A guest post written by Arlette Hernandez – Instructor, Sara Bodinson – Teaching Staff, and The Black Reconstruction Collective
In 1937, Paul Revere Williams, one of the first Black architects in America, published an essay in American Magazine entitled “I Am a Negro.” In it, he wrote: “I came to realize that I was being condemned, not by lack of ability, but by my color.”
More than 60 years later, these issues persist, and the numbers paint a somber picture. In 2020, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) reported that only two percent of licensed architects in the United States are Black; and the percentage of Black women architects is even lower (0.4% of 2%). But the problem of representation extends beyond architecture.
Whether in film and television, music and literature, or cultural institutions like museums, Black artists are continually under-represented and under-celebrated. For example, a 2019 study found that across 18 of the largest art museums in the United States, less than 2% of artists in the permanent collection are Black.
Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America is not only the first exhibition in the history of The Museum of Modern Art to explore the intersection of Blackness and the built environment; it is also one of the few instances in which the Museum has displayed the work of Black designers. As architect V. Mitch McEwen states in an interview with the New York Times, “MoMA created an effectively White Only architecture archive and department, by design,” having only ever collected the work of two Black designers throughout its 92-year history.
With such histories embedded in our cultural institutions, it’s no wonder that the path for emerging creatives feels obscured, or more often, non-existent.
A key component of Reimagining Blackness and Architecture, The Museum of Modern Art’s tenth online course on Coursera, is highlighting the contributions of Black makers from past and present. Not only as a way of exploring how Black artists have shaped the world around us but also as a way of sharing stories and advice with emerging creatives so that they might be able to find inspiration for their own practices or find ways to carve their own paths.
With this goal in mind, we asked the architects featured in the course, who have formed the Black Reconstruction Collective, to share advice for emerging creatives and people looking to enter the arts. Their answers encourage individuals from all backgrounds to look for and build their own communities, to create the types of spaces they need, and most importantly, to dare to dream. Though some answers are specific to the field of architecture, at the heart of their words is advice that can apply to any field.
Emanuel Admassu, Assistant Professor at Columbia University and Co-Founder of AD–WO: The only advice I would give a young Black architect is to make sure that you identify or build a community around yourself that allows you to think through the things that you are extremely passionate about. And to value that work by making sure you’re surrounding yourself with an audience that is as passionate about that work as you are. We need to keep making spaces that allow people of color to value themselves and the ideas that they are bringing into the world.
Germane Barnes, Assistant Professor at University of Miami and Founder of Studio Barnes: The advice that I would have for emerging architects and creatives is different depending on your skin color—and I’m just going to be honest. If you’re a Black emerging architect or designer, you’re going to have to work five times as hard as your non-Black counterpart. You’re going to have to find your own resources and reach out to your own mentors.
Sekou Cooke, Assistant Professor at Syracuse University and Principal of Sekou Cooke Studio: I think anyone interested in architecture has to be really critical of the things that they see in the world. Critical in terms of always evaluating what they see. Always understanding how what they see came to be, understanding how it’s made up, understanding how or what caused it, where it came from. And then find ways of describing that, find ways of documenting that.
J. Yolande Daniels, Assistant Professor at the University of Southern California and Co-Founder of studio SUMO: When I was younger in architecture, I felt silenced a lot. I didn’t see my reality reflected in the institutions that I was in, and that can be silencing. But then I looked in other places, in other fields where work was going on to question the role of Black people. Don’t let yourself be too limited by your immediate surroundings. Explore broadly and look for community in parallel places. One of the things that’s been really helpful for me is looking at other fields. You can take ways of working, ways of thinking, different strategies, and apply them to what you’re interested in doing. Anything can be an inspiration depending on how you see it and what you do with it. You might not necessarily see yourself immediately reflected, but be persistent.
Felecia Davis, Assistant Professor at Pennsylvania State University and Principal of Felecia Davis Studio: It’s important to make space for yourself to dream and not to listen to the negativities from people who say that your ideas are not real and that they’re never going to be built. I would say they’ve got it wrong. That, in fact, a dream is a built thing. It is a real thing. And it’s important to be able to do that to actualize yourself in the world.
Mario Gooden, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the Global Africa Lab at Columbia University and Principal of Huff + Gooden Architects: The Black Reconstruction Collective was formed as a means of visibility and as a means to give support to other Black creatives: designers, architects, artists. In order to be an architect, one has to be able to see oneself within that role, be able to see others in that role. And so, the Black Reconstruction Collective also sees itself as a form of mentorship to others. We can be the visual symbols that enable those who are ready to enter the profession and younger people—like myself, when I was a middle schooler—who may not have ever known an African-American architect, but wondered how to become one.
Walter J. Hood, Professor at University of California, Berkeley and Founder of Hood Design Studio: The advice I would have for emerging designers and creatives is, one: don’t think of yourselves as being in a category. Learn the art, learn the culture in which you want to participate. I think the Black Reconstruction Collective is a way for those of us who have practices to be part of a larger culture. Because the culture right now is so spread out. The second piece of advice would be to claim ownership of your ideas. There’s a power in ideas, and there’s a power in owning those ideas. I think the more conversations we can have around a lot of these issues, the more power we can have, collectively, as a group of creatives and designers.
Olalekan Jeyifous, Visual Artist and Founder of Vigilism: I would simply say, get started. Don’t wait for the perfect opportunity, don’t wait for a particular venue or a particular institution and institutional support. If you are able to, begin your explorations. I think that was an interest of all of us in the Black Reconstruction Collective—the idea of not having to rely on institutions or institutional support to really begin investigating and exploring these ideas and creative practices.
V. Mitch McEwen, Assistant Professor at Princeton University and Co-Principal of Atelier Office: The architecture field in the United States is predominantly white. And what that means is that we have to unlearn a false history and at the same time cobble together the actual history. Part of what we’re doing at the Black Reconstruction Collective is unearthing these stories, because the erasure of Black and brown people, of Indigenous people, from architecture and design—it has nothing to do with us. It’s not because we weren’t there.
Amanda Williams, Visual Artist and Founder of Amanda Williams Studio: I think the best advice I have is probably advice that’s been given a million times in a million different contexts. It sounds cliche, but it’s really true—you have to be who you’re waiting for; you have to create the institutions that you want. The benefit of today is that you have a bunch of me’s that are waiting to help you. And I had a few more me’s than the generation before me, and they had a few more them’s than the generation before them. So it’s really critical that if you’re looking for advice from me about what you need to do, you should be giving advice at the same time for the next person. And then we can all just go do it together, and it’ll get done.23