The new exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America at the Museum of Modern Art in New York reframes architecture from the perspective of Black people. The artists whose work makes up the exhibition decided that its implications couldn’t just be theoretical.
At one of their first gatherings, the artists formed the Black Reconstruction Collective, and they’re now in the process of creating a support structure and opportunities for other Black architects and designers to reimagine what architecture from the Black perspective can be.
The artists exhibited in the show—Emanuel Admassu, Germane Barnes, Sekou Cooke, J. Yolande Daniels, Felecia Davis, Mario Gooden, David Hartt, Walter Hood, Olalekan Jeyifous, V. Mitch McEwen, and Amanda Williams—want the exhibition’s impact to live on beyond its time at MoMA, which ends May 31. In a recent interview, three members explained how the collective formed and what it hopes to do.
The idea for a collective emerged organically and quickly, they say. “It was really an attempt to understand and make the show bigger than what the 11 of us had to offer, to expand it beyond the boundaries of the museum,” says Felecia Davis, who is an associate professor of architecture at Penn State.
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The MoMA exhibition had been in the works for several years, before protests over racial inequity and police brutality spread across the United States last summer.
“Our earliest meetings were years ago, prior to many of the unfortunate killings of Black individuals across the country, when the world finally started to believe Black people,” says Germane Barnes, who is an assistant professor of architecture at the University of Miami. “And while we were coming up with the ideas for the BRC, it was never as a response to anything beyond us trying to extend our presence and extend Black presence in architecture.”
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Last year the collective formalized and chartered a nonprofit in New York state. They’ve begun raising funds and are planning to establish two prizes for individuals exploring projects, research, or physical interventions that examine architecture and design in the context of the African diaspora. The collective will also be doing work of its own and has received a grant for a series of events focused on monuments, particularly long-contentious Confederate monuments.
One of the goals of the BRC is to provide both mentorship and an institutional support system for Black architects to work and research on their own terms, without catering to the historically narrow or even dismissive missions of other parts of the design establishment.
“It takes the onus off these other institutions, and it allows us to be in charge of the work, be in charge of the vision,” says Walter Hood, who is the founder of Hood Design Studio and a professor at the University of California, Berkeley. “There are opportunities that exist out there that mainstream institutions are either too cautious to try to help repair or they’re just blind to it.”
Providing this new venue for Black architects is filling a hole, but it’s also opening up the potential for new forms of architecture and design thinking that may not otherwise have emerged.
“We’re trying to make a space where a fuller story can be told without having to hold back,” says Davis. “We don’t have any particular project in mind. We’re hoping that by being open we can understand where it’s important to look and where new knowledge might actually be.”
The collective members argue that the point of the BRC is to create resources specifically for Black architecture, not to change the architectural industry.
“We’re not trying to change those guys, those people. We’re trying to make a space for ourselves,” Hood says. “At a certain point, we have to start articulating our own future. And if the rest of the profession wants to come along, that’s on them. Would you guys agree? Because I’m tired of that question.”
“I totally agree,” says Barnes.
“Yes. Absolutely,” says Davis. “To me, this is a moment where you’re not asking for permission. It’s like let’s do these things to see what kind of vision for life we can have.”
It’s an assertion that reflects the ways architecture has overlooked and mistreated Black people, but also one that sees a path forward in self-empowerment.
“If capital-A architecture accepts us, I do not care,” says Barnes. “Because the people who we care about understand the work, and the people who we care about need the work, and the people who we care about are inspired by the work, and that’s the legacy that we’re interested in. It’s getting people who look like us to be excited about these issues, and I think the MoMA show encapsulates that because we don’t have to explain things to people. We don’t have to explain what’s already known. To me, that’s way more powerful than being accepted.”