Architecture as a Social Segregator

Esesua Ikpefan and Angela Shin

The architecture of social segregation represents itself in an effort to design places that shape the behaviors of individuals and manage contact between different races or classes.  Through studies of the Elmina Slave Castle, Victorian houses, and the Eight Mile Road that borders Detroit, Michigan, it is seen that architecture aids racial separation due to slavery, separation due to social hierarchy, and a racial and income division in a society.

Architecture of Socioeconomic and Racial Segregation

Eight Mile Road, Michigan, U.S., 1963-2013

Race-Map-Detroit-Close-Up-Dustin-Cable-University-of-Virginia-Weldon-Cooper-Center-Public-ServiceA Map showing the population by racial ethnicity around Eight Mile.

According to the Detroit Historical Society, the Eight Mile Road “exists as a physical dividing line, as well as a de-facto psychological and cultural boundary for the region, [Detroit].” Originally a dirt road, M-102, in 1928, the Eight Mile Road has been extended and widened to a now 8-lane road. Detroit is bordered on the south by the Detroit river which separates it from Windsor, Canada, and it is bordered on the North by the Eight Mile road. The road got its name from its approximate distance to the Detroit River. On a map, the plan view of this road, it separates the rich Wayne and Washtenaw counties from the poorer Macomb, Livingston, and Oakland counties. Demographic studies in the 2000 U.S. census shows that the median family income for the city of Detroit, and 81.55% African American area, is $33,853 with 26.1% of its residents below the poverty line. However the region north of the Eight Mile, Oakland county, an 82.75% white region, has a median family income of $75,540 with only 5.5% of its residents below the poverty line. It is clear that the eight mile causes a separation between the urban, predominantly black culture of the south from the richer white one of the north. The Eight Mile serves as a border between the city’s black and white residents.


The Eight Mile Road causes not only an income class separation between the inner city of Detroit and the suburbs, but also a racial separation in the city. One of the most controversial events regarding this road involves the 1970s and 80s mayor, Coleman A. Young. As the first black mayor of Detroit, Young faces a lot of backlash for a comment he made regarding criminality in Detroit. He is recorded saying “I issue a warning to all those pushers, to all rip-off artists, to all muggers: It’s time to leave Detroit; Hit Eight Mile Road.” This statement caused residents in the north to accuse Young of sending the city’s criminals in to the suburbs. This situation marks as an insight into the way the people who lived in the suburbs viewed the residents lower of the Eight Mile Road. Like in Dubai, they prided themselves on not having to go down the road the same way the residents in Dubai never had to see the horrors in SoScreen Shot 2013-10-28 at 12.20.19 AMnapur. The divide causes the impoverishment and crime referred to by Mayor Young. The Eight Mile is marked by run-down businesses, the destitute, and a high crime rate. Eight Mile is notorious for being drug-ridden with a lot of prostitution. In some of its extreme stages in the late 90s and early Millennium, residents took down basketball hoops from public parks along this strip to discourage children from going across the border and onto the areas around the road.

In attempts to “fix” the situation seen on the Eight Mile, an organization known as the Eight Mile Boulevard Association has risen up to improve the conditions seen along this region. Established in April 1993, this non-profit organization seeks to promote transportation and business along the Eight mile by linking the private and business sectors on the road. Furthermore, they are doing this primarily through renovation. However, although the middle class black Americans are also moving north to the suburbs, and efforts are being made to reduce segregation in this region, a socioeconomic divide still remains.

Architecture of Racial Segregation- Slavery

Elmina Slave Castle, Elmina, Ghana, 1637

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 1.38.52 AM

The racial divide caused by architecture seen in Detroit can be seen much earlier in history, and in vastly different cultures. One example of this can be seen in the Elmina Slave Castle on the coast of modern day Ghana. It was first built by the Portuguese in 1482 as a fort to protect the gold trade, hence the canons at the top of the fort. When it was captured by the Dutch in 1637, it became the first slave-trading post in all of sub-saharan Africa. The castle is divided by a vertical arrangement of luxury suites for the dutch governor on the upper level and slave dungeons below where the captured locals were kept. When Elmina was captured by the Dutch, it was rebuilt and enlarged to accommodate the new trade. When looking at the plan of the building, it is obvious the Dutch wanted a separation between the soon-to-be slaves and themselves, but they also wanted accessibility for several reasons which range from control to sexual favors.

It is important, when looking at Elmina, to understand the connection between the architecture and the atrocities that were committed in the castle. The slaves were captured inland and then separated into male and female dungeons when brought to Elmina. In comparison to the governor’s suite, these dungeons were inhumane. About 200 slaves were crammed into each dungeon at a given time with no room to lie down. Furthermore, with no sanitary amenities, the floors of dungeons stood a few inches higher than the actual floor level because of fecal matter and bodily fluids. Thus, disease was common amongst the prisoners, and those who died from disease were tossed into the sea. Other flaws in planning led to health issues in the prisoners. Though the women were not chained like the men, their cell laid directly below the ammunition room, and gun powder occasionally leaked into the female dungeon causing illness. 800px-Ghana_Elmina_Castle_Slave_Holding_Cell_(2)In addition, the female room was connected to the governor’s rooms through a stair case. The governor would choose a prisoner that was to be bathed and then sexually exploited by him. Furthermore, the women chosen were to enter the governor’s quarters through a trap door. This trap door is an unnecessary addition to the castle, however it was necessary to establish a separation between the races as well as between those who held the power and the powerless. As a means of punishment, extra dungeons known as the condemned cells were available. In these cells, disobedient prisoners were forgotten until death. Other punishments included being tied to an iron ball and chair in the courtyard and left there until repentance or death.

One of the most symbolic places in Elmina is the Door of No Return. This door was a narrow iron gate where slaves passed through to board the slave ships that would take them to the Americas. This place was not just a physical boundary that separated them forever from returning to their home in Ghana, but it was also symbolic of the entrance into a world of hardship marked by a racial divide between the African slaves and their Caucasian masters. By the 18th Century, 30,000 slaves on the way to the Americas passed through Elmina each year. As countries abolished slavery, Elmina has since been transformed into a military and police training center by the British and is presently a historical museum in Ghana.

Architecture of Hierarchical Segregation

Victorian Era Housing, United Kingdom, 1837

Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 1.54.02 AM

The issue of invisibility, though not important to the residents of El Mina, was greatly important to those in the Victorian era houses. A key to running a good home in this time meant maids and servants were not visible. This kind of racial segregation created a distinctive architectural form, leading these houses to be arranged in a vertical system of social hierarchy. Separation of workers from the family’s residence was very important in the 1840 to 1900s houses. For example, in this ground plan from Eastbury Manor House, the “servant’ only” stairs or back stairs are clearly shown on the right near the servant’s quarters. Servants used these stairs instead of the grand staircase reserved for the family and guests. Unless they were cleaning the grand staircase, the servants were only allowed to use the back stairs and keep themselves unseen to the family or guests. Furthermore, the owner’s spaces were at the front whereas the servants’ spaces were designed to be at the very back of the building. In addition, the entrances of the house for the family and the servants were different. Servants were usually expected to enter their own spaces through a typical entrance that would have been placed below street level or at the back of the building. Screen Shot 2013-10-28 at 1.57.31 AM

“The philosophy of a smooth running household was that servants were out of sight and out of mind.” Even within the servant community, they had to follow a hierarchy downstairs as strict as upstairs. For instance, the cook worked under the housekeeper since the housekeeper was ranked higher than the cook. And as seen in the picture below, kitchen, scullery, and larder were all built far away from the household. So even in a depiction today of this housing style seen in the TV show “Downtown Abbey”, the scullery maid is nowhere to be seen. Moreover, it was common for the highly ranked servants,  such as the butler to have his room that was not connected with the kitchen, even if it was still in the basement of the building. Such examples explain how the spaces of the architecture were carefully planned out according to social hierarchy. Even the windows were facing away from the principal areas of the house and the doors leading to servant’s quarters were covered by screens and wallpapers or disguised as bookcases because they did not want people to acknowledge the servants. In Rockinham house and Castle Coole, underground tunnels only accessed the service wings. Staircases and corridors were usually narrow and long. Servant’s quarters are frequently overlooked, yet form an important piece of Victorian Era Housings.  One proposal of a tower in Dubai that will act as commercial building on the outside and low income housing on the inside might be appealing in a way of bringing laborers closer to their work places in the city; however, looking at the racial divide that has been resulted by the separation of architectural form, it is reminiscent of the Victorian house separations and may lead to similar socioeconomic divides.


As seen in Dubai’s proposal for the KDG towers that would hold low-income housing on the inside of commercial towers and in the efforts of the Eight Mile Boulevard association, socioeconomic and racial divides caused by architecture cannot always be resolved through architecture alone. By looking at the examples of Elmina, Victorian houses, and the Eight Mile, it is clear that these boundaries caused by architecture do exist, however it is key to understand that non-architectural solutions, as well as architectural ones are important in resolving these issues. overall, it is clear that architecture causes social segregation in both large and small scale residential settings.



Bowles, Scott, and USA TODAY. “ – Riding Detroit’s 8 Mile.” USA TODAY: Latest World and US News – N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <>.

“Jane Austen’s World.” Jane Austens World. (accessed October 27, 2013).

“Coleman Young – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <>.

“Eight Mile Boulevard Association (8MBA).” Eight Mile Boulevard Association (8MBA) . N.p., n.d. Web. 21 Oct. 2013. <>.

“Eight Mile Road | Detroit Historical Society.” Detroit Historical Society | Where the past is present. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <>.

“Elmina Castle.” – Castles in Europe and beyond!. em.html (accessed October 8, 2013).

“Elmina Castle – Museum / Ghana – History.” Ghana Tourism Info, Ghana Food and Drinks, Ghana Live Radio & TV, Ghana High Commission . Elmina_Castle_Museum_History.aspx (accessed October 8, 2013).

“Female Slave Dungeon.” Rowan Mark Photography. dungeon#photo (accessed October 9, 2013).

“Wonders of the African World – Slave Kingdoms – Elmina.” PBS: Public Broadcasting Service. (accessed October 8, 2013).

“Ground plan of Elmina Castle, Ghana.” Aluka -. (accessed October 27, 2013).

“File: Ghana Elmina Castle Slave Holding Cell.JPG.” Wikimedia. (accessed October 27, 2013).

“The Servant’s Quarters in 19th Century Country Houses Like Downton Abbey | Jane Austen’s World.” Jane Austen’s World | This Jane Austen blog brings Jane Austen, her novels, and the Regency Period alive through food, dress, social customs, and other 19th C. historical details related to this topic.. Vic, 29 Jan. 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <>.

Aristocracy, the late 17th century the idea of giving servants their own designated areas had been adopted not only in the houses of the, and but also in those of the gentry. “Servants’ quarters – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.” Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <’_quarters>.

Delhi, line: ANI New, July 21 (ANI): Former Defence Minister, and socialist leader George Fernandes has rubbished media reports of being put up in a. “Servant’s quarters – definition of Servant’s quarters by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia..” Dictionary, Encyclopedia and Thesaurus – The Free Dictionary. Wikipedia, n.d. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <’s+quarters>.

“Infographics of the Day: How Segregated Is Your City? | Co.Design | business + design.” Co.Design. (accessed October 27, 2013).

“Robie House kitchen and servants’ quarters – YouTube.” YouTube. N.p., 21 Jan. 2007. Web. 14 Oct. 2013. <>. 


Post a comment

You may use the following HTML:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>