Germane Barnes on agency, rituals of spaces, and not buildings

The Miami-based architect and designer investigates the connection between architecture and identity through historical research and design speculation.

by Aastha D.Published on : Jun 09, 2022

'Classic’, a mark of timelessness and stubborn elegance. The adjective means: "judged over time to be of highest quality and outstanding of its kind". It also means, "very typical of its kind". On that account, anything ‘classic’ gets to be both: the superlative and the median. As a noun, the word ‘classic’ attains specificity in time and place: the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, and history. Classical architecture usually denotes architecture consciously derived from the principles of Greek and Roman architecture of classical antiquity, or sometimes even more specifically, from the works of the Roman architect Vitruvius. What then has been obliterated to conjure the seeming universality of the classical? In beauty, purity, tone, sophistication, material, music, literature, art, to be classic is to be stuck in time and its smug attributes of refinement.

At the Salone del Mobile.Milano 2022, we encounter a tryst with the future, powered by Lexus RZ, the first dedicated battery-electric model. Lexus: Sparks of Tomorrow includes an immersive installation by award-winning architect and designer Germane Barnes with lighting studio Aqua Creations, new prototypes from Lexus Design Award 2022 finalists, and work by students at London's Royal College of Art.

  • Germane Barnes | ON2 Studio Barnes | STIRworld
    Germane Barnes Image: © Chicago Architecture Biennial/ Germane Barnes, 2020
  • Developed in partnership with Lexus and Germane Barnes, the ON/ installation gives a vision for an electrified, carbon-neutral and human-centered future | ON2 Studio Barnes | STIRworld
    Developed in partnership with Lexus and Germane Barnes, the ON/ installation gives a vision for an electrified, carbon-neutral and human-centred future Image: © Steve Benisty Photography

Germane Barnes won the Wheelwright Prize 2021 awarded by Harvard University's Graduate School of Design. With his proposal, Anatomical Transformations in Classical Architecture, Barnes examines Roman and Italian architecture through the lens of non-white constructors, studying how spaces have been transformed through the material contributions of the African Diaspora while creating new architectural possibilities that emerge within investigations of Blackness. Barnes was in Rome this week when I spoke to him, conducting this very research; joyous, honest, and sharp.

Arch Times Newspaper: This fictional newspaper explores the boundaries of community-oriented design and identity | ON2 Studio Barnes | STIRworld
Arch Times Newspaper: This fictional newspaper explores the boundaries of community-oriented design and identity Image: © Studio Barnes

Aastha D: We speak of agency often, interchangeably with autonomy, and the gaze of knowledge production. Your work across public housing, The Chicago Biennale, the exhibition at MoMA New York, and now mobility with Lexus, has prioritised the systemic discrepancies that make our world. How has the intrinsic erasure in the status quo—white as default, and all else as the ‘other’—shaped your practice, and ethos?

Germane Barnes: I got to this point in a non-linear fashion. I never thought about architectural agency, community design, or advocating for the built environment as a student of architecture. An internship in South Africa, illuminated inequity in the built environment and looking at architecture as an agent of change. In Graduate School, I began to look at architecture as the function of bodies, identities, and spatial dynamics. Studying the built environment with that approach made me realise that buildings were at the bottom of my list of interests in architecture. They are beautiful objects sometimes, sure, but at the end of the day they are inanimate objects. I am more interested in the rituals that inhabit spaces, by the people, and for the people. As I worked as Designer-in-Residence for the Opa-Locka Community Development Corporation, in Miami, my priorities shifted and got clearer, putting people at the centre.

Block Party, Studio Barnes | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
Block Party, Studio Barnes Image: © MAW Photography

Aastha: That is fascinating; you grew up in Chicago, a largely segregated city, and to truly fathom body politics, and America's tendency to invisibilise its problems of racialisation, you had to be transposed to another state with its own racial disparities (South Africa).

Which brings us to climate justice, a function of racial justice. As our conversations tend to revolve around sustainable building solutions, carbon neutrality, fragile ecosystems, we rarely speak of vulnerable regions and people, or mobility. Especially in places susceptible to 'natural' disasters, mobility becomes not just about fossil fuel emissions, but also a means to escape calamity, a luxury afforded only by the wealthy few. How do you translate these complex conversations and what kind of resistance do you face?

Germane: I grew up in a part of Chicago that had mostly single-family homes, a typical American middle/upper middle class four bedroom home, and went to a fancy school. Economic disadvantage was not something I had to deal with, a massive privilege. In Miami, I saw the same pattern: single family homes, mostly black neighbourhoods, built as a suburb, higher crime rate compared to the rest of the city. This gave me a stronghold on the sociological context I was working with. It would rain so much in Opa Locka, but if you drove 10 min south, it would be super sunny. I started to understand that the way the city was planned as a way of limiting access of black bodies to other parts of the city. This made me relook at Chicago and understand its grid, system, and means of mobility.

Made in Opa-locka project is spread over multiple sites and land use designations in a single city, is an urban-scale design project | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
Made in Opa-locka project is spread over multiple sites and land use designations in a single city, is an urban-scale design project Image: © Studio Barnes

For instance, if you are from a poorer neighbourhood and traveling on a bus, we will make it so difficult for you to travel from one side of the city to another, that you just avoid making the commute; no shade at the bus stop, no trees, no comfortable benches, and enhanced heat island effect. In the nicer neighbourhoods you will find free trolleys, free monorails, lot of trees, benches, parks, the MTA system, etc. These inequities inform my work, where I try to make accessibility a priority, and advocate on behalf of the community to the city. As for mobility, come hurricane season; everyone who can leave leaves, fuel prices go up, the people left behind are vulnerable not because of the imminent danger of the hurricane, but because of the lack of infrastructure to cope with its aftermath. People go weeks without electricity, cooking fuel, or water. The affluent become the most difficult to speak and reason with; the insular nature of privilege not allowing for a full scope of imagining struggles vastly outside of their own experiences.

Sistrunk Exhibition - the design of this exhibition is inspired by rituals of blackness in the built environment within the Historic Sistrunk District of Broward County | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
Sistrunk Exhibition - the design of this exhibition is inspired by rituals of blackness in the built environment within the Historic Sistrunk District of Broward County Image: © Steven Brooke

In his latest, Barnes has been chosen as one of the 14 designers and artists cohort of the Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab. The  Design Lab, a partnership between Theaster Gates Studio, Dorchester Industries, Rebuild Foundation and Prada Group, is a three-year program curated to support and amplify the work of designers of colour working across the creative industries.

"For too long, there has been an evident pipeline and visibility barrier for designers of colour working across the creative industries, and the Dorchester Industries Experimental Design Lab not only challenges the notion that Black talent is hard to identify, but also serves as an inescapable answer to it," said Theaster Gates, artist and co-chair of Prada Group’s Diversity and Inclusion Advisory Council. “I am so proud of this cohort, and it is a tremendous honour to be able to celebrate, support, and amplify the  work of these designers working to enrich our collective understanding of and interactions with design. I am grateful for Prada’s belief and investment in this program, and I am thankful for the nominators and selection committee for helping us identify this impressive group."

Aastha: As an educator and someone who believes so much in mentorship and representation, how are you fostering educational relationships in ways that were denied to you? How do you unpack your idea, "Architecture to me is not about buildings"?

Germane: Much to the displeasure of architects, I tell them, my grandma knows more about designing a kitchen than you do. She’s spent tonnes of hours working there, she knows how deep or high her counter needs to be, what kind of storage should goes where, how her body moves and flows while working. I would never delegitimise the different means of spatial logic that come from vocation, occupation, or just informed instinct.

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown (Throne Chairs): Throughout the design there are chairs that allow for visitors to sit and collectively observe critical moments of black history | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears a Crown (Throne Chairs): Throughout the design there are chairs that allow for visitors to sit and collectively observe critical moments of black history Image: © Steven Brooke

On the Value of Representation

Germane: I never had a mentor who looked like me. As an educator, I never tell my students to design a certain way. I gauge which student needs me how much, and in what way. I pride myself on being a professor who tailors the studio to the students' individual minds. Students now are also braver, willing to chart their own path and explore design outside of how their professors stipulate. They are also upfront in other ways, okay with saying, “I am having a bad day and can’t produce work today." I think that is an important change in the culture (whether or not the excuse is real), where taking the day off is looked upon with shame.

Historically and today, the front porch plays a significant role in African American culture | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
Historically and today, the front porch plays a significant role in African American culture Image: © Studio Barnes

At the apex and the centre of the production of knowledge has been whiteness. The occasional perspective, research, and methodology of the BIPOC knowledge producer finds place in the peripheries of the main knowledge realm. It is lauded for its courage, marked with an asterisk, deemed ‘alternate’, treated with great exceptionalism, and then forgotten as a tangent to the subject. Operating from empathy, a keen awareness of inequities and privileges alike, Germane Barnes shakes up epistemology. His research questions have been speculative yet sharp. Focused on everything from porches, identity and politics of bodies, to now (hopefully) coming up with his own order of columns! As long as Barnes continues to not care about buildings, we can be assured the design status quo remains beautifully disrupted.

  • Emerson Dorsche: The Paradise installation is one that facilitates numerous means of engagement. The proposed solution operates at multiple levels | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
    Emerson Dorsche: The Paradise installation is one that facilitates numerous means of engagement. The proposed solution operates at multiple levels Image: © Jennifer Lamy
  • Sacred Stoop Installation, Brickell City Center, utilized a traditional architecture exercise, The 9-Square assignment, as a way to combine performance and pre-fabricated components | Studio Barnes | STIRworld
    Sacred Stoop Installation, Brickell City Center, utilized a traditional architecture exercise, The 9-Square assignment, as a way to combine performance and pre-fabricated components Image: © Brickell City Center

STIR takes you on a Milanese sojourn! Experience Salone del Mobile and all the design districts - 5vie, Brera, Fuorisalone, Isola, Zona Tortona, and Durini - with us. STIR’s coverage of Milan Design Week 2022, Meanwhile in Milan showcases the best exhibits, moods, studios, events, and folks to look out for. We are also excited to announce our very own STIR press booth at Salone del Mobile - Hall 5/7 S.14, Fiera Milano RHO.

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