“Our Spaces Hold Memory:” Architect to Address Privilege and Oppression Embodied in Buildings

    Bryan C Lee Jr.

    Bryan C Lee Jr, who leads an architecture project called Paper Monuments in New Orleans, will address Madison College students on Thursday, September 28 at 11:30 am. The lecture is free and open to the public.

    In the wake of Madison Mayor Paul Soglin calling for the removal of Confederate monuments from public spaces, conversations locally about what our spaces include has ramped up.

    Lee says that dialogue about systemic racism can’t take full flight until we acknowledge our racial history and commentary of our architectural structures.

    “My basic belief is that our spaces hold memory in ways seen and unseen,” Lee Jr. says. “So, when we talk about the ways in which physical space is used as a way to pursue privilege and oppression in the environment, you have to acknowledge it to make a change. We need to broach the conversation in the same way we speak about the language we use in public. It’s really important to acknowledge architecture as a thing in the way we speak to one another that encapsulates a history.”

    The buildings and monuments we see around us speak to us in ways many of us don’t even realize. Across the United States prisons are being built at a furious rate. Many of them are part of a for-profit industry that uses the criminal justice system as a mask to hide the continuation of slavery and racial oppression. Schools, courthouses and monuments can be used in the same ways. They speak to us from history and often the message is that of glorifying or keeping the memory of the good old days. Days that weren’t as good for people of color.  

    “It is a concept that is detached from reality for a lot of people,” Lee Jr. said. “Because we silo off justice conversations from the architecture conversation. People disregard physical space from these conversations. So my job is to lift the conversation to the point of acknowledgment that our spaces have a tremendous amount of responsibility in the shaping of our lives and our experience in society.”

    Lee says that the furor over the removal of confederate monuments shows how far we have to go in terms of broaching the conversation. The prison system, the education system or just having buildings in which slaves were auctioned that are historical places in our landscape are all complicated issues. But monuments to specific people who fought for inequality? Removing those should be easy. Right? Right?

    “When we talk about race and reconciliation in this country we miss the actual conversation because we can’t even deal with the stuff that is easy the Confederacy, this lost cause,” Lee says. “It’s such a travesty. We can’t get to things like education, jail, voter rights if we can’t acknowledge monuments. When I talk about monuments being easier to discuss it’s because they have a stated opinion. They’re representing a concept, an ideology, but have a person to connect those things to.”

    Lee started the Paper Monuments Project in New Orleans to raise awareness about places, events and movements that have shaped New Orleans. He wanted to diffuse the spirit of using confederate history as a monologue in public spaces. He plans to lecture to the Madison College students about how having portraits and statues of confederate men does give a good or desirable representation of history.

    “I don’t pretend to offer any solace in this moment,” he says. “That’s not what this is about. This is about a true acknowledgment of our existing condition. The racial landscape of the world, we need to acknowledge the impact of our racial history on our present. So that’s what I’ll be talking about. I’ll give a few examples of work we’ve done to mitigate those issues.”

    Lee’s stance is that we create spaces of architecture free of the historic and systemic narratives of racial history. He stands in stark contrast to the views of another structure builder, President Trump, who has asserted that removing these monuments is a slap in the face of his people’s history.

    “The President represents the most terrifying form of white supremacy and white privilege,” Lee says. “His life has been one of allegiance with maybe not the confederacy but the ideals of supremacy. His typical approach to working as a developer in New York castigated death threats against black bodies in the 80’s. He has been a treacherous person. To some extent he’s the perfect example of the cruelty of white supremacy and almost like the simplicity of it. Because I don’t necessarily think he believes he’s an evil person. But he’s complicit in propagating evil into the world. So that’s what you see when you see the allegiance to confederate monuments.”

    Lee Jr. will be speaking to students from all different socio-economic backgrounds and statuses inside the newly renovated Truax building. The building itself represents exactly the type of innovative architecture many like Lee Jr. seek. It also is home to a vast and diverse student body. Lee Jr. is excited about the prospect of addressing these issues in such a progressive place.

    “I think the key to it is that I always say to protest is to have an unyielding faith in the justice of a society,” Lee says. “It is not an act of desperation but an act of unfulfilled hope. We are hopeful beyond doubt. We should be looking to create spaces that quantifiably impact the positive growth and fulfillment of people in the environment. That is what I hope the students and public will come away with. I think we’re ready to have this national conversation and the hope is that this continues that in a new place, in Madison. I’m excited to be there.”