The Politics of Building Aesthetics

Some buildings are not especially satisfying, plagued by unsightly aesthetics that lead architectural critics and self-styled aesthetes to debate the merits of such structures and spaces.   These discourses sometimes reduce buildings to aesthetic props decorating the landscape, important for their stylistic merits or lack thereof, even if they are implicitly understood to have ambiguous social effects.  Each Wednesday, the Historic Indianapolis web page features one of these unsightly structures in Indiana’s capital city chosen for its dissatisfying preservation or architectural modifications often concealing the fabric of a historic structure.  The examples in the What-the-Hell (WTH) Wednesday column include some truly unique buildings, many that may well qualify as utter eyesores or demoralizing preservation failures.  The tongue-in-cheek assessment of the buildings and in some cases remedies for their restoration are all well-intentioned and thoughtful, and the column’s lamentations over these buildings does indeed raise the question of how such structures are seen by their designers, residents, and neighbors.  The more consequential question, though, is how such an aesthetic analysis of buildings can be extended to become an analysis of the social and moral weight of buildings and architectural spaces and link style to the structural conditions that produce “ugly” buildings.

At some level assessing architectural aesthetics is simply an individual and idiosyncratic interpretation of a building or space: one person’s experience of an oppressive brutal modernist office building may well liberate another occupant; a neighborhood derided as a “slum” may well be a welcoming home to a community despite its aesthetic and material shortcomings; and a preservationist’s “architectural disaster” may belie concrete spatial inequalities that drove impoverished and marginalized people into “historic” neighborhoods without the material resources to craft the buildings into the stylish historic homes preservationists champion from the distance.  Purely aesthetic analysis risks failing to acknowledge that built landscapes are living entities connected to concrete structural inequalities with roots as deep as the buildings themselves, and even the most aesthetically unsightly buildings may have profound social and moral consequence.

This week the WTH Wednesday column took as its subject the Upper Room Apostolic Church on Indianapolis’ eastside.  The modest church sits on Broadway Street, nestled in the curve of the massive junction of Interstates 65 and 70 that was carved into the community in the 1960’s (view it on Google maps).  In 1958, the city’s Redevelopment Commission described the northeastern Indianapolis neighborhood where Upper Room Church sits today as “a vast blighted area.”  As in many other American cities, historic neighborhoods that declined during and after the war were targeted by a state eager to dispossess the people who had made their homes in such communities, many of whom were Black, often-impoverished, and powerful voting blocks.  In 1965 and 1966 alone, over 5000 households were displaced in Indianapolis for highway construction.  A complex mix of federal and state authorities cut a looping interstate highway swath through the heart of Indianapolis that sliced through a series of predominately Black neighborhoods, razing scores of homes, displacing many long-term residents, and leaving the de-populated shell of historic neighborhoods declining even more rapidly.

The little Broadway Street church sits in a neighborhood known as Chatham Arch, which was platted between 1836 and 1871.  Many of the smaller homes in and around the community were razed in the aftermath of World War II, and as in many other Indianapolis neighborhoods larger structures were subdivided into exponentially more makeshift rental spaces for residents desperate for work, which included many African Americans in a wave of migration out of the South.  The neighborhood was placed on the National Register in 1980, and in 2000 Indianapolis Monthly dramatically proclaimed that “Once a stagnant neighborhood populated by mostly ramshackle collapsing homes, Chatham Arch now offers downtown living with a small town feel.”  Of course, Chatham Arch and neighboring communities were populated by people, and not simply buildings, and the tendency to write those residents out of the analysis and history risks rationalizing displacement and simply allowing it to march on into the future.  In 2006 an Indianapolis Monthly article described homeowners in the revitalized Chatham Arch as “very sophisticated buyers, and the houses are quite high dollar.”  An optimistic local realtor indicated that “It used to be that there was Lockerbie and the Old Northside, and a war zone in between,” a space now occupied by Chatham Arch in the midst of the similarly gentrified Lockerbie and Old Northside communities.

In 1887 Allen Chapel AME appeared on a Sanborn Insurance map described here as “Colored Church.”

Yet today many surrounding structures like the church on Broadway remain part of a landscape that is still visibly dismembered by urban renewal forces, and that story of urban inequality materialized in the Upper Room Apostolic Church may well be more important than the fancifully renovated Chatham Arch homes or the preservation shortcomings of the church itself. In August, 1866 Allen Chapel AME (i.e., African-Methodist-Episcopal) was formed on Broadway Street with eight founding members, with the church described in 1870 as being a 36 X 44 foot frame structure first occupied in Christmas, 1866.   An “African” church was in the city directory in that spot in 1867, and in 1870 the congregation was identified in the city directory as “Allen Chapel (African).”   In 1875 W.R. Revels was identified as the Church’s Pastor.  Born in North Carolina in 1817, Willis R. Revels appeared in 1862 Indianapolis tax records as a physician; he served as a Pastor of the Bethel AME congregation in Indianapolis as well as the Bethel AME congregation in Baltimore; his brother Hiram Rhodes Revels was ordained in 1845 and was the first person of color to serve in the US Congress, elected as a US State Senator from Mississippi in 1870-1871; and Willis served as an advocate for the 28th United States Colored Troops regiment that formed in Indiana in 1863.  Revels sat for his picture shortly before his death in March, 1879, and in 1887 the church appeared on a Sanborn Insurance map as a brick building sitting exactly where the Upper Room Apostolic Church sits today.

The Allen Chapel congregation built a church facing 11th Street  that had its cornerstone laid in July, 1927 and the new church was dedicated in March, 1928. The building that eventually became the Upper Room Apostolic Church remained where it sits today, serving one fraternal organization and least two congregations:  In 1930 the building appeared in the city directory as Allen Chapel as well as the Indiana chapter of the young men’s fraternal society the Order of DeMolay, and the fraternal remained at that address in 1940, 1951, and 1960 city directories; in 1970, it was home to Pentecostal Apostolic Church; and in 1980, it appeared in the city directory as the home of the Grace Missionary Baptist Church.   In the meantime, the building certainly declined, and in 2006 a city planning document for the neighborhood characterized the Broadway Street structure’s exterior as having “major deterioration.”

Many of the Historic Indianapolis buildings that grace its Wednesday feature are truly vernacular architecture outside the pale of style and difficult to accommodate to the aesthetic and historical codes championed by preservationists.  Vernacular architecture is intensely local, shaped by contextually specific environmental, cultural, market, and social influences, and many of the little homes dotting cities like Indianapolis transported a variety of ethnic and regional styles that were modified to meet the financial challenges of their makers, the ways their households changed over time, the spatial size of lots, and similar local if not personal factors.  The intent of designers is not irrelevant, and some buildings are truly poorly conceived, but in an analysis of vernacular structures buildings matter as living entities with evolving stories whose aesthetics are material reflections of broader social processes.  The Upper Room Apostolic Church’s story is certainly far more complicated than its momentary appearance as a preservation nightmare, and in fact the church’s aesthetics are a direct reflection of the concrete social and material processes that ravaged this and many other inner-city American communities.  The story of the little church on Broadway—one with heroic figures, genuine achievement, state inequalities, and crushing decline—is by no means unique, and it might be told of any number of buildings in Indianapolis and nearly any other American (if not global) city.

Trellick Tower (courtesy duncan)

Assessments of architectural style are always partial at best if they fail to embed the structures in broader social, cultural, and material context.  The 31-story Trellick Tower in London, for instance, has rather polarizing aesthetic effects, a massive shaft of concrete that The Guardian recognized was long seen as a “scar [on] the west London skyline.”   Completed in 1972, the brutal modernist tower was designed by Emo Goldfinger.  In 1939, Goldfinger built a modernist terrace home at 2 Willow Road in Hampstead, London that razed several cottages, a move opposed by some residents that included Ian Fleming, who subsequently immortalized Goldfinger as James Bond adversary Auric Goldfinger.  Emo Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower was described by The Guardian in 1999 as an example of “pure geometry, of beauty, a perfect resolution of horizontal and vertical elements,” but it was widely reviled, and Goldfinger’s career never recovered from the stigmatizating commentary that dogged Trellick Tower.  Like many high-density tower blocks the building became a haven for criminals and exceptionally run-down by the early 1980s.  Such buildings were moral as well as aesthetic productions meant to fashion community, though much of the high-density public housing in the United States such as Pruitt-Igoe in St. Louis or Cabrini-Green in Chicago was fatally undone by racist housing administration practices.  Trellick Tower, in contrast, rebounded in the 1980’s and was listed as a Grade II protected property in 1998.

The WTH Wednesday case studies include quite a few buildings in similar neighborhoods whose current condition and aesthetics are powerful stories about displacement and racially and class-based urban renewal.  Preserving such structures is laudable, and the Historic Indianapolis pages have been an important advocate for grassroots history and preservation.  Every community deserves to be so lucky to have thoughtful preservation voices in our midst, and in the face of a city in danger of losing much of its built heritage many buildings like this church can be demoralizing to preservationists.  Yet as material culture scholars we risk writing the complicated histories of urban landscapes out of the story if we fixate on dormers, ornamental woodwork, and aesthetics and forget to link them to broader social and material processes.

Grossman, Susannah L., (2010). Demolition Men: Contemporary Britain and the Battle of Brutalism. Undergraduate Thesis, Department of Art History, University of Pennsylvania.

Trellick Tower image courtesy duncan

Posted on September 13, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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