Feb. 14-27, 2003
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Architect builds on race and culture in the urban fabric
Architecture professor Craig Barton teaches a class on American urbanism.
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
Architecture professor Craig Barton teaches a class on American urbanism.

By Jane Ford

When Craig Barton signed up for an undergraduate course in 19th- and 20th-century American urban history as told through buildings, he was skeptical that architecture could be understood as a product of culture.

The course changed his mind.

The class, at Brown University, took field trips around Providence, R.I., to learn how buildings provide visions of the way a city ought to work. A 19th-century arcade changed his thinking about a street — from part of the city’s infrastructure to a pedestrian place of exchange and commerce. Even the decision to place the train station in the center of the city provided a lesson in how to create an entrance in an urban core. These and other lessons helped him see the forces and ideas that shape buildings and cities.

Still, it took five years before he decided to study for a master’s degree in architecture after graduating from Brown with a major in semiotics – the study of signs and symbols.

Though there was no urbanism program at Columbia University, he found himself drawn to courses outside the architecture curriculum, in history and urban studies, to fill his electives.

“I found I was always interested in the things that are larger than the building — the relationship of building, site and city,” Barton said.

U.Va.’s American urbanism program is unique because it’s based in the School of Architecture, rather than in a social sciences or history department, typical at other universities. Here, it reaches those who will be designing cities.

After graduating, he continued to focus on the bigger picture. In private practice he always found himself working on large-scale projects — urban design schemes that included affordable housing, Manhattan waterfront development and numerous urban-design competitions.

He returned to Columbia in 1990, where he taught design and ran the undergraduate and the foreign study programs. The urban fabrics of Manhattan and Paris were the classrooms for considering buildings in a broader context, looking at form and meaning, and for explaining the basic principles of urban design.

Today, Barton directs U.Va. School of Architecture’s growing American urbanism program. Typically, urbanism programs are located within departments of social science or history; some are separate departments in schools of architecture and are not part of a professional design curriculum, said Barton. U.Va.’s program is unique because it reaches those who will be designing cities. “If the designers can understand how to evaluate cities,” Barton said, “they can also begin to think about how to change them.”

The interdisciplinary program has grown from individual students’ independent study projects a few years ago to 10 graduate students. It attracts numerous undergraduates, both in architecture and other disciplines on Grounds.

James Graham is completing his undergraduate architecture studies this year. He was one of about 12 students who enrolled in an urbanism seminar elective a few years ago. This year there are 70.

“The class made me look at architecture in a very civic way — to step back and remember buildings are part of the whole social context,” he said.

Architecture graduate students working on double professional degrees — combining architecture, landscape architecture and planning — are also attracted to the certificate-granting urbanism program.

Mark Merolla returned to U.Va. after working for an architect in New York City for a few years. “Working made me realize there are a whole range of issues architects have to confront to build in an urban setting,” he said. “The program allows you to get into the other side of architecture while doing your design major.”

Barton said, “Our students are increasingly aware they will be leaders. The broad variety of skills they are acquiring and the ability to articulate the process and practice of urban design will be beneficial in their work with other professionals.”

In his private practice and academic research, Barton explores issues of race, memory and the cultural landscape and forces that shaped African-American communities, especially those that played a large part in the civil rights movement.

Growing up in Connecticut, Barton was physically removed from the struggles in the South, but the pictures he saw on television and in news magazines left haunting images.

Shortly after moving to Virginia he visited Selma, Ala., site of the march to Montgomery and the voting rights demonstrations. The city is the focus of a chapter in his acclaimed book, “Sites of Memory: Perspectives on Architecture and Race.” Barton renders visible the historical attempts of a Jim Crow society to relegate blacks to a separate and invisible place in the urban fabric. He examines the evolution and transformation of the racial landscape through social, cultural, political and economic forces. The book is a collection of essays by the participants in a national symposium he organized at U.Va. in 1999.

His design for a Voting Rights Museum in Selma is in the fund-raising stage.

A fellow in the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African-American and African Studies’ Center for Local Knowledge, Barton is designing an interdisciplinary course with institute associate director Scott French and center director Cory Walker. The University-wide course will look at the bigger picture of Brown v. Board of Education as design for social change. The 50th anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court decision aimed at ending segregation in public schools is in 2004.

As a product of the changes spawned by Brown v. Board, Barton said he has an emotional connection as well as intellectual interest in the decision that assured integrated education.

“This attempt by government to redesign the cultural landscape is particularly interesting to me as a designer,” Barton said.


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