WHETHER UTOPIAN OR AUTHORITARIAN, buildings—the places in which we live, work, die—have always reified systems of power. Today, when civic structures and urban spaces are increasingly at the center of political debates—witness the resurgence of marches, protests, and strikes in cities around the globe—Artforum invited architectural historian Mabel O. Wilson to speak with senior editor Julian Rose about the politics of race, labor, and architecture.


MABEL O. WILSON: I would go further than that. I actually think the emergence of architecture as a modern discipline is itself inseparable from the problem of race. And by this I mean architecture as distinct from building—after all, people around the world have always built. I’m referring to a very specific, Western humanist notion of the architect as someone who thinks, who designs, who draws, but who does not build. He is an intellectual, in other words, who works very abstractly, through reason, and is distanced from the physical labor of construction.

JR: You’re describing the difference between the medieval mason, who is essentially a craftsman, working on-site to make a building with his own hands, and the Renaissance architect, who works remotely, producing drawings that are then sent to a building site to be executed by manual laborers.

MW: What’s interesting to me is that this distancing of architecture from labor is part of a much larger early-modern epistemology, a whole new worldview that also produced its own ontology, which was, by definition, universal: the birth of the humanist subject. But of course that subject, the modern “Man,” is not universal—it’s exclusively European, and it was invented exactly at the same time that the era of European colonization was beginning. And so race is deeply embedded in the emergence of the modern world and the emergence of modern architecture—which becomes, in part, about the maintenance of racial hierarchy. If you look at colonial architecture, for example, it’s about whiteness. It’s literally constructing whiteness, creating a narrative about the history of culture through building that consolidates a European worldview. And America is a result of this process of colonization, the conquest of indigenous populations, and the slave trade.

JR: In the US, this kind of architecture was not only imposed from Europe as a manifestation of imperial power but was self-consciously adopted so that it could contribute to the project of nation building by constructing precisely that kind of legitimizing cultural narrative. Take Thomas Jefferson. A building like Monticello is obviously his effort to establish himself as the heir to European Enlightenment values—it’s the archetype of the Neoclassical villa. But it’s also an infamous manifestation of the very contradictions that America was founded on: It was a working plantation, run by slaves.

MW: It’s fascinating that within the national narrative, within the narrative of the founding fathers, that other history gets completely repressed, because the two can’t be reconciled. The paradox is that the liberal American subject was being imagined at the same time that the American body was dependent on enslaved labor to construct its shelter, to be bathed, for food, for sexual pleasure. How do you account for Sally Hemings? To whom did she belong—herself or Jefferson? That was the problem.

JR: The fact that some of America’s most revered architecture is literally the product of and the site of that kind of exploitation is obviously difficult for many people to grasp, because when we look at it that way, the building ceases to be an abstract political symbol and instead becomes a blatant embodiment of these very contradictions. So the tensions you’re pointing out clearly have important implications for architectural history, for how we tell the story of monuments like Monticello or the White House, but I also wonder what they suggest for the practice of architecture today. You place architecture in such a central role—but of course it’s at the center for all the wrong reasons. Does architecture’s deep entanglement within a network of social, political, and economic forces grant it a degree of agency, a power that architects could leverage for good? Or will architecture always be more of a physical symptom, relegated to registering or enacting these forces and unable to resist or deflect them?

MW: I think architects need to be very cautious. Because architecture is such a pragmatic discipline, it’s often assumed to be inherently progressive. When we have a problem to solve, we bring in the architects, right? 


JR: Were experts from other fields already thinking about building and space, or was that a gap? I imagine that a lawyer for Amnesty International is not going to look at a labor camp in the same way that a trained architect would, for example.

MW: We were constantly surprised, reading reports by Amnesty and Human Rights Watch and other humanitarian organizations, by how much of what they were describing was actually about architecture, about where people were living, for example, or how they were moving through the city. And we thought, OK, these are clearly things an architect knows about. Those organizations work primarily through the law, so they are making legal arguments. But because those arguments are often built around spatial, material, architectural, and urban issues, we were able to mine their reports and literally map out the processes and relationships they were describing so that we could start to figure out where the architect was in all of it. And so eventually we came up with a number of tactics that architects could begin to think through and deploy. For example, one of the things we’ve emphasized is that drawings aren’t just documentation of an architect’s vision—they’re instruments of communication, and they convey precise instructions for building.

JR: That goes back to the idea we began with, that architectural drawings were the things that allowed architects to distance themselves from physical labor, to shift their own identity from that of craftsman that of intellectual.

MW: But if you think about it, if you design a building in a particular way, you will inevitably impact the person who’s building it. And the drawing is actually a contract, in the legal sense, which directs the contractor and the workers. We tell architects that you always have to think about those things as you put a set of drawings together. Even if you think you have no connection to the way a building is built, through the execution of the drawing you’re speaking directly to the labor of construction. You might feel alienated, but in the end you’re always connected.