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?