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.