My interest in architecture goes back to early childhood. I was always more interested in buildings than anything else. In fact, one piano teacher questioned why I was even bothering with lessons after having found a collection of Ada Louise Huxtable essays in the piano bench hidden under the Haydn sonatas. It took me a little while to realize that it was going to be my last lesson ever. My teacher handled my dismissal so adroitly that I barely gave a thought to delights which would never await me again of practicing scales, arpeggios, and that last Chopin étude.
I grew up in a traditional immigrant family, with grandparents that emigrated to the United States from Palestine in the early part of the 20th century. This environment encouraged kids to go into the “family business,” whatever that was. Architecture school was not in the cards for me. There weren’t any architects in my family, only doctors and lawyers. So, being squeamish, law school was in the future. After a number of years practicing law, an opportunity presented itself for me to become a Realtor. Since I already had four degrees (see above, “traditional immigrant family”) and wasn’t really interested in attending architecture school at that point in my life, I thought that selling real estate was as close to “architecture” as I was going to get.
Over the years, I have enjoyed wonderful opportunities to tour the United States and experience architecture encompassing 46 states (just four to go!). My travels have included private residences, museums, monuments, state capitols, university campuses, bridges, bell towers, bollards, and balustrades. One thing that always struck me was the composition of the visitor pool to these various examples of the built environment. See? You already guessed it. I didn’t even need to tell you that it wasn’t predominantly white, but almost exclusively white.
As someone whose family grew up in the shadow of the Ottoman Empire, and the fading light of the British Empire, I know that as Arabs, we were considered “brown.” I never really gave this idea much thought until recently when I decided to research these ethnic delineations and discovered that we were part of a marginalized community. Growing up in the U.S., there was always something of an issue when someone would ask “and where is your family from?” “Palestine” was either a place that was unknown, or known too well.
Curiously, this outsider status never precluded me from visiting anything in this country where I didn’t feel that the building tradition I was experiencing was part of my birthright as an American. It was something that was part of my history, however little time my family has been here. In order to continue the study, appreciation, and understanding of these traditions, we need to do more than we currently are to include all of our population in this conversation, especially given the fact that the demographics of the U.S. today are not the same as they were when I grew up. Unfortunately, the answer to how we are to accomplish this goal isn’t altogether clear. Still, a concerted outreach attempt to underrepresented communities should be made a priority by organizations and foundations that manage historic properties. Without future support from all of us, many of these important places face an uncertain future.
Some African American friends have remarked that visiting buildings like plantation houses, however distinguished, do not make up part of their ancestry, except as enslaved peoples. Why, then, should an effort be made to understand and appreciate what went into some of our greatest houses in the country if it was a product of a society that did not include them, albeit peripherally? If one is observing as an outsider, then is there really a need to engage in the conversation? I understand this point of view given my own background, but I don’t believe it’s sustainable. We seem to be unintentionally excluding communities of color. As Americans, it is critically important that we all take part in trying to understand what will make the cities and towns we will be living in relevant and a reflection of ourselves as a society. No one should be purposefully excluding themselves from this dialogue. Perhaps a conscious effort on the part of organizations to include all communities is the answer.
We have made a great deal of progress in the past two decades, without doubt. Contributions made by the enslaved communities and people of color have been acknowledged more than ever. Yet, it is not the curatorial aspect of this approach that is troubling -- it is the lack of connection that is made given the paucity of visitors who can claim a direct relationship with these communities. The work is being done throughout the country to be more inclusive by highlighting the contributions of our disparate communities…we just are not seeing them as participants in experiencing historic places.
Whether we are considering the language of classicism as a relevant reflection of our society is an approach that should be developed organically by everyone who has a stake in this country’s future.