Culture Trips

How can architecture help rather than harm blackness? | Architecture

One of the most defining images in the history of architecture is a 1972 photograph of frozen, mid-demolition debris clouds rising out of the crumbling remains of Minoru Yamasaki’s Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex in St Louis. This moment has been seared into our memories as the day “modern architecture died”, a phrase central to Charles Jencks and company’s ideological battle between the formal styles of “modernism” and “post-modernism”.

If it sounds weirdly and intensely tone-deaf to use a public housing project as a pawn in posturing stylistic debates, that is because it is. Curiously absent from the discussion were the black residents who were moved to and from Pruitt-Igoe, twice uprooted with little power to decide their own destiny. The saga shows the all-too-common disconnect in American architecture between those building our cities and those most affected by them. The histories of the laws and ideologies that administered racial oppression through urban space, such as urban renewal, discriminatory housing laws and predatory lending are mostly left out of architectural discussions.

In response to this troubling condition, Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, has opened as part of the fourth iteration of the Museum of Modern Art’s Issues in Contemporary Architecture, aiming to introduce the history and narratives of the black experience into both Moma’s archives as well as the larger discourse. In 2018, the Moma curator Sean Anderson and Mabel Wilson, author of the essay White by Design from Among Others: Blackness at Moma, set out to ask why black stories and identity are rarely considered when we imagine what society should look like, or as the curators put it, “How can architecture address a user that has never been accurately defined? How do we construct blackness?”

Germane Barnes – No Beach Access, from 2020.
Germane Barnes – No Beach Access, from 2020. Photograph: Image courtesy of the artist. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

The duo assembled a group of black architects who seek to establish architecture’s potential to act as a medium for reconstructing ideas of blackness. The participants founded the Black Reconstruction Collective, whose aim is to “take up the question of what architecture can be – not a tool for imperialism and subjugation, not a means for aggrandizing the self, but a vehicle for liberation and joy”, the group says. “The discipline of architecture has consistently and deliberately avoided participation in this endeavor, operating in complicity with repressive aspects of the current system. That ends now.”

Rather than offer direct solutions – which have been historically used to further dismantle black communities – the projects in Reconstructions draw on past history, present conditions and future speculative narratives to amplify black communities and examine the history of housing projects, partitioned schools and prisons as vehicles of oppression. In tandem they investigate the spaces of blackness – including America’s streets, playgrounds, kitchens, porches, street corners, gardens and places of worship – as places of possibility for imagining a different future for black life in the modern world. Each contributor takes a place, from Los Angeles and Brooklyn to Kinloch, Missouri, and Nashville, Tennessee, as a test case to “‘repair’ historical and contemporary manifestations of racial difference and the material excesses of racism”.

Germane Barnes’s A Spectrum of Blackness: The Search for Sedimentation in Miami is a reparative rereading of Miami’s sites of historic injustice as places of possibility and community. While the city’s African and Caribbean diasporas were not allowed to access many beaches that they helped build, Barnes examines the communities that have thrived despite this history. Ironically, neighborhoods like Little Haiti are now in safe zones away from the dangers of sea level rise. A sculptural, deconstructed spice rack celebrates the kitchen as a place of gathering – not only of the family, but of a diverse mix of cultures that could be called “black” and share common traits through food and space. In his work We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space, Sekou Cooke constructs a concrete stoop in the gallery, displaying a community response to the division caused by the construction of Syracuse’s I-81 interstate. “Asserting one’s ownership of public space is a really important mode of self-care,” Cooke explained. “We are able to form community despite oppression, despite marginalization.”

Afrofuturism and speculation play a key role in many of the projects. Along a one-mile stretch of Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue where the Black Panther party operated at their peak, Walter J Hood’s Black Towers/Black Power has suggested an alternative future where the party’s Ten Points have become prompts for the redevelopment of 10 towers that each show a proposed building for a site currently operated by a non-profit. It is a vision for a city guided by principles of black community and a resistance to the exclusion caused by gentrification happening in the Bay Area. We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here by Amanda Williams looks at Kinloch, Missouri, a small incorporated black community outside St Louis. Inspired by the autonomy of black space in places like Kinloch and other free black towns, Williams charts a map toward freedom, accompanied by an Afrofuturist “spaceboatshipvesselcapsule” made of everyday items invented by black people.

Kinloch’s history as a free black space that was seized through eminent domain to make way for an airport, and its recent reclamation for future development, stands in stark contrast to the narratives around Pruitt-Igoe, where many Kinloch residents moved into and then out of when it was demolished. Through 10 cities, each piece in the exhibition tells a similar story, one of erasure, inequality and resilience. Reconstructions seeks to repair, restore and rebuild these histories by understanding and looking for new possibilities for black space.

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