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A critic comes home

Inspired as a student by school’s legacy in post-Modern architectural criticism, UB alum joins faculty to extend discourse on race and architecture.

Published September 6, 2017

Charles L. Davis II is reconnecting with his roots in Buffalo. The Buffalo native and alumnus of both the undergraduate and graduate programs in architecture at UB joins the faculty this year as assistant professor of architectural history and criticism. The distinguished historian and critic will advance his research on the integration of race and style theory in modern architectural debates.

Davis recently reflected on his inspirations as a student at UB, his passion for Buffalo, and his deep commitment to the teaching and practice of design as a sociocultural enterprise.

You’ve worn several different hats as a member of the School of Architecture and Planning community – student, alumnus and now faculty member. What about the program continues to draw you back?

UB alumnus and Buffalo native Charles Davis II (left), a distinguished architectural historian and critic, returns to UB to join the architecture faculty.

I believe that UB’s School of Architecture has a tremendous heritage of theorization and experimentation that has not been recognized beyond the region. For example, it was founded in the 1970s to provide an alternative to conventional models of professional practice; an ideal that was manifest in a pedagogy based on the tenets of Environmental Design. This established a long tradition of culturally inflected design thinking that migrates beyond the realm of the licensed architect to consider the shaping of the built environment as a whole.

The recruiting of Reyner Banham at the founding of the school also established a legacy of historically inflected cultural criticism that explores the social and ecological underpinnings of the technophilia then gripping the profession.Today, I see a rich culture of digital fabrication that is contextual and situational in approach, which is in advance of many schools of architecture trying to catch up with the autonomous theories of algorithmic architecture of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

My decision to return to UB is in part fueled by a desire to contribute to the social and cultural commitments of this tradition. I believe that I have developed an approach to architectural history that can advance the founding ideals of the school in entirely new directions.

"I believe that UB’s School of Architecture has a tremendous heritage of theorization and experimentation that has not been recognized beyond the region...My decision to return to UB is in part fueled by a desire to contribute to the social and cultural commitments of this tradition."

What new directions do you hope to take your research on race and architecture? And how do you hope to link into and evolve the intellectual foundations of the school?

My first study of the historical integration of race and style theory began with an exploration of the theoretical tenets of European architecture theory, particularly from figures situated within nation-states trying to establish a unique sense of identity within the Continent. Following the historical development of these ideas as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean, however, I developed some unresolved questions about the origins and trajectory of North American nationalism.

I found that many elite architectural theorists were not interested in race as a general category. Instead, they focused nearly exclusively on defining the shifting boundaries of whiteness to establish the boundaries of American character. Modern architects published essays on American frontier culture and asked questions such as ‘Who is really ‘white’ in the New World’, ‘What cultural narratives should establish the basis for American democratic culture’? The universal tone of the language contained in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution tend to mask the importance of these historical debates on racial and ethnic particularity. In response to these debates, there was a regional competition amongst architecture theorists to answer the question ‘What does an American Architecture look like’ with the most authoritative visual language for expressing American character.

My current research explores the racial and ethnic discourses of American Architecture in detail by moving across each region of the United States, from the European revivalisms that dominated the East Coast to the hybridized styles of modernism that appeared on the West Coast. I believe that this research will establish new interpretations of masterworks completed in Western New York, from the buildings of Henry Hobson Richardson to Louis Sullivan and Frank Lloyd Wright; all of whom have contributed to the material landscape of this region. 

"My current research explores the racial and ethnic discourses of American Architecture in detail by moving across each region of the United States, from the European revivalisms that dominated the East Coast to the hybridized styles of modernism that appeared on the West Coast."

How do you anticipate collaborating beyond the borders of our school?

One thing that this region offers me is access to a new range of archives on North American architects who have operated in the region. The restorations of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Darwin D. Martin house and the Richardson Olmsted Complex presents opportunities to speak with preservationists about new findings on both projects. There are also recently established archives of African American architects such as Robert Traynham Coles—whom I worked for when I previously lived in Buffalo— at the Burchfield Penny Art Center that reveal Buffalo’s importance in promoting Advocacy Planning as a model for urban development in the northeast.

As the flagship university of the SUNY system, UB offers opportunities for collaborating with innovative historians in allied fields. I would like to host a series of workshops and symposia with faculty in Art History and American Studies to explore the contributions of architecture to our nationalist discourses. Much has been written in both of these fields that can be of use to an architectural historian seeking to generate new knowledge in the field.  

What do you love most about Buffalo as a place to study and teach architecture?

As a rustbelt city, Buffalo continues to have a strong working- and middle-class character that has been erased in denser urban regions around the country. I also like the fact that African Americans and other minorities in this city still own and renovate their own homes and have organized their own political representation, Block Clubs, and neighborhood festivals to celebrate their unique perspectives of the city.

I believe that recent trends in the expansion of the Creative Class (a la Richard Florida), the associated rise in inequality, and neoliberal policies of urban development currently endanger this landscape. However, there is a lot of expertise in Buffalo that can establish new strategies and techniques for preserving this material culture, and perhaps even enabling it to migrate to and expand in new places by making the geographical displacement of our communities more humane and equitable.

These experiments can take the form of both large and small initiatives; without the material archives stored in the attics and basements of working-class Americans, the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture would just be an empty box. I believe that Buffalo can be a place where we learn to celebrate the positive events and occurrences of America’s lingering working- and middle-classes.

"There is a lot of expertise in Buffalo that can establish new strategies and techniques for preserving the material culture [of Buffalo's working and middle class]...I believe that Buffalo can be a place where we learn to celebrate the positive events and occurrences of America’s lingering working and middle classes."

What's your design philosophy?

If I have to pin down my approach to design, I would say that I have come to define “architecture” as a material form of social praxis. This approach has deep historical roots: in the spirit of the classical Greek term for praxis (πρᾶξις), it requires students to aspire to create more than just an iconic material form—they must create forms and spaces that concretize the social and political values of the institutions or cultural groups they serve. This happens both pragmatically with the provision of a new functional space and symbolically by crafting an artistic solution that exemplifies these values in relation to accepted and emerging craft traditions. It also avoids the fiction that a building can be an autonomous object, lying outside of the realm of time or contemporary politics. While I am not an opponent to radical formal experimentation, there is lots of evidence that formalism for its own sake is a tremendously irresponsible use of our creative genius.

What's on your schedule for this semester?

I will be teaching two elective courses in the fall: “The Modernist Spaces of African American Literature,” which explores the utopian architectural thinking of black protest writers in the 1960s and 70s; and “Race and Place,” which examines the material effect of racial discourses on different architectural typologies, from the college campus to museums, memorials, and different types of housing. Both of these courses use the findings of architectural history to inform our interpretation of contemporary buildings and spaces.