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Does African-American Architecture Exist?

By Jennifer Newsom

Black Boxes: Enigmas of Space and Race is a two-day symposium on race and its role in the built environment that was held on Jan. 16 and 17, 2004 at the Yale School of Architecture in New Haven, Connecticut. The event was organized by Ms. Newsom, a second-year graduate student at the School.

I decided to organize Black Boxes: Enigmas of Space and Race after a professor claimed that African-American architecture was an oxymoron. In defense of his course content, which included Brunelleschi, Mies van der Rohe, and Le Corbusier, he told us students, "Why aren't we studying black [architecture]? Because it doesn't exist!" He said this in front of a class of 40 Yale School of Architecture graduate students: that architecture made by someone of color, like me, was unimaginable.

His comment, unyielding and unapologetic, slapped me back into my seat. Right then, I realized the irony of my existence. I was in love with this thing, "architecture," yet the foundations of this discipline were blind to the possibility of my contribution, and of the contributions of my forefathers and foremothers. I was both inside and outside the Western canon at the same time. Architecture couldn't see me, even though I was sitting in the room.

I soon realized that I suffered from the same ignorance that befell my professor. He could assert that black architecture didn't exist because no instructor before him had ever said it had or could. He had no interest in reexamining those claims, and no one had forced him to do so.

I was ashamed that I had also let myself be passively misguided. While stunned by my teacher's boldfaced statement, I couldn't think of anything to counter his assertion. Despite my expensive years at an Ivy League university, I was still grossly uneducated. I knew nothing of my race's contributions to architecture, or of how culture and race influence what we build, where we build it, and why.

Black Boxes grew out of these beginnings. I saw the need to fill a void in the curriculum, and to offer something valuable and educational to my peers, professors, and community. But the event is not merely intended to be a historical lesson. Rather, while it is important to uncover the past, I want to know where the dialogue is now, and where it is heading in the future.

In recent years, there has been a swell of theoretical exploration on the intersection of architecture and culture. Academics and professionals are reconsidering the boundaries of the discipline, and searching for their place within it. Black Boxes will bring together these educators, practitioners, and activists in order to move towards a practice of inclusion. It will bring together people like Darell Fields, professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Design and author of Architecture in Black, and Lesley Naa Norle Lokko, a Ghanaian architect and editor of White Papers, Black Marks, an anthology on race and the built environment.

The goal of Black Boxes is not to validate one opinion or put forth an ideological stance: it is simply to speak, reveal, and contribute verbally and openly. After all, we must acknowledge that what we make is not neutral. We must demystify the other and render difference commonplace rather than exotic. We must move beyond binaries, into a sort of enmeshed existence.

In order for us to fill the silence and surpass a cursory tokenism, we need to communicate. Black Boxes will provide the stage for this discussion. And it will continue to be an important discussion, for, as the scholar Cornel West notes, "the struggle with difference is what is and will be taking place in cultural architectural practices for the next 10, 20, 30 years."

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