The inclusion of a break in form or surface as a reminder of the broken state of the world and the broken parts of our lives and families. Not to mourn or hold a grudge but to acknowledge the difficulties which built our strength.
Our world is broken and yet it is not. It remains one world beyond human created brokenness. The unity of peoples is broken. It can be seen in pervasive bias and discrimination. The safety of people is broken. It can bee seen in crime, terrorism and mass shootings in particular. Our mental concentration is often broken. Can we really consume all we need to know in rapid fire one to 10 second bursts whether text or video? Our conversations are broken. The understanding of other souls leaks out onto the floor of our discourse creating mud which we track to our homes.
This tearing apart of humanity leaves us bereft of both empathy (sharing feelings of others) and compassion (Seeing from another’s perspective). Our psychology is broken as the illogical and the dis-compassionate vie to wrest control of the public purse strings from the logical and compassionate. Should we mourn this brokenness? Or should we learn to embrace it?
We are human. We are made with a tendency to break and a capacity to heal. In healing we become stronger, until we break again.
This brokenness and tendency to break can be expressed in buildings that are built metaphors pf who we are. In doing so they become more valuable. But for every cracked wall or split finish there must be a reconciliation that gives us hope for healing and which calls us to re-form ourselves in unexpected ways. Circumstances do not have to define our response. We can form new circumstances that allow us not only to survive but to thrive.
For African Americans this state of brokenness has long been obvious. It has been our history. It has helped form us into the people we are. It is at the root of our search for unity and healing. It is the core awareness that has allowed us to survive. Individuals may become broken beyond healing. The people as a whole are resilient. Our spirit remains unbroken. Though badly battered, though edges have worn away, though our healing and growth is slow, we remain persistent in our drive to live, heal and grow. Because of this, we build.
For every slur, curse and despicable act we have endured we have found a vision that says that the evil inflicted on us is not our evil but another’s. We have learned to retreat not in fear but to heal. We have learned to heal through spiritual growth, through expressing our pain in various kinds of music and dance. We manifest celebration of life because to do otherwise would be to allow the forces of darkness and death to eliminate us forever. The darkness of skin is not reflected in the light of the soul.
The time has come to express this brokenness and the desire for healing in our architecture. It is time to acknowledge in large and small ways the nature of this brokenness and the ways it might be healed.
The expression of brokenness might be that of a building built as two halves separated by a healing garden. (See figure 1.) It might be that the required expansion joints in a long structure are designed not as simple straight lines going through the building but actually form a broken edge. The crack being bridged by aluminum, steel and rubber. It might be that a floor surface is broken and varied with irregular strips of carpet cutting through the broken terrazzo like a river might separate a plain.
Walls might be separated by full height windows shaped not in rectangular frames but in frames which show and represent the brokenness. Yet these ‘broken’ windows may bring in healing light and hope filled views. Or perhaps the break is crisp and rectangular with the gap filled by a translucent glass block wall. That wall, an obv ious patch, may be the background for a waterfall that trickles water, light and sunshine into the space. Brokenness might be expressed as a circular gathering space that is unevenly split into various physical sections. Bridges may connect those sections to remind us that we can cross over and be rejoined so that none need be alone.
The broken parts of these designs represent and honor those of our families that have themselves been broken, especially those who did not survive the break. While in a sense this honor is a way of mourning, it is not a homage to death nor a way of locking the past in place. Rather, it is a memory of what it has cost to move forward. It is an acknowledgement of the price paid and an encouragement to move further toward being one people united in vibrancy of their differences and the persistent vitality of life.
Honoring the brokenness is not a way of holding a grudge. It is not a curse upon those who participated in the acts, comments and laws that created so many of these breaks. There is no need to honor the evil if you remember what the evil has cost. Yet it is evil itself to curse the perpetrators. Rather emulate the stance of wiser people from our history and focus on forgiveness. So the expression of brokenness is an encouragement to forgive those who will not ask forgiveness or do not understand that forgiveness is needed for what they perceive as nothing but the past.
The recognition of the loss of what is broken is a dream expressed for the desire of new forms and answers to make of what was broken something much more radiant and fulfilling. Like the dull grey stone that when split and polished becomes an abundance of diamonds, so too will the brokenness result in the radiance of a people.
Brokenness through a sense of time.
There is another kind of brokenness which African Americans experience. It is a temporal brokenness where the events of our live have been forced into a discontinuity. It is the brokenness of an enslaved family being split up and sold to different owners in different locations. It is the brokenness that causes a father or husband or brother to be jailed for short or long periods of time. It is the brokenness of untimely death by the police at a traffic stop where an innocent person is executed without benefit of trial, judge, jury, or verdict. It is the brokenness of untimely death due to drug addiction. It is the brokenness of untimely death through gang violence. It is the brokenness of multiple job losses because of a lack of fit in a European centric workplace. It is the brokenness of poor schools which derail dreams. It is the brokenness of opportunities sought but not offered. It is the brokenness of poor medical care offered too late and too far away to be part of a life of wellness and vigor. It is the brokenness of a social structure the leaves the African American feeling disconnected from the larger society and wondering where they fit. Some turn to the church for support. Some to family. Some surrender to the brokenness.
This brokenness, too, has meaning. It too, creates a need for healing. This is however a one sided brokenness that is not easily healed. It is not a matter of two halves being separated. It is the matter of one side being crushed and leaving a fragment of a life surviving. This brokenness is easy to conceive of as jagged edges left sharp and threatening; as unfinished structure and seemingly ill considered endings of otherwise smooth polished surfaces. But for African Americans this brokenness is healed by a complete transformation to another kind of life. A life that remembers the path that collapsed but is a new path none the less. There is beauty in that new path, a new destination. Traces of the old path may be visible but their importance is diminished by the new.
For the African American it is not healing to simply forget the old path. However wonderful the new destination and the new path, we must remember the old path because it made us who we are. It developed our dreams and skills, our talents and strengths. It showed us our weaknesses and our adversaries. If we were to forget it, we would be forgetting who we are, loosing our identity and losing our place in a community of those who have overcome. Losing our purpose to make unbroken paths for future generations. So we remember. And in our African American Architecture we express all these discontinuities as a way of expressing that remembrance.
This blog is for all. It is not a blog that seeks to curry favor or assign blame. There is no guilt associated with the things stated here. To the greatest extent possible, we strive to present factually through poetic prose, the emotional content of our lives and environment. We aspire to do so without hidden innuendo or resentment. Yet these things, many of which originate in painful experiences, are tender areas and emotions may leak through. It must. It is that emotional content which is the source of meaning for humans. What matters to you that do not care about or feel something for?
If you are reading this blog you should continue to do so. In it you may come to ponder what is meaningful to you. It may not be the same thing as what is published on these pages. These pages may, however, serve as a guide to discovering what your architecture should include and the qualities it must have to be meaningful to you. Sometimes it is hard to see our own choices because we are so entrenched in our perspective that we are blind to the possibility that it might be a choice at all. A fish rarely see’s the water it swims in. We do not see the biases and culture that we breathe. This blog may help you to see your choices more clearly and to appreciate the choices others have made or might yet make.
This blog’s comments will not make you an African American. It does not profess that everyone should accept the qualities discussed here as their own — not even other African Americans. Culture exists on many levels: Ethnicity, nation, region, city, neighborhood, block, family, profession and individual are just a few. The interaction of any person within these domains will eventually result in defining themselves as a culture of one. That individuality becomes the core of our identity. It is that identity that we want people to discover and value when we think of them loving us for ourselves. We don’t look for others to worship and adore us for any cultural stereotype at any level. Yet we want them to appreciate all the different identities we have in these varied domains. Architecture is a representation of shared identity. It starts with our humanity and extends through all the cultural domains listed above and more.
Jazz has fluidly become; latin jazz; Norwegian jazz; Japanese jazz; cuban jazz; new Orleans style jazz; smooth jazz; straight ahead jazz; be-bop; west coast jazz; and many more permutations. So too African American Architecture can encompass a wide range of cultures and be an influence to create expressions that are not yet dreamed of, designed, or built.
So what will your contribution be to the future of meaningful building? What is important to who you are? How will that be expressed? What can you learn from these discussions of African American Architecture about the Architecture of you?