Tuesday, April 13, 2021

How Can Blackness Construct America?

What’s below is a conversation with members of the Black Reconstruction Collective, which came together during the past year and a half, in tandem with an exhibition now at the Museum of Modern Art called “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America.” The collective’s members are the 10 architects, artists and designers in the exhibition.

The show includes some mind-bending, beautiful work, on view through the end of May. But the collective emerged to serve longer-term, more radical goals.

It taps into a legacy of Black collectives from earlier eras. In 1893, Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass joined to publish “The Reason Why the Colored American Is Not in the World’s Columbian Exposition.” Seven years later, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington and Thomas J. Calloway organized a display of charts and photographs about the African-American experience to counter depictions of Black Americans at the world’s fair in Paris.

These were necessary responses to a system of cultural exclusion that, time and again, erased, demeaned and denied Blackness. By the 1960s, in the wake of the Black Power movement, a variety of Black artists’ collectives had coalesced, among them Spiral, which included Norman Lewis and Romare Bearden; Amiri Baraka’s Black Arts Movement; and AfriCobra, a Chicago-based Black artists’ commune.

“We have a responsibility beyond the exhibition, beyond us,” is how Amanda Williams, a Chicago-based architect and artist, and one of the members of the Black Reconstruction Collective, summed up the group’s thinking.

The MoMA show was organized by Sean Anderson, an associate curator at the museum, and Mabel O. Wilson, an architect, Columbia University professor and author, among much else, of “White by Design,” which describes the Modern’s failure to display and collect works by Black architects and designers.

“Reconstructions” proceeds from a question: “How do we construct Blackness?” The architects enlisted to answer this question are a multigenerational mix, including some familiar names. Nearly all run small or solo practices.

Their projects occupy rooms at the Modern dedicated to Philip Johnson, the New York power broker, architect and founding director of MoMA’s architecture department, who died in 2005, at 98. Members of the collective petitioned the museum to remove Johnson’s name from the wall because of his history of racism and Nazi sympathy. The museum declined. “Manifesting Statement,” a textile by the collective, temporarily covers the name up.

Other works in the show remap Los Angeles according to Black settlement patterns. They picture a mile-long stretch of Oakland rebuilt according to principles outlined in the Black Panthers’ 10 Point Program. They contemplate how Black people might “navigate their way to free space,” which can take the form of the open sea or outer space — a project that also recalls Kinloch, Mo. Having thrived for generations as an incorporated Black town, Kinloch ended up a victim of urbicide when authorities in neighboring St. Louis converted town land to build an airport.

All of these projects reimagine architecture from the perspective of Black people, a mission of the collective — and a first for the Modern. Until now, the museum hasn’t devoted any exhibition to African-American architects. There is nothing in its permanent collection by major Black architects like Paul Revere Williams, J. Max Bond Jr., Vertner Woodson Tandy or Amaza Lee Meredith. Since 1929, when MoMA opened its doors, it has acquired only two works by Black designers, both since 2016, neither of them strictly architecture: one is Charles Harrison’s “View-master (model G)” from 1962, the other a series of photographs by Amanda Williams.

Which is to say, the Modern itself partly necessitated the Black Reconstruction Collective. The group addresses the bigger question: How can Blackness construct America? Four of the members gathered on Zoom the other day to talk about the collective’s impetus and goals: Amanda Williams, Emanuel Admassu, J. Yolande Daniels and V. Mitch McEwen. The four were chosen as representatives by the other members: Sekou Cooke, Germane Barnes, Felecia Davis, Mario Gooden, Walter Hood and Olalekan Jeyifous.

The following is an edited, condensed version of the conversation.

Michael Kimmelman How did the idea of a collective come up?

Amanda Williams It was partly born from a lack of awareness by MoMA about what it meant to invite Black and (predominantly) solo practitioners to do a show like this. We were each given insufficient stipends to make full-scale, one-to-one objects. The real cost of doing this sort of thing may not mean much to big firms like OMA or Diller Scofidio + Renfro, who’ve been in MoMA shows. For them it may be the marketing budget on a single competition, I don’t know. But this reflected a fundamental misunderstanding of what it took for us to produce work of the caliber that we are capable of. There’s often an attitude when Black people enter certain spaces, despite having all the pedigrees and credentials, that we are like high schoolers getting a special chance. So early on, we started talking to each other, asking, “What if we pooled our resources?”

J. Yolande Daniels There was also, I think, an assumption in our discussions with the exhibition advisory board that our projects were supposed to solve social problems, that that’s what Black architects do — we do community housing, as if it’s still the 1960s. That way of thinking about African-American practitioners doesn’t afford us the luxury of doing speculative or other kinds of work, which white architects are automatically afforded.

That wasn’t the brief from MoMA, was it — do affordable housing?

Emanuel Admassu No, but whenever you have a group of Black people in a predominantly white institution the idea is that it’s our responsibility to fix racism.

Williams Don’t worry! We’re here now! The word inclusion makes my skin crawl, because in a context like this it implies tolerance: tolerating Black people, tolerating a monolithic idea of Blackness. Instead of inclusion I prefer collectivity, the sharing of things — power, vision, access — which is not the typical mind-set of institutions like MoMA and of people in positions of privilege and power, who tend to be straight, white and male. As Black architects and artists, we realized as we became involved with this show that we had to form a collective whether we liked it or not. Black people in every profession have to place the collective ahead of the individual. Ultimately, we have little choice. But we also realized that we could use the opportunity — that forming a collective could be the project’s most radical gesture.

So what are your goals?

Admassu The exhibition is just a passing event. All the research we’ve done, all the amazing conversations we had about reconstruction, architecture and race with the advisory committee that Mabel and Sean put together — the museum didn’t seem to have any agenda going forward. We asked about the possibility of endowing a curatorial position to focus on race and architecture, about whether there are long-term plans to address the history of exclusion. There was no answer. The museum is committed long-term to programs around the environment and sustainability, but when it comes to the last 500 years of colonization and subjugation of Black people, it’s a different story.

V. Mitch McEwen That’s an understatement. MoMA created an effectively Whites Only architecture archive and department, by design. Engaging with these issues in the context of primarily white institutions can be emotionally draining and rife with conflicts. A number of us are on the boards of various national architecture organizations, whose origins tend to go back to groups of the most privileged architects sharing their European drawing techniques and travel sketches. We’ve seen from the inside the need for a radical shift in the role that architecture can play in civil society, whether it’s around issues like climate change or inequality. We can’t afford to keep waiting for the old models to adapt. We need to begin a different kind of work with each other.

Daniels So we spent long hours establishing the collective as a 501(c)(3), an independent nonprofit, to pursue liberation practices, to raise money and provide platforms for other African-American architects, including students. I remember what it felt like when I was a Columbia student 30 years ago, how isolated I felt as a Black woman. Last year, in the course of putting the MoMA show together, the collective organized talks at Columbia, Harvard and M.I.T., and we heard back from Black students who said the talks really helped them deal with their sense of isolation. It was very moving.

You said liberation practices.

Daniels They begin by asking questions like, What is an architecture of reconstruction? Can we imagine an architecture of reparations? What might be the architecture of Black futurity?

Admassu How can we redefine what architecture means?

Daniels Because as constituted, architecture rejects Blackness. Within the field of architecture there are certain terms and theories involving autonomy, critical distance. These terms basically support whiteness by rejecting, or devaluing, all other forms of experience, especially minority experience, because these other experiences are not abstract, they’re too subjective. I went to this lecture by Fernando Lara …

A Brazilian architect and professor at the University of Texas, Austin.

Daniels Right. And he was talking about abstraction and colonialism, how those things are all tied together and, in effect, make up the tool kit of modern architects. Architectural theories involving autonomy and critical distance basically support whiteness by rejecting other forms of experience — the Black experience, the Native American experience — because these other experiences are not abstract, they’re too subjective.

McEwen The status quo depends on a backward concept, which is that architecture is expensive, luxurious, elite and (pseudo) avant-garde — whereas I think architecture can be cheap, temporary, flexible.

Admassu I agree with Mitch. Mabel Wilson makes a distinction between buildings and Architecture, because Architecture with a capital A implies an academic infrastructure of discourse and knowledge production tied to Europe, whereas buildings are made all over the world. Part of what our collective wants to do is reclaim the larger, civic promise of architecture.

Williams I’ve stopped worrying about Architecture with a capital A. We should just be talking about spatial practice. How can Black people move through spaces in ways that are self-determined? Ultimately, we should be designing for freedom in these spaces — not a freedom from, but a freedom to.

McEwen The terminology is complicated. Four years ago I did a workshop in Detroit on reparations, and activists who showed up got very excited when I started talking about building for reparations, because in the lexicon of Black politics, you build when you talk with someone. You say, “I want to build with you.” It means I want to engage in politics. I want to build a movement. When I said, no, I meant actually building, folks suddenly seemed deflated, as if talking about the literally built environment negated the rhetoric of empowerment. They said, “We’re going to build joy. We’re going to build sharing. We’re going to build our arts together.” I was like, that’s great, and can we also start to put some parameters around where and how much we’re going to reimagine the built environment? They thought that I was missing the nuance. I think that’s on architecture — the sense that architecture is not about building community, that it’s about exploiting people like us.

There’s a widespread misperception that it’s just for rich people, museums, academics, or what’s on HGTV.

Admassu Let me add, I’m a Black immigrant who moved to the United States as a teenager from the continent of Africa. You cross the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is basically a planetary scar dividing Africa from the Americas, and to the west you become Black. To the east, you’re Yoruba, Amhara or whatever. Part of our goal as a collective is thinking about how these spaces, which are not considered architecture, come to be imbued with meaning because of how Black people occupy them — and in doing so, expand the conversation around Black spatial practices beyond the United States.

Your project for MoMA focuses on Atlanta, Emanuel, and spaces like highways, strip malls and parking lots. Mitch, you conjure up an alternate New Orleans in which a failed 1811 uprising against slave owners had succeeded. You ask a remarkable question: “What architecture would Black people have already invented if we had been truly free for the last 210 years?”

McEwen As a discipline, architecture involves lots of speculative work. It allows us to picture what this country might look like, what reparations might look like.

Williams Folks who go to the MoMA show and expect to find the next 10 great Black architects, the next Paul R. Williams or Vertner Tandy, or who think we’re going to solve gentrification — or other problems we understand personally and very well but didn’t create — they won’t find any of that. We need the next Paul Williams. But we also need to create the conditions for change.

So that’s the goal of the collective.

Williams To empower architecture as a vehicle for liberation and joy.

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