to Essaysto Anti-racism resources

Published: July 3, 2020
Written: May 9, 2019

Privilege and its context in the shaping of American Collegiate Architecture

Rukshan Vathupola M.Arch I 2020

In the United States of America an education is the most valuable commodity this country provides as it is one of the main vehicles that helps to facilitate social and economic mobility. Intern it provides many disenfranchised groups such as ethnic and religious minorities, immigrants, women and the poor the ability to increase their social capital in the eyes of the greater American populace. And with this change in class and economic status it allows those under-privileged classes a greater access to civic and personal freedoms and protections. Due to this there exists this ideal image of the university as something prestigious and primordial in America. And we are constantly reminded of how these educational institutions often out date the very country they exist in and how they act as centers of power for the future leaders in the world. However, the history of education in this country has been almost entirely antithetical to the American ideal as a land of opportunity where hard work and perseverance yields success regardless of background.

In light of recent developments we have again been reminded of the connection between these schools, the influence of the wealthy and privileged few. Although colleges today are very much focused on establishing the image of a sensitive and diverse student body, higher education in America originated as centers of power for almost exclusively wealthy Anglo-Saxon Protestant men. It is really only in the last half century that higher education as an equal opportunity for all has been embraced by both the government and those education facilities themselves. And the scars of these past segregations are still felt today with the continued existence of historically black, Catholic, Protestant and women's colleges. Therefore the historical development of the shape of architecture at universities and colleges throughout the country is developed around this belief in the exclusion of those deemed to be inherently unworthy and this cultivation of a privileged class.

This manifestation of privileged in higher education extends throughout the history of American education and even before that. Many of the first elite colleges established in the Americas existed for the sole purpose of providing a Christian education for both colonial white students and Native American youth. The first incarnation of Dartmouth College existed as a so-called “Indian school” in Lebanon, Connecticut under the name of Moor’s Charity.1 However, in order to seek greater access to proselytize to Native peoples Eleazar Wheelock moved the school to the fringes of the British colonies and settled in Hanover, New Hampshire. In 1650 the Harvard Charter that established the Harvard Corporation defined the purpose of the school as an institution that “may conduce to the education of the English and Indian youth of the country”.2 Even earlier in 1636, Harvard University during a period of financial hardship was able to gain monetary assistance in exchange for opening up acceptance to Native American students and giving them a Christian education.3 Although only five Native students would attend, a completely separate building was established to house them, Harvard’s second oldest structure, in order to educate them separate from the other white students. At this time the Harvard College’s first building was the largest in all of New England and therefore there wasn’t any dearth of access to educational spaces.4 Harvard also followed the English model for college life were the students would sleep, eat and study within the same structure, often times dorming four to a room.5 This shows that even at the very start of higher education on this continent architecture was used to define spaces and distinguish people as belong to separate classes based along social and religious lines. After only a few years due to the lack of students the Native American college was later inhabited for a time by the English, and subsequently torn down and the bricks reused for a new structure.6 And although there was this desire to incorporate the Native people into the educational system it was explicitly a colonizing tactic.7 Done to Christianize and train what the Virginia Company referred to as “infidel children” in the way of western life and replace their native cultures, languages and belief systems through educational assimilation into a larger English society.8 Over time the English gentry of the colonies gradually pushed out the Native peoples from these spaces. And soon Harvard, and Dartmouth joined the ranks of universities such as Yale and Princeton as prestigious private schools for the emerging patrician class of New England.

Before the Civil War the African-American community were in large part legally and forcibly excluded from educational spaces in the United States. Singular black male students have been present on American campuses as early as 1799 such as in the chase of John Chavis at the colonial college of Washington and the Lee. However, the first college to officially open its doors for the large scale admission of black as well female students wouldn’t exist until 1833 with the establishment of Oberlin College in Ohio. The design of Oberlin was pivotal for it racially integrated the living and educational spaces for both black and white students, as a way to challenge the long held belief of racial superiority and inferiority. However this belief of racial integration did not extend to the personal level as interracial relationships were still heavily restricted during this time.9 Four years later Cheyney University would open in Pennsylvania along with Lincoln University in 1854. The fact that many of these schools were established primarily in the Northern and then Western regions of the United States were a result of two main factors. Firstly, the continued condition of chattel slavery in the South and secondly the racist exclusionary policy of many existing private and public state institutions in the North to exclude even free African-Americans. In fact the first black student to attend Dartmouth, Edward Mitchell, was an immigrant from the French West Indies.10 Harvard even attempted to admit three black students into their medical program in 1850 but due to protests by a vocal segment of the student population the administration was forced to rescind their acceptance. Due to this many African-American students instead choose to study abroad to get a chance at a higher education including James McCune Smith, the noted physician, writer and abolitionist, who attended the University of Glasgow in Scotland.11 Another option for a few African-American students was to pass themselves off as being white in order to access spaces of higher education. One example of this was William Edward White who was born into slavery in 1860 and classified as being black, but then went onto be reclassified as mixed-race after the Civil War and ending up attending Brown University under the identity of a white man.12 Due to this the development of spaces for the education of black students after the Civil War provided a way for the African-American community to freely embrace their own cultural identities for the first time within the United States.

At the end of the Civil War, with the emancipation of the slaves there emerged this large new class of Americans seeking higher education for the first time in the nation’s history. In 1861 the concept of land-grant universities was developed by the federal government to create new educational spaces and opportunities for the public. This allowed for the creation of several new schools, funded by the sale of federal land, to further the education of students in the fields of mainly agricultural and engineering, but also the liberal arts. This led to the founding of many state schools such as the Auburn, Clemson, and Virginia Tech in the South as well as private universities such as MIT and Cornell in the North during the 1860’s. However many of these new schools, often in the south, but not limited to it, would continue to practice a policy of selective racial exclusion and segregation. This led to the development of a series of colleges that would become to be known as the first historically black colleges and universities. Known as HBCUs, colleges such as Morehouse, Spellman, Tuskegee and Howard emerged to educate the first generation of black professionals in the U.S.13 Unfortunately, due to their existence as schools for marginalized individuals these schools were forced to develop in marginalized spaces, often on the edges of communities away from establish centers of inhabitation. One example of this was the Alabama State University which was forced out of its original location due to racial tensions and forced into the fringes of the urban environment.14 This marginalization under-privileged HBCU’s from many of the white northern schools for they could not exist in city centers and benefit from the established urban networks of the transportation of trade, communications and capital across the country. The need to develop distinct black schools only increased as new segregationist policies such as separate but equal developed in the mid 1870’s. In fact during this period Oberlin College rolled back on its inclusive policies and began to segregate the student population. The school separated students within educational spaces and gave preferential treatment in terms of dining, and housing to white New England students who refused to recognize black students as their equals, on principle.15 As these attitudes of the greater American society began to be codified in legislation, much of the progress made by Reconstructionist policies to expand the legal rights, protections, and opportunities for the African-American community became undone.

Of all the HBCUs the legacy of Tuskegee is one of the most important in defining the architectural identity of spaces for higher education for the African-Americans community. The school was established and designed by Lewis Adams, Booker T. Washington, Robert Robinson Taylor the first African-American architect and a graduate of MIT along with David Williston the first black landscape architect and a graduate of Cornell, all of whom were born into slavery. Tuskegee was built in an amalgamation of two styles that dominated the design of academic as well as private spaces across the United States, Colonial and the Greek revival. As revivalist movements these two styles emerged in the United States as aspirational images that attempted to recall idealized image of the past as well as conveying power and prestige to those institutions that would seek to adopt those facades.16 As noted by Venable Turner the use of classical architecture at these institutions was often done to “transform modest educational operations into symbols of cultural aspiration”.17 One of the first and most influential academic spaces that initiated this neoclassical Greek Revivalist movement was the University of Virginia designed by Thomas Jefferson. As a founding father and architect he recognized the importance for this new democracy to cultivate an image of the legitimacy of the freedoms promised to the American people at the international as well as national scale. However at the same time, the promise of those freedoms, including freedom itself, existed in reality for a few and on paper for the remainder of the country. UVA and Jefferson’s personal home Monticello were built through slave labor and proved influential to the development to the style of plantation architecture in the South. For many slave owners the legitimacy of their position in society and their race in the world was embodied by the image of this classical style that reflected the continued existence of slavery throughout history. Tuskegee was built brick by brick by the hands of its first students, who were former slaves themselves, in the image of the very buildings from which their oppression originated atop land that was once a cotton plantation.18 By building in these styles it was a direct challenge to the established systems of power and authority embodied not just by an oppressive slave holding upper class, but also against the nations that benefited from and were complicit in this process of dehumanization; the United States of America and the Confederacy. By doing this the African-American community was able to define their own academic independence and create safe cultural spaces to express themselves. They were also able to define the hypocrisy of the American promise that would require the need for these separate but equal spaces to exist in a country that was established in the pursuit of equality and freedom.

However, at the same time these colleges would also be criticized for using the architectural language defined by an elite white American authority. This is because by using these styles it was seen as a way of integrating African-Americans into the larger white society as simply Americans. And initial that was what early black leaders such as the founder of Tuskegee Booker T. Washington and noted abolitionist Frederick Douglas called for. By imitating the architecture, clothing and appearance of the greater white society African-Americans could slowly gain greater freedoms over time and continue to survive in a violently racist culture. However, later graduates such as W. E. B. Du Bois desired to openly embrace and acknowledge their African heritage and saw that it was equally possible to take pride in being both African and American.19 Taking these criticisms and aspirations into mind looking beneath these neoclassical facades, the history of African-American slavery and brutalization emerges as spatial consequences at these HBCU’s. At Tuskegee this is marked in the earth with the existence of dirt-paths connecting the original campus buildings known as backways and the lack of any original main gateway to denote the entrance into the campus.20 These two features are the result of the condition of slavery rendering black Americans as non-humans. Therefore they historically had to take efforts to minimize their existence both on and off plantations, for any recognition by white society could result in the loss of life on a whim. Backways were the worn earthen pathways on plantations that slaves were established when forced to travel, while gateways clearly marked the entrance to spaces to that of a master.21 Tuskegee therefore had backways and lacked a gate so that it may remain hidden in plain sight as a method of protection and survival in the Reconstruction South. As these HBCUs grew over time they became major centers for learning and cultural renaissance due to the environments they fostered. So much so that they birthed movements that felt free to critic and analyze the original founding principles of the schools as embodied by Du Bois and several other reformers. Over time these schools have produced many great figures ranging Martin Luther King, and A. Philip Randolph to Langston Hughes, as well as the average professional simply seeking greater opportunity in the United States.

With the end of the Civil War a new wave of immigrants started to seek the shores of the U.S. They came fleeing revolutions and turmoil, as well as seeking opportunity in a land in which the strict social hierarchies and prejudices of Europe did not exist, or so was promised. These new immigrants mainly came from backgrounds in Eastern and Southern Europe, as well as much more diverse religious backgrounds. This included the large scale immigration of many Catholic, Jewish and Eastern Orthodox families from Ireland, Germany, Italy and Poland. This clashed with backgrounds of the first wave of colonial immigrants and their descendants to the now United States. They originally came from mainly Protestant Northern and Western European backgrounds in England, the Netherlands, as well as a few German states and Scandinavia. However in time, a new American identity known as Nativism was birth through the conflicts with and resent for many foreign powers as defined in large part by the American Revolution, the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American war.22 This was a belief centered equal parts in the pride of Americans as being this uniquely superior race as well as a hatred and distrust in the loyalties of Catholics, foreigners, and any hyphenated-Americans including immigrants and African-Americans. Due to this belief new racial attitudes emerged and were codified in academia, politics and ethics, such as the idea of race itself, to establish a divide between a select group of American patricians and all others due to a narcissism of small differences.23 This became known as 19th century Anglo-Saxonism which defined the best and most racially pure human as being a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant from the Northern states, mainly New England. This attitude extended to the institutions that would later become known as the Ivy League who began to embrace this belief in Anglo-Saxon superiority and began to enshrine these view in admission policies and their architectural identity.

By the late 19th and early 20th century the first Colonial colleges had become the centeral academic spaces for many elite Protestant New Englanders. However, they did not command as much prestige as they do today as they had not yet developed a unified architectural identity. Through almost three centuries of intermittent donations and funding from different colonial organizations and alumni, schools such as Yale and Harvard had gradually developed from singular school houses into a collection of buildings in a mixture of varying styles.24 And while this produce buildings that embodied the popular styles of their times it did not reflect the culture identity of the academic population they housed. And in a country that was barely one hundred years old the idea of age or heritage value did not exist yet. At the same time, the enrollment of new groups of Americans descending from Jewish and Catholic backgrounds at these schools increased, alarming the establish population of Protestant students and teachers.25 During this time almost all American colleges had an exam based system where whoever could pass certain tests, related to their prospective majors, would be offered entrance to these institutions.26 And in spite of severe Anti-Semitic and Anti-Catholic attitudes of the time, the schools kept to that promise and allowed any student who could pass the test a spot, regardless of background. Therefore there was this struggle for these schools to define their own spatial identity, manifest their heritage as institutions, while also finding ways to reduce the amount of admitted “students with deficient characteristics”.27 This is what led to the development of Collegiate Gothic which was seen as the architectural solution to these problems. Collegiate Gothic although it attempts projects a cloistered medieval facade exists very much as an ahistorical style.28 While the original Gothic movement emerged from structural and tectonic innovations, Collegiate Gothic existed as the use of medieval iconography such as stained glass windows and sculpture as ornament to reflect the heritage of a select group of people. Therefore the use of this new Gothic movement at American universities was seen as a way of reflecting the shared English heritage of these schools with medieval institutions such as Oxfords and Cambridge.29 The use of this style was popularized by Ralph Adams Cram, an anti-immigration eugenicist racialist, who believed in the Victorian ideal that spaces could shapes the youth into his vision of the ideal American citizen.30 As the Gothic style was seen as an extension of his Protestant Anglo-Saxon heritage, it would naturally make students of Jewish, Catholic and any other non-English backgrounds uncomfortable and unwilling to enter academic spaces defined by it.31 So universities began adopting this Gothic treatment to entrench the existing WASP elite, project an aged image and make minority students feel spatially unwelcome and out of place at these colleges. Yale built eight of its undergraduate colleges in this fashion during the 1930’s as well Sterling Memorial library and Payne Whitney Gym. However, in spite of the racialization of these academic spaces high-achieving minority students still managed to gain admittance to these elite schools. Therefore these universities then began adopting selective entrance policies to weed out ethnic and religious minorities, leading to the development of the modern process of college application today.

In recent years there has been a renewed interest in Collegiate Gothic, leading to several schools reviving the use of the style in the design of their institutional spaces. This is reflected in the creation of new undergrad colleges such as Whitman at Princeton by Porphyrios and the Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges here at Yale, designed by Bob Stern.32 When looking into the stylistic intent of these colleges a few select words and phrases keep reappearing; “tradition”, “continuity” and “tension with modernity”.33 With these Gothic colleges there is this desire to preserve the identity of these schools and their academic spaces, mainly as a reaction against the modernist architectural projects done on these campus during the 1950’s and 60’s.34 However, knowing the reasons behind the original adoption of this Gothic tradition it is troubling to see this revival coincide with a time in our country were there has also been this massive political and social backlash against the dismantling of this system of white supremacy. Because as the American populace becomes increasingly diversified, with persons of color projected to become the majority by the mid-21st century, it is important to question whose heritage is being prioritized in the creation of these academic spaces and for what purpose.35 Conversely, that also allows for many historically marginalized minorities the opportunity to express their own spatial preferences in academia for the first time. Heading into the future it is important to recognize the fact that these institutions that we are a part of and the spaces that we may inhabit might have been designed for the express purpose of keeping us out. But, we must do our best to acknowledge the legacies of past injustices and their ramifications on the state of our current academic spaces, and make the effort to find methods to undermine the establish systems of privilege and define our identities in spite of them.

Footnote on the History of College Acceptance

Many of the elite Ivy schools had an exam based system that required a student pass a certain test in order to get an offer of acceptance. This is what allowed for an increase in the amount of well-educated minority of European Jewish and Catholic students to apply and get into institutions such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton. As for black students many of these schools simply had a policy of not even accepting any or only one or two per year. However as the proportion of these minorities increased there was a worry that these schools would lose their prestige in the eyes of mainly the families of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant elite. The entrance system was therefore changed to a process that would allow these institutions to exert a greater control in defining who they would let in. This was done by emphasizing qualities of personality and social class that overlapped with students of desirable backgrounds over purely academic qualifications and skill. In fact only about ten percent of spots at several Ivy League institutions was reserved for the academically gifted up and until the mid-1960’s. The rest of the slots were given to legacies, children of donors, children of faculty, as well as athletes. And this was enforced through anti-semantic and racial quotas as well as requiring personal interviews conducted by alumni, personal letters of recommendation and the introduction of standardized testing. The use of tests for pure intelligence, which eventually developed into the SAT, was also introduced to filter out applicants that came from naturally inferior backgrounds. For in the racial pseudo-scientific ranking of the races, Anglo-Saxons were the ones deemed to have the highest natural IQ. In addition to this schools such as Harvard, Yale, Wesleyan and Vassar to name a few also introduced a eugenics based policy where they would take nude photos of entering students. This was done to measure height, skull shape, body proportions and posture, leading these factors for Yale students to exceed the average for Americans at the national scale during this time. This was done until 1967.