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American architecture is built on racism. Cultural historian Mabel O. Wilson is exposing it

From freeways built atop Black neighborhoods to the Confederate monuments in public spaces, Wilson is taking a closer look at how the country was built.

American architecture is built on racism. Cultural historian Mabel O. Wilson is exposing it
[Photo: Dario Calmese]

The exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, which opened at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in February and considers the social impact of our built environment, was both long overdue and just in time, appearing months after the murder of George Floyd sparked worldwide protests.

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Mabel O. Wilson, a designer and director of Columbia University’s Institute for Research in African American Studies, cocurated the exhibition. She spent the past year opening up a crucial conversation about the architectural embodiments of racism in this country, from freeways built atop Black neighborhoods to the Confederate monuments still standing in public spaces across the country.

“It takes a long time to build a world like this. And it’s going to take a long time to unbuild it,” she says. “We’ve got to start somewhere.” To that end, she coedited last year’s groundbreaking book Race and Modern Architecture and collaborated with architects Meejin Yoon and Eric Höweler to create a memorial to the enslaved laborers who built the University of Virginia, which opened on the campus in April 2020.

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