Jay Cephas is Assistant Professor of the History and Theory of Architecture at Princeton University. A historian of architecture, landscapes, and cities, he researches the relationships between labor, technology, and identity in the built environment. In 2020, he was awarded a Graham Foundation grant to support the Black Architects Archive, a repository of under-represented architects from across 200 years of history. He is also the founding director of Studio Plat, a geospatial research and development practice that examines the past, present, and future of cities. In his forthcoming book, he examines the agonism structuring Fordism and urbanization in early twentieth-century Detroit.
Michael Faciejew: Your research bridges the histories of architecture, planning, and race. How did your educational background across architectural design, data visualization, mapping, and history and theory impact your scholarship?
Jay Cephas: My interest in history and theory predated my architectural education. In many ways it was my historical orientation that influenced how I would come to think about design. Prior to pursuing a professional degree in architecture, I spent nearly a decade working for community-based nonprofits and developed an interest in how people crafted subjective histories of their cities through their own personal biographies. I entered design education then with an historical methodology that focused on the subjective experience of the built environment and framed building design through its social contexts. Since then, one overarching theme structuring my approach to architectural history concerns de-centering design as a driving force in architectural production to instead turn to the myriad social, economic, and political conditions that shape the making of buildings and cities. I consider my work, whether writing texts or creating interactive maps, as fundamentally a history practice; I am continually interested in the “work” of history—how historical narratives “labor,” in a sense, to craft specific understandings of society.
I was initially introduced to mapping in my M.Arch. studies, where I pursued a concentration in Urban and Community Design. Later, during my doctoral research, I wanted to analyze and navigate historical maps in the same way I engaged contemporary maps—by manipulating interactive, screen-based maps to perform simple computational analyses of space. I turned toward the training I had already received in urban mapping and began to ask theoretical questions about the historical urban landscapes that I was seeking to map. In this context, mappings function as historiographic tools.
Michael Faciejew: How does architectural and urban history intersect with the digital humanities? What can one field learn from the other? And how does your conceptualization of “Black epistemologies” relate to these disciplinary structures?
Jay Cephas: I’m increasingly finding that “digital humanities” as a term does not tell us much about the kind of work being undertaken, considering the enormous methodological diversity in the field. In many ways, I look forward to the humanities being a field in which “digital” approaches exist not as a separate methodological arena, but on par and in conjunction with conventional humanistic research methods. That said, the recent “spatial turn” in the humanities has offered the greatest opportunity for integrating architectural history with digital and computational methods as mapping practices continue to gain greater ground in digital scholarship over the last decade. The humanities, digital and otherwise, have been transformed by the possibilities of integrating computational spatial analysis with conventional research methods, which together offer the possibility to extract broad patterns from large datasets.
Black epistemologies refer to the knowledge-ways circulating among and between communities that exist at the margins of mainstream discourses. These alternate knowledge-ways arise when people are excised from or rendered invisible within discourses and other forms of knowledge due to structural racism. Black epistemologies don’t necessarily build upon or respond to other knowledge traditions, but rather exist in parallel with conventional modes of knowledge production. In this way, Black epistemologies are not methods of resistance but forms of existence. They are ways of being that evade the dominant epistemological frameworks and their conventional modes of analysis because Black epistemologies offer streams of knowing and communication that do not travel along codified channels. The inherent marginality of Black epistemologies means that they cannot be gleaned entirely from one methodology or another, though different methodologies might yield different aspects of these knowledge-ways. Additionally, there are Black epistemologies within disciplines themselves; these are ways of approaching research and writing that diverge from disciplinary conventions and their structural racism.
Michael Faciejew: Your project, the Black Architects Archive, collects the work of Black architects such as Horace King, Georgia Louise, and many others who made a tremendous impact on the American built environment but whose work has rarely if ever been acknowledged in architectural literature. Can you tell us about how this archive began and how it has evolved?
Jay Cephas: The Black Architects Archive began in response to a complaint that I heard repeatedly from design school faculty—that while they were willing to teach beyond the canon, they did not know how or where to find information about diverse architects. Because scholars are trained to focus quite narrowly on a specific subject, it can be difficult to branch beyond that subject when it comes to teaching. In general topics, such as a survey course in architectural history, there are resources to support teaching beyond one’s specific area of expertise; but even these resources tend to offer limited resources beyond the established canon.
The Black Architects Archive emerged in part as a teaching resource, to give faculty essentially a list of names and buildings that they could integrate into their course content. But once the list of names and buildings were amassed into an archive, it became apparent that the format—a digital-born database of architects spatialized through a map—could allow us to conduct different kinds of analyses—namely computational analyses—on the data contained within the archive. While the Archive aims to expand the content of architectural history, we recognized an additional methodological potential as we considered how the Archive might allow researchers to analyze across a large number of architects and buildings.
Michael Faciejew: What is your broader position on the relationship between visualization technologies and systemic inequality in the built environment?
Jay Cephas: We believe far too much in the power of technology. The potential of technical tools is limited to the intentions of the people creating them. With that in mind, I’m less interested in heralding the next great technology and more concerned with the conversations that need to be had regarding systemic inequality and the new social, economic, and political structures that need to be put into place to combat it.