Robert E. Lee Monument in Emancipation Park, Charlottesville, Va. | via UVA
THE CITY OF CHARLOTTESVILLE’S plans to remove a monument memorializing Confederate General Robert E. Lee drew protests from tiki torch-bearing white supremacists and white nationalists. On Aug. 12, counter-demonstrators clashed with participants in the “Unite the Right” rally and one woman, among those standing up against racism and bigotry, was killed when a car with Ohio license plates plowed into a crowd.
The removal of Confederate monuments has elicited ire across the South, but the gathering of white supremacists and white nationalists in Charlottesville, Va., resulted in unprecedented violence and injuries. Erected in 1924, the Lee statue stands in Emancipation Park, about a mile from the University of Virginia (UVA). (Historically known as Lee Park, it was renamed in June.)
An alum of UVA, Mabel O. Wilson has dedicated her career to examining the intersection of race, memory, and the built environment. An architect and professor of architecture at Columbia University, she is the author of “Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums,” “Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” and the forthcoming “Building Race and Nation.”
Her trans-disciplinary design practice is called Studio &. She is also a founder of “Who Builds Your Architecture?” an advocacy initiative that examines issues surrounding labor, architecture, and globalization. The coalition presses architects to consider the ethical, political, and social challenges of erecting the buildings they design, including labor sources, construction practices, and workers’ rights.
Wilson discussed the politics of race, labor, and architecture with Artforum earlier this summer. “I always feel that architects look into the future without really recognizing the current conditions under which they create. And the question for me is whether the techniques and theoretical frameworks of architecture, those disciplinary methods that are supposed to improve the world, are already part of the problem. We can’t simply mobilize those tools without thinking about their origins,” she told the magazine.
“Other disciplines have already started this process—look at the way critical race theory took on the law. Going back to the Civil Rights Movement, there was the assumption that the law would become a tool of justice, that the law was going to get rid of segregation. …I think architecture has been very late to the game in terms of gaining this kind of disciplinary self-awareness.”
Mabel O. Wilson is the author of “Negro Building” and “Begin with the Past.”
In a prescient discussion five months before the clash in Charlottesville, Wilson spoke at “Race and Public Space: Commemorative Practices in the American South” (March 25), a UVA School of Architecture symposium.
In the wake of calls for the removal of Confederate monuments, the inaugural symposium was organized by the Center for Cultural Landscapes to discuss “contested sites of commemoration in the southeastern United States” and investigate “scholarship and practice around race, memory, and commemoration.”
The two-day gathering hosted several scholars who addressed persistent racial division with regard to historic documentation, symbolism, and storytelling in public spaces. Wilson’s talk was excerpted from her in-progress book “Building Race and Nation.”
She opened by noting it was an important local and national moment. She said, “I think a lot of these are global questions around inequalities and justices and representations and questions around restorative justice. This is one aspect of a much needed public conversation and transformation of our shared, lived world.”
Wilson said it was nice to be “back where it all started.” She said she was introduced to architecture in the space, “this very room,” in Campbell Hall at UVA where she was giving her lecture.
She recalled spending “four years split between the studios upstairs where you are learning to how to make buildings and in here where you are learning the history of the discipline, but also being naggingly disappointed that I was never taught by anyone African American. No one African American ever sat on my reviews. I sat in histories, again and again and again, and I don’t think I ever saw anything a black person had conceptualized or made as an architect. That’s led me down the path of the kind of work that I do as a scholar and a designer, to unpack that and get us to think about why that might be the case and how our shared built environment might be mobilized differently.”
“I was never taught by anyone African American. No one African American ever sat on my reviews. I sat in histories, again and again and again, and I don’t think I ever saw anything a black person had conceptualized or made as an architect. That’s led me down the path of the kind of work that I do as a scholar and a designer…” — Mabel O. Wilson
Continuing, Wilson said, “When thinking about race and public space many questions come to mind about space and subjects and building. How did public space in America become racialized? I think that’s one of the questions we are asking. How and why have these spaces of public and civic life, how have they changed over time? …How does the material condition of the built environment become racialized through informal practices of building as well as conceived by the formal practices of architecture?”
She referenced an earlier speaker who “unfolded the fault lines around which racialized representations of conflicting histories of the Civil War and of the Civil Rights Movement whose presence, as each monument persistently reminded us in the examples he showed us, is still determined by what the white civic leadership and white publics believe to be the proper place of black historical narratives—ideally unseen and unheard.”
Launching into her own talk “Notes on the Virginia Statehouse: Race, Slavery, and Jefferson’s America,” Wilson noted, “It’s interesting that everyone always turns to the architects, to the designers, to architecture for solutions. But what if these disciplines were already enmeshed in questions of race and they perhaps might be part and parcel of the problem?
“I want us to think about the relationships between race, public, and architecture by examining earlier American history. We’ve talked already about the Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and today, but maybe we’ve got to look a little bit earlier and look at the late 18th century and the first decades of the fledgling nation when Thomas Jefferson drew up plans for the Virginia Statehouse…” CT
Mabel O. Wilson’s “Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums” considers the evolution of black public history by exploring African American participation in major cultural events and local institutions, including World’s Fairs, Emancipation expositions, and “early black grassroots museums.” She is also the author of “Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture,” which was published last fall to coincide with the historic opening of the Smithsonian museum.
Mabel O. Wilson’s talk was titled, “Notes on the Virginia Statehouse: Race, Slavery, and Jefferson’s America.” After giving context to her work and introducing her subject, Wilson begins her lecture at about (11:29).