Race and Space
Documenting the disappearing Black presence in America’s architectural landscape
By Kendra Hamilton
Charlottesville, Va. — How do you make the invisible visible? Well, you might try consulting a magician, or metaphysician, or a priest. Or you might take the trail blazed by a group of creative thinkers at the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture.Included in the group are several hundred scholars and professionals — mostly architects and community planners, but with a generous sprinkling of museum professionals, historians, and the odd novelist or literary critic. They met for a series of provocative discussions on the impact of the African Diaspora on American architecture.“Sites of Memory: Landscapes of Race and Identity” was held March 25-27 and devoted to questions that are beginning to make their way to the forefront of architectural criticism and practice. The symposium centered on finding ways to document the erased or disappearing Black presence in the American cultural landscape — making the invisible visible. Participants discussed ways to define that presence and translate it into a language of design.The guiding spirit behind the conference was Craig Barton, assistant professor of architecture at the University of Virginia (UVA) and project director of the symposium. “Issues of difference are of interest to some segment of architectural educators and have been for a while,” Barton explains, noting that the numbers of voices involved has increased and the focus of the conversations has begun to shift from historical issues to design. “Sites of Memory” was built around a core group of 16, mostly African American scholars and designers who have been exploring issues of race and place and “whose training allows them to take these questions on with the degree of rigor necessary for public presentation,” Barton says.
The Beginning InspirationNathaniel Belcher, an assistant professor at Florida International University, was one of those scholars. Harvard-trained and a veteran of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, among other leading architecture firms, his career has straddled both artistic and architectural concerns. He’s been exhibited at competitions from California to Berlin, and was the founder of the Jazz Architectural Works Shop — held in 1995 at Tulane University. That workshop is cited by Barton as the inspiration for “Sites of Memory.”Belcher is careful to note the lineage of “Sites of Memory” and his Jazz Architectural Works Shop, tracing both to the 1970s and Yale University’s “Black Studio.” During that period, the school made a concerted push to enlarge its African American presence, and “the students got involved with community work and became a radical presence on the campus,” Belcher explains.But these early efforts at exploring the role of race in architecture consisted mostly of identifying African American architects and what they had built, Belcher says. He points with pride to the fact that the Jazz Architectural Works Shop had created a new network of scholars and practitioners and given their critical conversations a push in the direction of form and methodology.That is why seeing the results at “Sites of Memory” has been nothing short of inspirational for Maurice Cox, whose career includes teaching at UVA, working at a socially savvy urban design practice, and being involved in politics — he serves on the Charlottesville City Council.“What’s been important for me here,” says Cox, who was part of the network that formed at the Jazz Architectural Works Shops, “is seeing the diversity of the issues and the interpretations — just how many ways there are of making race relevant to place-making.“Most people are one-dimensional — particularly in the academy, where you’re working in relative isolation. But then you gather 16 people and you see how many shades these 16 people are able to reveal. You see the richness and the varieties of contributions African Americans have made in the history of this land and today.”Indeed, the richness and diversity of the symposium’s offerings can only be hinted at. Belcher, for example, explored the role federal highway policy played in the destruction of African American communities. He kept his focus on Miami, but “that’s the story of hundreds and hundreds of communities across the nation,” Cox notes.Cornell University’s Felicia Davis, who designed both the memorial and museum for the African Burial Ground in Manhattan and the slavery monument at Senegal’s Goree Island, grappled with the difficulties of creating a “Black” walking tour of Manhattan. Unfortunately, according to Davis, most of the artifacts of African American life in Manhattan have been erased from the landscape.There were sessions on the politics of preservation and the roles of memory and amnesia in narratives of place/race. Even when the conferees delved into the thickets of theory, the papers — on improvisation in Black culture, on “jazz architecture,” on the body as a site of memory, and on the power of “styling” in the ways we experience “streetspace” — remained lively and of interest even to the layman.And that was one of the aims of the symposium.“There’s a strong sense, for architects dealing with these issues, of working in isolation,” says Mabel Wilson, a visiting professor at Princeton University and professor of design and theory at California College of Arts and Crafts.Wilson, who is a partner in the design collaborative Architecture et AL and who’s also a doctoral candidate at New York University, says she finds value simply in being able to converse with like-minded professionals. Architecture isn’t only practical, she contends, it’s also philosophical and theoretical — influenced by notions of aesthetics as well as sociology, psychology, politics, and geography.
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