Race and the Urban Landscape: The Historical and Social Impact of Skyscrapers with Adrienne Brown

 

The skyscraper is certainly not an understudied building typology.  It has received plenty of scholarly attention in the century-and-a-half of its existence. A recent search for skyscrapers in the Library of Congress catalog resulted in 391 listings, which includes scholarship that situates this architecture in relationship to capitalism, gender, engineering, construction, economics, façade design, the fine arts, and cinema. So you might be wondering, as I did at almost every stage of writing this book: What new is there to stay about this very very well-studied building type?

Although saying something new about the skyscraper was an admittedly daunting task given the many amazing and brilliant books that have been written about this structure, my book works to forge new ground by focusing on its relationship with race. Moreover, that race is one of the few neglected aspects of the skyscraper’s well-studied historiography suggests something broader about all the things we don’t yet know about both race and architecture. By studying how writers described and engaged the skyscraper, I argue that we get a new story about the skyscraper as both a fount of racial anxiety but also a site of major experimentation for considering how race might be both perceived and felt in increasingly scaled-out urban landscapes.

This book originally began with a question about why the canonical urban novels of American modernism seemed so disinterested in the skyscraper in juxtaposition with the very vibrant visual and sonic life this structure had in painting, photography, film, song, and even poetry.  I had initially set out to wield the skyscraper as a way to differently understand American literary modernism via its encounters with architectural transformations and upheaval. 

When I arrived at the University of Chicago to begin my position in the English department, I had a sense that living and teaching in the city where the skyscraper was invented was going to be important to the progression of this book.  And this hunch was right—living in Chicago and getting more familiar with its architectural, racial, and perceptual history led me to revisit the texts and archives I had been working with in attempting to say something about American Modernism and discover new questions I hadn’t yet asked. I started to notice something new about the story of the skyscraper that would serve as the basis of The Black Skyscraper.

In my investigations into the familiar cultural archives of the skyscraper as well as its lesser-known manifestations in genre writing, I noticed that the intimacy between architecture and literature was continually framed by a third factor—concerns about racial perception that persistently shadowed their shape and stakes.  I realized that every time the skyscraper appeared in the print archive I had assembled, its materialization was connected to questions about the act of either seeing and identifying race or being able to understand one’s self as raced.  The skyscraper magnetized broader concerns about the stability of racial categories in urban spaces of growing density, fragmented sightlines and changing scale to which this architectural form heavily contributed.

This new insight lead me to revise, reorient, and reconceptualize my book. In The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race, I recover skyscrapers’ appearances in turn-of-the-century narratives as radical reformers of the perceptual experience of race.  People looked drastically different depending on where one stood in and around these tall structuresant-like specks when viewed from their top floors, abstract and hard-to-see figurations viewed from the dense city streets surrounding these structures at their base, and figured in a variety of manners and forms when viewed from the many stories in between these two levels.

 But not only was the ability to read race seemingly jeopardized by this architecture in the turn of the 20th century texts I read, but also the capacity to feel raced, as white authors in particular described feeling less like self-sovereign white agents in the skyscraper’s shadow and more like mechanized automatons or even chattel slaves. Whereas some writers—including a few key Harlem Renaissance figures—embraced these disorienting conditions, contemplating the liberating possibilities of the skyscraper’s distortion of race, many others expressed dread in the face of this architecture that seemed to narrow the perceivable gap between the urban subject and the ethnic subject.  Affecting the ability to know oneself as a raced subject, the early skyscraper appears in prose from this era as a disruptive force poised to unmake race from the inside out. 

My book recovers the early skyscraper’s influence not only the shape of the city, but the racial sensorium of its residents and readers. The skyscraper posed a challenge to older systems of racial perception and the hierarchies, causing American writers across a number of print genres to newly wonder how bodies would continue to appear and be understood as raced.  Prompting writer Henry James to put the verb seeing itself in quotation marks when faced with its overwhelming size, the skyscraper’s earliest appearances in print foreground the malleable nature of racial perception—posing a direct challenge to the nation’s concurrent desires in the era of Jim Crow to stabilize, and thus reject, the conditionality of the perceiving faculties.  This book considers a diverse print archive ranging from Gilded Age realist novels to jazz-age melodramas to recover the kinetic conversations between race, architecture, and writing.

Lastly, while the book is focused on the case of the skyscraper’s specific racialized history, I use this specific architectural type to make a larger claim:  that we need to pay more attention to the ways that architecture more generally shapes and effects the ways we see and read race.  Race is always shaped in some way by the built environment. The skyscraper is just one iteration of how the built environment has shaped and continues to shape race’s material, social, and affective life.

Adrienne Brown is an assistant professor of English at the University of Chicago. She is the Co Editor of Race and Real Estate. Additionally, she is the author of The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race