April 21, 2009

A Gag Order on Race in Architecture

Print More

Race is a painfully awkward topic in architecture, while culture remains the go-to book for, uh, copying. David Adjaye, the Ghanian architect born in Tanzania, said in an interview with New York Magazine in 2007, “If a Japanese architect talks about Shintoism, everyone goes, ‘Wow.’ If an African architect talks about an African village, it is somehow weird in the Western context. I find that hilarious. What’s the difference?” Adjaye, a prodigiously talented architect who last week won the Smithsonian commission to design the National Museum of African American History and Culture, is unfortunately a good example of how uncomfortable the architectural discourse is with race.
This past week at a third year review, I got into a fight with a professor about a student’s building. Situated on the border between Mexico and the United States, this student’s proposal was a Meier-esque home-cum-crematorium. Excuse me — dwelling-cum-mechanistic conveyer belt, per the discussion. His presentation, including a photo of an anonymous decayed corpse rotting in an unidentified desert: the proposal featured an American couple with a fascination with death who would give honorable ends to the bodies of Mexicans who passed away in the arduous border crossing. No joke.
After he finished presenting, I asked what the student thought were the consequences of having designed a machine/building that is distinctly “white” to process the bodies of minorities. “White” in this context means: literally white in color, which encompasses a long tradition of the “Whites” (Richard Meier ’56 et al. who built in stark mono-tones, all of whom were Caucasian males), and “white” as in race, as his building used a specific vocabulary invented and propagated by white men. I have no issue with this formalism; in fact, the student in question executed the design beautifully. However, his refusal to acknowledge the larger issues of race in his highly charged projected marred the oh-so-unornamented façade.
His professor argued, “No, no, you’ve got it wrong — the building recalls Legorreta & Legorreta, the Mexican firm who also did some stuff with intersecting planes.” That was paraphrased. For the record: No, Ricardo Legoretta built colorful, open courtyard houses rich in color, light, warmth and outdoor pools. However, the point to be noted here is that ultimately, the professor refused to discuss race — the elephant in the room — in favor of another “cultural” reference.
Now in the wider world of architecture, everyone’s buzzing with the news that David Adjaye was chosen to lead a team of three firms to build the National Museum of African American History and Culture — a highly anticipated building that was originally sited on the National Mall in D.C. Most of the buzz is normal architecture buzz: pornographically large renderings of a beautiful lobby, sparkling elevations of this golden-hued building.
But there’s something notably missing from all those glossy photos: the controversy. Before Adjaye’s win, some minority architects criticized the panel for the fact that most of the final firms were predominantly white (the special six were: Foster + Partners, Diller Scofidio + Renfro, Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Moody Nolan, Moshe Safdie and Associates and Adjaye’s team.) Adjaye, after building the Stephen Lawrence Centre, which commemorates a murdered black architecture student, was accused of having won the competition because he too was black. Both controversies, however, remained mostly in the blogosphere; The New York Times did not mention it, and The Architect’s Newspaper relegated race controversy to a puny last paragraph.
Why the silence? Why is it OK to talk about what age-old African architecture influenced the new Museum (“Yoruban” columns) but it’s not OK to talk about how David Adjaye’s experiences as a black Brit influences his work? The advisory council for the building, including black leaders such as Oprah Winfrey and the founder of Black Entertainment Television, Robert L. Johnson spoke clearly and profoundly about the hopes the black community had for this building and its influence it would have. Yet architectural community stays mum, preferring to discuss it’s “stone plinth” forms than the background of the architect which no doubt influences, if not saturates, his design sensibility.
It has already become reasonably in vogue to hire Jewish American architects to design Holocaust museums and memorials; it is understood that their backgrounds and their experiences, as well as the stories and legacies of their families, inform these designers’ work. But still modern architectural discourse shies away from personal experience, from race and identity, in favor of weaker references to alien cultures — like water for chocolate, we draw the works of ancient builders instead of speaking about the stories that mean the most to us.
Tell me your own story — not Meier’s, or Legoretta’s. I want to hear about being white, or black, about whatever race you are. I want to hear about how you’re from San Francisco or Paris, from Dakar or Salt Lake City, and what it feels like to have grown up in your skin, touched what you touched, while looking through your eyes — tell me what you’ve experienced. Experience is what architecture is about, after all.

  • Ms. Lui’s article is ironic. While it attempts a more progressive understanding of race and architecture, it continues historical misinformation. She is correct to acknowledge “cultural copying”, but she conflates prolonged historical copying with invention.

    Check this out: “…his building used a specific vocabulary invented and propagated by white men. I have no issue with this formalism; in fact, the student in question executed the design beautifully. However, his refusal to acknowledge the larger issues of race in his highly charged projected marred the oh-so-unornamented façade.”

    The idea that formalism was invented by white men is absurd. Like modernism, the origins of formalism are black. Avoiding this truth is the real order of the gag. The beauty, the poetic justice of Adjaye’s selection is that his practice/designs return modernity to its rightful place.

    This is not to say that modern formalism requires “black” exclusivity. Meier, Diller/Scofidio, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, etc. have all “executed” their work through the concealment of black formal practices. It’s not for me to say whether this concealment is self-conscious. But this difference—now placed alongside Adjaye’s—is what makes their work truly interesting.

    The tragedy here is that race is only understood as some authentic socio-cultural experience or political agenda. We stop far short of thinking it can produce anything beautiful.