by Sukanya DebJul 15, 2022
Institutions across the United States of America are clamouring to have long overdue conversations around their histories of racism and racialisation. Architecture in its built, design, and scholarly capacities is investigating its complicity in the sustenance of these models of violent exploitative power. There has been much parley about reparations and actionable plans lately through discussions, webinars, publications, panel discussions etc. One such reparative measure took the shape of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York, entitled Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America. This exhibition is the fourth installment of ‘Issues in Contemporary Architecture’, an ongoing series of architecture and design exhibitions at MoMA that focuses on timely topics in contemporary architecture, with an emphasis on the urban dimension, in order to increase public dialogue around seminal issues in the field.
The United States of America’s deep discomfort and disinterest in its past has deepened the fractures in its societies, fractures that have now more than ever come under scrutiny worldwide. History is shaped as much by what (and who) is erased, squandered and eliminated, as it is by what (and who) is glorified, recited, and reproduced. It is only recently that MoMA has come to the realisation that Modernism was not just white men, as they pose the question—How does race structure America’s cities?— and declare it is ‘MoMA’s first exhibition to explore the relationship between architecture and the spaces of African American and African diaspora communities’.
Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America is an investigation into the intersections of architecture, Blackness and anti–Black racism in the American context. On view until May 31, 2021, the exhibition and accompanying publication examines contemporary architecture in the context of how systemic racism has fostered violent histories of discrimination and injustice in the United States. Such conditions have structured and continue to inform the built environment of American cities through public policies, municipal planning, and architecture, with specific repercussions for African American and African diaspora communities. The exhibition is organised by Sean Anderson, Associate Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art, and Mabel O Wilson, Nancy and George E Rupp, Professor, Columbia University, with Arièle Dionne-Krosnick, former Curatorial Assistant, and Anna Burckhardt, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art.
Centuries of disenfranchisement and race-based violence have led to a built environment that is not only compromised but also, as the critic Ta-Nehisi Coates contends, “argues against the truth of who you are”. These injustices are embedded in nearly every aspect of America’s design—an inheritance of segregated neighbourhoods, compromised infrastructures, environmental toxins, and unequal access to financial and educational institutions. Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America presents 11 newly commissioned works by architects, designers, and artists that explore ways in which histories can be made visible and equity can be built. Each project in the exhibition proposes an intervention in one of 10 cities: from the front porches of Miami and the bayous of New Orleans to the freeways of Oakland and Syracuse. The publication, or “field guide,” will include scholarly essays by the curators, members of the advisory committee, and invited scholars, as well as new photographs by artist David Hartt that were commissioned for the exhibition. Designed by Brooklyn-based Morcos Key, the publication will also feature texts and visual materials—photographs, reproduced drawings, digital renderings, images of models—by each of the 10 exhibition participants.
The notion of white as race-less, superior, and universal has phenomenally flattened and homogenised the ‘ways of knowing’ we employ in academia and beyond. Exhibitions such as these, bearing fruition with the labour, intelligence, and insights of persons of colour, and African Americans especially, make space for beautifully disrupting the epistem. In occupying space, making seen what has been institutionally obscured, and generally bringing insights from lived experiences, discursive media such as these practice honest and crucial conversations about social ecosystems that we all navigate, albeit differently. In looking to the past critically, opportunities to forge more equitable paths for the future open up, but look to the past we must.