Expression of structural strength as an expression of our perseverance, endurance and strength.
Expressed structure is not an uncommon feature in Architecture from gothic to Modern. Part of that is the necessity of structure. Yet every new technology enables new structural concepts and possibilities. The Crystal Palace was the age of enlightenments celebration of cast iron structure. Many buildings in the modern movement, especially Wright’s Guggenheim and Corbusier’s chapel at Ronchamp, celebrated the possibilities of concrete. We enter an age of new technologies too numerous for me to want to list out and which can be combined in ways that stagger the imagination. There may be in our future 3D printed structural members in steel or 30,000 PSI concrete combined with fabric roofs and massive cross laminated timber walls and floors.
So this is our opportunity to recreate structure as an expression of culture and perspective. Structural columns might express not only the aspiration of rising up but the struggle to do so. Gradual shifts in structural sizes and techniques in a non linear recursive fashion might indicate the wave like nature of our perseverance as a people: rising and then falling only to rise again. The coarse nature of the structure might, over the circumference of a building, evolve into a smooth expression of refinement thus denoting the changes in the development of African American cultural and financial success.
That gradual refinement need not be a representation or adoption of a European standard of beauty. Rather it might be a depiction of the cost of the journey to modern American society. It may show not so much how African Americans have adopted European values as how the forces of society have worn down and stripped away the Africanness from our identity leaving us as a different people with a different perspective from the many different peoples of Africa. The change in structure may depict the formation of a new tribe or a new way to envision tribalism. What if tribalism was a fluid phenomena?
Yet, structure can also reveal the innermost core and sustaining values of a building or people. Erosion of structural coverings might model the removal of imposed European American values and reveal the core Africanness of our people. Or it might reveal our core humanity beyond geographic thought frameworks.
It is not necessary to think of structure in terms of pyramids and rounded painted mud brick buildings to suggest that the origin is in Africa. Rather the structure of African American Society has always been in the people. Shacks, modest homes, fine houses of worship, businesses and other places we treasured were torn away. Some were removed by redlining, others by interstate highway construction.We learned to adapt. So perhaps adaptable structures might express this resilience. Structures that move and sway or turn and bend without causing discomfort.
In the Image below a modern urban building is envisioned with a near mirror finished stainless steel base allowing a textured reflection of the passerby. That coarse reflection is in contrast to the glass of the upper stories reflecting a clear image of the sky. The entry is through a thin steel arch that supports glass block. the entry wall is itself textured glass and back lit. That backlighting might be by piped daylight during the day and by LED arrays at night. The translucency promises not the defensive space implied by the metal but an inner openness where the visitor is promised enlightenment for their trouble to look within by entering.
Our resilience as African Americans is formed by our network of community. For most this begins with family. Other with a community of choice. So one expression of that might be a network of small structural members that together hold great loads and is resilient to severe weather challenges. Baskets, a cultural tradition that includes African tribes as well as many other places, are a small example of such structures. Simple weak grasses woven into a structure which can carry loads that might challenge a person’s ability to lift them. Expressed as a building there is no need for a building to look like a basket turned upside down.
It might be that large panels of spaced woven metal strips provide a supportive framework to shape and support a translucent fabric skin that is both light fixture and expression. It might be that a 3D printed concrete floor panel component might take that basket texture and softness and use it to provide a stiff but thin floor that uses less material.
In Architecture without meaning the structure simply reflects the practical necessities of supporting floors, wall and roofs. In architecture with meaning all these mundane tasks are re-examined from a metaphysical or metaphorical perspective. Why should any part of a building be without meaning? The question rather is What does it mean and can the various levels of meaning be communicated without lengthy and wordy explanation.
As we move to a truly African American Architecture these things will be investigated. Not every project will reach its zenith. Many perhaps will fall short. We shall all be more nourished for the failures that will show a touch of spiritual presence and consideration. It is our humanity that the structure expresses. The bones of our society on which we shall hang not only our sufferings and trials but our dreams and aspirations.
Texture as a reminder of the pain experienced and the pleasures sought.
Stony the road we trod
The second verse of the song Lift Every Voice and Sing begins “Stony the road we trod. Bitter the chastening rod….” These words make clear that the life experience of African Americans have long been defined by physical sensation. We know our world and our selves by what we feel. Often what we felt is pain and disappointment. occasionally we feel the joy of victory.
The stony road is both literal and figurative. While this particular aspect of life has changed with asphalt and concrete roadways, the memory of it persists. Busses and subways now carry many to their workplace but it is still their feet that gets them to and from the transit stop. While this is not unique to African Americans, and while many African Americans now have cars or trucks this experience of the road on the feet (even in shoes) is a part of our identity.
African Americans even measure their own health by texture. They rub their own or a loved ones skin. If it is dry and ashy they know that something is not well. It might be nutrition or it might be actual illness. Lotions and ointments follow that observation quickly. If touching the loved ones skins reveals it to be soft and smooth then they are considered healthy.
From the skin we move outward to the clothing. Some European Americans marvel at how the poor African American can put such a high priority on fine clothes or even cars. But this too is reminiscent of the value of texture in defining success in African American life. Coarse work pants changed for fine twill suits and cotton dresses exchanged for satin gowns or silk allow us to imagine a life of greater success. It recalls the sumptuous Dressing of African Royalty in ancient empires. These items do not fool anyone into believing that their lives are without problems. But they value these things as both symbol and as experienced reward. Yes, everyone likes high thread count sheets. But for the affluent these are an accepted norm. For the less affluent they are an aspiration.
The texture of hair has been in debate in the African American community for over 100 years. Decades have been spent with men and women both trying to eliminate the coarse curly appearance of nappy har in favor of the smooth look and feel of European hair. Fortunes have been made selling chemicals, hot combs, hair dryers and other beauty implements to create this effect. The other side of this conversation — ongoing since at least the 1960’s — has been that natural hair should be celebrated in all its curliness: locks, afros, braids and more.
Thus, in African American Architecture texture must also find it’s way into the expression of our lives as a built structure. Not every wall nor every floor needs to be smooth. And just as industrial facilities and facilities for those with limited sight use texture was a warning so too might texture be used in residential and commercial architecture beyond that required by codes. The texture of the floor might tell a story or denote a path which, by following it, the user comes to see a perspective of the world that is more nuanced and complete.
What if the perimeter of that large central space did not form a perfect circle but wandered in and out of perimeter columns like a path that skirted the edge of a meadow in the midst of a grove of trees. Seeking refuge in the trees it dives in for safety. Seeking sustenance and to learn of the prey for todays meal or the enemy to attack or defend against, the path just out toward the central space to learn of the prospects. The path dances between danger and safety; between prospect and refuge; between survival and prosperity.
But if paths are one of the primary themes of texture then surely the path one cannot take must be made visible and perhaps even tangible. That path might include visible obstacles. It might be broken or unfinished. There may not even be a way to reach the path no matter how much you seek for it. This is the experience of many in the African American community. Perhaps by experiencing something of the feelings generated, others may have more compassion for the African American experience.
In the illustration below the entrance to a public building is modeled. The approach path breaks at the reflecting pool. To the left at the lower center of the stream is a narrow way that leads to a short stair. This path can be accessed only one at a time.m To the right is a broader way. That path is heavily textured and may be more difficult t cover but leads eventually by a circuitous route and a ramp to the same destination. As you approach at the reflecting pool you can see where the destination is but the choice of how to get there is not as clear. The answer involves ability and foreknowledge or perhaps a lucky guess. The smooth concrete on the short way and the textured stone on the broad way makes for a contrast in privilege as well.
Life is not simply paths. The places defined by paths also have stories to tell. In one place a room might be characterized by a symbolic rough textured wall that one enters by going around it. One side of the wall is a space of sumptuous luxury. The other side is sterile and nearly lifeless but for the people who move through it. The entrances are small. One might think of them as easily defended. One might wonder where those defenders are. But while the path to this hallowed ground might be small dark and sterile, the sumptuous place is filled with light and has broad views from beneath a deep overhang allowing one to see a broad perspective of the surrounding land. The change is not simply about texture it is a story of privilege.
Gradual Change of Privilege Through Change in Texture.
Thus the architecture might describe the increase in privilege of African Americans. While it will not soon match the privilege of our European American counterparts, It is for the most part greater than the pro village the previous generation experienced. So progress into a space becomes a gradually changing experience. It become gradually brighter with larger fenestration, gradually softer with individual wall hangings becoming wallpaper, wallpaper becoming individual tapestries or quilts and quilts becoming a lavish upholstered wall of monumental scale.
The experience of the Space
The use of texture is not simply a statement of historical wrongs and the aspiration of luxury in some future time. It is a reflection of the now. It is a primary determinant of the experience of the space. It defines where the space is one of comfort or work. Whether this is a place of confrontation or cooperation, whether this is a place the welcomes or repulses. This space becomes a definition not simply of use but of Identity. Who are you expected to be in this space. How do you respond to others in this space? Does this space honor you even as a visitor or does it diminish the visitor and aggrandize the primary occupant of a seat of authority? How would courtrooms change in their function and compassion if the metrics of privilege and were more evenly balanced between the authority and the unfortunate?
So in a truly African American Architecture is not simply a political expression or a sociological identity. It is not simply History or Aspirations. Nor is it simply a record of current suffering. It is all these things and more. It, through texture, color and the other aspects, is the heart of having buildings with meaning. What does texture mean to you?