Skin and Structure: Professor Adrienne Brown discusses racial history of Chicago landmark in Faculty Fireside Chat


By: Christopher Hansen, Communications Intern for Chicago Studies

On Thursday, February 28, the Chicago Studies Program of the University Community Service Center (UCSC) hosted the winter quarter's second Faculty Fireside Chat featuring Assistant Professor of English Adrienne Brown in the Bartlett Lounge.

Brown's Faculty Fireside Chat, titled "The Black Skyscraper," explored the similarities between the cultural discourse of race relations and architectural criticism in the U.S. during the period of 1884 to 1931, the age of the early skyscraper.

In her discussion, Brown highlighted the Home Insurance Building that once sat on the site of the present-day LaSalle National Bank at the intersection of Adams and LaSalle downtown. Built in 1884, the Home Insurance Building was considered the first modern skyscraper due to its innovative, steel skeleton frame, a design that rendered obsolete the use of walls as the primary bearers of a building's weight. As Brown pointed out, this architectural marvel sparked intense debates among architects at the time concerning the use of walls as a building's skin: "What do walls do now? If they don't carry weight, they can look like anything."

Brown connected these architectural debates to the unique historical moment of race science, the end of Reconstruction, and the beginning of Jim Crow. The questions posed by architects -- How do you read one's skin? What significance can be attributed to skin? What's the connection between skin and structure? -- became imbued with broader social implications.

For more information about Brown's Faculty Fireside Chat, check out the links below:
Professor Brown's Faculty Page
Chicago Studies Program
Chicago Architecture Foundation
Home Insurance Building
Chicago History Museum

Visit the Chicago Studies Flickr page to view photos from the event.

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