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How skyscrapers changed our perspective on race

U. of C. professor Adrienne Brown says there is a connection between vertical architecture and concepts of race.



Adrienne Brown grew up on the east coast, got a PhD from Princeton, and moved to Chicago four years ago to teach at the University of Chicago, where she's an assistant professor of English with a focus on 20th-century American and African-American cultural production. Her sold-out talk at the Chicago Humanities Festival on October 25 will draw from her nearly completed book on what might sound like an unlikely topic: the intersection of skyscrapers and race. Brown says she started out with broader intentions, then got sucked in by the richness of what was originally to be a single chapter. A longtime architecture fan, she says she’s hooked on the interplay between literature and the built environment, and will be venturing into the suburbs for her next project.

The title of your talk is "Skyscrapers and Race"?

It’s not intuitive to link skyscrapers and race, but the talk is based on my research from the 1880s in Chicago, when the skyscraper was invented, to 1931 and the construction of the Empire State Building. I was looking at narratives and finding that they were trying to wrap their minds around the skyscraper. Today, it’s something that’s been around for a long time, but it was a radical experience when ten stories was like crazy tall.

Where does race come in?

Before the era of the skyscraper, there was the one-drop-of-blood theory of race. If your great-great-grandfather was black, you were black. It didn’t matter what you looked like—you could have the whitest skin, but under the rules of the law, you were black. That could work in a rural space, where people had knowledge of other people’s ancestry. It works less well in urban environments where there’s a lot of immigration and migration, where there’s no record, and no one can go down and find out who your great-great-grandfather was. If you don’t have access to that kind of information, then the visual body has to stand. So there were these competing definitions of race that are really based on the built environment. 

In the cities, your appearance identified you.

Yes, but the skyscraper was making racial interpretation of bodies very difficult. Both from the perspective of the height of the skyscraper, where everyone on the ground looks like a black speck, and also on the ground level, because of the density. All these people populating the skyscrapers and spilling onto the street in close proximity made seeing race and knowing race difficult. In cities, both the one-drop rule, which is already basically out the door, and also this visual proof of race, which is harder in the wake of the skyscraper—they both seem more untenable. Skyscrapers made the definition of race harder, they destabilized things.

  • Courtesy Chicago Humanities Festival
  • U. of C. professor Adrienne Brown

And people were writing about this?

The skyscraper appears in a range of texts as architecture that gets in the way of being able to identify someone’s race. I’ll talk about some of the architectural journals and conferences that included debates about how this new structure should look. Racial discourses of evolution and race science made their way into some of these architectural conversations.

For example?

Louis Sullivan, known as the father of the skyscraper, would talk about the skyscraper and classical architecture as miscegenation. He was responding to the way that some classical architects solved the problem of the skyscraper, which was that you now had a steel skeleton to hold up the structure. Before it was the walls, but now you have a steel skeleton, bearing all the weight. So the walls are free of their structural job, they can basically look however you want.

What’s that got to do with miscegenation?

Many of the ways people chose to design skyscrapers were based on European precedents that still had a heavy masonry wall. So the walls still looked like they were load bearing, though they weren’t actually bearing the load. And for Sullivan that was a miscegenation, because you were mixing two styles that didn’t go together. He would also talk about this in terms of eclecticism, using a mixture of different European precedents. For him, that too was akin to an act of miscegenation. And he was using this term in the 1890s. It was only invented in the 1860s to describe interracial sex; it wasn’t like it had a more general connotation then.

You’ll also talk about fiction writers?

Probably work by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Henry James, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, for example, has a murky racial identity. He’s someone who’s passing, who’s not what he pretends to be. And it’s when he goes into the city, in the shadow of the skyscrapers, that his WASP facade falls apart. For James, the skyscraper made it harder to place the individual person, but for black writers, like Du Bois, it was potentially liberating.

Has living in Chicago influenced your work?

I’m originally from Maryland—the D.C., Baltimore area. The first time I came here was for my interview at the University of Chicago. After I got the job, people told me, "Oh, that’s the perfect place for you to be for this project about the skyscraper, you’re moving to the place where it was invented." I didn’t really believe that, I was already so far into the project. I wrote it in Princeton, in a suburb of New York, and I thought, I get it—buildings, buildings. When I actually got here and spent time around these early skyscrapers—a lot of them are gone, but a number of them are still in the Loop—I could really understand what it was like on these streets when ten stories was the tallest you could build. To live around these buildings did change the way I understood my writers, made it a lot less abstract.

What about theories of the skyscraper as phallic or sublime?

I think that’s giving the phallic too much credit. Verticality can mean a lot of things. But there is something about the sublime, the physiological and psychological response that you have when you’re next to something that’s so much taller. In New York, Trinity Church was historically the tallest building; you could see its spire anywhere. When the skyscrapers overtook Trinity, it was a kind of a ready-made analogy—private capital and secularism replacing the spiritual marker as the touch point of the city.

Do you live in a skyscraper?

I live in a three-flat. 

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