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  • Race and Architectural Geometry:Thomas Jefferson’s Octagons
  • Irene Cheng (bio)

On the topic of race, the study of nineteenth-century American architecture remains troublingly myopic. In the fields of American literary studies and history, the construction of racial difference has become an indispensable subject of analysis, but even some recent surveys of nineteenth-century architecture ignore or downplay the roles of racial ideology, slavery, and nonwhite ethnic groups in shaping the built environment.1 This neglect persists despite a steady trickle of important research by historians and literary scholars, beginning in the 1980s with the work of Dell Upton and Michael Vlach.2

Early work on race and architecture focused on rereading spaces such as plantations as diverse, hierarchical environments, and on reconstructing the experience of nonwhite inhabitants of buildings, cities, and landscapes. More recently, however, scholars like Martin Berger and Dianne Harris have considered how racial thinking inflects visual culture in objects and ways that appear removed from concerns about race—for example, in paintings that depict only white people, or in landscape photographs that contain no humans at all.3 One contribution of whiteness studies and postcolonial theory has been to reveal how objects that appear race- or gender-neutral on their surface may be powerfully coded to affirm specifically Euro-American or male identities. Applied to architecture, projects to deconstruct whiteness, or to “provincialize Europe,” to borrow Dipesh Chakrabarty’s phrase, pose the question of how elements of buildings ostensibly far removed from race might be supported by a substructure of racial thinking.4 [End Page 121]

Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is now well recognized as a site deeply shaped by slavery. Where tour guides once interpreted the house primarily in terms of Jefferson’s ingenuity and brilliance, today, thanks to the work of historians like Lucia Stanton, there is acknowledgment that the site was also occupied by a large community of enslaved people.5 This essay argues that issues of race pertain to Jefferson’s architecture not just because of the presence of black slaves—that is, because of its social history—but also because race permeated its aesthetic dimensions, its forms, style, and ornament. In short, the story of race in Jefferson’s architecture includes those aspects traditionally considered to be the province of art and architectural historians. My intention is not to reify distinctions between social and formalist art history but simply to argue that race influences architecture in multiple registers. Here I will consider one particular feature of Jefferson’s building designs that may appear unrelated to race—his use of octagons.

Numerous scholars of Jefferson’s architecture have observed that he was obsessed with eight-sided forms, employing them in projecting bows and free-standing configurations in designs from houses to prisons. Jefferson never explained his infatuation with octagons; historians cite the influence of European precedents, Jefferson’s love of mathematics, and a desire for light and air. Virtually no one has seen a connection between Jefferson’s octagons and racial ideology. And yet, if we delve into the sources for his eight-sided figures, we find ways in which race operated as what Simon Gikandi has recently called the “sublimated ghost” of modern aesthetics.6 It was not just that the presence of slaves had to be visually and spatially repressed at places like Monticello but, crucially, that the Enlightenment ideals of light and freedom embodied in the architectural figure of the octagon were valorized in distinction to ideas of darkness and unfreedom associated with racial slavery. My contention is that Jefferson’s octagons were inspired in overdetermined ways by the ideal of a modern, autonomous, sensory and political subject that could only be conjured in reference to its obverse—an unfree and unaesthetic racial subject.

Renaissance Harmonies

One direct influence for Jefferson’s eight-sided forms was the Renaissance architect Andrea Palladio, whose Four Books of Architecture Jefferson called the “Bible.” Jefferson’s earliest-known design incorporating an octagon form, dating to the 1770s, was a sketch for an eight-sided chapel, probably intended for Williamsburg. On the back of the sketch, Jefferson [End Page 122] cited Palladio’s plates of the circular Temple of Vesta as his source...