Architect builds on race and
culture in the urban fabric
by Andrew Shurtleff
professor Craig Barton teaches a class on American urbanism.
By Jane Ford
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
course changed his mind.
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 citys 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.
it took five years before he decided to study for a masters
degree in architecture after graduating from Brown with a major
in semiotics the study of signs and symbols.
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.
found I was always interested in the things that are larger than
the building the relationship of building, site and city,
American urbanism program is unique because its 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.
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.
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.
Barton directs U.Va. School
of Architectures 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.
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.
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.
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.
graduate students working on double professional degrees
combining architecture, landscape architecture and planning
are also attracted to the certificate-granting urbanism program.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
design for a Voting Rights Museum in Selma is in the fund-raising
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.
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.
attempt by government to redesign the cultural landscape is particularly
interesting to me as a designer, Barton said.