Architectural Calling

I’m currently working on a book manuscript entitled Architectural Calling: Capitalism, Racecraft, and Historical Faith in the Formation of a US Profession, which will be completed in 2023. Below is a brief summary. I recently published a short piece about some of the aims of this project on Platform, entitled Whiteness and the Architectural Profession in the United States.

Two representations summarize the argument of this book. In Thomas Cole’s 1841 The Architect’s Dream (above left), the architect lounges on top of a column with his books and drawings, gazing back through the deep historical plot guiding his noble profession. In William Wilson’s frontispiece for Edward Shaw’s 1854 The Modern Architect (above right), the architect sits, using his drafting tools to mediate between builders’ labor and a clients’ desires and money. The architectural profession that took shape in the United States in the mid-nineteenth century was caught between these two postures, one of dreaming on a grand timescale and the other of being perennially circumscribed by daily matters of money and material. This book, focused on the 1830s-60s, investigates the formation of a profession that claimed it should have vast authority but constantly struggled with control. Treating professionalization as an institutional and an ideological project, Architectural Calling examines the ways Protestantism, nationalism, and racecraft shaped architects’ ambitions for and impacts on the American built environment.

Through five thematic chapters, this book aims to bring out the mechanisms that shaped architectural faith in the 1830s through the 1860s:

  • chp. 1, The Design, explores how work conceptualized as a type of mediation between finance and building labor shaped the architect’s professional identity. Focusing on the dynamics of a structurally weak profession claiming world-historical purpose, it shows that architects’ most apt professional comparison was not law but in fact the protestant ministry.
  • chp. 2, The Contract, examines the interface of architects with the job site, focusing in particular on the increasing distinction between architects and construction labor in Philadelphia and New York. It focuses on how architects used contracts to assert their agency and thus defined the powers and limits and of their field.
  • chp. 3, The Dream, describes how architects used grand historical discourse in lectures and publications to produce a vision of their work as necessary for the formation and progress of the nation and to explain why it was so often unwisely constrained. This chapter focuses on the overall arc of these narratives, while paying particular attention to the way Protestant millenarianism shaped accounts of the origins and ends of architecture that were used to explain its moral practice in the present.
  • chp. 4, The Ark, attends to the theoretical commitments about race and the nature of human existence that architects presupposed in the historical defense of their professional power. This chapter brings out the complex web of aesthetic and racist beliefs that created a theory of ‘associationist environmentalism’ which gave architecture agency in making human existence.
  • chp. 5, The World Frontier, gives an account of how supposed disagreements over architectural style and taste were built on the common ground of a vision of the United States as a uniquely positioned white republic. It brings out the role architecture played in positioning the United States as a hinge point between the metropolitan Atlantic World and the Western frontier.