Critical Thinking is a weekly series highlighting the work of architecture critics and thinkers from around the internet. Each week I recommend a few of my favorite pieces.
(Header image by flickr user Karen Blaha, the lawn and the rotunda at the University of Virginia, via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0)
This week I'm devoting the Critical Thinking series to the discussion resulting from the recent events in Charlottesville. The white supremacist demonstrations, the counter protests, the Confederate monuments, and the terrorist who used his car as a weapon to murder and injure peaceful anti-racist protesters; all of these things are intrinsically linked to the form and design of our cities and public spaces, how these spaces are used, and who is welcome in those spaces.
It is no coincidence that these events took place in Charlottesville and at the University of Virginia. Charlottesville was the home of this country’s most notorious slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, and he founded and designed the campus and original buildings of the University of Virginia. This history cannot be separated from the white supremacists and neo-Nazis’ choice of venue. It is also essential to note that the monuments to the Confederacy—the removal of which serve as the supposed motivator for white supremacist protests—are not relics of the Civil War-era South, but are actually literal monuments to white supremacy erected almost entirely in the early 20th century as physical reminders of Jim Crow policies throughout the U.S. As Patrick Sisson at Curbed noted in a piece about the history of Confederate monuments, not even Robert E. Lee himself was in favor of commemorating the Confederacy, instead preferring to “commit to oblivion the feelings engendered” by the Civil War.
What follows is a brief reading and listening list that provides a broader context for what happened in Charlottesville. This week, rather than focusing entirely on architectural discourse, I’m including a broad range of sources that include discussions of Charlottesville as a place, personal reactions to the events, and the policies that influenced the events. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and I'm sure I'm missing many important works, but these are a few that I have found meaningful in this past week. I highly recommend reading and listening to all of them.
In no particular order:
- A shockingly revealing piece from Jia Tolentino in The New Yorker describes the casual relationship UVA has with racism, slavery, and the pre-Civil War history of the South.
- An interview with Mabel O. Wilson at Artforum (published, I believe, prior to the events in Charlottesville), reminds us that the modern discipline of architecture is “inseparable from the problem of race.”
- At CityLab, Kriston Capps is one of the few architectural writers to directly address the events in Charlottesville, with a succession of pieces on how open carry laws threaten the safety of public space, a proposal to rename the former Lee Park in Charlottesville after terror victim Heather Heyer, a report on the states trying to legalize running down protesters with a car, and his thoughts on how the city of Baltimore could reuse pedestals that until very recently held Confederate monuments.
- John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, echoes Capps’ concerns in an Op-Ed for The New York Times, “Ban the Open Carry of Firearms”.
- The Washington Post reports that even inside the U.S. Capitol building, there are three times as many statues of Confederate figures as there are statues of black people (a result of the fact that individual states choose the statues that represent them in the Capitol).
- On a special bonus episode of the podcast Pod Save the People, host DeRay Mckesson interviews three UVA students about their reactions to the events, and their feelings about starting a new school year at UVA in the aftermath. And on the regular Tuesday episode, the show’s regular contributors, as well as guest Common, share their reactions to the events in Charlottesville.
- The NPR podcast Code Switch collects reactions to Charlottesville from a variety of perspectives, and delves into the politics of white resentment.
- And the In The Thick podcast rebroadcast an interview that hosts Maria Hinojosa and Julio Ricardo Varela conducted with former FBI agent Mike German about his time as an undercover operative inside the white supremacist movement.