By Design 2015
African Diaspora Architectural News
ArchiAfrika — Conversations with the Diaspora
The AIA of New York City Center for Architecture (AIANY) became the indaba (Zulu for “gathering place”) for the ArchiAfrika conference on July 31, 2015. Bringing together more than 15 leading African American and African architects, designers, scholars and film makers, “Conversations with the Diaspora” is the rotating global biennial conference of ArchiAfrika. The previous session was held in South Africa in 2014. This year’s conference was organized by Joe Osae Addo, Ghanaian architect and chairperson of ArchiAfrika, and Jack Travis, FAIA, NYC architect and board secretary of AIANY.
With headquarters in Accra, Ghana, ArchiAfrika’s goals include emphasizing social design and promoting "design strategies developed within the continent which address the challenges of (its) future and engage the next generation of professionals." ArchiAfrika Magazine is filled with large photographs of architectural renderings and completed projects. The magazine can be viewed here.
The big idea of the ArchiAfrika conference is to broaden the conversations about development, design and culture in Africa, the US and throughout the diaspora.
The genesis for the gathering was the life and work of the late J. Max Bond Jr., the “dean” of African American architects whose early work — the public library of Bolgatanga, Ghana — is an excellent example of tropical modernism inspired by West African traditional buildings. The design included natural ventilation to eliminate the need for air-conditioning. J. Max Bond worked for the Ghanian government from 1964 to 1967.
Panel moderator Victor Dzidzienyo, a director of the School of Architecture at Howard University, was a community planner in Ghana in the 1960s and met Bond then. Dzidzienyo discussed African initiatives begun in the 1960s by independence leaders working with African American professionals like Bond to realize the power of the diaspora. Each of the panelists were personally or professional directly touched by Bond, as a mentor, friend, teacher or colleague here and/or in Africa.
Harry Robinson, dean emeritus, Howard University School of Architecture and Design, moderated the first panel, “Reconventioning with Diaspora,” recounting the department’s history of relations with Africa and the diaspora.
Like Dzidzienyo, Victor Adegbite worked closely with President Kwame Nkrumah to develop the new nation and later joined the Howard architecture faculty. Howard architecture students and professors have designed, or assisted with, projects in Mozambique, Nigeria, Liberia, Ethiopia, Egypt, Haiti, Brazil, Panama and elsewhere.
Toni Griffin, director of the J. Max Bond Center for the Design for the Just City at the City College of New York, and Victor Body-Lawson, New York City architect, continued the conversation about Bond’s influence on their current ideas and work.
Through Bond’s mentorship, Lawson learned the importance of equitable and just city design early in her career. Griffin was impressed by Bond’s interest in using materials from Africa in both economic and spiritual connections.
Mario Gooden, NYC architect and Columbia University professor, advanced theories of ideology and design through the perspective of "Afropolitanism." Afropolitanism is "the new transnational culture evolving from Africans and related to globalism," he said. It "is not the same as Pan-Africanism or negritude. Afropolitanism is an aesthetic and particular poetic of the world. It is a way of being in the world refusing on principle any form of victimhood — crisis, trauma, conflict for which Africa was mostly seen, as in during the 20th century."
Anna Abengowe, architect and founder of Black Collar Productions, spoke about dispelling myths of Africa and working to gaining more historical and contextual knowledge of Pan Africanism.
Mark Raymond, professor at the Architecture Centre, University of the West Indies,, Trinidad, recalled a childhood moment when his mother ordered him to go to the beach and to look in the distance for Africa. Now he regards that experience as a metaphor for continuing diapora connections to the Africa.
Angela Robinson, film and television director, screenwriter and producer, was the only presenter who is not a design professional. She related the Pan-African black nationalists movements of the 1960s to the current campaign to visit, vacation and invest in Africa.
Dzidzienyo’s “Towards Building a Sustainable Human Resource for Nation Building,” session focused on Bond’s theories and work in Ghana as a model for greater interaction and collaboration within the diaspora. He introduced the session with his memorable phrase, “impression without expression is depression.”
Henry Richardson, professor of architecture at Cornell, recounted how Bond deconstructed and reassembled the “African memory” in many of his designs, both in Africa and in the U.S.
Contending that “there is enough work in the black community, world wide, to keep black architects working for a very long time,” Jack Travis said that he likes working to help instill and increase collective consciousness in the diaspora. He reported on his long history of mentoring young students of color, especially with his summer design youth program that operates out of his NYC office.
ArchiAfrika chairperson Joe Addo traced the organization’s history and its recent gatherings in Durban, Cape Town; Luanda, Angola; Amsterdam, and Accra. Future gatherings are planned in Nairobi, London and Harare, he said.
Sharon Sutton, professor of architecture and urban design, University of Washington, recalled the Columbia’s School of Architecture’s transformative student trip to West Africa. Led and facilitated by Bond in 1969, the largest cohort of black students ever at Columbia’s School of Architecture at the time, organized a class trip to to explore the people, architecture and city planning of Ghana. The students included Sutton, Roberta Washington, now a noted Harlem architect, and seven others. It was the first trip to Africa for all of the students and their beginning involvement with the diaspora. Sutton said that many of the students cite that trip as an epiphany which led to their commitment to Africa and the diaspora and to their current work and professional direction.
The ArchiAfrika conferees strongly agreed that, in addition to international conversations, there's a need for intelligent strategies and sound implementation for action and results.
The "Conversation with the Diaspora” was a necessary and timely first step towards further engagement into the interests and the concerns of black architects worldwide,” said Jack Travis, shortly after the conference.
Collier Heights — A 1950s Modernist Haven
Artist and photographer Lydia Harris has beautifully documented the African American enclave of Collier Heights established in the 1950s on Atlanta’s west side. Her book, The View from Collier Heights, and related exhibition at the Hammonds House Museum AARL Satellite Gallery (May 13 - Sunday, August 23, 2015), show how the community was planned, financed and developed through a collaboration of local black architects, contractors, business people and the NAACP.
With nearly 2000 homes, many designed by black architects, built by black contractors and bought and owned by the emerging Atlanta black middle class, Collier Heights was a laboratory for unique and fashionable modernist single family houses on impeccably landscaped sites. It was designated an historic district in Atlanta in 2013.
The 1950s was the high point of modern residential consumer house design influenced by the modernist school of architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Mies Van Der Rohe and others.
Hampton Institute architecture graduate J.W. Robinson designed many of the brick homes in Collier Heights. Robinson and the other African American architect or architects and builders of Collier Heights adapted the modernist canon to the circumstances of the black residents. Harris has been able to confirm one other African American architect who designed Collier Heights homes, Charles Bryant, but she doesn't have much information about him yet.
Gracious living and dining rooms, stylish kitchens and lavishly furnished recreational rooms in the houses provided comfortable, secure spaces for the residents and their guests to gather during the segregation era. "The recreation room in the basement was a necessity when we built. You didn't have the civil rights," said one resident. "You couldn't go to restaurants...this was where they wanna come!"
Highly articulated exterior designs and landscaping signified the accomplishments and status of the black residents.
Lydia Harris, a white Massachusetts resident, discovered Collier Heights through a visit with a friend in the area. She immediately sensed its special history and made repeat visits to meet the residents, take photos and complete her research of the area. Her book, The View From Collier Heights, contains 130 exterior and interior photos of homes and some portraits of present owners.
Denmark Vesey and Other Early Builders and Designers
Prominent leaders in the movement to overthrow the slavery system in the U.S. were also some of the most prized and productive African American artisans, craftsmen, designers and builders of the antebellum South. Some were enslaved, others were free.
They included Nat Turner, a builder who led a bloody revolt in Southampton County, Virginia; and Gabriel Prosser, enslaved blacksmith leader of a failed rebellion in Richmond, VA.
Denmark Vesey, a contractor, was the leader of an unsuccessful slave revolt in South Carolina. Vesey, was also the prominent founding member of the historic Emanuel AME Church, affectionately known as “Mother Emanuel,” in Charleston, South Carolina. Founded in 1818 and now one of the oldest black churches in the South, Emanuel also now has the tragic significance of being the site of the June 15, 2015 massacre.
Demark Vesey was a very accomplished carpenter, designer and builder who bought his freedom after winning a lottery. In addition to being an important founding member, Vesey also designed the original church building and helped to construct it. He gained a reputation for his construction work in Charleston and surrounding areas, especialy in the black neighborhoods. In 1822 Vesey was, arrested, and executed along with others for leading an unsuccessful slave uprising said to have been organized in the basement of Emanuel Church.
During the investigation and ensuing hysteria surrounding Vesey’s failed revolt, a group of whites burned Vesey’s church to the ground. A two story wooden church was rebuilt by the congregation, but was destroyed by an earthquake of 1886. In 1891, the present church was designed and built by the prominent Charleston white architect, John Henry Devereux.
Raisin' The Roof, Constructing a History of Building
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, many African Americans in the south and southwest built their own homes, schools and churches. Average people in these communities were builders or proficient in building crafts such as carpentry and masonry. This history extends back to the 17th century and forward to African American achievement in formal building design and construction throughout the country.
Building history is one of the most incompletely documented aspects of African American culture. There is only one book covering some of this history—a bio-dictionary on architects, 1865-1945. There are no monographs on African American vernacular architecture and only scattered bits of information on black building artisans.
To document this history, the Hampton University Museum and Department of Architecture are planning the “Raisin' The Roof” web platform to document the contributions of African American self-taught builders, building craftspeople, licensed architects, building-related engineers, contractors and skilled construction workers and create an interactive history on this topic. This project will shed light on the evolution of crafts in relation to the built environment and reveal relations between buildings as manifestations of social conditions, culture and science & technology.
The principal investigators are Carmina Sanchez del-Valle (research) and Nashid Madyun (administration). Del-Valle is an Hampton University professor of architecture; Nashid Madyun is director of the Hampton University Museum. The project writer/editor is Juliette Harris, IRAAA consulting editor. Advisors include historians, architects and anthropologists at several institutions. The principals are seeking a NEH Start Up grant to support the project. Project details to come in this column.
After emancipation, African Americans in Hampton, Virginia, erected cabins of their own design and planned their settlements in an orderly way along streets they named Union, Lincoln, Grant and Liberty. Carmina Sanchez del-Valle has studied the method, design and materials that the freedmen used for this construction. Del Valle and her students created a map and digital visualizations that depict the settlements in greater detail than can be seen in the 1864 photograph of the site.
Edward Dunson appointed to the US Commission of Fine Art
President Obama has appointed architect Edward Dunson Jr. to the US Commission of Fine Arts for a four-year term. Dunson is the fourth African American to be appointed to the Commission since its founding in 1910. (The other African American appointees were architects Phil Freelon, Durham, NC; Harry Robinson, Washington, DC; and the late John Chase, Houston who was appointed to the commission in 1980.) Dunson and Freelon are serving on the board at the same time.
The “Fine Arts” in name of the commission is a bit misleading in today’s terms. But at the time of its founding, terms like “beaux-arts” and architecture were almost synonymous. The Commission of Fine Arts is the federal agency that review and in specific cases approves all public design, construction and memorials in the District of Columbia including urban design, cemeteries, public art, historic preservation, coins and medals.
Edward Dunson emphasized his “responsibilities to young African American students in pursuit of the design professions,” in accepting the award.
Tthe commissioners are currently reviewing the controversial design details of the new Eisenhower Memorial designed by Frank Gehry and the proposed Kennedy Center addition by Steven Hull, among other projects.
Dunson, a professor and chairperson of Howard University’s Department of Architecture, is a leading scholar of historic preservation and practice. He has served as a member of the District of Columbia Historic Preservation Review Board and is the past president of the District of Columbia Preservation League. He also is noted as the design architect for the Smithsonian National Museum of Art’s sculpture garden pavilion. Dunson worked on pavilion with two associates while he was with Skidmore Owings & Merrill architects.
He is an alumni of Howard University Department of Architecture, holds a Masters degree in architecture and urban design from Columbia University, and is a licensed architect. He is a member of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and the American Institute of Architects (AIA).
Tukegee's Pioneering Architect
Okay, here’s today’s black trivia question: Who was the first formally-trained African American architect?
Hint: he’s commemorated on a postage stamp issued on February 12, 2015 by the USPS.
If you didn’t know: the 38th Black Heritage “Forever” stamp honors architect Robert Robinson Taylor (1868-1942) the first architect or designer to be so honored in the series. The stamp, designed by Derry Noyes, art director and a long time graphic artist for the US Postal Service, features a black and white photograph of Taylor taken circa 1890 while a student at MIT.
Taylor is the first black graduate of the Massachusetts Institution of Technology (MIT) earning the bachelor of science degree in architecture (1892) and is considered the first formally academically trained black architect.
Taylor was recruited by Booker T. Washington to teach and head the campus planning and design at Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University in Alabama. While at Tuskegee, Taylor designed and directed the construction of numerous campus buildings including Butler Chapel. He also designed a number of buildings outside of Alabama including Alta Settlement House, Cleveland and Livingston College Carnegie Library.
An unveiling for the stamp was held at Tuskegee University on February 26, 2015. The recorded program can be viewed here. Program participants included: Brian Johnson, Tuskegee University president; Daya Irene Taylor, interim dean; William Campbell, Tuskegee alumnus and judicial officer of the United States Postal Service; Ellen Weiss, author of the Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee book; and Richard Dozier, former dean of Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science.
An architectural historian as well as former dean, Robert Dozier had been in touch with the Taylor family (including Taylor’s daughter, Helen Taylor Dibble) for many years as part of his research on African American architects. Dibble's daughter put Dozier in touch with Taylor’s great granddaughter, Valerie Jarrett, the senior advisor to President Barack Obama.
At the 2011 dedication of the Robert R. School of Architecture, the Taylor family held a reunion at Tuskegee and introduce the youth and family to the school. Over 75 members of the Taylor family from across the country attended and made a $50,000 donation to the new Taylor School. Valerie Jarrett was the featured keynote speaker for the program.
The stamp unveiling program was particularly meaningful for Richard Dozier. Under his leadership, Tuskegee University’s Department of Architecture, one of the University’s oldest program was accredited, elevated to and renamed the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Sciences at a special dedication ceremony April, 2011.
The Taylor stamp campaign was initiated by Henry Louis Gates, director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University and host of the PBS series “Finding Your Roots,” which in a 2014 program investigated the family history of Valerie Jarrett, Taylor’s great granddaughter Jarrett. Gates is a member of the Citizens’ Stamp Advisory Committee and submitted names of 30 African American names including Taylor to be to be considered for commemoration.
Gates had learned about Robert Taylor during his undergraduate studies at Yale when he read Booker T. Washington's The Story of the Negro and came upon the story about Robert Robinson Taylor.
Richard Dozier relates Taylor’s achievement to that of his Tuskegee colleague George Washington Carver at a time “when no-one thought architecture or science was a field for Negroes."
Richard Dozier Update
Richard Dozier, Ph.D., is a scholar of architectural history. One of his current projects is compiling the construction and architectural history of the church of which he is a member, Bethel AME in Tallahasee, Fl., which is commemorating its 150th anniversary. Begun in a bush arbor, the church was formally founded in a frame building in 1865. A larger church was built in 1878. A third building was constructed in 1922. None of these buildings remain. The current church building opened in 1984.
Dozier believes that the first three buildings were constructed by African Americans and is undertaking a painstaking search to find clues about the buildings’ design and construction. In addition to checking city directories, deeds, old newspaper articles and other primary sources, Dozier also is interested in contacting persons such as descendants of former Bethel AME pastors who may be able to provide information about the former churches.
He says that for the current building, 1950 Hampton Institute architecture graduate Edward Clark, then a faculty member at FAMU but an unlicensed architect, worked with the pastor, Adam Jefferson Richardson, in developing the design concept which reused the unique, sanctuary, stained glass windows of the 1922 building. The architect of record, Overland Associates, was not an African American-owned firm.
Black in Design Conference
Organized by the African American Student Union (AASU) at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the Black in Design Conference will be held October 9-10, 2015. The AASU is interested in advancing the design and building of “just and equitable spaces at every scale” by instilling those principles in its members.
The 22 conference speakers represent the design and urban planning professions and social entrepreneurship. They include architect Frank Christopher Lee who designs for challenged urban communities; Liz Ogbu, designer, urbanist, and social innovator; Camilo José Vergara is a sociologically trained writer, photographer and documentarian who focus on on low-income, segregated communities in urban America; Amber Wiley, assistant professor of American studies, Skidmore College, who studies the social aspects of design and how it affects urban communities and architecture as a literal and figural structure of power; Brent Leggs, a Harvard Loeb Fellow and senior field officer at the National Trust for Historic Preservation; Kimberly C. Driggins, associate director for citywide planning in the District of Columbia; architect Deanna Van Buren who designs restorative justice centers; Euneika Rogers-Sipp, founder of Sustainable Rural Regenerative Enterprises for Families; and Maurice Cox, newly appointed planning director for the City of Detroit.
For further conference details, see here.
African Vernacular Architecture Database
The first web database on African vernacular architecture was launched in 2014 by Jon (Twingi) Sojkowski, a registered architect lived in South Carolina. Roaming through the site’s photo galleries, one is struck by the beauty of earthen materials — clay, wood, stones and fibers — constructed into various functional forms and the craftsmanship required to do so.
Jon Sojkowski’s interest in this subject began in 1998 when he was in the Peace Corps in Zambia and travelled throughout the country documenting structures built by the villagers. In 2014 he traveled to Malawi and Swaziland to continue his photo documentation.
Sojkowski’s photos are augmented on the database by photos submitted by many other people who appreciate the beauty of this form.
Most of the countries on the continent are represented in the African Vernacular Architecture Database and the broad variety of vernacular styles of homes, sheds and storage facilities is readily apparent.
Designing For Community…With Pananche
The exhibition, Designing for Community: The Cultural, Civic, and Collegiate Work of The Freelon Group, was on view February 17 - April 17, 2015 at the North Carolina Central University Art Museum.
The exhibition documented the achievement of the Durham NC-based Freelon Group (now Perkins+Will) in planning public buildings which bring design excellence to everyday people and public spaces. The defining characteristic of the company’s approach is that great design can be transformational when experienced in everyday places like a classroom, transportation hub or library.
The exhibition was organized by the NCCU Art Museum’s director, Kenneth Rodgers. “Part of (Freelon and associates) success is based on their unwavering belief that architecture can shape and inspire society,” Rodgers said in the accompanying catalog.
“From this basis of understanding,” explains the exhibition announcement, “they developed strategies for the study of light, volume and material while generating ideas about how space is arranged and building form is composed. The resultant designs are subtle at times, bold when appropriate, but always responsive to client needs.”
Shown here are views of the National Center for Civil and Human Rights which was designed by the firm from the concept “a space for action.” It was inspired by the world’s great urban spaces such as the National Mall in Washington, Tiananmenen Square in Beijing and Tahir Square in Cairo. The interior curving walls create and define the space for action for programs, exhibits and awareness of global human rights issues.
The contemporary architects who are most well known to the general public — Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid — are celebrated as sculptors who work on a large scale and are a part of the fine arts canon as well as the architectural elite.
Ted Landsmark feels that this type of architectural practice should not be more privileged than outstanding, social design-oriented architectural practice. And he contends that the trend of the practice is moving away from young architects aspiring to make artistic statements and towards those who want their work to impact on the lives of regular people.
On March 1, 2015, Architectural Daily posted this video interview with Ted Landsmark.
There is extraordinary story beyond Landsmark’s thoughts on the profession which will be the focus of an upcoming “By Design” column. Until then, know this:
Even though Landsmark was one of the first African Americans to head a "non minority serving institution" school of architecture and design (he has a masters degree in environmental design from the Yale School of Architecture) he trained as a lawyer and worked in the legal field for much of his career.
Ted Landsmark was the subject of a 1977 Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph entitled “The Soiling of Old Glory.” Stanley Forman shot the photo when anti-busing protesters attacked Landsmark in Boston and one of the protesters appeared
to be about to strike him with an American flag.
Bradford Grant is a full professor and former director of the Howard University School of Architecture & Design