This blog is for all. It is not a blog that seeks to curry favor or assign blame. There is no guilt associated with the things stated here. To the greatest extent possible, we strive to present factually through poetic prose, the emotional content of our lives and environment. We aspire to do so without hidden innuendo or resentment. Yet these things, many of which originate in painful experiences, are tender areas and emotions may leak through. It must. It is that emotional content which is the source of meaning for humans. What matters to you that do not care about or feel something for?
If you are reading this blog you should continue to do so. In it you may come to ponder what is meaningful to you. It may not be the same thing as what is published on these pages. These pages may, however, serve as a guide to discovering what your architecture should include and the qualities it must have to be meaningful to you. Sometimes it is hard to see our own choices because we are so entrenched in our perspective that we are blind to the possibility that it might be a choice at all. A fish rarely see’s the water it swims in. We do not see the biases and culture that we breathe. This blog may help you to see your choices more clearly and to appreciate the choices others have made or might yet make.
This blog’s comments will not make you an African American. It does not profess that everyone should accept the qualities discussed here as their own — not even other African Americans. Culture exists on many levels: Ethnicity, nation, region, city, neighborhood, block, family, profession and individual are just a few. The interaction of any person within these domains will eventually result in defining themselves as a culture of one. That individuality becomes the core of our identity. It is that identity that we want people to discover and value when we think of them loving us for ourselves. We don’t look for others to worship and adore us for any cultural stereotype at any level. Yet we want them to appreciate all the different identities we have in these varied domains. Architecture is a representation of shared identity. It starts with our humanity and extends through all the cultural domains listed above and more.
Jazz has fluidly become; latin jazz; Norwegian jazz; Japanese jazz; cuban jazz; new Orleans style jazz; smooth jazz; straight ahead jazz; be-bop; west coast jazz; and many more permutations. So too African American Architecture can encompass a wide range of cultures and be an influence to create expressions that are not yet dreamed of, designed, or built.
So what will your contribution be to the future of meaningful building? What is important to who you are? How will that be expressed? What can you learn from these discussions of African American Architecture about the Architecture of you?
Organic Form begins with the body just as the first music one hears is the beating of your mothers heart. Let us begin with a perspective on how African Americans view the body in different contexts.We’ll get to architecture after that.
Slavery and the Body
Every American should know these things. Sadly many do not.
The institution of slavery was based on the provision of capital, primarily labor. By the sweat of their brows the field hands made the American economy into a dominant player in the world. The house slaves and others supporting the field hands helped to generate that wealth. That was the theft of capital from the offspring of Africa: theft of the body, the body’s offspring and the body’s labor. This experience has led African Americans to a distinct perspective on the body.
African Americans are very aware of the fragility and the surprising resilience of the human body. The body’s attractiveness can draw the evil as well as the good. We have learned that the body cannot always withstand evil nor can it rely of beauty or strength to deflect evil. Yet the body is historically our sole possession. Even when damaged, mutilated and abused to satisfy those who considered it their property, it remained and remains ours. It is our record of wrongs we suffered and our declaration of identity. While the joyous times do not mar our bodies (stretch marks are not a disfigurement) the body holds the memory of pleasure along with the memory of pain. Yes, we are more than our bodies. Yet our bodies are still a part of what forms our being. That which carries our soul cannot be divorced from our being until the time comes when spiritual life has passed beyond the physical realm.
Our sufferings, past and present, become a part of our body image. This is not simply lynching or the whipping of the slave master. This is also death and suffering by alcohol and drugs as we try to numb the pain of our existence. This is death and suffering meted out by those now far fewer officers, judges and juries who define our bodies as of little value. And while we are grateful that the United States system of justice is far better than it was 40, 60 or 100 years ago, it is still a far cry from just and fair. So we see black bodies incarcerated and conscripted into forced labor and convicted of crimes that were not crimes until political oppression became more important than justice. And where a real crime may have occurred, there have been many times a block body was incarcerated for crimes they did not commit.
Yet, through this awareness of suffering and beauty, African Americans celebrate their bodies. They celebrate the range of skin tones, musculature and features that have come to define a people who are much less African than were the lands they are descended from. We celebrate a people whose blood was mixed by force with the oppressors whose claim to greatness was inspired not by greater grace but by better weapons. We celebrate despite having to manage a colorist social evaluation of ourselves foisted on us by the oppressor. Lighter skin is not the measure of greater intelligence or a more compassionate soul. These things are not related. The illusion that these might be true is a false social paradigm.
It is only natural that an African American Architecture would celebrate and remember the body. We are a sophisticated people. We do not need to represent the body by depicting sexual organs or even substitutes for sexual organs. The organic forms of the muscular of the human body has meaning in itself. While these curves may be changed in scale, texture, material and color they are recognizable when done well. When done well they remind each person of their own personal strength and their own attractiveness.
Such expressions need not be a call to “fitness” or “revisionist beauty.” African Americans have had enough of that: hair straighteners and hot combs; skin lighteners and bleaches; head coverings and razors. No. the beauty will be that, of a people celebrating who they are not who someone else wants them to be.
The meaning of this organically aware architecture will be clear enough that even those of European ancestry will learn to accept themselves as they are. There will be no need for fad diets and exercise will be for health rather than beauty. Makeup sales may fall as the desire to be or look like someone else may diminish. Perhaps the influence of these structures will reduce the demand for plastic surgery. There is no need to have your bust enhanced when the thin small busted figure is perceived as being as beautiful and as capable as a large busted broad figure.
An Architectural Perspective
In ancient Egypt in Karnak (now Luxor) the human form was incorporated into funerary architecture. The greeks used caryatids to support roofs. An African American Architecture will likely also be inspired by the human body. This will not likely be as literal as those uses. But, with the 3D technologies that now exist we can easily create columns of twisted forms that echo human musculature and proportions without attempting to represent a leg or arm or back. We can created beauty in natural forms that would have previously required far greater reserves of labor and capital.
But natural forms also include normal human postures. Can a building kneel in respect? Can it bow in reverence? Can it embrace or dance or sway with the rhythm while nodding its head? Can it express surprise or adoration? How could such things be done? In the 1960s, 70s, and early 80’s brutalist concrete based architecture was popular. That ended. Yet we still don’t seem to have buildings that express comfort and grace, when they express anything at all.
On a larger scale the form of the building mass can itself be this representation. Inspired by the sowing of seeds by hand, the facade might incorporate an arc that echos the swing of an arm. That arc might be planar or it could be a curved offset in a glass facade. Inspired by islamic prayer styles, the building might find a sense of stillness and repose while denying it’s own weight and massive structure. Perhaps it expresses the calm of thoughtful meditation. It might have a relaxed posture that urges peace and not the rigid attitude of confrontation.
On a smaller scale the details of the building can express this organic form. Certainly a handrail can be made as a sculptural item that, while supporting and bracing for your trip along the stairs, might also echo running your hand along the body of your special love. Imagine a building that incited people to love each other, to touch each other with kindness. On the smallest scale every door handle and cabinet pull might be crafted with this same awareness. Every thing you touch might have a form that reminds you of the sanctity and beauty of the human body.
Antonio Gaudi’s Spanish Architecture, which may reflect Moorish influence, is known for opulent curves that make one think perhaps your perceptions have been twisted by some drug or perhaps reality itself is twisting and deforming. I do not think that the African American expression of organic form would necessarily invoke that same sensation. Partly because the sources of organic form are more numerous than only the human body.
Organic Forms in Nature
The baobab tree and all trees are, in their particular structural growth, models of natural systems that could be adapted into a built expression beyond their use as construction materials. The baobab tree might be transformed into an entire structure with its broad trunk and relatively small canopy. It might even be the guiding image of a collection of structures on a campus where the shared courtyard spaces that connects the buildings is as important as the buildings themselves. The shape of an oak leaf might be transformed into the frame of an opening between spaces, a visual peek if you will. At a larger scale the opening is a window or door. At a smaller scale and in greater quantity that opening is part of a lace like screen that provides physical separation of spaces that are visually connected with light. This is the memory of the Carolingian forest as experienced by escaping slaves. The light shared from one space creates a shadow in the next making both spaces unique with one being the giver and the other the receiver and both more beautiful for the gift.
But the forms in nature are often more varied than any single object or parts of objects. Sometimes the beauty of nature is in the form of collections of objects. This can include billions of snowflakes in a windblown drift. Trillions of grains of sand on the lakeshore in large dunes or in wave driven ripples. Each of these can form patterns to be incorporated in textiles or as the surfacing of walls and floors. The rounded gravel of the ancient stream bed, the expansive scale of the broken shoreline festooned with irregular islands, coves and bays. The sweep of a range of mountains and the valley’s shadows and distant snowcaps might all be inspiration for how to manipulate light to remind us that we are physical beings on a physical planet and not merely intellectual organisms living and working in a concrete, steel and glass hive. By coming to understand a planet which is as rich and varied in it’s landscapes and composition as the many wondrous people who inhabit it, we might come to understand each other.
But these things as the element of a message might be arranged to speak of losses or of gains. They might speak of stability through change. As images, textures or forms they acquire meaning through the context in which they are presented. Are they a welcome or a warning? Are they a memorial or a celebration of rebirth? Are they honoring the elders or honoring the promise of the young?
Especially when words are not used — and words are not necessary — there will those who do not understand the meaning of design based on organic forms. There will be those who deliberately misunderstand the design to feed their own anger. There will be those who feel the “added expense of natural form” is not cost effective. Even if that is true, why should we have buildings that are meaningless? How much should it cost to sustain your soul?