Entire US cities were deliberately segregated for decades as part of Jim Crow legislation after the end of the Civil War. Prior to that, the concept of “slave quarters” reflected centuries of abuse and oppression in the New World. And even in the present, there are countless instances in city planning and architecture that still cast people of color as second-class citizens living in the 21st century.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York is now examining various approaches in architecture developed to address these injustices with its “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America” exhibition, highlighting imbalances that are “embedded in nearly every aspect of America’s design” — according to the show’s organisers.
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This is the central question at the heart of the new MoMA exhibition, which is part of its ongoing “Issues in Contemporary Architecture” series launched just over a decade ago. The idea of architecture being “racist” might sound strange at first — after all, how can an edifice encourage division and hate?
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But from apartheid-era South Africa to Rohingya refugees in 21st century Bangladesh, humans have repeatedly used design, construction and city planning to — literally — cement their prejudices, expelling the oppressed to the fringes of society. And the US is, of course, no exception.
Sekou Cooke, one of the ten artists shown at the “Reconstructions” exhibition, says that “(f)rom slave quarters and farm settlements in the American South to post-migration urban ghettos and slums in the Northeast to public housing projects throughout American cities, the predominant spaces of Black inhabitation in this country have been leftover, disposable, and characterless environments.”
Hope in a hopeless place
Indeed, the spaces directly or indirectly allocated to African-Americans may often appear grim and hopeless in nature; however, Cooke goes on to highlight unexpected opportunities arising from such adversity, with members of the Black community carving their own places out of such oppression:
“From these devalued spaces emerged some of America’s most valuable cultural contributions—the blues, jazz, the Harlem Renaissance, and hip-hop. Black identity, instead of being defined by the oppressiveness and banality of these environments, asserted itself to redefine how public space is conceived and used,” Cooke explains.
A cultural awakening suspended in space
Rather than focusing exclusively on what the organisers of the exhibition refer to as “contemporary architecture in the context of how systemic racism has fostered violent histories of discrimination and injustice in the US,” the MoMA exhibition chiefly presents newly commissioned works by architects, designers, and artists that “explore ways in which histories can be made visible and equity can be built.”
These works show how people of colour and marginalised communities can and have used “Black cultural spaces, forms, and practices as sites of imagination, liberation, resistance and refusal,” the organisers say.
Emanuel Admassu, who originally hails from Ethiopia and has made the US his home, reflects the same sentiment by saying: “If architecture is a discipline that encloses space, making it measurable and exploitable, the spatial practices that work in the Black radical tradition exist outside of architecture, as refusals of measurability.”
He says that equal measures of “aggressive reinterpretations of history and radical imaginations of the future” are needed to reconstruct the place that Black identities deserve to take not just in architecture but in society.
Struggling for visibility
Artists like Admassu and Cooke are ultimately reclaiming Blackness not only in the cultural space, but also in the physical realm. The introduction to the exhibition’s “Field Guide” specifies that “(i)f the US government failed in the wake of slavery to successfully account for and address the historical injustices to Black communities — communities that it actively sought to push to the margins — then ‘Reconstructions’ seeks to recenter discourses of architecture in America around histories of Blackness.”
Each project shown at “Reconstructions” proposes such a form of intervention to narratives and conditions affecting Afro-American culture in the US, ranging from “the front porches of Miami and the bayous of New Orleans to the freeways of Oakland and Syracuse.”
But, like most things, that is easier said than done. Mario Gooden, another artist shown at the MoMA exhibition, stresses in this context that “Black Americans have been systematically denied the right and access to public space and public accommodations throughout the history of the US.”
“To overcome the exclusionary conditions of segregation and prohibitions against inhabiting particular spaces, Blacks have creatively appropriated various aspects of the built environment and landscape to invent new uses, programs, and forms of visibility.”
“(A)s an act of self-emancipation for Black people, liberation is a spatial practice. (…) Black people have thus made liberation a spatial practice throughout their existence across America,” says Gooden, highlighting examples reaching from the Civil Rights sit-ins of the 1960s to the Black Lives Matter and Occupy protests of recent years.
First-world displacement practices
But it’s not just the occupation of architectural space — be that a building or a street — that embodies and fights the spatial aspect of oppression. Even in the 21st century, one needn’t look far to discover further instances of systemic injustice built into America’s urban landscape by design.
Many downtown areas across the nation have been deserted over the years by the white middle-classes, who in many instances escaped to their picket-fenced suburban dreams — while homeless and poor people of colour moved into these central urban areas. This is where otherwise prime real estate becomes a symbol of class and race, positioning the haves against the have-nots.
Some US cities have tried to address such issues by deliberately planning every aspect of life around these social problems and injustices; for example, the Texan mega-city of Houston has an air-conditioned tunnel system in place that allows visitors and locals to bask in their privilege, while conveniently avoiding the social injustice witnessed on the city’s streets above.
All 95 blocs of downtown Houston are thus connected along six miles of underground tunnels. The entrances to these tunnels are manned by security guards, who — in many cases — also are members of various communities of colour.
Improvising as a way of life
Attempts at remedying and rejuvenating at least some downtown areas have also failed in many instances. Gentrification has set the boons for disenfranchised communities even higher, while attempts to make downtown areas attractive to new lower-income residents have pushed those barely finding refuge there even further afield.
Cooke describes such practices as “forcible placement and displacement,” while Mario Gooden says it more directly: “Black people have moved through space, negotiated the barriers of social, political, and economic landscapes, and reformulated spatial conditions through these very migrations and displacements, improvising new ways of being.”
But with a global pandemic currently causing even more economic havoc and social injustice — especially in marginalised communities — how much more improvising will future generations of African Americans require?