The red, blue, and beige terrazzo floor design in the Allred Gallery in Kamphoefner Hall on NC State University’s campus is, in its aspect, a far cry from Silent Sam, the bronze Confederate monument that students toppled on UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus in the summer of 2018.
But the floor, installed in 2012, and its inspiration—Le Corbusier, an icon of modern architecture —are stirring similar feelings among some students on the Raleigh campus that generations of Chapel Hill students felt for decades before they tore down Silent Sam.
Le Corbusier was a known misogynist, homophobe, anti-Semite, and, more recent scholarship indicates, an associate of European fascist leaders and an authoritarian sympathizer. It’s problematic, then, some students say, that Le Corbusier’s legacy is effectively honored with a floor pattern inspired by his work, a quote, a drawing, and his signature in a room in one of the College of Design’s busiest buildings.
Last fall, the students launched a petition and website and blanketed the university’s campus with pamphlets calling attention to the Allred Gallery design and its inspiration, an architect who “used his drawing as a way to objectify and terrorize marginalized people,” according to the student petition, which had 112 signatures as of Monday.
“All of this fills the Allred Gallery where students and faculty are supposed to congregate and the floor pattern is an invitation for fascists to find solidarity within the College of Design the same way it has given Nazis validations in the past,” the text of the petition continues. “There is no way to keep Le Corbusier’s work without perpetuating his ideals.”
The group of students behind this effort makes clear that the gallery’s floor and Le Corbusier display needs to be redesigned.
“If you choose not to do anything, then it is more so sending a message to certain people to feel comfortable on this campus expressing [these kinds of] views,” says Boa Stoneheart, a graduate student in the College of Design. “Whereas, if you take it down, you’re saying we don’t accept that.”
Sea Tong Veng, a fourth-year student studying environmental architecture in the university’s College of Design, is disappointed that the university “has not released any official statement or taken a stance.”
“I think it’s the school’s responsibility to guide us in the right direction,” Veng says.
It’s not clear how the university decided to install the Le Corbusier–inspired floor display in the Allred Gallery a decade ago, following a redesign of the building in 2007, but it doesn’t seem to have been a controversial decision at the time. And it’s curious that it has taken until now to have caused a stir. NCSU professor Hernan Marchant, a Corbusian scholar, was involved with the design and installation process, according to a video on YouTube from David Allen Company, the materials supplier. Marchant did not respond to the INDY’s request for comment.
Students say when they learned about Le Corbusier’s work in many of their classes in the College of Design, the architect’s troubling views were glossed over by professors, at best. At worst, Le Corbusier was “glorified,” they say.
Burak Erdim, an associate professor of architecture in the College of Design and an architectural historian, says since the 1980s a number of essays from scholars have drawn attention to Le Corbusier’s affiliation with authoritarian, technocratic, imperialist, and fascist regimes. Erdim is one of the few professors, students say, who has noted Le Corbusier’s ties to authoritarianism in the classroom and provided space for discussion.
“Most recently and within the last ten years, the field [of architectural history] has also begun a broader project to critically reexamine the historiography of modern architecture and planning,” Erdim wrote in an email to the INDY. “Drawing on this scholarship, students are raising the question of what does an iconic figure like Le Corbusier mean to us in contemporary architectural education and practice.”
Erdim says he is proud of the students’ efforts.
“Students are actually building on what they are learning,” Erdim says. “This is a great conversation to have, theoretically, and especially in relation to a space that we occupy and use on a daily basis. They are putting the kinds of tropes of critical analysis that we look at in the classroom in the way that they are looking at what this figure means to us, to our contemporary architectural education and practice.”
Administrators in the School of Architecture and the College of Design are taking a diplomatic approach to addressing the issue.
Following a meetings in November, an email exchange in December, and a second meeting Friday, they and the students have come up with a process designed to educate the campus community—students, staff, and alumni—about the issue through workshops and other events. And it is a problem-solving exercise, the administrators emphasize; they won’t commit to any specific outcome.
“The idea of redesigning [Allred Gallery] is an interesting one because that is what we do, and as part of the design process, there are several stages along the way,” says David Hill, a professor of architecture. “First and foremost, we seek to understand a client, or in this case, to understand how students feel about this particular floor and the messages and symbols that it holds that are offensive … not unlike how we would deal with a client, and user groups, to understand how to design a building more appropriately and to develop empathy.”
“Once you know how people feel, what people want, and their hopes and dreams, then you can set about working through the design process and design iterations,” says Mark Hoversten, a professor of landscape architecture and dean of NCSU’s College of Design. “We take several stabs at something before we know we get it right. So it will be interesting to hear from the students and others in the school’s community about what redesign might mean. There are probably a million different ways we could think about redesigning that floor.”
The students acknowledge that the educational component of the process is a crucial one.
“It is important to teach everyone about this stuff. It’s important to learn and think about what our opinions are,” says Kunal Bhardwaj, a third-year student in the College of Design. “Breaking up [the redesign process] is even more beneficial, because then it can be surgical in how you design the space. Sure, you can have an information session, really discuss it, but then get to each conflict that we or anyone else brings up, concerns from the other side, concerns from our side.”
While they’re committed to following the process, some of the students are frustrated with the pace of the administration’s engagement and its circumspect approach, especially at a university that touts equity and inclusion in its mission statement.
“[Equity] is not necessarily democratic. It’s raising people up that haven’t had that support,” says Stoneheart, the graduate student. “It’s not about equality, it’s about equity—about going above and beyond to help people—not about hearing everyone’s opinion equally.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that students had a meeting with NCSU administrators in November, an email exchange in December, and a second meeting with administrators on Friday. Also, Kunal Bhardwaj is a third-year student in the College of Design, not a fourth-year student.
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