave trading island of La Gorée, Senegal; Jason Nguyen explores the unequal power relations linking architecture, slavery, and capitalism. Brief and richly footnoted essays. Available online by subscription.

  • Lipsitz, George. How Racism Takes Place. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011.

    Foundational theoretical and historical text building upon the semantic synchrony between race, space, and place and the literal and figurative meanings of “takes place”; exposes damaging interrelationships between designed physical space and racially based social hierarchies (“It takes places for racism to take place”). Compelling and well-researched, suitable for undergraduates and specialists alike. Substantive historical introduction followed by individual case studies (a football stadium in Saint Louis, row houses in Houston).

  • Mitchell, Melvin. African American Architects: Embracing Culture and Building Urban Communities. United States: Katherine Williams, 2020.

    Sequel to Mitchell 2003 (cited under Historical Overviews), providing a well-organized synthesis of research on Black architectural practice in the United States from 1900 to 2019. Culminates in an ambitious proposal for “Realigning Architecture with the Black Agenda” (Part 3) through a Black-led initiative to counter the damage done by urban renewal and gentrification; calls for mobilization of public and private capital and creative resources to construct one million affordable housing units by 2030.

  • Nieves, Angel David, and Leslie M. Alexander, eds. “We Shall Independent Be”: African American Place Making and the Struggle to Claim Space in the United States. Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2008.

    Complements a burgeoning literature on racially based spatial exclusion with a focus on Black placemaking at the community and urban scales. Compelling interdisciplinary essays focus on specific historical scenarios—from New York’s Seneca Village and the street cars of Philadelphia to contemporary sites of memory, and on varied strategies of constructive resistance that have given rise to distinctive cultural, political, and sacred spaces.

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