Friday, July 19, 2013

A Crisis, For Real

The latest reading in my journey on the road to Social Justice in Architecture and Design was Melvin L. Mitchell's The Crisis of the African-American Architect: Conflicting Cultures of Architecture and (Black) Power. This book was so abominably written I can't help but wonder how it ever got published in the first place. This is a topic I take extremely seriously, and it deserved better. I feel a responsibility to discuss it at some length.

The entire book is riddled with typos and spelling errors. The grammar is a complete nightmare. The formatting has absolutely no rhyme or reason to it. Phrases that are hyphenated, italicized, or capitalized are formatted in a different manner further along in the very same paragraph. Adjective after adjective after adjective is strung together without the hint of a comma anywhere in sight. There was one thing in particular that irked me above all else:

"the growing downtown employed students and graduates"
"today's architectural academy based high profile architects"
"the recently departed charismatic young assistant professor"
"an inner-city 'urban problems' oriented graduate city planning program"
"an independent and full dean headed School of Architecture"

I don't know if there's a name for what he's doing here, converting noun and verb phrases into adjective phrases? I asked my own brilliant proofreader, and she said if she'd call it anything, she'd call it "Bad English." These quotes are taken verbatim from a mere twenty consecutive pages. The full 350 pages of text would require the addition of thousands of commas and probably even more hyphens to correct the numerous appearances of this awkward, cumbersome grammar. It became so distracting after a while that I could barely concentrate on the content of the book.

Crisis is divided into three sections: "Architecture and Black America at Three Critical [sic] Twentieth Century [sic] Junctures," "Black Power, Urban Rebellion, Black Mayor, Black Architects in Washington, DC," and "Manifestos for the Next Generation."

In the first of the three sections (where the proofreader was still partially awake, apparently), Mitchell puts forth two propositions which I believe deserve examining. The first proposition goes something like this: Pablo Picasso's Cubism was inspired by a West African aesthetic + Le Corbusier was attempting to fuse the Cubist aesthetic into three-dimensional works of architecture + Le Corbusier gave birth to the International Style = International Style Modernism is fundamentally West African in origin. The final conclusion is delivered in a tone of decisive inclusion into the evolution of twentieth-century architecture, something People of Color sorely deserve. Unfortunately, this was not the way to do that.

While I understand the dubious process Mitchell went through to reach this conclusion, it's an extremely bold one to make. I think the responsibility to qualify a statement is proportional to the boldness of it, and this one has holes all through it. Truly, it raises more questions than it answers.

What exactly was the nature of the West African aesthetic encountered by Picasso in the early twentieth century, and by Le Corbusier either directly or through Picasso's proxy? To what degree were the artifacts Picasso encountered being acquired and displayed by Paris curators for the very sake of their apparent exoticism, and not necessarily as an accurate sampling of African culture? For crying out loud, the display of African artifacts in Paris was being accompanied by claims that cannibalism was being practiced there on a wholesale level--as in humans sitting around a campfire gnawing on human arms--and that's not the worst of it by far. Curating is hardly an objective enterprise.

Nude with Raised Arms (1907). Image courtesy Allpainters.
Undoubtedly this aesthetic did inspire Picasso, for almost a decade, but how much of his impressions was tarnished by a white, western-European delusion of superiority? We know both Picasso and Le Corbusier were egomaniacs on their very best day. Did he truly understand the aesthetic he thought he was encountering, or was it a superficial and/or contorted view of a culture foreign to him, clouded by his own preconceptions? Indeed, white European encounters with cultures on other continents at the time were designed a priori to highlight the differences of The Other.
Carel Fabritius, A View of Delft, With a Musical Instrument Seller's Stall (1652)

The way I understand Picasso's most significant breakthrough, it's more easily traced back to the Dutch Renaissance artists' use of various forms of perspective in different areas of the same canvas to more realistically approximate the impression of a scene as one's eye moves across a landscape. While the viewing subject of a Dutch painting still had a fixed position in space, the eye itself was considered to be in motion, at least in its socket. 

Much like the Italian Futurists, I think it's far more credible to propose that both Picasso and Le Corbusier were celebrating the high speeds offered by increasingly technologically-advanced forms of transportation (and the relatively sophisticated manufacturing that produced them). It was a world felt to be in motion, more often and faster than ever before. Picasso disconnected the viewing subject from its fixed position in space and set it in motion, free to travel around the objects in view. Does this eye, dislodged from a fixed spacial location, appear in traditional West African culture? If so, then in what format? Decorative art? Mythology? Literature? I'd be excited to learn how it does.

Shröder House (1924). Image courtesy Open Buildings.
This is not the first time I've heard it said that Le Corbusier was trying to find an architectural expression in the directions modern art was taking at the time. It would be absurd to suggest that his own experiments with painting weren't complementary to the evolution of his built work. Personally, I find the compatibility of Gerrit Rietveldt's architecture with the De Stijl painters far more immediate, if not obvious. The problem remains, though, that Le Corbusier as a painter was not a Cubist, he was a Purist. He and his friend Amedee Ozenfant actively rejected Cubism.

Image courtesy Megaestructuras.
If we bypass Picasso completely, then we can place Le Corbusier himself in Algeria in 1931. [And I'll have to say that his plans for Algiers were some of the most astonishingly futuristic works that I have ever seen outside of Buckminster Fuller. Like all great works of art, no reproduction could ever compare to seeing them in person.] Arguably his pinnacle work of Modernism, the Villa Savoye, was already two-years old. Picasso had drifted away from his African period nearly ten years prior. And Algeria isn't "West" Africa by any stretch of geography. 

Okay, then, in what way did Le Corbusier's experiences in Northern Africa influence his architectural work, and how did that manifest? How can we be certain Africa had a more profound influence on him than South America, for instance? More interestingly, might he not have been equally influenced by the cultures of indigenous people of South America, if he encountered them at all? Mitchell's assertion later in the book that the Chandigarh complex was inspired by African precedents is actually extremely insulting to the Punjabi and their rich culture, in as much as Le Corbusier's impressions of rural life in India were very likely a condescending, colonizing distillation of their reality. In what ways Le Corbusier was influenced by rural, northern-Indian culture and expressed it in his work in Chandigarh has been examined convincingly elsewhere. If the chapel at Ronchamp was derived from African forms, as Mitchell contends, why did it take as long as forty-five years for it to happen?

Whether or not Le Corbusier is the "founding father" of International Style Modernism is most probably a debate involving Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, which isn't really relevant here. I believe they both hold that title, myself. It might also be pertinent to note that European Modernism was never fully adopted in the United States on the scale of smaller (domestic) buildings except for some key examples from the mid-1930s to the early-1960s. It only came to flourish here extensively in the corporate sphere, where the forward-thinking attitudes it connoted had appeal for marketing and branding.

The second proposition Mitchell makes in this first section is to say that African-Americans are as involved in the evolution and current flavor of American architecture as they are American culture in general, and he points to American music, specifically. It would be idiotic to argue that African-Americans haven't made an indelible imprint on American music. In fact, I don't think it's too big a stretch to say that now, in 2013, you'd be very hard-pressed to find any musical genre currently existing that hasn't been strongly influenced by the sounds of people of African descent at the very least, or fully has its origins in African-American musical genres, at best. The United Kingdom ought to say the same.

An analogy between music and architecture, however, is extremely problematic in a capitalist, industrialized society. For one thing, the production of Music, as an art form, is essentially free. It's one of the only art forms that truly is, aside from Dance, arguably. Singing is entirely free, minus professional training. Basic percussion may as well be. I don't need to do an internet search to be fairly certain I could purchase an old, beat-up, but perfectly functional guitar for as little as twenty-five dollars. I'm not convinced that one even needed to possess his or her own radio in this country to be well acquainted with music derived from African-American styles, whether interested or disinterested in hearing them.

Architecture is a whole other arena altogether. Mitchell later goes into more detail on, simply put, how very expensive building is. One useful line of research might be to compare American architecture from before 1700 with similar building types from after around 1760 (the period during which the largest number of Africans were brought to North America), to see if any stylistic traits or construction idiosyncrasies appear that could be reliably traced back to concurrent building practices in West Africa. 

In addition to the tragically limited examples of structures we have designed, built, and used solely by African-American people, one might also approach this question by looking at types of structures which we do have in larger supply:
1. Structures not designed in a technical sense by any architect, but built by African-American craftspeople for their own use;
2. Structures designed by white architects, but built by African-Americans for their own use;
3. Or for the use of other African-Americans; and for sake of comparison,
4. Designed by African-American architects, but built by predominantly white craftspeople for use by people of whatever ethnicity (likely rare, and unfortunately confused in this discussion by the fact that people in building trades now tend to be working-class rather than artisans); and finally, the area where there is potentially the most data of all (and it has been explored to some extent),
5. Examining the distinctive ways (if any) that African-Americans appropriate and utilize their spaces, regardless of who designed, built, or legally owned/owns those structures.

These five areas of African-American involvement in the built environment--and any more combinations one might like to add--could be extremely fruitful in a search for ways in which African-American culture is already a part of America's architectural character, and might offer some concrete qualifications for saying so. Suggesting that the saturation of American music is in any way equivalent to the style of our architecture is preposterous. For the first half of the last century, and likely beyond, I think it's safe to say that ninety-nine percent of the (white) architects entrusted with the creation of our built environment had never once been in a predominantly Black neighborhood (for long), much less ever set foot in a Black family's home, or spent any illuminating time in either. A truly Black Voice in American architecture, with a few exceptions, has been systematically silenced. I maintain that it was not possible to silence that voice in American music as completely, for various reasons.

The second section of Crisis is meant to be a history of the African-American architectural scene from its origins to the present day (at the time of publication, 2003). Mitchell's argument is indisputably compelling, that its nexus was Washington, DC. He cites two main contributing factors, first, that from the turn of the twentieth century to around the mid-1930s, the leading architectural education at a Historically Black University shifted from Tuskegee University in Alabama to Howard University in DC. Second, that the vast majority of work being granted to African-American architects and firms was not in the private sector, but public works, generated in Washington for obvious reasons, and in even greater numbers with an African-American mayor, Marion Barry.

Aside from the fact that this was where the proofreader started falling asleep on the job (my quotes above are all from this section), the main problem here is that Mitchell couldn't seem to figure out whether he was trying to map out that history or write his own autobiography. The problems of rhetorical focus, style, and the changing voice of the author are disorienting enough. Much of Mitchell's account of how this ostensibly objective history unfolded was shaped by his own experience, right smack in the middle of it.

Had his account been posited from the start as an autobiographical, and therefore purely subjective telling of how it all went down, I'd have had no issues whatsoever. It wasn't. Very possibly he and his associates in and around Washington were at the forefront of a movement in Black Architecture. But what might a Black architect based in Chicago, Los Angeles, St. Louis, or Detroit during this period have to say about that? Would s/he agree that all eyes were aimed at DC? Or were there other worlds, other histories, no less significant, being played out all over the country? According to Mitchell, the history he saw in his immediate vicinity, the one of which he was an active part, was seemingly the only one that mattered.

The statistics showing that DC had a far, far larger proportion of African-American practices at mid-century than any other city would support choosing the capital as that nexus, and I certainly have no reason to believe they're inaccurate. On the one hand, they make DC the obvious source of long and rich history on the subject. On the other hand, one might argue that because DC's African-American architectural scene was so very disproportionately large compared to anywhere else, that it is--for that very reason--the precise opposite environment one would want to choose to examine why Architecture holds such apparently (and sadly) little relevance whatsoever for young People of Color in the rest of the country.

The subject of the final section is self-evident from its title, "Manifestos for the Next Generation." Here is where everything completely falls apart. No proofreader ever saw it, clearly. There is quite literally another spelling or grammatical error in practically every single paragraph. There were a couple of instances where it was so bad, I honestly had no idea what the sentence was even supposed to mean. After a few pages that would seem to suggest that we're now discussing the future of African-American architects in general, Mitchell slides right back into an autobiographical account of the history of Black architects in Baltimore, Maryland, directly adjacent to Washington, DC. It sort of crept up on me, but after a number of pages of this, I began thinking, "wait...why are we back here again?" It was simply exasperating.

To be fair, he does make one astute observation in this section. It's this: the lucrative practice of architecture depends on a whole particular network of institutions that are directly targeted by systemic racism in this country. This institutional network includes the (in)accessibility of higher education, the acquisition and distribution of wealth and capital, control of real estate and what will be built on it and by whom, and the fact that architects typically don't see a substantial return on their investment in their higher education for the first twenty-five years or so of their careers. The exploitation of recently-graduated interns in the industry (which has been criticized elsewhere) is a blight on it that needs to be seriously re-examined, in my opinion. Many young People of Color don't have the privilege of wealth or social connections to go into a field like this one, with so many systemic barriers to their financial success in it. Personal or artistic fulfillment, as Mitchell duly notes, is not adequate or realistic compensation for young people attempting to break free of economic burdens that may face them.

Though not discussed in Crisis, I believe another problem lies in the ways wealth and material success are architecturally symbolized and displayed in this country. Up until quite recently, pretty much everyone who had--who could have--amassed any sizable wealth had been white people. Therefore, obviously, the architectural symbols of success of that kind would automatically be symbols of white wealth. It's typically American Colonial or Neo-Classicist in style, rural--or a suburban simulation of the rural--and seldom urban, aside from conspicuous exceptions like Park Avenue, Lakeshore Drive, or Beacon Hill.

It might be pertinent here to question to what degree the spaces we occupy are chosen by us, and to what degree they are assigned to us. This distinction is as much based in issues of class as it is race. It's also a bit more complex now that segregation is no longer sanctioned by law, but it's no less real. An upwardly-mobile, young white couple has the privilege of moving into a lower-income, working-class neighborhood, buying a dilapidated row house, and spending half a million dollars to restore it. There's little stigma attached to that, other than from native residents who might resent the signaled onset of unwanted gentrification of their territory. Quite the contrary, that couple's choice might even come off as "edgy" or "hip" to their pretentious, white, artsy friends.

For the young Black couple in a similar economic position, I suspect that option would not be so simple. For them, upward movement is not only about moving up, but also moving out, even if they had never before lived in the "hood." In other words, "you've got money, you're successful, why are you still living here?" If the superficial montages on a show like MTV Cribs are representative in any way (and I would not be at all surprised if they weren't, for various reasons related to media sensationalism), Black folks who do attain a high level of financial success seem to gravitate more toward a classically "white" symbolic representation of wealth than even their white counterparts do. I say that with the same disdain I reserve for all manner of hackneyed McMansion Suburban Sprawl, regardless of who it is perpetuating it.

My perusal of some of that show's episodes was admittedly brief (I find it nearly insufferable to watch). It appeared to me that, very ironically, the artists whose careers are built most on being the "Blackest"--on "keepin' it real"--seem most drawn to the traditionally "white" symbols of wealth, with a few exceptions. If I may risk this potentially offensive observation, they seem to choose to own and be master/mistress of what looks to me like The Big House, in architectural terms. Classical Greek columns and decorative details ostentatiously adorn every exterior and interior, dormer windows everywhere you look, double front doors with the requisite fake leaded glass in oval apertures, a plethora of rooms no one will ever use, and always on that perfectly-manicured suburban lane. Furnishings range from all types of Colonial and Victorian to Harvard Club and the boss's corner office: seats (pun intended) of power historically reserved for white males. Those symbols have been appropriated for their perceived power for obvious reasons...but at what cost?

Does the appropriation of historically white symbols of wealth and power in architecture and design--satisfying though it may be in the short-term--not merely perpetuate the notion that those institutions of white privilege were justified and legitimate from the start (which they absolutely were NOT)? One might ask these millionaires, "If you were to hire a Black architect to design a house celebrating your own personal background, with a layout that fits your unique lifestyle as an individual, built in a relatively non-white neighborhood, would that public presentation of your success be any less worthy of admiration? Or does such a gesture need to measure up to the standards white people have placed, without your consent or input, on the requirements of how to 'properly' represent material success architecturally?"

Fasil Ghebbi (1635), Ethiopia. Image courtesy Selline Maailm.
If it were me, as a semiotician and architectural historian, I'd look at the ways that the African Kings (and Queens?) expressed their majesty in the precolonial royal palaces of Western and Central Africa, but then examine how those forms relate or conform to (or might transform the concept of) a twenty-first-century, upper-middle-class American home. I'd love to find both parallels and inspirations for a new architectural idiom here. Whatever directions African-Americans decide to take their own architecture is something they'll decide for themselves. My white voice is irrelevant to that discussion.

Image courtesy Wiki Arquitectura.
The remainder of Crisis is a jumbled mess of ideas merely repeated from earlier in the book. There are musings on the role of information technologies, the internet, and computer-generated design software. That might have deserved some lip service in 2003, despite his repeated references to Gehry's Guggenheim in Bilbao, which had already decisively pointed us in that direction. Now it's pretty much old news. He stands on this ground to recommend alternative, outside-the-box means of conceiving design and producing architecture, to thwart the system as it's been historically established. It's a potentially emancipating line of thought, but he leaves those ideas undeveloped by any real examples of what might be accomplished or how.

One might have thought that a timeline of "Critical Black Milestones" would be difficult to screw up, but no, it wasn't. From past tense to present tense, from present tense to past tense, Mitchell bounces back and forth till I had no idea when I was. He couldn't even figure out what decade he was talking about. In a section dedicated to the period post-1956, he starts talking about things that happened in 1932 and the 1940s. And a bibliography is easy enough to put together, right? Wrong. At one point I was trying to locate the exact title of a book by the brilliant bell hooks that was referenced in the text, and found the bibliography to be as convoluted and confusing as everything else.

By means of an extended book review, I have tried my best to do justice to these incredibly important issues. Melvin Mitchell's call for practicing African-American architects (or historians or theoreticians for that matter) to conceptualize and write about this subject more and more is absolutely justified. I do hope someone far better qualified than myself takes up this topic and discusses it in a depth and with the attention to precision that it deserves.

©2013, Ryan Witte