top of page
  • David Harrop

Can Architecture Be Used to Enforce Racism? Part 2. Opposition

The general thrust of my argument on why architecture cannot convey or represent demonstrable racism is as follows: inanimate objects are the subject, not the object of intention. A building or statue can be imbued with racial ideology and racist connotations; however, its simple existence does not constitute racism in of itself. A post-modernist, post-colonialist views contextualisation as the evidence of condemnation- the legacies of the dead past still carry a very living meaning regardless of changes to the socio-economic and political landscape. A statue of an early modern merchant will always carry echoes of the past and its all horrors in their eyes. Carried out to its furthest extent, many of the MPs and Lords whom ratified our constitution were involved financially and legally in the practise of the slave trade, so therefore our entire modern parliamentary democracy is steeped in the racism of long-dead chattel slavery. However, it is my view that it is anachronistic to interpret the physical legacies of the past in such a way, as we merely project our own ideologies onto the nearest canvas.

To claim that the architecture of a building exemplifies racism one must tackle the dialectical problem of what came first? Was the architecture influenced by racist thought, for a racist purpose? Or was the structure subsequently assigned racial properties or ideology? Or is the relationship more interdependent than that- is it dichotomous or cyclical or relational? This is a very complex analytical problem to solve. The issue of confederacy statues and Jim Crow laws in the southern states of the USA is an interesting case for this question. General Lee to many was a hero, to many he was an agent of evil. The existence of such disagreement and debate underlines the nature of architecture- that it is open for subjective interpretation. US tank battalion at the Battle of the Bulge flew the Confederate flag as a symbol of patriotic pride in their fight against fascism- their grandfathers had fought and died for the same flag. Therefore, to them the symbols of their confederate past are separated away from the actions of government (and by extension the racist legislation of the time) and are interpreted as merely an era of family history. This constitutes a bottom-up approach to racial questions- were the Jim Crow laws and the subsequent architecture that enforced them a top-down phenomena or were they bottom-up popular phenomena. Again, the lack of uniformity of opinion in society makes this a contentious and polemical debate.

Statues of confederate soldiers and politicians are subjectively interpretive symbols, in the same way that, for instance, the Westminster Parliament is. To an Indian lawyer, or an Egyptian officer, the British parliament was the physical embodiment of an oppressive imperial tyranny in the 1930s, despite also being a beacon of global democracy and liberalism to many in the west. This paradox demonstrates how architecture can mean different things to different people. Westminster was the home of liberal democracy, representing the hitherto unrepresented, yet it also ruled over countless millions of silent voices with an iron fist. To some it is seen as something to take pride in, even a symbol of national pride, but to others it is the physical remnant of the colonial age, a page that is in thorough need of being turned over. The neo-gothic style design of the Palace of Westminster reflects the way in which the Victorian political elite saw their role in society as tying the future to the past. Yet to a post-modernist, the association of gothic architecture with the time of rampant global imperialism condemns it to the same death as shared by those very empires. However, that ancient gothic-style building was the first forum in world history for the debate on abolition, where representatives from around the countries began their campaigns to, at first, end the trading of slaves, and then to formally abolish slavery throughout its extensive lands. Such legislative landmarks as the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act was the catalyst for identical campaigns across the globe. Therefore, the gothic exterior of the Palace at Westminster can be some be seen as the physical projection of colonialism, as well as the progenitor of the anti-slavery crusade.

I have pointed out several flaws in the idea that architecture cannot in of itself be intrinsic to racist events, and nor can it objectively perpetuate racist ideology. Such pejorative epithets are projected onto these inanimate objects. Yes, architecture can be a mechanism for racial ideology, and yet it can facilitate racist policies, but the dialectical relationship between man and his creations is not so clear cut as racist and anti-racist architecture. More specifically, architectural artefacts reflect the ebb and flow of cultural nuance, its brilliant diversity reflected the characters of the societies that built such monuments.


bottom of page