Adrienne Brown’s forthcoming book The Black Skyscraper teaches us how early “sky-scrapers” shifted our perception of race in America. I met Brown in her office at the University of Chicago, where’s she’s taught in the English department since 2011. The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Catherine Halley: You’re working on a book called The Black Skyscraper. What is a skyscraper? And more specifically, what is a Black skyscraper?
Adrienne Brown: Oh, my gosh, those are really big questions. “Skyscraper” is an interesting word because it has really changed a lot. The Home Insurance Building in Chicago was once considered the “first skyscraper,” but it was only 10 stories tall. It wasn’t even the tallest building in Chicago at the time. But it’s called a skyscraper because it had a steel frame. We tend to think about the skyscraper now as merely a tall building, but when the word was invented it referred to a building structure that’s not wedded to construction rooted in walls or masonry that holds the weight of the building. Instead, a steel interior holds the weight.
Originally, the word was hyphenated—“sky-scraper”—to point out the artifice of the term. The early language with which we talked about skyscrapers was childlike, poetic, almost utopian.
My project is really around the invention of the skyscraper. For me it’s not only about the invention of a building type, though that’s certainly important, but also the invention of a new language or descriptive language to describe height, density. The skyscraper is really a symptom of an era. It came of age in the late-nineteenth century with urbanization, mass immigration to the U.S., and industrialization. The skyscraper is a product of all of these forces and movements, but it’s also contributed to these discourses at the same time.
I’m interested in this early moment of the skyscraper when people are learning how to live in dense spaces, how to live and operate on different stories, but more importantly for me, it’s about learning to perceive. How do you go about and understand your world when the scale of your world is changing, the density of the world is changing, the height at which you see is changing, the height at which you work is changing? As skyscrapers become taller, as they evolve aesthetically and structurally, those questions of what it means to see and how you see change, too.
What is a Black skyscraper?
It really means a lot of things. In this book, I’m thinking about how writers from 1880 to 1930 tried to make sense of skyscrapers when they were new. I see these writers asking: How have skyscrapers changed the ways we see race, how we see bodies, how we perceive and make judgments about people in the world given the perceptual strains that the skyscraper puts on people or bodies.
What “perceptual strains” did skyscrapers put on people?
These writers imagine skyscrapers, in some instances, turning everyone Black. They describe a view from the top of the skyscraper in which people look like ants, or dots, or specks, like dark ephemera. They seem to be struggling with the question: What is race going to be in the future if we live in a world where we’re so scaled out that race becomes a category that’s less functional or less useful? That’s one kind of Blackness I explore in the book.
I also write about the way that Black writers were imagining skyscrapers as sites of modernity. Black writers were interested in the skyscraper not just as white space that they were outside of, but as a place Black characters worked or visited, or took in as a tourist. For Black writers the skyscraper is a site for reimagining the city, reimagining democracy, reimagining a public space.
The “Black skyscraper” is a term in the book that really allows me to talk about all these different ways of being and feeling and knowing Blackness that get yoked to the skyscraper.
How did you get interested in skyscrapers?
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Maryland. I knew I couldn’t really be an architect—I didn’t have depth perception—but one of my best friends in college was in architecture school. She was in the studio all the time, so I ended up spending a lot of time in that space and just got really interested in this work that architects-in-training were doing that seemed so different from the humanities and English. I had this vague interest in the built environment at that point, and I had written my senior thesis on the suburbs. I grew up in suburban Maryland, so I was really interested in the suburbs as a site of racial construction; I wrote about John Cheever and mid-century literature.
Then when I got to grad school and did my orals exams, I had two parts to my reading list. One part of the list was twentieth-century American literature; and the other part of the list was architectural writing, urban planning. As I read, I noticed that the skyscraper is such a prominent figure in American architecture—it’s everywhere. It’s the origin story. You can’t really tell a story about American architecture without the skyscraper and you can’t really tell a story about the twentieth century without the skyscraper. It’s just this iconic figure.
But skyscrapers were almost absent in my twentieth-century American literature list. I wondered: If the skyscraper’s such a big deal and it’s reshaping the American landscape, why did novelists seem so uninterested in it?
In the big urban novels from the 1880s to the 1930s, the skyscraper might be in the background, but it’s not really doing much. The writers are interested in the slums; they’re interested in the streets; they’re interested in all these other kinds of urban spaces. But the skyscraper seems to be a difficult place to narrate or to imagine as a setting for characterization, etc.
Of course, Ayn Rand came later.
Yeah she’s a little later. In the 1940s and ’50s, you really do start to see it in fiction, but that’s a long time after the skyscraper was invented. My project started with questions about its absence. Why is the skyscraper absent from canonical American urban novels in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries? I wondered. Is it truly absent or was I just not looking at the right books?
It turns out, if you look at genre fiction—weird fiction, romance fiction, dime novels, etc.—you find deep interest in the skyscraper as a figure of terror, of horror, of romance.
So the skyscraper is a genred figure, but even in the canonical novels in which the skyscrapers aren’t being described, I could see how the aesthetic debates around the skyscraper were shaping the aesthetic debates around the novel.
Similarly, I started to see that even the writers who aren’t self-consciously writing about race seemed to be writing about it anyway. There was this panic that was happening around the skyscraper. Panic in some cases, in other cases liberation, or an idea of exhilaration that the skyscraper was changing the way that we see race.
That idea that “the skyscraper was changing the way we see race” is fascinating. Can you talk about that some more?
The definition of race is really fungible and changing in a lot of ways across the U.S. in nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
At first you have the one-drop rule, which is the idea that if you have any percentage of Black blood, you’re Black. It doesn’t matter what you look like on the outside. This kind of informal rule obviously emerges from slavery.
These laws about blood don’t really start to get formalized and put on the books until the 1900s with the rise of Jim Crow. Then the one-drop rule becomes a way of regulating bodies and ensuring and enshrining whiteness in a documentable way, rooted in archives and knowledge. It becomes a kind of de facto cultural idea of what race is during this period.
But the one-drop rule doesn’t work so well in a space like New York or Chicago. First, you have people immigrating and migrating, so the sense of who someone’s great grandfather is isn’t something you can easily check. The genealogical determination of race doesn’t work so well in anonymous settings, at sites of mass migration.
The default then becomes visuality [e.g., you should be able to determine someone’s race just by looking at them]. But this is also problematic. If you look at pictures from the early skyscraper era, taken from the street levels of sites where the early skyscrapers are, they’re these incredibly dense scenes where it’s difficult to see, where people are just rubbing up against each other. That’s a product of the skyscrapers to a certain extent, because you have all these new people downtown.
This is where racial seeing intersects with the skyscraper. Whether you’re on the top floor looking down at all these specks that look Black from a distance, or at the base of the skyscraper and the density prevents you from seeing clearly.
I’m interested in the ways nineteenth-century and twentieth-century American writers are picking up on that as a particularly raced question or a question that raises questions about what the future of race is going to be, if we’re in these settings that make it hard to read and see the body.
Who are some of those writers you study?
I look at Henry James and William Dean Howells, the classic American realists who were interested in narrating scenes of the home, scenes of a certain kind of sociable intimacy. For both Howells and James, they’re very critical of the skyscraper. Howells thinks of it as a kind of chaotic engine that’s ugly and unaesthetic and creating these dirty, unruly cities.
James was abroad for much of his adult life. Then he came back to the U.S. and wrote these articles that eventually made up a collection called The American Scene. He tried to give the skyscraper a chance; he imagined seeing it and falling in love with it, but he really kind of ultimately dismissed it again as ugly, unaesthetic, a horrible structure that’s also destroying the ways that we tell stories and destroying the intimacy that his kinds of stories require.
In the same book, he talks about the destruction of the house. The house almost becomes like a skyscraper. We were taking out walls from the house and there’s all this open space. James liked corners and crevices because he thought they were sites of narration where you could tell small stories and observe things.
At the same time Howells and James are thinking about how you read race during this period. Can you tell a story without race? What work is the racial detail doing for a narrative? Both want to hold onto it even though they’re against certain kinds of injustices. They still can’t really imagine a world without race itself as something that creates difference, but also creates stories.
For them, all of these questions about the definition of race and how do you tell a story kind of coalesce around the skyscraper in interesting ways.
There’s also a chapter about Nella Larsen and her interest in the skyscraper as a place that creates the material conditions for passing. I call it the “Miscegenated Skyscraper,” and it looks at how the word miscegenation, which is not a neutral term—it was invented in the 1860s to describe interracial sex—starts popping up in architectural writing, in work by Louis Sullivan, and some architectural magazines and journals in this period. I explore how miscegenation becomes an aesthetic term.
What Black writers do you look at?
W.E.B. Du Bois, for one, had a real interest in the skyscraper and writes about them in a number of short stories. Wallace Thurman, a Harlem Renaissance writer.
Incidentally, I also write about Faith Baldwin [who was white]. We’ve mostly forgotten her, but she was the best-selling author during the Great Depression. She was a romance writer and a lot of her books are about women who are working in the skyscrapers and who fall in love with their bosses or fall in love with their jobs and there’s always a question: Can she have it all? This is an age-old question. We think of it as new, but it’s very old.
You mention working women. What is the relationship between skyscrapers and class? Remember the ’70s TV show The Jeffersons. Louise and George Jefferson are a Black family that has made it to “a de-luxe apartment in the sky?” Is living in a skyscraper just a sign of being upper class?
The skyscraper really emerges as a business structure, first, before it becomes a residential structure, because you had people who ran factories on the outskirts of the city deciding they needed another space, an office space downtown to be closer to other kinds of vendors and merchants.
The Faith Baldwin romance novels feature many middle-class heroines who are working in skyscrapers. Which reminds us that the skyscraper is the site of the production of a managerial class that isn’t in the factory and that’s not necessarily running the factory, but this kind of paper class that’s in between. So I’d argue that the birth of the middle class, or the managerial middle class, is in some ways tied to the invention of the skyscraper.
I maybe read too much Ayn Rand at a tender age, but I also associate skyscrapers with masculinity and ego.
There are plenty of arguments that the phallic shape of a skyscraper is evidence that they are these male-dominated sites, but there were so many women working in the skyscrapers. Particularly in this earlier period, because office work hadn’t been gendered. The typewriter was invented in the 1880s and there were male clerks at first, but women very quickly came in and took the secretarial jobs, or the clerk jobs, partly because it’s a new type of work so they weren’t displacing men.
That surprised me about the skyscraper. It’s this place we tend to think of as masculine that was actually being run on a day-to-day basis by women. There were women working in these clerkship positions, but also women who were cleaning the skyscraper; and Black men were running the elevators in the skyscraper. You have these racialized and gendered jobs within the skyscraper that are about the maintenance work that can get obscured by the flashiness and the fanciness of the skyscraper.
Yes, Donald Trump’s Trump Tower is a case in point. It’s such a classic example of the white, heterosexual, upper-class man who puts his name on a skyscraper. But then who’s actually building the tower and who’s working in it? Were there Black men working on the early buildings?
There were some African-American men working in the foundations of buildings. Those were some of the most dangerous jobs. If anything falls, it’s going to fall on you. It’s the least glamorous job; if you’re digging deep enough, there are worries about the bends.
You had African-Americans working in the steel mills. Steel doesn’t unionize until quite late, until 1937. I talk about this a little bit in the miscegenation chapter, that part of what made skyscrapers possible was this racial organization of labor in the steel mill, which prevented unionizing and kept steel prices quite, quite low. They tried to unionize at several points. In the 1880s and 1890s, steel companies brought in Black strike workers from the South to disrupt white working-class unionization efforts, then created this stratification that took a very long time to overcome. There’s definitely a racial story to the construction as well.
What scholarship or thinkers or particular books or articles inspired you or really helped you develop your ideas?
There’s a small but growing set of scholars working at the intersection of architecture and race. In the humanities, my advisor Bill Gleason wrote a book called Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature. Anne Cheng, who wrote a book called Second Skin about Josephine Baker and architectural modernism, thinking about the houses that Adolf Loos imagined for Baker, trying to account for her skin—that work has been very influential.
On the architectural side, there are lots of people, too. Dianne Harris was one of the first architects to be really writing about race in a sustained fashion. She’s written a lot about landscape, architecture, housing in the suburbs in the mid-century, and race. Also Mabel Wilson’s book Negro Building has been pretty influential to me, too.
Joanna Merwood-Salisbury wrote this book called Chicago 1890. It’s a really great book. She’s also one of the few people in the field of architecture who is thinking about race and thinking about Chicago as an ecosystem in the 1890s. That’s been really important to my work.
And, more broadly, people rooted in performance studies and American studies who have been thinking about race and perception and the body who are interested in the ways that perception changes over time and the ways that we’re taught to see bodies, have influenced me. Work that’s really thinking about visuality and race is important as well.
People who have been thinking about the history of racial looking and racial sight and racial perception and racial sensorium—someone like Fred Moten. It would be hard empirically to see the imprint of his work on mine, but it’s very much there in the way that it lets one think about the body and how it works and how one senses and sees and hears. His work has been very liberating for me in terms of thinking about how to imagine race and responses to race.
Someone like Shawn Michelle Smith, who writes about photography and race, has also been pretty important to this project. Even someone such as Walter Benjamin who, in 1936, was talking about perception being conditioned and shaped by history and not just this natural thing that we can take for granted.
The moment of racial sight is different from era to era—I would say street to street and block to block. If the skyscraper choreographs racial sight in these kinds of material ways, how do other spaces choreograph the moment of racial sight? We can’t assume that it’s just this thing that happens the same and across different spaces. We need to take a more regional, hyper-local approach to thinking about race in relationship to literal architecture. It’s literal architecture, right, that’s producing the possibilities of seeing.
Right. I was thinking about how in New York City in particular, in the postwar years, in the mid-century, they started building all these tall housing projects. Those are skyscrapers in a manner of speaking.
Totally. In the ways that you don’t tend to think about the skyscraper itself as having a racial history, but the products of the skyscraper have certainly been raced. Verticality becomes raced. You have to think about housing projects as a descendant of the skyscrapers, intended to almost work against what writers were seeing in the skyscraper in the 1880s and 1890s as a site of racial play where you can’t identify someone’s race. They kind of become repurposed in this way as a site for siloing people based on race. The same structure, the same sense of verticality gets used to do different kinds of work around racial classification.
I suppose no symbol is ever static.
It seems to me that the promise of the skyscraper was twofold. There’s the sense of conquest, the skyscraper represents a frontier, as you discuss in your Journal of Modern Literature essay. But it’s also about efficiency.
Do you feel like the symbolism changed after September 11? They don’t feel safe to me anymore.
Certainly. I mean, the biggest way that I think that it’s changed since, say, 1880 and today, is the skyscraper as the symbol of the nation. They were the symbol of America. Americans had invented them. Some people claim that it’s the first American architectural form. Some claim that it’s the first artistic form, period. This is the first thing we have to offer the world that’s all our own, that we didn’t get from Europe or we didn’t build on anyone’s shoulders. The nation produced this. There were a lot of attempts in the turn of the century to describe exactly what the skyscraper reflected of America. Why is this our indigenous structure? What does it say about us as a people that this is our landmark structure?
I think today it’s hard to say that the skyscraper is American, right? The biggest buildings are no longer in the U.S. The skyscraper has become disassociated from America….certainly we still have our classic buildings and we’re still building tall, but when you see a skyscraper you no longer think, Ah, America. You think, Ah, global capitalism. It’s become the architecture of global capitalism. Even with 9/11, right? It’s the World Trade Center that was hit. Those attacks were an attack against a certain kind of globalism.
They’ve also become since 9/11, I think, particularly sites of security and private entry and fortification.
I always think of a skyscraper in silhouette—as part of a skyline—but I love the way you’re talking about it as a dynamic space and being in it and out of it.
Yeah, that’s exactly it.
Do you feel affection toward skyscrapers? Do you have a favorite?
I think I would have to say it’s one of the early Chicago skyscrapers. One of the ones I most like to go look at and visit and touch is the Monadnock Building downtown. The Monadnock is interesting because it also is two eras of skyscraper construction melded into one. It has a steel core but people weren’t exactly sure it was going to work. So does the Home Insurance Building; it had a steel core but people were like, “Let’s also build weight-bearing walls because we don’t exactly know if this steel-core thing is going to work out.”
The walls at the base of the Monadnock Building are so thick. But then they kind of added an addition a few years later and it’s built not with those thick, load-bearing walls. You can see where the two meet. You can kind of literally see the collision of these two styles if you look at the building on the side. There’s something really interesting about the archaeology that building makes visible and possible, that really puts into perspective what steel made possible. It really did affect how you moved through a space like the Loop in Chicago, and what you see on the street level and how you relate to what’s at street level. That building is a beautiful dramatization of that.
I also have a great fondness for the Empire State Building just because in some ways it was the last big building before the Great Depression, and that’s also why the book ends in 1931.
The Empire State Building was empty for so long, they called it the Empty State Building because it didn’t hit full occupancy, I think, until the ’50s or it didn’t make its money back until then. It was empty for most of the Great Depression. It’s this building that kind of stuck around and remained monumental through all of its life. It’s still out there, still working.