Book Review | The Black Skyscraper: Architecture and the Perception of Race
Reviewed by Sophia Bamert, University of California, Davis
If “race is always shaped in some way by the built environment,” then how do major changes to the built environment disrupt and re-form preconceived notions about race (27)? Adrienne Brown’s The Black Skyscraper poses and deftly answers this question by looking to the skyscraper, a distinctly modern American architectural form that, the book argues, is integral to periodizing racial formation in the United States in the early twentieth century. The book’s period of focus begins with the birth of the skyscraper in the 1880s and ends with the completion of the Empire State Building in 1931. Brown approaches the impacts on concerns about racial typology of the Great Migration, Jim Crow, and unprecedented foreign immigration, especially in exponentially growing cities, through the lens of the skyscraper. The height of the skyscraper reveals race to be “not only…a matter of skin or blood but of scale”: the supposedly visual signs of racial difference are no longer perceptible from a tall building (202). This spatial disorientation to the city’s “racial sensorium” reveals the ways race is felt and perceived phenomenologically (3).
The Black Skyscraper builds on an emerging turn to race among work by architectural historians, and it is especially in dialogue with two works of literary criticism on race and the built environment: Anne Cheng’s Second Skin: Josephine Baker and the Modern Surface (2010) and William Gleason’s Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature (2011). Brown weaves together critical race and critical whiteness studies, architectural history, cultural geography, and urban studies with theories of spectatorship, perception, and affect. The author pairs more frequently studied realist and modernist texts and less-studied pulp science fiction and romance with contemporaneous cultural and textual artifacts, including photography, artwork, essays, and architectural criticism. With refreshing takes on well-known texts and compelling introductions to more obscure works, Brown’s close readings offer equally astute arguments when looking at stories pervaded by skyscraper images as when detailing how the architecture looms over those in which it makes only the slightest explicit appearance.
The first chapter, “Architecture and the Visual Fate of Whiteness,” pairs two lesser-known pieces of weird fiction, George Allan England’s “The Last New Yorkers” (first printed in 1912 and incorporated into the 1914 novel Darkness and Dawn) and Murray Leinster’s “The Runaway Skyscraper” (1919), with texts by William Dean Howells and Henry James. Emphasizing that eugenic thinking relied not only on demographics but also on space, Brown considers how the skyscraper’s effacement of differentiated whiteness was registered generically. Whereas “the realist skyscraper” (58) threatens the intimate, “knowable frame” that enables realist narration (73), “the frontier skyscraper” of the weird tales (43)—in which skyscrapers time-travel to past and future frontiers inhabited by primitive nonwhites—uses fantasy to reinscribe the perception of a racial whiteness. Most fascinating in this sweeping chapter is the insight that Leinster’s story, unlike the other texts, recognizes in the wake of the skyscraper a nonvisual, disembodied means of marking race, “the indirect and ongoing collection of data, records, deeds, and maps”: a foreshadowing of redlining and white flight (80).
A chapter on Nella Larsen’s Passing, “Miscegenated Skyscrapers and Passing Metropolitans,” contextualizes scenes where urban architecture mediates racial perception within a discussion of the “postbellum long nineteenth century” skyscraper (85). Looking to turn-of-the-century architectural criticism that drew on Social Darwinist language in debates over what the skyscraper façade should look like, Brown identifies overlapping architectural and racial anxieties about the superficial legibility of “bodies, both flesh and steel” (86). The close readings of Passing, with reference to the use of bodily surface as racial evidence in the Rhinelander case, call attention to “the malfunctioning of the racial gaze that continually fails across all settings” (116). By the end of the novel, Brown argues, Larsen shows that despite the breakdown of “fixed racial rubrics” catalyzed by the skyscraper (100), “[t]he material grounding of race and its lived experience turn out to be discrete phenomena” (118; italics in orig.).
The next chapter, “The Black Skyscraper,” discusses texts by Black modernists W. E. B. Du Bois, Rudolph Fisher, and Wallace Thurman, alongside Harlem Renaissance magazine and book covers designed by artist Aaron Douglas, as “reclaim[ing] the skyscraper in strategic ways” (126). These Black modernist texts emphasize that the architecture of the skyscraper, through its “disorientations” of vision (127), can pose “alternatives to the…optics of the status quo” (154) and potentially contribute to “the contentious and incomplete project of affiliation” (153). Significantly, this chapter insists that critics look to Black writers’ engagement with urban spaces, like downtown skyscraper districts, outside of the racial enclaves with which these writers are more commonly associated. In the first critical reading of “The Princess Steel,” a story by Du Bois written between 1908 and 1910 and unpublished until 2015, Brown offers a fascinating account of how Du Bois harnesses genre fiction and the architecture of the skyscraper to render the “scalar toggling” that he believed the field of sociology ought to practice (129).
Lastly, “Feeling White in the Darkening City” considers the gendered ways white modernists experience skyscrapers, by the 1920s a ubiquitous backdrop to modern life, as “agent[s] of racialization” (164). In addition to disrupting the authority of visual evidence in perceiving race, these skyscrapers threaten the security supposedly guaranteed by feeling white. Brown first examines narratives of white men whose “self-sovereignty” is challenged by the looming skyscraper in a city environment perceived as blackening (159)—and who therefore seek escape: Mary Borden’s Flamingo (1927), Le Corbusier’s travelogue When the Cathedrals Were White (1937), and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925). Brown then turns to the rise of white-collar labor for women in the romance novels of Faith Baldwin, a best-selling author in the 1920s and 30s, which depict white women’s response to their skyscraper workplaces as an “unhealthy ‘drive’ to succeed professionally at the cost of reproduction” in contrast to nonwhite women’s apparently racial instinct for family life (160).
Perhaps most fascinating to scholars of the space between is Brown’s approach to our period of study. The monograph insists on rooting its analysis of the skyscraper in a postbellum historical context, which emphasizes and clarifies the challenges to racial typologies that emerged before the turn of the century. Yet its literary sources are predominantly modernist, and Brown’s argument has much to say about how the emergence of those racial questions is linked to the affordances of modernist genres. By the epilogue, Brown’s attention turns to the midcentury, when another architectural formation appeared in the wake of the skyscraper to continue the project of “actively reconstitut[ing]” whiteness (201), this time through institutional “racialized mechanisms of financialization” rather than individual perception (200): the suburb. Proposing a lucid way to trace these developments in racial thinking from the 1880s up through and past the 1950s, Brown’s argument suggests that new kinds of attention to the space between, especially when it comes to race, the built environment, and genre, can shed new light on both the long nineteenth century and the postwar midcentury. The Black Skyscraper has much to offer critics interested in affect, spectatorship, race, space, architecture, and cities—especially those who would like to contribute to discussions of literary and architectural form, a developing conversation that Brown demonstrates has important and relevant stakes. An added bonus: Brown’s absorbing analyses of texts both familiar and unknown are a pleasure to read.