Editor’s Note: Milton S. F. Curry is dean of the USC School of Architecture and editor of CriticalProductive journal. He is the lead organizer behind “Spatializing Blackness,” a three-part panel discussion on contemporary thinking and creative work related to black aesthetics, urbanism and the lived experiences of black bodies at Design Miami 2017.
The challenge of the American city – particularly those with significant black populations – has been on full display in the past several years with the social protests in the streets of Ferguson Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland; and the decades-long tensions between development and gentrification in cities like Oakland, Detroit, Los Angeles and Brooklyn.
Modern architecture, modernity and idealized democratic values such as egalitarianism, social freedom and equality were bonded together in part by myth, ideology and epistemology. In the United States, the twin circumstances of post-colonial city-building and the importing of European modernism produced paradoxes at the outset that have proven resistant to change.
Ideology without a conception of the political – a standpoint that allows for both affirmation and dissent – is empty. How do designers and artists operate between the structures of museum, public sphere, and community? How does the cultural work of blackness get undermined by cultural appropriation of it as mere product?
Propaganda and black aesthetics
Artist Mark Bradford articulated something that really resonated with me: “I want to engage a social, political conversation about the contemporary world that I live in or my relationship to it, and at the same time I want to abstract it.”
Abstraction and black cultural production are inextricably connected to the rescripting of black humanism post-slavery and post-colony. For black Americans, abstraction has been more than a luxury, more than a rhetorical flourish that emerges out of European modernism. Yet it is that same abstraction that can remake the invisibility of black lived experiences.
W.E.B. DuBois’ “Criteria for a Negro Art,” published in the October 1926 issue of Crisis journal, set the stage for thinking about black cultural production by black artists. In the canonical essay, DuBois outlines a rationale for black artists to utilize aesthetics as a propagandistic weapon in the struggle for human rights and the inclusion of black intellectual thought into a new conception of culture and cultural production.
Mark Bradford’s formulation about his agency as an artist is, to me, emblematic of what Thelma Golden and Glenn Ligon termed “post-black art” in the 1990s in the wake of multiculturalism and identity theory that emerged out of the academy in the mid-1990s. For Golden and Ligon, contemporary black artists needed to be afforded the freedom of the constraints of a form of black aesthetics defined by predominantly white cultural institutions. For DuBois, any black artistic production that did not adhere to a protocol of propaganda was useless.
Architecture and race
Architecture, like contemporary art in the 1990s and legal theory a decade before, faces a critical moment in theory and practice. What do black citizens of major U.S. cities and global cities have to look forward to in the coming century in terms of urban conditions and their agency in determining how these conditions change and transform? What does an approach to cities that takes into account black agency, social codes and aesthetics have to offer to city-making as such?
To answer these questions, architecture must enter a new phase of self-evaluation. “Architecture thinking” – a way of understanding space outside of its instrumentalization as a mere commodity – brings forth questions of politics and space, the status of the cultural and academic institution, and the role of the public sphere. “Architecture race theory” – a formulation that seeks to galvanize academic work and critique work on black aesthetics and space – would intervene in the logic of the discipline in similar ways that critical race theory impacted the legal discipline - both teaching and practice.
As Judith Butler has noted, precarity – the destruction of the conditions of livability – has been a galvanizing force and theme in today’s highly visible social protests. Blackness and precarity have existed alongside one another for a long time. Yet at this critical cultural moment, blackness as an intellectual and aesthetic force has emerged as instrumental in rethinking what it means to be human.
For architecture, precarity exists alongside a certain form of nihilism in communities like Detroit, Oakland, Los Angeles, and in forms of informal urbanism pervasive in Latin and South America.
By bringing conversations about architecture, cities and race to both academic and public audience, we can explore the multidisciplinary approaches to cities, to urbanism and urban development, gentrification and redevelopment through a unique lens that is layered and complex.
“Spatializing Blackness,” is part of Design Miami’s Design Talks 2017 program. Speakers include David Adjaye, Hank Willis Thomas and Amanda Williams.