Architecture has a racist past. These artists radically reimagined it

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Mario Gooden. Refusal of Space. 2020. [Image: courtesy of the artist/Kris Graves (photo)/The Museum of Modern Art]

A new MOMA exhibit explores architecture and Blackness.

BY NATE BERG

It’s no revelation that Black Americans have been underserved by architects and urban planners. Systemic racism pervades the built environment–from segregated communities and freeways built on top of Black neighborhoods to prejudiced housing practices and a lack of Black representation in the development process. It doesn’t help that just 11% of architects identify as a racial minority.

The question is not how this happened, but what to do about it.

Cover of the exhibition catalogue Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America. [Image: courtesy of the artist/The Museum of Modern Art]

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America is a new exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York that seeks to bring this question into new light. It focuses less on what has gone so wrong for so long, but how architecture can begin to better reflect and represent people it has neglected and abused.

The exhibition was organized by Sean Anderson, an associate curator in MoMA’s Department of Architecture and Design, and Mabel O. Wilson, an architecture professor at Columbia University. About three years ago, Anderson was doing research on some of the most well-known mid-century Black architects, including Paul Revere Williams and Max Bond, and was surprised to find that neither had been included in any of the museum’s exhibitions over the years. “And the more I started digging into that, I realized that no Black architects had been shown,” Anderson says.

Mario Gooden. Refusal of Space. 2020. [Image: courtesy of the artist/Kris Graves (photo)/The Museum of Modern Art]

At the suggestion of the co-editor of a book focused on Blackness at MoMA, Anderson was connected with Wilson. She had contributed an essay to the book focusing specifically on MoMA’s record of collecting the works of Black architects and designers, and the two began thinking about how an exhibition could explore architecture and Blackness in a way that was more than just a mea culpa for ignoring Black architects of the past.

Felecia Davis. Fabricating Networks: Transmissions and Receptions from Pittsburgh’s Hill District. 2020. [Image: courtesy of the artist/The Museum of Modern Art]

“A lot of it was inventing a process by which we could curate this exhibition precisely because institutionally the archival material just wasn’t there,” Wilson says. “In many ways, that is the structural legacy of racism in architecture.”

David Hartt. Film still of On Exactitude in Science (Watts). 2020. [Image: courtesy of the artist/The Museum of Modern Art]

One of the first decisions they made was to call in a wider range of experts. They formed an advisory committee consisting of historians, curators, poets, an attorney, and a scholar of architecture, and had a series of conversations about what kind of exhibition they should create. Anderson says the conversations were transformative, and each member brought a different lens through which to view the relationship between architecture and the experience of Black Americans.

“We felt it was essential to push aside the conventional ways in which architecture is commissioned or created within the context of an institution like MoMA,” says Anderson, who adds that typically, museums explore architecture through the lens of solutions. This is true even at MoMA, where previous big architecture exhibitions have focused on how New York’s waterfront could adapt to rising sea levels and urban design interventions for expanding megacities. But when it comes to assessing how Black communities have been affected by a largely white and sometimes antagonistic profession, focusing on solutions felt inappropriate. “Solutions were often the reason why Black communities were demolished or displaced and/or disenfranchised,” says Anderson.

Germane Barnes. No Beach Access. 2020. [Image: courtesy of the artist/The Museum of Modern Art]

Rather than highlighting overlooked architects or specific efforts to undo the mistakes of the past, the curators opted to look forward, and to invite artists to consider ways that Blackness has been, hasn’t been, and could be represented in architecture.

Emanuel Admassu. Planetary Scar (Mid-Atlantic Ridge). 2020. [Image: courtesy of the artist/The Museum of Modern Art]

“We asked, what is it about the tools of architecture, the ways one draws or makes models or works full scale, that can be used to imagine other possible futures, but also as tools of interrogating the past,” Wilson says. “I think that really set up this interesting and rich and fertile ground for the people we did invite to participate in the show to really work within.”…

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