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Education and Architecture In Black: Two Sides of the Same Coin

In order to fix education in America, we must realize that the institution of education is not synonymous with learning.

In order to fix education in America

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Education is regarded as one of the most essential components of any society. It is generally accepted that schools are one of the most vital parts of an education that act as vessels, facilitating learning environments to help cultivate knowledge and other various experiences. However, it is important to understand that ‘education’ and ‘learning’ are broad terms that can define all forms of attaining, understanding and expressing knowledge, irrespective of sociocultural context and place. It should be noted that within the broader definition of ‘learning’ exists a schism that bifurcates the word into two separate understandings: the ideological (school) and the theoretical (education).

As the ideological, it is widely accepted that schools are the single most important component and facilitator of education within the United States. These facilities are built and established to promote and make available knowledge and information for those who partake in its educational system. Schools, as institutions, are typically thought of as a standard way of attaining a ‘proper’ education; however, ‘schools’ are not synonymous with learning as is made evidenced on the most basic of levels: its definition.

A school is defined by Merriam-Webster as:

an organization that provides instruction: as

  1. an institution for the teaching of children
  2. college , university
  3. (1) : a group of scholars and teachers pursuing knowledge together that with similar groups constituted a medieval university (2) : one of the four faculties of a medieval university (3) : an institution for specialized higher education often associated with a university
  4. an establishment offering specialized instruction .

The keywords/phrases here are “organization,” “institution,’ ‘college, university,” “a group of scholars and teachers,” and “an establishment offering specialized instruction.” All of these definitions seem to reject the fact that learning can be, and is, in fact, fluid and administered/administrable outside the walls of an organized (physical) institution. As a matter of fact, education, as the theoretical, is quite frankly, the exact opposite. Its definition paints a picture very different than what is typically thought of as learning, since, generally, in the United States, education is synonymous with school. It goes unquestioned; however, one can see that this is a fallacy, as Merriam Webster defines education as:

  1. the action or process of educating or of being educated ; also : a stage of such a process
  2. the knowledge and development resulting fromeducational process

2: the field of study that deals mainly with methods of teaching and learning in schools

With the understanding of ‘school’ and ‘education’ as two separate entities and philosophies, it becomes easier to analyze the machinations and operations of each. Schools are clearly defined as a (sometimes specific) system (of many possible types of systems) employed to facilitate learning and cultivate knowledge. However, schools are not particularly necessary for either of these phenomena to take place. When a definition is applied with such rigidity to the act of learning, one must begin to question why and how. In questioning the role and purpose of ‘school,’ as defined by Merriam Webster, it should be understood that the idea of ‘school’ is within a certain sociocultural context, even if it permeates different societies and cultures. That is to say, a particular philosophy of ‘teaching’ might have been constructed by one group of people/culture and then, for any number of reasons (trade, imperialism, racial segregation, etc), have been applied to (actively/forcibly) or assimilated (passively) to the new society/culture. And while most people would argue that schools, as a physical and philosophical representation of education and learning, are in and of themselves beneficial to societies and the individuals for whom they are established and maintained, it could also be argued to the contrary. Take, for instance, diagram 1:1, which shows the separation of school and education.

Education is the theoretical manifestation of learning. On the other hand, school is the ideological manifestation. Within the theoretical are the subcategories of ‘aesthetic’ and symbolic order that represent the actual and/or potential process of learning irrespective of sociocultural context. Under the ideological are the subcategories: institutional, policy, education and ‘separate but equal.’ These subcategories represent the machinations of ‘learning’ or the ways in which schools can be detrimental to the educating of its constituents.

Given the fact that schools and education do not operate in the same fashion, it is safe to assume that schools can operate in the exact opposite manor as education/learning. As a matter of fact, schools can, in certain instances, stifle one’s own attainment of knowledge and education. One such instance is the racist educational system of 1960s/70s United States. Let’s, for a minute, consider some of the most horrific and insidious acts done in the name of education: Desegregation busing, segregated schools, etc. As W.E.B. DuBois once cogently stated, “For the business of the public schools, always recognized from the beginning, has been to break down social lines, to do away with silly distinctions not based on individual work, to be the melting pot out of which comes the great and dreamed of democracy. Of course the South opposes it because it opposes democracy.” [1] In this statement, DuBois recognized the separation of school and education, and believed that schools could be used a means to break down social lines. He is referring to education, as opposed to the generally accepted idea of the school.

Given these historical examples, it is clear to see that schools have had, and continue to have, a particular predilection for the explicit and deliberate omission of race, gender, class and sexual orientation in regards to the learning experience. As can be seen in diagram 1:2provided below, ‘schools,’ as an order/appearance, allege to/are promoted as all-inclusive, non-discriminatory institutions where the path to one’s success can only be found within their walls and ideology. Unfortunately, that is hardly the case. If one looks beyond the polemic – that is, the order/appearance – one can and will, indeed, find the measurement (education), which more thoroughly defines schools and their true purpose, irrespective of social/racial/economic/etc context. Ideally, or theoretically, the main intent is to educate equally – regardless of one’s socioeconomic status. Schools, as demonstrated by segregation and desegregation busing, to name a few, have not always been – and arguably, still, are not – all-inclusive.

Doctoral Candidate, Paul T. Miller, discusses DuBois’ ideas in his essay entitled, ‘W.E.B. Du Bois: Education, Race and Economics from 1903-1961,” in which he states:

Education as the chief means of ameliorating problems of race and class held sway with Du Bois his entire life. As a sort of response to “The Negro Question”, Du Bois advocated planned education that would cultivate the intellect as well as direct the actions of students for the purpose of improving the life chances of African Americans in specific and the condition of all people in general. In chapter six of The Souls of Black Folk, he writes… to stimulate wildly weak and untrained minds is to play with mighty fires; to flout their striving idly is to welcome a harvest of brutish crime and shameless lethargy in our very laps. The guiding of thought and the deft coordination of deed is at once the path of honor and humanity (1969:123). Du Bois (1969) notes that effective education will develop training that will best use the labor of all men without enslaving or brutalizing, and that such training will, …encourage the prejudices that bulwark society, and stamp out those that in sheer barbarity deafen us to the wail of prisoned souls within the Veil (123-4).[2]

What is being suggested here is the conscious effort to develop learning that addresses education in a formal and programmatic way. This should also be done through policy as well, which can have a direct impact on its constituents.

Architecture operates in a similar fashion to schools in which there is a divide between architecture and “architecture.” Architecture as discipline and object, has a particular predilection for omission; particularly the expurgation of race, gender, class and sexual orientation from the aesthetic. As architect Diana Agrest once pointed out, “this system is defined not only by what it includes, but also by what it excludes, inclusion and exclusion being parts of the same construct. Yet that which is excluded, left out, is not really excluded but rather repressed; repression neither excludes nor repels an exterior force for it contains within itself an interior of representation, a space of repression.” [3] To clarify, architecture demands aesthetics be absolved of any scrutiny, and worse yet, actively refuses to acknowledge its, sometimes negative, influences on – or repressions of – one or more of the aforementioned social groups. Architecture’s refusal of acknowledgement is a machination of repression that is fueled by a culture and ideology of independence/exclusion from other disciplines; however, it should be made clear that this ideology is problematic at best and insidious at worst. With that being said, explorations will be made in regards to ‘modern’ architecture as a Western born discipline that operates within a system of repression and omission.

To begin, it is of utmost importance to understand the discipline of architecture as a binary discipline/system. On the one hand, there exists the theoretical side of architecture, which encompasses the symbolic order and the aesthetic. And on the other hand, there exists the ideological, which encompasses the institution, profession and education within architecture (Diagram 1:3).

Diana Agrest often talks about the machinations of the theoretical, namely the symbolic order, in regards to women and the identity of women within architecture. And while Agrest talks about gender in her analysis of architecture, race can easily be inputted in lieu of gender to explain the same phenomena. In Agrest’s essay, “Architecture from Without: Body, Logic and Sex,” she explains, “the system of architecture from within is characterized by an idealistic logic that can assume neither contradiction nor negation and, therefore, is based upon the suppression of either one of two opposite terms. This is best represented by the consistent repression and exclusion of woman. Woman does not fit the symbolic order. She is offside, in the cracks of symbolic systems, an outsider.” [4] To clarify, Agrest’s argument infers that, within the theoretical side of architecture, one can begin to recognize, understand and critique the omission of certain elements which is made manifest by the ever-so-apparent ‘idealistic logic that can assume neither contradiction nor negation.’ Because of this, one can also assume that the same applies to other disenfranchised persons, not only women.

Agrest continues with the iconoclastic deconstruction of the theoretical versus the ideological in her other essay entitled, ” Semiotics and Architecture: Ideological Consumption or Theoretical Work,” in which she cogently and accurately argues that, “the function of these ‘theories,’ now as always, has been to adapt architecture to the needs of Western social formations, serving as the connection between the overall structure of a society and its architecture.” [5] It is within this statement that we find ourselves at a crossroad. If architecture is a discipline that alleges to be all-inclusive, why is it that one often finds race and gender, as made apparent by Agrest, absent from the discipline? As stated before, architecture has a particular predilection with omitting and repressing. If the absence of something represents the repression of another then one must question why and try to recognize, understand, critique, and eventually make a change.

The ideological side of architecture is the ‘opaque’ side of architecture – the side that presents itself as all-inclusive and the theoretical allows the analysis of its opposite: the repression of those who are disenfranchised and women in particular, at least, in regards to Agrest’s essay ( Diagram 1:4).

The most obvious problem with this (opaque) demand/claim is that it eschews engaging in a dialogue about the potential problems within the discipline; namely the previously mentioned ‘refusal of acknowledgement.’ Another problem, directly related to the first, is that architecture becomes unable to address real problems because of its lack of acknowledgement of its role in the problems. The third and most damaging problem is the negative impact that architecture, as discipline and object, may have on those groups of people for whom it ignores and expurgates. The purpose of the built environment is to, in some way, shape or form, influence and/or change society, or, at the very least, the group of people that will occupy and experience the aforementioned environment. And because Architecture has this ability it can be used, if it is will to address itself and engage in a dialogue between the world and itself, for the socioeconomic benefit of disenfranchised persons. But first architecture needs to be willing to engage with that with which it pretends to have no association.

Architecture has had a negative impact on the black American community through this repression and omission. The socioeconomic/opportunistic implication of architecture on disenfranchised persons is vast. However, architecture is a discipline that often addresses the aesthetic without addressing anything else. Things other than the aesthetic are also a significant part of architecture and its relationship to class and race. The 19th century Germany architectural theorist, Heinrich Hübsch, pointed out this very fact; the fact that architecture is not aesthetic alone and the assumption that it is has ultimately been damaging to persons for which it is supposed to, or, at the very least, can, help. Hübsch states:

‘Whoever looks at architecture primarily from its decorative aspect and perhaps asks himself why he likes one form of leafwork on a capital better than another will easily despair on the possibility of establishing reliable principles. Yet, however starts his investigation form the point of view of practical necessary will find a secure base… It is obvious that two criteria of functionality – namely, fitness for purpose (commodity) part of every building. These formative factors derives from function, are surely as objective and as clear as they possible could be.

A clear distinction should be made between the style, or aesthetic, and the programmatic or its commodity. Often times, it can be argued, architecture and architects – those in practice and theorists – forget this basic and imperative fact.

Considering architecture often plays a significant role within society and on its inhabitants and black Americans who might partake in the discipline on an academic or professional level, it is peculiar that that connection is so rarely talked about. Its impact is implicit and explicit; voluntary and involuntary. Its negation and preclusion of the involvement of black Americans by way of an architectural strategy/language is, quite frankly, terrifying. In order to address and engage, and, hopefully, advance, the nature and dynamic(s) of these, often ignored, relationships, one must consider several theories to come to a sound conclusion. To begin, it should be noted, while self evident, that architecture does not exist within a vacuum. It is not perceived and felt by the designer alone but its occupants and users as well. Architecture is directly (and indirectly) related to the politics of the society within which it is erected, how can it be separated from other things.

It should also be made clear that architecture and public policy go hand in hand – as architecture’s survival and development is completely dependent on and limited by government policy. Because of this, architecture also has a legal/political contract and obligation as well as social obligation to benefit those for whom it is designed and erected.

To answer this it might help to take a look at WEB DuBois’ theories on education, race and economics to further develop the ideas and connections between the aforementioned topics and an architectural strategy to develop and promote said ideas.

In conclusion, schools and architecture operate in much the same fashion. They both exist as a binary between the opaque (order/appearance) and the transparent (measurement). It is through the understanding of the operations of the opaque that one can move beyond and into the transparent to understand thoroughly the machinations and operations of the theoretical of schools and architecture.


[1] DuBois, W.E.B. Mixed Schools. Resources on the life and legacy of W.E.B. DuBois. UMass Amherst, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 April 2013. ‹

[2] Miller, Paul T. W.E.B. Du Bois: Education, Race and Economics from 1903-1961. Department of African American StudiesTemple University, 02 June. 2010. Web. 16 March 2013, pp. 123-124. ‹

[3] Agrest, Diana, and Mario Gandelsonas. “Semiotics and Architecture: Ideological Consumption or Theoretical Work.”

[4] Agrest, Diana, and Mario Gandelsonas, p. 28.

[5] Agrest, Diana. Simiotics, p. 21.

DuBois, W.E.B. The Crisis. Trans. S. H. Butcher. Resources on the life and legacy of W.E.B. DuBois. UMass Amherst, 13 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 April 2013. ‹

“school.” 2011. (05 April 2013).

“education.” 2011. (05 April 2013).

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