Form Follows Function - Finding the Role of Race in Architecture and Literature
Growing up in suburban Maryland, Adrienne Brown couldn’t help but notice the depictions of the suburbs she absorbed from pop culture didn’t represent what she knew.
Her home was “mixed income, racially diverse, with housing developments next to apartment complexes, not far from either rural or urban spaces,” but even when she studied literature at Princeton she saw nothing representing her “weird suburban experience.” She wanted to know: “What happened between the midcentury moment of the suburb and the present? Why do they look and feel so differently?”
Now an assistant professor of literature at the University, Brown wrote her undergraduate thesis on John Cheever, the “master of the suburban story,” pondering how race worked in his stories as he explored what she calls a “new construct of whiteness.”
Since posing those initial questions, Brown continues to explore the relationship between race and architecture in her work as she finishes her new book, The Black Skyscraper: Race, Writing and the Shape of Modern Architecture. In it, she aims to rediscover the early skyscraper’s central role in shaping racial perception and literary form in the late 19th and early 20th century.
Brown is the first to admit that when one thinks about a skyscraper, the first thing that springs to mind isn’t race. “It’s not an intuitive connection.” In fact, during her research she noticed that despite the huge presence the American skyscraper had on the 20th century architectural stage, it had little representation in literature. “My question is: why is literature not very interested in this structure?”
Brown’s research then went beyond F. Scott Fitzgerald and Henry James’ canonical novels that took place during the era of the early skyscrapers and found earlier texts that posed the question of what a future filled with skyscrapers might resemble. “What was going to happen when scale was changing and you couldn’t see the body as closely as you could in a smaller town?” Brown asks, adding that writers were also curious about how skyscrapers would change population density, “bringing all these people on a city block: you’re both too close and too far away.” W.E.B. Dubois, she says, noted that from atop a skyscraper, “Everyone looks like a speck. Maybe we can get away from race, and the skyscraper will be this great thing.”
In order to find her sources, Brown used what she calls a “grab bag” of methodology, scouring early American periodical databases. “I began this project reading a lot, and not just literature on the skyscraper, but anything on it: newspaper articles, architecture journals, labor archives, obscure romance novels, and science fiction from the period.” In “trying to get my hands on as many print materials as I could,” Brown says, she wanted to find a common theme. “That’s where the stuff on race started to emerge as a connector.”
Additionally, Brown used her own (new) back yard. “When I got to Chicago, I spent a lot of time in the library looking through turn of the century journals and records. We have such great architecture resources.”
Brown feels like she was “fated’ to end up in a city where the skyscraper looms so large (literally and figuratively.) “Before I moved out here, people said, ‘How lucky for you: it’s going to change your project.” Brown didn’t believe them—she was already far into her book. But then, “Being around the early skyscrapers and seeing them, being able to understand the scale of the city, what it meant when the first skyscrapers went up—it changed the way I was reading the texts. I had already gathered and begun thinking about some of the claims I was making.” Her favorite buildings? “It’s probably a cliché answer, but the Loop, where all the early skyscrapers are. When you see them, it’s amazing to think of them as the tallest buildings at the time. Every time I’m down there and notice them, I’m caught off guard: ‘Oh yeah, there they are!’”
Brown’s first book, Race and Real Estate, came out in late October 2015 from the Oxford University Press. True to the form of a UChicago scholar, she describes it as a “really interdisciplinary book,” noting that it draws on the works of scholars in social sciences, landscape architecture, English, and American studies.” Like Brown herself, it explores the connection between race and real estate from a lot of different perspectives.
— Claire Zulkey