• Salmah Elwerfalli

Can Architecture Be Used to Enforce Racism? Part 1. Proposition

When we think of racism or discrimination, architecture is most probably not our first thought. Such a practice as architecture, embedded in design and intertwined with the arts, has seemingly no correlation to the social issues we currently face. However, it has more of an impact than you would first think. Whilst architecture is not the cause of racism, its importance in our day-to-day lives can allow it to prop up discriminatory societal structures.


From the moment money is involved, especially with such a huge expense as contributing to the built environment, politics is involved. Buildings are reflections of the political institutions which fund, envision, and desire them; acting as physical manifestations of the ideologies they serve. As the grandest and most dramatic expression of power, architecture is an inherently political act at each stage, from its conception, to funding, to the design process. At the most basic level, architecture is influenced by politics in regard to the laws and policies which define construction projects and their relevant restrictions. However, when we look more deeply, understanding that architecture is always at the service of politics and economics renders architectural styles reflections of specific models of society and socio-economic epochs. Just as Renaissance architecture reflects nascent capitalism, so does every other style in history reflect some ideology or perspective. As a literal manifestation of state interests, architecture is of immense importance to our societies, in the messages they denote and the future they wish to create.


So where does racism play a part in architecture? Once we have understood that architecture is innately a political act, reflecting current societal ideals, an answer to such a question becomes infinitely clearer. Just a skim through the history of even the past decade reminds us of the intertwining of racism and politics. Even looking to the past year, the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement has emerged in protest to the still rampant racism and discrimination that the Black community experiences in modern society. Whilst this is not a claim that modern architecture is inherently racist, it would be implausible to deny that much of the architecture we interact with is rooted in problematic relationships with economies of exploitation and white supremacy. It is through the longevity of architecture that such discriminatory structures continue to reside, long after their ideas are no longer politically correct. Through this article, I hope to highlight the often-overlooked impact of racism on the development of the built environment, particularly utilising the case study of America.


It is still hard to grasp the idea that slavery was legalised for three centuries, and indeed this timeframe does not even begin to cover the subsequent impact of the slave trade, in establishing and embedding racist rhetoric into society. But what role does architecture play in such an event? The slave ship is architecture. Between the 15th and 19th century, over 14 million West African men, women and children were captured, brought to the Guinean Gulf and forced onto ships, sending them to be sold and used in the Americas. In this process of displacement, the architecture of the slave ship made itself indispensable to the implementation of such atrocious acts. Transporting between 400 to 700 black people at any one time, the slave ship was a haven of disease, cruelty and, and death. Horrific conditions killed up to 15% of the enslaved.

I am sure that we have all seen the above photo, and there is most probably no other architectural design in existence which is more disgusting. Designed to hold the maximum number of bodies possible, the design of the ship was based on the minimum size of the body, with areas compartmentalised to fit men, women, and children. Other ‘design’ features include nets set up around the ships to avoid suicide, as well as plans to accommodate a potential riot, where the crew would be able to barricade themselves on the top floor.

The architecture of the slave ship allowed the practice to serve the principles of colonialism and capitalism. While it is implausible to state that the design of ships caused the transatlantic slave trade, the architecture of such an apparatus served as the infrastructure of such a process. Through the carrying of millions of innocent Africans across the Atlantic Ocean, it worked to dehumanise the enslaved further through combining the fundamental cruelty of its design and its purpose in economising life. Here, architecture is fundamentally responsible for the operativity of slavery.


Rooted in as early as 1865, the Jim Crow laws were a collection of state and local statutes legalising racial segregation. Passed immediately after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the US, they lasted until 1968. While we understand segregation as a political, legal, and social institution, we know little of it as a spatial system. The architecture of racial segregation describes the architecture constructed during the era of the Jim Crow laws, a design form influenced by the ideology of white supremacy. Through examining the principles of architectural racial segregation, we can not only better understand the American built environment between 1880-1960, but also better understand the day-to-day experience of segregation through learning of the relationship between space and race.

Architectural racial segregation represented an effort to design places shaping the behaviour of individuals, thus managing the contact between white and black peoples. Through enforcing rules on who could use which spaces, architecture became an instrument of white supremacy.

Segregation was established mainly in 2 ways, through architectural isolation and architectural partitioning. Isolation comprised of the construction and maintenance of places keeping white and black people apart, or isolated from one another. Partitioning was more so the practice of segregation within shared facilities.

Architectural isolation was based on the minimising of racial contact through the separation of the spheres of daily living, typically through the spatial strategies of exclusion, duplication, and temporal separation. Exclusion involved the creation of ‘white space’ through the mandate of law or by unwritten rules of social custom, both intending to exclude African Americans from specific places through the prohibiting of their entry and use.

The appeal of exclusion as an architectural form can be seen in its permeation in the world of Jim Crow. Compiling an encyclopaedic list of ‘state’ laws on segregation, activist and attorney Pauli Murray undertook the research of de jure exclusion in the early 1950s. She found that over 21 states had laws either requiring or permitting segregated schools for black and white students. Exclusion also characterised other areas of life, from public libraries, where three states chose to mandate the segregation state-wide, to public parks, hospitals, orphanages, cemeteries, prisons, and bathing beaches.[1]

Duplication differed in that sometimes, to maintain exclusively white spaces, the government found it necessary to make provisions for black spaces. The architects would design completely new structure to create functionally separate spaces for the African American community, facilities which were forcibly separate and never equal. Thus, exclusion could force duplication in requiring the establishment of separate African American facilities replicating existing white facilities.

However, utilising such spatial methods as duplication and exclusion could very quickly get expensive. A solution to this was offered through the use of temporal separation, a strategy of space segregation through time. This strategy was utilised more often as it provided less expense, and became a concept incorporated as a routine part of daily life. Indeed, in the rural South, it became the normal to consider Saturday ‘black people’s day’, when African Americans were allowed to come into town.

All those strategies comprised the technique of architectural isolation, yet architectural partitioning also played a crucial role in racial segregation. Whilst architectural isolation was designed to keep white and black peoples completely separation, portioning comprised of an effort to segregate within shared facilities. Here, a degree of racial mixing was expected, however contact was strictly controlled through the compartmentalisation of space through either fixed or malleable partitions.

Fixed partitions worked to delineate a clear boundary between black and white space, a form most commonly realised in the use of separate entrances leading to separate interior spaces. Degrees of separation varied within differing pieces of architecture. In some it was a separate waiting room, in others a distinctive architectural feature worked to separate the two races, and others just separated the two through designating the front of a space to white people and the back to black peoples. In some places, fixed partitions were not physically or visually demarcated, with racial space instead being defined within a community by invisible boundaries embedded in social custom.

Malleable partitions acknowledge the idea of boundaries separating races as fluid and fluctuating. Typically utilised in public transportation, malleable partitions were designed to adapt to the situation and usually required supervision, which here is the conductor, to move peoples in line with the compartmentalisation of the races. Permeating other spheres of life too, malleable partitions were most commonly used in areas of life where the number of people using an architecture fluctuated. Seating in auditoriums and theatres, for example, were typically partitioned in reflection of the anticipated demographics of an audience.

A third form of partitioning not mentioned above is behavioural separation. It worked differently in operating at a psychological level to segregate in a place which was, theoretically, open to both races. Commonly defined by custom as opposed to law, the idea of behavioural separation worked to constrain black behaviour while white people enjoyed access to the full range of activities in the shared space.

Thus, we can see that the racist ideologies embedded in the Jim Crow era had a profound impact on the urban space of the time. Not only were ideas of segregation embedded into architectural design, but they also permeated into the use of space. The link between space and race thus becomes an instrument of racism, in creating a physical manifestation of discriminatory rhetoric. As with the slave ship, it was architecture which allowed for the operativity of the Jim Crow laws.


Through the two examples highlighted above, it is clear that architecture has played an intrinsic role in the development of racist events. Indeed, the very fact of architecture being unavoidable renders this plausible. The practice of constructing inhabitable spaces has been weaponised to craft architecture into a tool for control, domination, and oppression.

While architecture can work as a proponent to violent societal principles, this does not mean we should accept such a thing or, on the other hand, demonise the practice of architecture. At its core, architecture functions as an instrument in organising bodies in space. In understanding and accepting the role that architecture plays in the political sphere, we can strive to create architecture which benefits society. Furthermore, in analysing racist architecture we can better understand the lived experiences of black people and work to create an actively ant-racist society. Through understanding the power that architecture holds, we can better equip ourselves to design the best possible future.

Creating anti-racist architecture requires the creation of radical architecture, one that digs deep into its role in perpetuating the origins of oppression, colonisation, and racism. In undoing this societal harm, we must undo the damage created by the complicity of architecture with systems of oppression. In creating an anti-racist society, we need to create anti-racist architecture










[1] Pauli Murray, compiler and editor, States’ Laws on Race and Colour (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1997)