by Vatsala SethiDec 30, 2022
In the heart of Los Angeles, amidst its vibrant urban landscape, enFOLD Collective, an innovative interdisciplinary design practice led by the creative minds of Dana McKinney White and Megan Echols, has woven a narrative of inclusivity and community empowerment into the fabric of architecture and design with their site-specific installation known as Black — Still. On view at 5814 Wilshire Boulevard till September 10, the design collective’s first built work transcends mere architectural form and becomes a living, breathing dialogue between space and soul.
Black — Still embraces the geological nuances of the M&A x Craft Contemporary Courtyard. The interplay of tar stains and methane gas pipes from the La Brea Tar pits has been harnessed to create an immersive experience. The installation’s deep black surface and tar evoking mortar between layers of wood lath, resonates with the site’s geology, grounding visitors mentally and physically. The use of inside-out lath and mortar in the installation’s wall not only mirrors the oozing effect of tar seepage but also carries symbolic depth. Through carefully selected materials and techniques such as sound-dampening Hemp Wool insulation and a misting system, the installation engages multiple senses while evoking a sense of calm.
With every project, enFOLD Collective brings a renewed sense of purpose in reimagining spaces not just as mere physical constructs, but as carriers of shared experiences and communal aspirations. In an interview with STIR, architects Dana McKinney White and Megan Echols from enFOLD Collective share their insights, inspirations, and aspirations for Black — Still, offering us a glimpse into the intersections of art, architecture and social consciousness.
Aarthi Mohan: The Black — Still installation seems to blend architectural and artistic elements. Can you elaborate on the inspiration behind this and how it reflects enFOLD Collective’s design philosophy?
Megan Echols: Black — Still is as much an art installation as it is a piece of architecture. The work explores historic construction methods, philosophically engages with the site’s geology, and seeks to create a safe space for BIPOC communities to explore wellness practices on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic and socio-political unrest.
Dana McKinney White: We at enFOLD Collective are trained architects and urban planners, who maintain a deep commitment to art as a public right. This piece serves to bridge the gap between the design and art communities while inviting Black and other communities of colour to engage wellness practices. As a design practice, it is our aspiration to reach a broader audience and serve those who may otherwise fall through the cracks of traditional design work.
Aarthi: The installation engages with the concept of wellness and cultural expression. How did you approach the challenge of creating a space that promotes well-being while also addressing narratives of access and representation?
Dana: As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, national conversations of wellness grew. Calm app commercials frequently show during commercial breaks, people flocked to buy Pelotons, and Yoga with Adriene YouTube views soared. Inspired to centre conversations of wellness within our own Black community, Black — Still seeks to unpack how Black people often compartmentalise pain, trauma, and mental unrest. We built Black — Still as a place of rest, safety, contemplation, and meditation, and it welcomes BIPOC wellness practitioners to introduce various practices to the community.
Megan: Further, we built the installation for us, by us. From its inception to its programming, Black minds and hands have shaped its realisation, construction, and activation for a BIPOC audience. Through engagement, we listened to our constituents’ thoughts and reactions to materiality, spatial configurations, light, indoor conditioning, and what makes them feel safe. The installation translates these ideas into a physical space that can likewise house wellness practices.
Aarthi: The choice of materials and design for Black — Still appears to celebrate Blackness in response to traditional architectural notions. Could you share more about the significance of this design decision and how it challenges prevailing architectural norms?
Megan: The exterior of the large scale installation is clad in lath and mortar construction, inspired by the historic lath and plaster construction method. This construction type is a familiar form of Black domesticity. Members of our own families lived in homes constructed with this method. We reminisce about these homes, speaking to their “solid, sturdy walls” and sense of craft. We invert the orientation of the lath and mortar, with the inside facing out, with the hope that it resonates as home. The use of this traditional method waned due to the growing popularity and efficiency of the gypsum board. Newer construction methods result in smoother walls, with more consistent texture. The irregularity of lath and plaster stands in contrast with the cost and time efficiency of design today. Black — Still embraces this handmade, irregular, and frankly unpredictable quality.
Dana: The deep, glossy black paint stands apart from white, often matte surfaces that exist within contemporary architecture vernacular. It reflects colours standing within its proximity, absorbs the space around it, and distorts the perception of scale. For many Black people, black stands as a symbol of power, revolution, and resistance. The immersive installation exclaims each of these sentiments all while exulting narratives of peace, relaxation, and acceptance.
Aarthi: enFOLD collective has a strong focus on community engagement and amplifies underrepresented voices. How did you collaborate with the local community to ensure their perspectives were reflected in the design and execution of Black — Still?
Dana: We started enFOLD Collective in 2021 to integrate community voices throughout the work we engage in. As our first built work, it was critical that Black — Still exemplifies our mission. While designing the installation we ran a parallel engagement process in which we invited several wellness practitioners who have since programmed the installation along with members of the Materials & Applications (M&A) community to take part in two conversations, the first on the design itself, during which, we discussed its materiality, form, and conditions, and the second to ideate on the space’s programming and adaptation. These conversations drastically evolved the project and entrenched it with the values of the community we built it for.
Megan: Our engagement did not stop during the design phase. We invited members of the M&A community to take part in the building project. Over three days, alongside a group of volunteers, we affixed more than 2,000 pieces of lath to the wood framing with precision. The redundant act in itself served as a meditation, bringing collective focus to clad the structure.
Aarthi: The project includes a series of public wellness events and workshops. How do you envision these events contributing to the overall impact of Black — Still?
Megan: The public wellness workshops have been a critical element in the activation of Black — Still. They have explored many practices that people can use to find stillness and heal. The practices have ranged from meditation to yoga, somatic movement to sound baths, and from restorative justice to a tea ceremony. We coupled and organised programs using the following themes: movement, narratives, reflections, and restorations.
Dana: For example, we hosted Black Emotional and Mental Health Collective (BEAM) in their Dear Black People Affirmations series. We read affirmations for Black women, men, transgender, and non-binary people. We reflected on our own identities and used the installation as a place for sharing. The two-part event reminded me why we designed the space in the first place. The architecture is meditative, but it also serves as a healing space for our community.
Megan: The immersive installation has further inspired people to use the space for their own private meditation, journaling, and listening. We are thrilled to see how our visitors have accepted the space as a place of safety and look forward to seeing how others will continue to shape it in their own forms of wellness.
Aarthi: As an interdisciplinary design practice, how do you balance innovation, aesthetics, and crafting your design framework, especially with projects like Black — Still.
Dana: As a practice, we work through deep intentionality, curiosity, and collaboration. Principally mission-driven, we always keep artistry, aesthetics, and frankly feasibility in mind. We see each of these elements as critical frameworks for our work and play off one another to maintain balance. Black — Still is our first built work, and we hope to pursue other projects that allow us to make similar explorations with beauty, impact, and communities in mind.