Humanities on the Edge Lecture Review: Milton S. F. Curry

Amid a year (that is, another year) tempest-tossed by a seemingly endless cycle of black Americans reported dead at the hands of the state, we begin our seventh year of Humanities on the Edge lectures, this time oriented around the question of post-racial futures. The exigency of the theme is therefore obvious. Introducing Milton S. F. Curry, Associate Dean at the University of Michigan’s Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning as well as our first speaker of the year, Jeanette Jones underscored the topic’s relevance, as we are asking this question of the possibility of a post-racial future within a constantly manifest condition of “systemic and structural racial violence.”

Curry began his lecture, titled “Racial After-Images of Architectural Ideology,” rephrasing the same urgency that Jones highlighted with specific reference to the recent events in both Tulsa and Charlotte, saying that these events further reveal the importance of forums such as Humanities on the Edge and, this being an election year, that the next president must answer how she or he will confront urban issues and the matters of racial conflict that these issues are bound up in. Curry then directed his focus toward two key problems in need of critical attention – first, the problem of black cities and, second, the related problem of the current state and necessary future of architectural theories. This attention to cities and the theories which seek to both understand and inform their (re)development is especially valuable in that it casts a spotlight on the literal structures that constitute the aesthetic-political grounds where racial conflicts and identities are produced, rather than limiting attention to the tragic and spectacular consequences of these conflicts that burst into our newsfeeds.

Curry addressed the critical problem of black cities by critiquing urban redevelopment strategies since the 1960s, particularly as these strategies dealt with urban public housing. Curry led us through the history of urban renewal projects in order to show that these projects have more and more neglected to satisfy the actual needs of urban residents and have instead resulted in greater disparities of economic well-being and access to communal resources between the ghetto and the suburbs. These effects have been coincident with an increasing privatization of urban spaces and redevelopment, a fact that Curry made more salient through contrasting quotes by both Nixon and Obama regarding the plight of the city. Nixon, speaking in the aftermath of the ’68 riots that wracked at least twenty cities with significant destruction, pronounced a move toward a comeback for the American city by directing remedial attention to the harmful transfer of wealth from the cities to the suburbs and to governmental programs of rehabilitation for urban areas. While Nixon cited specific programs which would include federal intervention in damaged cities, Obama passed the blame for the poor state of American cities onto society at large, making clear, implicitly, that urban renewal will be left largely to the private sphere, to the hands of developers and philanthropists.

Curry drew this history up through the New Urbanism of the Clinton era, an urban renewal strategy which, as he argues elsewhere as well, implies an ideological interest in the suburbanization of urban areas. New Urbanist practices attempted to replace high-rise apartments with walk-up townhomes and, relying heavily on the work of private contractors rather than architects, constructed more cheaply-built reproducible homes without paying necessary mind to the aesthetic implications of importing suburban visual ideologies into spaces where a communal urban aesthetic was already being cultivated by the people who lived there. Rather than enriching largely black urban communities with social programs and access to necessary resources, all of which might enable those communities to flourish with a robust and particular native culture, New Urbanism sought an integrationist approach that, in many ways, really meant the whitewashing of urban spaces and the erasure of local communities. Meanwhile, the majority of public funding was targeted at crime reduction. Since funds were channeled toward law enforcement, surveillance, and security, this left the positive cultivation of well-being to non-governmental organizations with often insufficient backing to successfully fulfill the needs of urban residents.

The failure of New Urbanism, alongside a host of other urban renewal practices under the logic of neoliberal economization, constitutes, as Curry said, the table from which we now gaze at the plight of American cities. However, Curry remarked that this non-ideal situation is the place with which we must reckon and can be a site of productive cultural practice, even within the constraints of an injurious history. He remarked that with this increasing emphasis on ideals of suburbanism – under the umbrella of ideological modernism – urbanism itself becomes a form of resistance, a form of protest. It becomes a signifier of cultural community defending itself from erasure.

Beginning from this realization about the importance of urbanism to black communities within major cities, it is important, then, to enact a genuine accounting for blackness, particularly its aesthetic dimensions – an aesthetics that we must understand as thoroughly political. Curry made sure to note that accounting for blackness will ultimately benefit all Americans, not only black Americans living in urban spaces. The idea of the black aesthetic offers a link between the problem of black cities and the problem of architectural theories, since architects, as opposed to private contractors, attempt to create spaces that infuse the local aesthetic into livable structures that contribute to, rather than erase, the atmosphere of the community. For many such urban communities, due to the history of urban development, matters of race are inherently connected with matters of indigenous aesthetic and communal identity.

In response to these problems raised, Curry set out what he called a “prolegomenon on architectural theory.” His stated aim was to produce discussions within architectural theory which include a critical accounting for race like there has been in other disciplines, such as critical race studies, critical legal studies, and, more recently, critical race psychology. Within these other disciplines, the perspective on race and racism has shifted to reckon with the idea that racism is not aberrational or isolated but is rather systemic, bound up in the society’s organizing structures and contingent assemblages, and is therefore very difficult to root out. Structural racism is motivated by the material interests of white upper-classes and the psychic interests of the white working class, and these interests have historically converged in the inscription of legal fictions and master narratives which have institutionalized black subordination. With the type of wide-reaching knowledge these disciplines have produced regarding the contemporary condition of race in American society, it is a short step to say that visual culture and the construction of space have been driven by architectural ideologies that supervene on this systematic subordination of black cultures. However, this need not be a permanent condition if thinkers within architectural theory begin to develop theories which include a deep accounting for blackness with a mind toward remedies for local disempowerment and erasure.

Curry identified a need for a new epistemology of architecture and urbanism, one that conceives of the aesthetic as political and seeks to work against the radical economization of cities under the ideologies of the market and modernism. The problem is that, as he said, due to the nature of epistemological exclusion within architectural theories, the necessary remedies for our conceptions of the politics of space and place may need to be developed outside of the discipline in which those ways of thinking are excluded. To this end, he called on thinkers from across the humanities to involve discussions of space in their criticisms of artifacts, as well as in their pedagogical approaches. To reach for a new future, in which all are benefitted by the disciplines which determine our cultural production, what is needed is the difficult act of disavowing the trajectory of the past, while accounting for the landscape of the present, in order to remain open to the construction of a new future. Whether this future can at all be imagined as “post-racial” seems at best still open to question, and more likely dubious. Yet within the constraints of the present, there is the opportunity to critique oppressive systems of thought in productive ways which allow us as a public body to support the actual enrichment of black urban communities and therefore to counteract the epistemologies and practices which would erase them.

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