goto Appendx main menu Emancipation Theory : Milton S. F. Curry Milton S. F. Curry
text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | notes
previous page In a recent commentary both lamenting and celebrating the erection of several low-income houses designed by architects Mockbee-Coker-Howorth in rural Mississippi, described in Progressive Architecture's 1987 awards issue, John Biln in a critical appraisal published in Assemblage attempts to map the spatiality of the projects along racial, class, and gender lines. In so doing, however, he effectively delaminates lived experience from theory and thus fundamentally degrades both the inhabi Appendx 1 page break 70 | 71 tants and the readers in the process. Consider this footnoted statement describing his criterion for documenting the families that live in the houses: 
    3. This description of the constitution of the three families is based only on the "evidence" of the photographs and may well be inaccurate. As my treatment here is necessarily textual, I am relying on the "presentation" of the families in the magazine rather than their "actual" constitution. Obviously, the photographs themselves are hardly free or transparent—they have been selected, cropped, and composed as "meaningful" representations of what the families "are"—and thus are as relevant to an analysis of the presented work as might be the plans or frontal elevations.8 
Then consider this statement, which appears on the second page of the essay: 
    It is possible to think of this presentation as a kind of documentary about poverty, rural life, architectural intervention (although it is neither less nor more a story than the one being developed here) and to inspect the family photographs for hints of the constitution of the families and their (previous) living arrangements. Additionally, however, because both the houses as designs and the four-page spread as a story are constructed out of the same "raw" materials, it is worthwhile to look at how the project is documented and to ask whether rhetorical moments in the presentation can tell us anything about the intention and content of the architectural work itself.9 
In attempting to critique the presentation or representation of the magazine spread, Biln has failed to realize his own complicity in the exploitive imaging of the actual families as transparent (but for the savior of architectural theory!). Further evidence of this is found in an even more glaring elision, which occurs ten pages later: 
    There is no question that neighborhood interaction is fundamental to the maintenance of sociality and group solidarity in communities of the type found in Madison County. Rural black culture has a long history of outdoor and interhousehold activities that rely directly on community use of "private" porches and yards. As Gwendolyn Wright notes, "the dwelling was . . . not a haven for the black family. Many activities took place outside the cabins, and many social ties Appendx 1 page break 71 | 72 were based on extended family or friendship bonds. . . . Because the cabins were so tiny, dancing, singing, storytelling, and religious meetings usually took place on front porches or in the 'street' behind the row of slave cabins." Like the complex use of interior space in rural cabin culture, outdoor social patterns similar to those Wright discusses persist to the present time. Yet in the Luckett House, the very spaces that traditionally support neighborhood sociality are oriented to private family use.10 
I suppose Biln would rather the residents continue to live as if they were still enslaved, unable to choose whether their every move (public or private, as defined by slave masters) should be on display or not. Or maybe he would simply prefer every one of the houses to have a "garret," which would cleverly reinstate another slave practice borne of necessity to lived otherness. In reading Biln, I am reminded of Zora Neale Hurston's recalling the day she "became colored": 
    During this period, white people differed from colored to me only in that they rode through town and never lived there. They liked to hear me "speak pieces" and sing and wanted to see me dance the parse-me-la, and gave me generously of their small silver for doing these things, which seemed strange to me for I wanted to do them so much that I needed bribing to stop. . . .I belonged to them (the colored people), to the nearby hotels, to the county—everybody's Zora.11 
To assume that by simply imitating spatial or other practices—which in the case of what Biln describes as "neighborhood interaction" emerged out of necessity given very particular circumstances—we can or should extrapolate those idioms to contemporary life without transformation or questioning is morally bankrupt. By that definition, no matter the colonial or native origin of a culture, the extrapolation should be adhered to simply because of its adjudication by habit or practice. 

By "claiming ignorance" of the lives and experiences that instantiated the use practices of the actual inhabitants of the houses, Biln reinstates a practice of tabloid journalism into architectural theorizing:  "if it's printed, it must be meaningful." By that argument, we might as well go trolling in The National Inquirer or The Daily News and accept as fact the retouched photographs and slanted stories. 

Architectural theory has been "riding through" quite a few towns without inhabiting them. Several recent discussions of Josephine Baker within architectural discourse have strategically flattened Baker to a stereotypical exotic status, often never Appendx 1 page break 72 | 73 engaging her complexly shifting racial and sexual identities. Beatriz Colomina, in discussing Josephine Baker in her essay "The Split Wall: Domestic Voyeurism," states that "the Josephine Baker house [by Adolf Loos] represents a shift in the sexual status of the body. This shift involves determinations of race and class more than gender." She continues: 

    The theater box of the domestic interiors places the occupant against the light. She appears as a silhouette, mysterious and desirable, but the backlighting also draws attention to her as a physical volume, a bodily presence within the house with its own interior. She controls the interior, yet she is trapped within  it. In the Baker house, the body is produced as a spectacle, the object of an erotic gaze, an erotic system of looks. The exterior of this house cannot be read as a silent mask designed to conceal its interior; it is a tattooed surface which does not refer to the interior, it neither conceals or reveals it. This fetishization of the surface is repeated in the "interior." In the passages, the visitors consume Baker's body as a surface adhering to the windows. Like the body, the house is all surface; it does not simply have an interior.12 
In the context of both her essay and the book Sexuality and Space of which it is a part, race is remarginalized as that which stands between a "universal"feminist critique on the one hand, and individual feminist critique on the other. After having proclaimed that Baker's plight is one that has everything to do with race and class, the critique then proceeds to ignore its proclamation and place Baker within a status quo white feminist critique of "the gaze." By never distinguishing between the nonblack body, the black body, and the black female body, Colomina allows her critique to inhabit her own intellectual blindnesses just as Biln accepts past practices as relevant to contemporary life without questioning how those very practices evolved. 

The language and tropes that are constantly used to discuss racial or sexual subalterity—ironically offered in the name of liberation—often do more harm than good because of their consistent lack of intellectual rigor. In fact, it is precisely when these issues are engaged that all claims to "high theory" are held at arm's length, while these critics denigrate "otherness" through application of modalities explicitly nontheoretical. If the subjects were Heidegger or Hegel or Kant instead of inhabitants of low-income houses in Mississippi or Josephine Baker, I wonder if these authors would be so accepting of the persona of these individuals as presented in a couple of published photographs in mediocre mainstream journals. Appendx 1 page break 73 | 74 next page

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | notes
appendx inc.©1997