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The Architecture of Segregation

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“I am certain each of us considers this a travesty an egregious travesty; an egregious travesty that shall not stand.”

It is Thursday. It is 9:00 AM. Therefore it is time for the Department of Architecture and Facilities Technology’s weekly faculty meeting. DAFT’s faculty meetings are always held at 9:00 AM on Thursday because it suits Professor Stephen Clifford Carroll that this be so. It is also time for Professor Carroll’s weekly soliloquy regarding whatever bug has flown up his butt in the previous six days. One week it might be the ineptitude of the curriculum committee. The next week it will be the ineptitude of the university’s provost. The week before, it might have been the ineptitude of waiters at the Alabaster University’s pretentious Faculty Club.

Each week, Carroll’s contemptuous litany will follow a well-trod, twenty-five-minute long rut. Somebody has done something mightily wrong at Alabaster University and Professor Stephen Clifford Carroll is absolutely certain who it is. It would be anyone but Professor Stephen Clifford Carroll.

“If the administration of this Department believes it can perpetuate such an outrageous injustice upon this distinguished faculty, I for one shall do everything within my power and influence to dissuade it from so mistaken a notion.”

By “administration,” Carroll refers to his lackey stooge, piss boy department head, Amad Kifka.

“I have spoken to the Provost about his matter. I have spoken to the Chancellor about this as well. I shall speak to the Board of Trustees. This grievous wrong shall be made right and this junior faculty member restored to his proper station within our academic family.”

Carroll places particular emphasis on the phrase “junior faculty member,” as does every member of the senior faculty when referring to the department’s stable of untenured assistant professors. “Junior” is always spoken in an especially pejorative tone of voice, as though the untenured faculty seated around conference table are all perched on high chairs, sucking on pacifiers, incapable of comprehending the adult conversation swirling about them. It matters little that members of the junior faculty may well be accomplished scholars with lengthy vitaes of professional and personal achievement. It matters little that every one of these junior faculty members is intelligent, articulate and thoughtful in his or her own right. It matters only that they are as yet untenured and therefore undeserving of anything but the most patronizing and dismissive consideration.

“I shall never cease my quest to purge this institution of its corrupt ineptitude. This egregious travesty shall not stand!”

Professor Carroll’s tirade concluded, he exhales with a calculated instinct for dramatic effect and sits. His fellow senior colleagues all nod in solemn agreement. The still cowering Amad Kifka shifts uneasily in his chair and moves on to the meeting’s next agenda item.

The junior faculty member to whom Carroll has just referred is Assistant Professor Darrell Jefferson White. The injustice visited on him by the administration of the Department of Architecture and Facilities Technology and by extension-Amad Kifka-involves White’s tenure document.

Amad Kifka has failed to forward White’s three hundred page vitae to the Provost’s office prior to the University’s deadline for submission. White’s application for tenure and promotion will therefore be deferred for another year, an interminable, likely fatal length of time for any ambitious, overworked junior faculty member. 

Professor Carroll has omitted several pertinent items from his oration. For one thing, he failed to mention that he possesses an all-consuming contempt for Assistant Professor White. For another, he has not actually spoken to the Provost about the matter, has not spoken to the Chancellor, nor will he speak to the Board of Trustees. And, Carroll also failed to note that three weeks prior to this faculty meeting, two weeks prior to the University’s deadline for tenure review submission, he had given Amad Kifka explicit instruction to do exactly what he did-deliberately mislay White’s document. Carroll’s precise words were as follows:

“Lose that miserable bastard’s shit.”

After the faculty meeting concludes, Professor Carroll draws Amad aside, out of earshot of his departing colleagues.

“Look, Amad. You mustn’t take all of that in there too seriously. You know, we can’t allow the faculty to think I hold you in any greater esteem than do they.”

Amad nods obediently. Stephen Carroll returns to his office. 

At this same moment, Assistant Professor Darrell Jefferson White is preparing to deliver his Thursday morning lecture on architectural history to one hundred twenty-seven sleepy graduate students. As he reviews his notes, he mentally dismisses Carroll’s just concluded defense of his academic standing. White knows perfectly well what an asshole Carroll is.

There are many factors that account for the contempt Carroll holds for Darrell White. It doesn’t help that White possesses a rapier wit. No senior faculty member appreciates this. It doesn’t help that White is beloved by the entire student body. No senior faculty member ever likes this sort of thing to go on in a department of architecture. It doesn’t help that White is trained as an architectural theorist. At DAFT, theory is the sole province of Stephen Clifford Carroll, so despite his training, White now teaches only architectural history. Nobody ever treads on Stephen Clifford Carroll’s pedagogic turf.

Neither does it help that White is walleyed and hampered by a speech impediment, a slight but inescapable stammer. Nor does it help that White has written two well-received, scholarly papers that among other things, obliquely suggest Carroll to be a hapless fop. Being black doesn’t help White a wit either. His race merely offers his senior colleagues a reasonable pretext to dismiss his achievements as the product of the University’s disingenuous policy of minority faculty advancement.

Darrell White enters the second floor Brimley Hall auditorium and begins his lecture on the Prairie School. Approximately fifteen minutes into the talk, White gets caught up on the name of his subject. 

“Here, in the Robie House, we see Mr. Wri…eerier…ererer…”

White is stuck.

“Wriererererer..erere.erer…”

His audience of one hundred twenty or so graduate students leans forward.

“…erererer...ier….ererer….ierier…”

Professor White continues, cranking like a stalled car motor on a cold Virginia morning.

“…erererer…ier…erererer…”

Every one of Professor White’s students know the name he is struggling to expel from his uncooperative throat. Every one of them wants to say it for him. In unison, their lips silently form the remaining three letters of the name.

And then at long last, it spurts forth.

“…ight…”

Professor White snaps closed the name of Frank Lloyd Wright and continues on without any self-consciousness.

“…demonstrating his by now, complete command of the Prairie School idiom.”

At the close of class, two students seated on opposite sides of the lecture hall raise their hands to ask separate questions. The very walleyed Professor White gestures to one with a blink. Both students begin speaking at the same moment. The lecture room’s one hundred twenty seven students as well as the good-natured White all laugh a rare-for Brimley-Hall laugh.

After class, White returns to his cramped office, one he shares with two other junior members of the faculty. He sets aside a paper he’d been writing, preferring to gaze out the narrow slit window of his office and contemplate what he should be doing now that his continued appointment with the university is in jeopardy. He idly thumbs through another stack of papers on his desk, an earlier draft of one of his previously published essays. He tries to understand how this could have happened to him.

The first of Darrell White’s essays was published in the Journal of the Society of Architectural Educators, an obscure, almost never read compilation of scholarly articles, abbreviated JSAE. White’s essay was titled: The Diagnosis and Treatment of Common Theoretical Disorders.” It was largely tongue-in-cheek. It brought howls to the usually staid, usually bored-to-tears editors of the JSAE.

White’s essay employs the rhetorical device of comparison. He compares the task of the architectural educator to that of a doctor confronting a seriously ill patient. White identifies the symptoms of a series of intellectual maladies that frequently afflict beginning students of architecture. For example, White describes one as a student’s inability to release an erroneous though steadfastly held view about architecture in favor of embracing the many countervailing, sometimes contradictory circumstances out of which truly rich building experiences are constructed 

For this and every other “disease,” Dr. White proposes a suitable course of treatment: remedial readings, a drawing exercise or two, or in extreme cases, the student’s transfer to an entirely different field of study.

White also notes with some sadness, theoretical disorders for which there is no known cure. One, identified only as Stephen’s Syndrome, is particularly debilitating. Its classic symptoms include pretense, obsessiveness and corrupt insincerity. To his mocking distress, White further notes that this particular disorder is invariably fatal to a work of architecture.

White’s second published article also appeared in JSAE. It was titled “Shtick, Mystic Pedagogy and The Fear of Architecture.” In this essay, White compares the body of an architectural educator’s work to the canned routine of a Jewish, Borsch Belt comedian, better known by the Yiddish term “Shtick.”

A shtick is a simple and generally humorous bit that a comedian may play out in endless variation over the course of his career, e.g. Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife, please!” or Rodney Dangerfield’s “Can’t get no respect.” In the academy, an educator’s “shtick” works in precisely the same way. A couple of small, uncomplicated ideas are cobbled together and then spun in endless variation over the course of a career until the scholar acquires what his envious colleagues will describe as his “l’ouvre.”

However, unlike the Borsch Belt in which the same audience returns season after season, a college professor faces an entirely new batch of eager, uneducated freshmen each fall. Accordingly, an academic’s shtick is perpetually self-renewing, which explains why the percentage of tenured professors is so much higher than that of successful comedians.

Professor White’s essay unkindly suggests that once an educator has settled on his shtick, the majority of his life’s work is complete. White does not bother to add that Stephen Clifford Carroll found his shtick in the first three years of his appointment to Alabaster University and hadn’t had a further original thought in any of the thirty-six years that followed. Anyone with any sense about such matters already knows this sad fact.

The second element of White’s thesis is “Mystic Pedagogy.” For White, this is a critically important point. He begins by noting that it is absolutely necessary for a comedian to communicate his comic routine with perfect clarity. Otherwise no one will get the joke, no one will laugh and the comedian will soon be busing tables at some dreary roadside diner. In comedy, for the shtick to work, it has to be completely unambiguous and completely legible.

For the architectural educator, the goal is precisely opposite. This is to say, those few meager ideas which do constitute a scholar’s shtick must be continually wound into an ever more tightening, ever more bewildering series of permutations so that no one, not even the most patient student of the work will ever recognize its underlying, simple-minded premise

White drives this point home in his scathing critique of The Poetics of Space. He whittles Bachelard’s mind-numbing, four hundred seventy-three page snore down to its essential and completely unmystifying message: two sentences containing three ideas, all of which could be scribbled in a space no larger than a cocktail napkin.

According to White, this is the utility of “Mystic Pedagogy.” In other words, to never let anyone figure out what the hell you are really up to.

Finally and most succinctly, White concludes that all of this conceit has but one purpose: to instill within the hearts of already anxious students of design, nothing less damaging than the terrible “Fear of Architecture.” The motivation for this is easy enough to understand: it is far simpler to teach someone who is scared shitless than it is to teach someone who is not. For Professor White, this pretty much sums up his view of architectural education in general and of architectural education at Alabaster University in particular.

Hence, once he had managed to fully comprehend what White had written, the source of Professor Carroll’s unremitting contempt for his black, walleyed, stuttering, junior faculty member colleague can now be witnessed. Stephen Clifford Carroll simply doesn’t much like the smart-assed, son-of-a-bitch.

At the time of Amad Kifka’s mishandling of Professor White’s tenure document, White was completing work on his first scholarly book. The book, its thesis and its promise of publication formed the basis of White’s tenure submission. The publication of the book by Alabaster University Press was in turn, conditioned upon White achieving tenure.

Without tenure, White’s chances for publishing his book sink quicker than a wet cow turd in a pigsty. Conversely, without the guarantee of a major scholarly publication, White’s chances for tenure fall faster than a shit brick.

Nice piece of work, Professor Carroll. A very nice piece of work for sure.

Assistant Professor White’s now to be never published book was to be titled: “The Architecture of Segregation.” But for Carroll’s intervention, it might have been a significant piece of architectural scholarship.

During each of his summer breaks, Darrell White had toured almost every corner of the Old South. He had painstakingly photographed and documented each remaining architectural vestige of the deceitful doctrine of segregation. He carefully recorded every surviving example of the South’s dismal argument in favor of “separate but equal” accommodations for whites and for “coloreds.”

White documented plans for separate but equal schools, separate but equal courthouses, separate but equal churches, separate but equal restaurants, bus terminals, jails, gin joints, brothels and not inconsequentially, public toilets. In every instance, Professor White discovered a cunning, complicitly damning misappropriation of the noble faculties of architectural design to perform the ignoble service of separating one man from another. He rightly thought this misappropriation to be among architectural history’s darkest periods.

Of course, the deliberate conditioning of behavior within buildings happens all the time in good architectural design. One measure of any architect’s skill is the ability to subconsciously suggest predetermined patterns of behavior to a building’s inhabitants. It is in fact, a most useful though rarely appreciated architectural skill.

Enter the lobby of an office building and imagine how you will get from one level to another. If you arrive at the building’s central core of elevators without difficulty, likely an architect has been responsible. 

Enter a hotel lobby and anxiously look for a rest room. As you relieve yourself, you will likely not recognize the effortlessness with which some unacknowledged architect has led you to this, your place of comfort.

Enter the Cathedral of Chartres. Look up into the cascading shower of ethereal stained glass light raining down upon you. If you wipe a tear from your cheek, you will still not recognize that all this and more was once some anonymous architect’s vision, scratched on a sheath of parchment seven hundred years before.

This, Professor White understood, was what architects are trained to do. What he could not understand is why such ordinarily principled men would choose to direct this magnificent skill to something as patently rancid as the doctrine of segregation. This was something Professor White could not explain despite a hundred thoughtful pages of inquiry. This is something that even now, no man or woman of conscience can ever possibly explain. It is but the brutal, divisive thoughtlessness of prejudice for which no reasonable explanation can ever be advanced.

What Professor White could explain was how such architectural manipulations might actually operate on the psyche of an inhabitant of a work of architecture. He could explain how an architecture might be designed to suggest the welcoming of one race and the exclusion of another. He could explain how an architecture could be designed to permit access to some and prohibit access to others. He could explain how a deliberate and deceitful misappropriation of the profession of architecture might be perverted to manifest some self-preserving overlord’s pathetic need for control, leading to a disgustingly perverted Architecture of Segregation. For this portion of his thesis, Professor White would lean heavily on the work and insight of others.

An aside. It is sometimes erroneously assumed that sole authorship of an intellectual conception resides entirely within the domain of a single mind. Of course, this is nonsense. One mind always builds upon the work of another mind. One idea is always the consequence of an acquiescence to or reaction against some other series of previously advanced ideas. As Professor White’s Princeton mentor put it so clearly years before: “No one ever truly creates, Darrell. One only assumes but fleeting authorship for work that actually belongs to another.” For The Architecture of Segregation’s central thesis, Darrell White would draw on the work of Professor Eric Ratatattzski of Dartmouth University.

Students routinely and affectionately refer to Professor Ratatattzski-for both the peculiarity of his name and his rapid-fire, sputtering oratory-as “Machine Gun Eric.” He has advanced an intriguing theory probing the relationship between architecture and its commissioning institutions. “Machine Gun” posits that institutions commission works of architecture with only a single aim: to first assuage and then subvert the interests of the very people they are charged with serving. It is a provocative, disturbing thesis. It is also one perfect for the challenge of Professor White’s assault on the doctrine of a “separate but equal” society.

In his never-to-be-published introduction to The Architecture of Segregation, Darrell White puts Ratatattzski views in succinct summation:

…architecture has been too often and for too long about anything but itself. It has served, either unknowingly or unwittingly, the interests of others. Frequently, these others are the social or political instruments of our civilization and their interests are primarily concerned not with architecture itself, but with matters of their own self-preservation, be they the institutions of governance or social rank or as soon shall be demonstrated, the unconscienciable enslavement of one race by another.

Among the more effective self-preserving instincts of the institution is the calculated imposition of convention, a strategy that cunningly misrepresents manipulations of its patron’s behaviors as being entirely natural and above reproach.

Institutions predicate convention as a matter of convenience. It is obviously more effective to satisfy an individual’s needs if you first share a hand in defining those needs. The institution says in effect, “ We will serve your needs, but only after we have conditioned you to expect nothing more.” In this reading, it is the dulling sedative of institutional convention which, in its seeming disinterest, turns the expectation of architecture against itself.

Professor White then brilliantly bridges his own work with that of Ratatattzski. He argues that the institution of racist Southern architecture instinctively compels a very poor black man to conclude there are places in this world where he doesn’t belong and perversely, compels an equally poor white Southerner to conclude such exclusions are “natural and completely beyond reproach.” 

This then is the thesis of Assistant Professor Darrell Jefferson White’s never–to-be- published “Architecture of Segregation.” Would that angels weep for such lost opportunity but regrettably, they do not.

In three years time, Professor White will reside in very pleasant Vermont village, instructing eager, white middle-class suburbanites on the virtues of inclusivist, environmentally-respectful home design.

In three years time, Eric “Machine Gun” Ratatattzski will have parlayed his intellectual capitol into a plush appointment with Cooper Union.

In three years time, had things not have turned out as they had, Stephen Clifford Carroll would again be scuttling the promising career of yet another junior member of DAFT’s faculty. And Amad Kifka would again be accommodating Carroll’s every corrupt decree

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