Sophia Razzaque, AIA, NOMA, recently sat down with Charles L. Davis II, a new tenured faculty member at the University of Texas at Austin School of Architecture. An associate professor of architectural history and criticism, he is currently teaching his first semester. His area of focus is rooted in the role of racial identity and race thinking in architectural history.
Sophia Razzaque, AIA, NOMA: What led you to study architectural history and wanting to teach? When did you start studying race and architecture?
Charles L. Davis II: My interest in architecture is probably very typical. When I was thinking about what to do for graduate school, I wanted to do art, but my parents were not very comfortable with that. I thought that it was a nice in-between where you have art and business together. And so that’s how it started, really.
Along the way, particularly as a minority student — and I think I share this with the other Black and African students who were in my degree program — there was an emphasis on teaching the “universal standards of design,” the rules of architectural formalism, but they were not really specific about what cultural pedigree these rules came from or whether that cultural pedigree was fitting for the types of spaces you would be designing for.
Towards my junior and senior year, I took a gap year working for the one Black architect in Buffalo, New York, at the time: Robert Coles who had graduated from MIT. We were doing projects like the Apollo Theater in the city. He was working on the Frank E. Merriweather Library, which was inspired by the concept of an African village. It was a series of concentric spaces all under one roof with a modernist twist, so using modern materials and tectonics but with a kind of pre-modern spatial program. That inspired me to think about the types of ways that different civilizational history has really impacted the rules of design and how one might adjust for those things. I think my professors knew before I did that I was probably a pretty good historian, and so they encouraged me to do the Ph.D. program after the master’s. It was during the Ph.D. period that I really got to explore this subject.
SR: It seems like you had a really good experience that led you on a path.
CD: Well, I had good mentors. There were two faculty members at SUNY Buffalo, both of whom were in planning but did research on new cities and affordable housing. There was Henry Louis Taylor Jr. and Alfred Price. His father was a local representative for the Buffalo Common Council. He had worked to get affordable housing in a modernist idiom for Black Americans, one of the first ones in the city. They weren’t able to save it, but they were able to save some of the artworks and things that were there recently.
They really helped me to understand what redlining was, the history of racial education, the ways that policy affected space. They pointed me towards a community development history of places and the ways that Black entrepreneurs, Black businesspeople, Black lawyers, and even Black designers worked together to shape space. And so, that was always in the background. I wanted to fill in the architectural side of that — what the kind of counter history is, the counter-cultural history of architectural formalism. How can one really prescribe a line around the whiteness of our discipline? What does that affect in terms of what we think about and what vocabulary we have? What’s missing in those terms? And how can that enable us to both revise and to complement that with other forms of engaging the built environment? So, it’s been a long string of very useful mentors and folks who’ve been helping me along the way in that sense.
Read the full interview here.
Charles L. Davis II initially joined SAH in 2009. He was a speaker at the 2015 annual conference and has served on the SAH IDEAS Committee, the SAH-HABS Sally Kress Tompkins Fellowship Committees, and the SAH Board. He is the founder and co-chair of the SAH Race and Architectural History Affiliate Group.