The Skyscraper’s Unseeing Eyes: Louis Sullivan, Nella Larsen, and Racial Formalism

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American Literature


skyscraper, modern architecture, formalism, passing, Nella Larsen, Louis Sullivan, race. aesthetics


Since its inception, the skyscraper has served as an icon of American innovation, modernity, and freedom. Upholding this image has erased the racial thinking and racist practices foundational to this born-and-bred American architectural form. This essay restores the import of race to the skyscraper by reading formalist theories by the father of modern architecture, Louis Sullivan, alongside a work of African American modernist fiction, Nella Larsen’s Passing(1929). Reading Sullivan alongside Larsen explains how skyscrapers and blackness together have defined what gets seen as modern. The unexpected pairing reveals the visual racial logics built into skyscraper aesthetics and adds an architectural thread to the well-established scholarship on Larsen’s novel.


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