My dream of course is of a truly African American architecture. Not an architecture in America that was stolen from African cultural icons like the Washington Monument was. (Look up the history of Obelisks and where they first appeared in the world.) Neither to I seek to apply blackface to modern architecture through the use of African cultural symbols like the ankh. While initially African American Architecture must at least begin with designs by African Americans it surely will pass into the mainstream. This was true for several branches of music and a variety of visual artists as well. I don’t mind sharing. What makes African American musical traditions valuable to the main stream is that they have meaning that is deeper than style. For the varied styles all speak of life and what it means to be human; how to deal with loss and isolation, how to deal with sudden success; how to heal from grievous wounds to the heart. This is what I want from African American Architecture.
It does not start with huts and slave shacks. That is subsistence more than expression. And while the LAX terminal 1 was designed by a team lead by Norma Merrick Sklarek, a black woman, I am undecided as to whether that is her expression or something that is more an expression of the client’s or firms dream. Was she really free to express herself? Paul Revere Williams designed many homes for the rich and famous in Hollywood. Was he free to express himself? Was there a bit of one-up-manship going on between the producers and actors who hired him?
Photo by Eric Salard Used with Creativecommons.org license. Copyright 8/11/2013 some rights reserved
There were others of course: Robert R. Taylor at Tuskegee; Julian Abele at Duke University in North Carolina. You might name even more designers of schools, offices, monuments and memorials. Yet only three percent or so of the current architects in this country are thought to be African American. Of those only 400 or so are women. What will their work look like when it flourishes and comes to maturity? What vision will manifest when the meaning becomes more important than the style? What will we see when they are allowed to create architecture as Art and express themselves and their people’s stories?
Now some will question why I have chosen not to include David Ajaye in the list of African American Architects. And while his National Museum of African American History and Culture is a marvelous accomplishment, he has not come up through the African American experience. He is of African (Ghanaian) and British origins with a life experience that parallels perhaps but is not congruent with the African American experience. In few other countries has the physical, psychological and economic oppression of a people been carried on as long as it has here. The African perspective and the British perspective are valuable. They are not, however, part of the African American perspective. There is no place on the planet free from the effects of colonialism and discrimination. But the response to that differs with cultural development and the response or healing from that oppression must be tailored to the patient.
No, I don’t expect to see buildings surrounded by carved stone chains or story high shackles cast in concrete. I do believe, though, there will be certain characteristics of meaning derived from the African experience in America. I want to tell you of these characteristics as I dreamed them. They do not constitute a style. You cannot create African American architecture by simply stringing two or three special features together. Rather they will emerge over time as a way of speaking to the past, present and future of all people. These characteristics will remind the world of the mistakes our society has made, comfort the world as it seeks healing and be a beacon of hope to guide those who wish to be more than they are today. I can’t answer the question I started with. I don’t know what we lost. There is no way to tell what might have been achieved by now but for the bias that infests nearly every member of our society. We can dream, however, about what might yet be and how we might make a shared dream a shared reality.
The dreams I have had about an African American Architecture cover a broad range of topics. They include:
Photo by Eric Salard. Used with CreativeCommons.org basic license