An expression of our connection to God and our connection to Nature and Natural Phenomena.
It may surprise — and even anger — many European Americans to find that African Americans have never liked the modernist’s preoccupation with glass houses and such. Even today I find myself repulsed by magazine ads showing expensive and opulent bathrooms in high rises with an exterior glass wall that look out over an urban landscape so that you can enjoy the view with your morning constitutional. There is no privacy there. The modesty of the situation is questionable as it depends on reflectivity, daylight and interior lighting all being just so.
This is the difference in the African American experience. Since there were slave huts in the Southern US and teaching slaves to read was deemed illegal, African Americans have not wanted other folks to know what was happening in their homes. The physical violence of the post civil war period up through the civil rights era in the 60s also reinforced this. African Americans often did not want the neighbors to know if they were home or not. They did not want a posse to ride by with their shot guns and bombs and find a worthy target in a visible black family. It was probably not that they felt safer i hiding. It was likely that they felt less unsafe. Safety, to a greater extent, was a myth.
The 1930s and 1940s, through to the civil rights era saw the development of a substantial black middle class. This group had a second concern. Though they might only be postal workers, factory workers, trash collectors or bus drivers they were the emerging middle class and had a bit more than their impoverished neighbors. It seemed to many that being the first one on the block with a television set or color television set or microwave was not something to be celebrated. It was to be hidden so that envy was not created and the valued symbol of affluence was not removed by the jealous desires of a criminal element. Such losses did occur. I remember them well from my childhood. I still see it among African Americans today.It is not exclusively African American. In Detroit property crimes even in the suburbs track a close relationship to the areas level of economic hardship.
Yet African Americans are not particularly enamored of living in dark places. Yes, we are as capable of activities by candle or lamp light as any other people on the planet. We prefer daylight. But more than we prefer daylight we prefer to control our privacy. So bringing natural light in from above is a natural solution to these divergent values.
No, don’t mistake this for a love of skylights. African Americans do not want people looking in on them from above either. Thus in an African American Architecture the use of clerestories or translucent surfaces below skylights or lanterns would encompass a range of solutions that can bring in varying amounts of light, vent heat, allow for the perception of the time of day (Broadly) and the weather. It might be most accurate to say that African Americans prefer natural light without placing themselves in view.
We have been discussing an architecture of meaning. Yet light has here only been described in practical terms. But light does have meaning. While there are some who would deny this, the African American experience includes a deep spirituality. This spirituality is expressed in both the Christian and Moslem faiths. Both traditions endeavor to use architecture to become closer to God. I will not dwell on the detailed and deep architectural traditions of these faiths except to say that they share a desire to create quiet meditative places as well as ones where a dignified but joyous celebration of the community may be held. Let there be no competition as to which faith has the more joyous wedding or the more solemn funeral. The depth of grief and the heights of joy can be shared and understood by all people.
Thus the light from above, this indirect filling of a room with a perceptible presence of an intangible spirit, expresses this desire for a connection to God, Whether the proportions of the room are high or low this qualitative sense of tangible peace is an important piece of what is sometimes missing in European based architectural traditions.
Family is important in African American traditions. The place of the elders and respect for them is common. And the elders are remembered even as they pass into the afterlife. And while other cultures also respect their elders for their wisdom, strength and ingenuity, in the African American and some African traditions the spirits of the elders are invoked for assistance with temporal problems right now.
Thus this implication of spirit implied by light from above is also a conversation with the spirit of the elders. Their spirits are no more or less tangible than the spirit of God. Many African Americans subscribe to the idea that the spirits of the elders are joined to the spirit of God. Not unlike the Catholic saints, they intercede for the penitent with a more powerful good to sustain the distressed here and now whatever their distress might be.
Light from above is not the exclusive way to model this connection to God. Let’s look at it more in the section for Quiet spaces.