Speculations on Race and Space: Targeting a Race through their Architecture, by Gloria Wang

August 12, 2021
ARCH 251
Professor Annmarie Adams

In the very first lecture of Architectural History 2, I distinctly remember Professor Annmarie Adams showing our class a photo of the capitol riots, which occurred only a few days prior. Rioters clambered up the stairs of the Capitol building, waving various flags and signs expressing hateful extremist views. Professor Adams expressed that whenever people want to attack or overthrow a regime, they attack the associated architecture through vandalizing, looting, and forcibly occupying the building. This idea, although not groundbreaking in itself, is not thought about enough, and the connection between political dissent and architecture is rarely drawn. During my exploration of this, I found examples of many events that showcased the attack on a group of people – religious, ethnic, political groups – through attacks on their architecture. In this essay, I will draw on a specific instance of racially motivated attacks on architecture to demonstrate racial attacks through architecture.

Figure 1: MacPherson, Maggie. Photograph. Vancouver, B.C: CBC news, c2021. From CBC news: Vancouver’s Chinatown lions defaced by racist graffiti for second time. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/lions-defaced-again-1.5591382 (accessed March 5th, 2021).

The photograph above, taken in February 2021, in Vancouver, Canada, depicts a stone lion statue situated in front of Chinatown’s Millennium Gates. Built in 2001, the site is home to two of these identical lion statues, each guarding their respective side of the gate. Bright red tape is clearly visible covering the forehead and chin of these two statues, almost drawing more attention to what lies under the tape than the statues themselves. At the time this photograph was taken, this was the second time that the lions had been covered with anti-Asian racist graffiti.1 As a sort of quick fix, the city of Vancouver shrouded the lions in duct tape until the city workers could clean it off. All of this is occurring in the context of the covid-19 pandemic, which has seen the rise of anti-Asian racism.

Attacking architecture is not the only way to attack a race, and I am in no way insinuating that, but I will only be focusing on this single idea in this text. More specifically, I will be theorizing on why this occurrence is so common. I propose that there are four main reasons racists use this avenue to express their animosity towards other racial groups; the first is the intrinsic link between architecture and culture, the second is an attempt to diminish a safe space, the third is the idea of permanence, and fourth, high visibility. These four points will be explored in conjunction with this very recent occurrence of the vandalism of the Chinatown Millennium Gate lion statues.

There is an intrinsic link between architecture and culture. Even from just the photograph above, the famed Sam Kee building is visible in the background painted in red, yellow and green, all colours that historically represent Chinese culture. On either side of the image, traditional Chinese characters are also visible, not only on the billboard but also on the walls of each building. The Millennium Gates sit just out of frame, but if you were at that site today, you would see the traditional terracotta roof tiles, upturned eaves, and vibrant colours, all hallmarks of Chinese architecture. Buildings are a form of self-expression and a way of maintaining identity for many groups of people. Oftentimes, the methods and designs used date back many centuries, and are integral to their cultural identity. With the globalization of architecture in the modern era, buildings are becoming more and more culturally ambiguous. Compared to centuries ago, far less traditional architecture is constructed. Especially in countries such as Canada and the U.S, where populations are so ethnically diverse, traditional architecture is rare, and in a sense, its cultural significance is amplified by this rarity. Often such traditional architectures are grouped into centers that become a mecca for certain racial groups, providing a space of belonging. Chinatown is the epitome of such a space; it is a place full of architecture and customs reminiscent of those traditionally celebrated in China. Set in front of the Millennium Gates, which are very obviously and exaggeratedly Chinese, these lion statues are a strong symbol of Chinese culture. For the people who actively look to voice their racist views, it becomes an obvious target. Attacking traditional architecture is akin to attacking a culture, and attacking a culture is akin to attacking a race. If these statues were placed elsewhere in the city, away from Chinatown, they may have lacked such a clear cultural representation. But because of their setting and close association with a town predominantly inhabited by Chinese Canadians, the lions are seen as a racial symbol. For the perpetrators, vandalizing these cultural statues is far more effective at pushing their racist viewpoints than graffitiing up an arbitrary, irrelevant wall elsewhere.

Building on this idea of architecture and culture, I propose that the second reason architecture is attacked in relation to a race is to diminish a safe space. While minorities have suffered hate since the dawn of human migration, certain events can trigger an overwhelming rise of hate crimes. A common theme between all these hate crimes is the desire for the victims to feel unsafe and unwelcome. The most effective way to make a group of people feel unsafe is to attack their safe space, consequently rendering it unsafe. The place where people often feel the safest is in their homes or communities, in other words, their architecture, which renders it an obvious target for racists. The belief that the Coronavirus originated from China, and the readiness to generalize the Asian race, explains the massive rise in hate crimes against Asians during this pandemic. Consequently, the vandals defaced the Millennium Gate lion statues to create a sense of insecurity in the Asian community. Chinatown has always been a place of sanctuary for Asian Vancouverites, specifically the Chinese. Even though the photograph above only shows a small glimpse of the area around the lion statue, we can still observe many cultural symbols that create this safe space; the traditional colours, Chinese characters, and even the red street lantern all serve to amplify this feeling. Chinatown is a space predominantly occupied by Chinese immigrants seeking a familiar community to that of their home country and it provides a meaningful sense of home. An attack on such a personal space, a safe space, creates a different sense of fear than if the racist graffiti was painted on a random wall somewhere else in the city. It is terrifying to have a symbol of your culture, your identity, attacked with words that proclaim how unwanted you are. The ultimate goal of racists is to drive away those who they think don’t belong. Consciously or subconsciously, they try to achieve this by attacking the cultural safe spaces in architecture.

The third reason racist hate crimes target architecture is based on the idea of permanence. Architecture exudes a sense of permanence and stability. Buildings remain in place from the time they are constructed until they are demolished. In a sense, the people who cover buildings with racist graffiti know that the building will remain and therefore the imprints of their racist ideas gain a sense of permanence. Racist sentiments are expressed anywhere else; spoken, written online, written on paper, lack this feeling of permanence. Spoken words evaporate after they are said, written posts online can be deleted from the internet, paper can be ripped or burned, but a building will not be demolished to remove racist writing. The city may paint over it or wash it off, but painting is merely concealing, and washing it off will almost always leave a mark. After the Millennium Gate lions were defaced, the first fix was to cover the writings with duct tape, as seen in the photograph. Even after that, the tape still alludes to the hateful writing beneath it. The especially odd, maybe arbitrary, choice of bright red also doesn’t do anything to stop drawing unnecessary attention to the problem. This speaks to the permanence of architecture as there is no way to remove vandalism quickly or easily. This was not even the first time these lion statues were vandalized, but there is no way to move them to a different location or hide them from the vandals. They will always be fixed in the same spot reinforcing the sense of architectural permanence and stability. Whether intentional or not, the perpetrators of this racist graffiti found a way to imprint their racist ideas onto society, and there is no way more effective than to use architecture as a medium.

The fourth and final point I want to address is the idea of high visibility. The visibility of architecture is almost unparalleled. In cities, whether walking, driving, or spending time indoors, architecture is omnipresent. In the photograph, we can see a relatively large road running under the Millennium Gates, as well as pavement on either side. Though this photo is devoid of signs of life, this is typically a high-traffic area for both people and vehicles. Not to mention, the Sam Kee building visible in the background holds the world record for narrowest commercial building, and draws even more people to the area. An objective of racist graffiti is to be seen and offend as many people as possible, and where better to do that than on places where people are always around. Therefore, to target a certain group of people, a race, perpetrators will seek out architecture specific to that race, and vandalize it. Architecture, especially monumental architecture, draws attention from every direction. The Millennium gates and lion statues are in Chinatown, where the vast majority of the population there is Asian, specifically Chinese. They are the people who will walk past and see those lion statues on a daily basis. Especially for such a monumental structure like the Millennium gates, which also serve as a cultural symbol, more attention is drawn to it daily than all the other buildings in its vicinity. Therefore, for the perpetrators, these lion statues and the Millennium gates were highly visible to the target victims, drawing as much attention as possible.

I would like to conclude by drawing attention to the increasing severity of hate crimes amidst the ongoing covid-19 pandemic. These attacks have extended beyond defacing architecture to extreme realms of violence. At the time I am writing this essay, eight people were shot and killed in the U.S, six of them Asians, in an apparent hate crime.2 It is a terrifying time to be an Asian right now, knowing that walking down the street you could be attacked unprovoked at any moment. The vandalism on these Millennium Gate lion statues is just the tip of the iceberg.

————————–

Gloria Wang is an undergraduate student at the Peter Guo-hua Fu School of Architecture, McGill University. This essay was written for ARCH 251.

————————–

 Nair,Roshini, “Vancouver’s Chinatown lions defaced by racist graffiti for second time,” CBC News, May 29, 2020,  https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/british-columbia/lions-defaced-again-1.5591382.

2  “Alanta shootings: Suspect changed with murder as victims identifited,” BBC News, March 18, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-56433181.

 

Leave a Reply

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.