On Architecture

On Architecture

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This Spring 2015 issue of the International Review of African American Art surveys the work of the architects of the African Diaspora. It is guest edited by Juliette Harris.

Not intended as a comprehensive survey, the issue covers a representative microcosm of this vast topic and is intended as the first in a series. This initial issue presents architectural renderings and the buildings, themselves, as forms of two- and three-dimensional art.  It also covers multidisciplinary themes relating the built and landscaped environment to topics in history and the humanities, city planning and social justice.  The content is divided into three sections: “Practice Profiles”, “Multidisciplinary Practice” and “Public Projects.”   


"David Adjaye/Conceptual Visionary" by Sharon Patton 

David Adjaye is an architect who despite his respect for architectural traditions regarding design and construction, tests the boundaries of these norms and strives for new parameters of what is and isn’t feasible. Some critics construe his imaginative seemingly improvisational use of materials and unusual exteriors and interiors as a cavalier attitude toward building. On the contrary, Adjaye uses technology to verify his concepts and plans. He also draws upon his art studies, his innate creativity and knowledge of current trends in the arts to assume an unencumbered, experimental approach to architecture.  (Sharon Patton, Ph.D., is an art historian and independent writer based in Baltimore MD.  She previously was director of the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution and director of Oberlin College’s Allen Memorial Art Museum.)

"Phil Freelon/Drawing and the Language of Architecture" by J. Michael Welton and David Brown

“Drawing is the language of architecture – you can’t effectively express your ideas without it,” says architect Phil Freelon who has won many design awards. The discussions about drawing in an age of computers are ongoing. To the student who says, ‘I’m not good at drawing,’  Freelon replies, "Wait a minute – What about the musician who’s not good on his or her instrument?"  In addition to his free-hand drawing, Phil Freelon’s creativity and improvisation also reflects a deep love and knowledge of jazz.  David Brown, who has studied relations of jazz, architecture and improvisation, comments on this aspect of Freelon’s work. (J. Michael Welton writes about architecture, art and design for national and international publications. He also publishes a digital design magazine, Architects + Artisans/Thoughtful Design for a Sustainable World. David Brown is an associate professor and the associate director at the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Architecture. He is author of Noise Orders: Jazz, Improvisation, and Architecture (University of Minnesota Press, 2006), a study of design implications of structures that facilitate improvisation in jazz. Current essays “Curious Mixtures” [“Music in Architecture—Architecture in Music,” Center, vol. 18, 2014] and “Lots will vary” [George Lewis and Benjamin Piekut, eds., Oxford Handbook of Critical Improvisation Studies, forthcoming] advance that study in the context of discussing his current design research, "The Available City," which explores the urban design potential of Chicago’s 15,000 city-owned lots. That design research has been exhibited at the 2012 Venice Architecture Biennale and the Chicago Cultural Center.)

"Huff+Gooden: The Works in Architecture of Ray Huff and Mario Gooden" by Al Willis

Their recent works have increasingly aligned pragmatic buildings with provocative cultural positions and therefore simultaneously with the concerns characteristic of today’s conceptual art.  The architects thereby stimulate inquiry into the current relevance of the Modernist project, the relationship of fine art to architectural design, and the function of abstraction in cultural communication.  Above all they invite critical examination of the complex interactions of people, things, creativity, and space.  Such is the sophistication of Huff+Gooden’s works, but also the accessibility of those works, that design connoisseurs as well as everyday citizens find themselves able to approach that examination both independently but also – and more significantly – together.  (Al Willis, Ph.D., is an architectural historian and consultant based in Hermitage, Tennessee.)

"Laurence Chibwe/Designing Across Cultures" John Welch

Laurence Chibwe, award-winning black South African architect and principal of Afritects, has been in the profession over 20 years. His firm has both built and unbuilt projects in South Africa, and throughout the continent, that reflect a universal Minimalist aesthetic, often combined with improvisational post-modernist design features and accents. Afritect’s architectural outcomes are innovative, daring and fluid.  A recent award-winning example for the firm is the Soweto Theatre (2012) in Johannesburg. (John Welch, Ph.D., is an art historian and museum consultant based in Philadelphia, PA. He was formerly education manager at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.)

"June Grant/'A Need to Make It' " by Juliette Harris 

Architect June Grant's undergraduate training in studio art has supported her skillful use of new technologies.  "I have a difficult time grasping the quality of a space just by the act of sketching. I have a need to make it,” she says. She led the design team for the NASA Ames Research Center’s Sustainability Base, a net positive energy building, and for GE’s first Silicon Valley software tech office workspace. She is also recognized for providing a vision for sustainable integration of utility infrastructure into the urban fabric, particularly as it relates to low-income neighborhoods. Throughout, it is clear what Grant means by “smart design for smart buildings with intelligent interface.”  She sees technology as a means to strengthen the connection between architecture and social and environmental concerns. She recently has returned to independent practice and is focusing on her Oakland CA community. (Juliette Harris is an independent writer and editor.  Her clients include the Hampton University Museum for which she serves as a consulting editor for the print IRAAA and editor of the IRAAA+ webzine.)


"A Talk with Mabel O. Wilson" by Elizabeth A. Watson

Mabel O. Wilson is an accomplished designer with many aspects to her practice. She is a senior design professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation where she also co-directs the Global Africa Lab and the Project on Spatial Politics.  Her cultural history, Negro Buildings, was published by the University of California Press in 2012. Her art projects with Paul Kariouk and a photographic project (“Listening There: Stories from Ghana”) with Peter Tolkin have been exhibited in museums and galleries.  She has been a lead member of design teams selected as finalists in three national competitions. She also co-organized the "Globalizing Architecture" conference in 2014 for the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture.  (Elizabeth A. Watson is an art historian who writes on art, architecture and film.) 


"Creatively Challenged to Lead from the Edge/Black Women in Public Interest Architecture" by Bradford Grant 

Profiles of two young women in the San Francisco Bay Area provides a representative look at black women’s leadership in public interest architecture.  These women, and others involved in socially responsible architecture, are often energized and creatively challenged to be especially innovative and imaginative in the face of limited budgets, neglected community users and the stigma and status of low priority projects. (Bradford C. Grant is a full professor in the School of Architecture and Design, Howard University. He is also co-directory administrator of the Directory of African American Architects.)  

"Upwrapping The Mystery of a Lost Community and Preserving and Extending Its Legacy" by Carmina Sanchez-Del-Valle

The new Weeksville Heritage Center is the culmination of a process spearheaded by citizens united by the desire to document the history of the remains of a black township. Weeksville was founded in the 1830s by James Weeks next to the Bedford Stuyvesant and Crown Heights areas of Brooklyn. From inception in the 1960s to completion of the $34 million Weeksville Heritage Center in 2013, project planning was collaborative. The architects, Caples Jefferson, developed a striking design for the Center while being required to maintain a dialogue with multiple constituencies. Unlike the efforts put forth to conserve the historic houses on the site, which brought together members of the community, this last part of the process was driven by representative organizations, governmental and non-governmental, public and private. (Carmina Sánchez-del-Valle is professor of architecture at Hampton University. She holds a doctoral degree in architecture from the University of Michigan and is a licensed architect. Her current projects include the mapping the Civil War era refugee camps in Hampton where the displaced African American population settled and the architectural visualization of their cabins.)

"Not Grandpa's Porch, Or Is It?: Musings on the New African American Museum on the Mall" by Michelle Wilkinson 

Wilkinson discusses design concepts for the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), scheduled to open in 2016. Some of its forms emphasize public engagement and demonstrative inclusion. Other forms attend to ancestral homage. And even others are about the history of architecture itself. Embracing the spirit of African American resilience, the building expresses the museum’s vision by using the languages and “typologies," as project architect David Adjaye calls them, of black cultures, ancient through modern and contemporary. The discussion is based on Wilkinson’s conversations with project architect David Adjaye and reflections on the legacy of black builders and designers, including her grandfather. (Michelle Joan Wilkinson, Ph.D., is a writer, interdisciplinary scholar, and curator of Guyanese descent. In March 2014,  she joined the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture as a museum curator. Her previous exhibitions include A People’s Geography: The Spaces of African American LifeMaterial Girls: Contemporary Black Women Artists, and For Whom It Stands: The Flag and the American People for  the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.)

A Design Vision for the Re-building of Detroit/“The wisdom of broader ribbons across the land” by Craig Wilkins 

Taking as his point of departure the success of Eisenhower’s interstate highway effort, Wilkins suggests a greenway infrastructure project for Detroit that takes advantage of the city’s current depopulation and reforestation.  His plan combines new, existing and repurposed structures with wind farms, remedial water systems, open spaces, commercial and recreational zones, pollution-cleansing trees and vegetation, urban farms, walkways, motor-less transportation systems, wetlands, animal habitats, creeks, streams and the Detroit River, all tied together by a long, environmentally sustainable swath of green rolling throughout the city. In one fell verdant swoop, Detroit could recapture its past vitality and prominence as well as lead the way into the next century of urban habitation. (Activist, architect, artist and author Craig L. Wilkins, Ph.D., currently serves on the faculty of the Taubman College of Architecture + Urban Planning at the University of Michigan. The 2010 Kresge Artist Fellow and multiple National Endowment of the Arts and Graham Foundation for Advance Studies in Fine Arts grant awardee has worked, written and lectured nationally and internationally, most recently as the director of the Detroit Community Design Center (2006-2013). His most recent publication, The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture and Music (University of Minnesota Press, 2007) was winner of several awards, including the 2008 Montaigne Medal for Best New Writing. His forthcoming book, Activist Architecture: A Field Guide to Community-Based Practice (Association of Community Design Publications, 2015) focuses on the philosophy and practice of community design centers, a foundational and essential component in the nascent field of public interest design.)

Parting Shot

Note on cover artist Eric Mack, a visual artist who creates architectonic imagery, and a second art work work by him.