Interview with Mabel O. Wilson, ARTFORUM, Summer 2017
Changing the Subject: Race and Public Space
Whether utopian or authoritarian, buildings—the places in which we live, work, die—have always reified systems of power. Today, when civic structures and urban spaces are increasingly at the center of political debates—witness the resurgence of marches, protests, and strikes in cities around the globe—Artforum invited architectural historian Mabel O. Wilson to speak with senior editor Julian Rose about the politics of race, labor, and architecture.
Interview by Julian Rose, Senior Editor, ARTFORUM
JULIAN ROSE: Architecture is one of the central ways through which politics enters everyday life. The buildings that surround us, the spaces and structures we inhabit, are all physical manifestations of the cultural beliefs and social systems that order our society. And as material things in the world, buildings can embody—with brutal directness—economic inequalities and labor politics. But architecture is also a potent political symbol, and sometimes architecture’s symbolism collides head-on with its material reality—take the response to Michelle Obama’s remark, in her convention speech last year, that she lived in a house built by slaves. She was met with disbelief: Right-wing pundits refused to acknowledge that slaves played any role in the construction of the White House, and even after numerous news organizations had confirmed that she was correct, Bill O’Reilly infamously weighed in with the absurd defense that the slaves who worked on the building had at least been provided with room and board. The history of architecture in America has always been bound up with the history of race, but how do we begin to address and redress this legacy?
MABEL O. WILSON: I would go further than that. I actually think the emergence of architecture as a modern discipline is itself inseparable from the problem of race. And by this I mean architecture as distinct from building—after all, people around the world have always built. I’m referring to a very specific, Western humanist notion of the architect as someone who thinks, who designs, who draws, but who does not build. He is an intellectual, in other words, who works very abstractly, through reason, and is distanced from the physical labor of construction.
Mabel O. Wilson is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, a Professor in African American and African Diasporic Studies, and the Associate Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies (IRAAS) at Columbia University. She is currently completing Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, an investigation into the intersections of architecture, Blackness and anti–Black racism in the American context. On view at the Museum of Modern Art, October 17, 2020-January 18, 2021, the exhibition and accompanying publication will examine contemporary architecture in the context of how systemic racism has fostered violent histories of discrimination and injustice in the United States.
Photo: Courtesy of Dario Calmese
For complete interview, click here.