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  • Writer's pictureSam Needleman

All of That Stuff Gets Built!

Mabel O. Wilson on architecture and Blackness.

By Sam Needleman

Buildings are usually sturdy, and our conceptions of them tend to be, too. Only once in a blue moon does someone come along and shake the foundation. Mabel O. Wilson, the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation at GSAPP, is one of those people. For someone who doesn’t even call herself an architectural historian, Wilson has transformed how we think about the built environment with remarkable dexterity. Through studies of museums, campuses, plantations, and capitol buildings, she poses a straightforward question: Where is race in the history of American architecture?

Wilson’s revelations permeate Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, this spring’s landmark MoMA exhibit that she co-curated with Sean Anderson. On a recent Saturday, the show’s large gallery was thronged with visitors careening around 10 installations by members of the Black Reconstruction Collective, a group of designers committed to “dismantling systemic white supremacy and hegemonic whiteness within art, design, and academia.” In fall 2019, when the Collective formed to plan Reconstructions, Wilson, ever the professor, sent them a syllabus and met them in a MoMA conference room to discuss. Over the next year and a half, under her auspices, theory and practice twirled around each other like strands of curatorial DNA. The resulting exhibit has suffused the museum’s historically sterile Department of Architecture and Design with new vitality.

In presenting gorgeously rendered plans for 10 United States cities, Wilson conceives the exhibit out of the contradictions of our racist, colonial, and capitalist history, then positions the designers as midwives responsible for shepherding fresh ecologies of being and building into the world. Academics are notorious for neglecting everything off-campus, but Wilson seems to thrive on public collaboration with artists and their admirers. Her project wouldn’t be possible in the museum’s other departments; as an art form, architecture’s material impulse—its investment in the quotidian—has always distinguished and grounded it, even if its theoretical protrusions make the most elliptical postcolonial literary treatise look like Calvin and Hobbes.

Then again, Wilson refuses the category of “architecture” altogether “because it’s the Western art of building, and it emerges parallel with the colonial project in the West.” She prefers “building.” Maybe it’s a cruel coincidence that architecture’s most incisive living thinker denounces her field at its core—or maybe refusal follows logically from rigor.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.


The Blue and White: I know your recent scholarly projects are concerned in part with questions of labor. We’ve been staring all week at images of graduate student workers in front of the 116th Street gates, and marching in the valley between Low and Butler, and on the steps giving speeches to comrades tiered below. So I’m wondering, whether on campus or beyond, what is the built environment’s role in the graduate students’ labor struggle?

Mabel O. Wilson: The work that has occurred with this group called Who Builds Your Architecture? looks at architects and their relationship to construction workers, which is often hidden. It’s completely legally separate. That labor on the job site is just hidden from view and not accounted for in the design world of architecture. Our project with Who Builds Your Architecture? is to try to make visible those networks. Campuses—they structure labor relations, but in different ways. What the architecture often does is it presents the symbolic realm of knowledge—with Low Library, Butler on the other side. It stands for the University without recognizing that for that knowledge to literally be produced requires work. There’s a kind of masking. But that’s the work that ideologies do.

B&W: In terms of its architecture and urban planning, Columbia has one of the most violent histories of any campus in the country. Manhattanville is the epitome of what Ananya Roy calls racial banishment, a more appropriate name for what's often called gentrification. It’s hard to think of a university whose spatial predation is as prominent as Columbia’s, though there's some stiff competition, especially here in the city. What concrete steps can students and faculty who feel repulsed by this violence take to fight it? How can we refuse Columbia’s racist architectural violence, in Harlem especially?

MW: I think that’s a really good question. Again, it kind of comes with the project of the university and the modern world: It’s “university" because it’s universal. It’s part of Europe’s project of establishing its epistemology as a model of the world. And the university does a kind of work, again, in the sense of enlightenment and uplift and progress, as it becomes known in the nineteenth century, which veils the violent, on-the-ground relations that are building that same world. And universities—all of them—have that history. Having worked at the University of Virginia on a memorial to enslaved laborers, here’s Jefferson realizing his dream of building an institution to enlighten a class of white men who will become leaders, doctors, politicians—and the whole project was built on enslavement, on the labor of men, women, and children to not only build but to maintain that environment. It’s inherently violent, and it’s built on land dispossessed from indigenous peoples.

To just recognize, one, how do you separate that violence from the institutional formation, I think, is a very difficult one. If you understand Columbia's history—first being around Washington Square, on that land, then Rockefeller Center, on that land—you know the University has always been in that liminal space of the settlement of the island. And, of course, it ends up where there’s an asylum, and we know asylums were always heterotopic in the Foucauldian sense—they’re always outside because they can’t be within the space of the normal. Columbia lands on that footprint on the site of the Bloomingdale Asylum. At the time, that land had not yet been fully developed into what we know as Harlem. So there always is this sense of the University moving the frontier of the city northward. That territoriality is baked into the project of the University.

Illustration by Kate Steiner

B&W: Speaking of institutions, Columbia and MoMA have a deep and interesting connection. I’m thinking of Barry Bergdoll, who’s the chair of the Art History Department here and, of course, was Chief Curator of Architecture and Design there. And I’m thinking of the acquisition of Frank Lloyd Wright’s archive jointly by Avery and MoMA. You’re, this year, a professor in Morningside Heights and also a curator in Midtown, but it seems to me that your scholarly interest in universities and museums facilitates a different kind of connection because of the critical work your scholarship does with the engagement of the racist histories of institutions. What should Columbia and MoMA’s relationship look like?

MW: They’re both massive institutions, MoMA having a much shorter history but probably an even bigger global footprint, I think, than Columbia University. Within institutions, particularly around issues of Blackness, anti-Black racism, Black culture, it’s often work to make a space to do that research.

For example, Barry Bergdoll invited me to curate part of the Frank Lloyd Wright exhibition that in part celebrated the acquisition of the archive into Avery. With that shift of the archive from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West into these new contexts, I think Barry was interested in, “What don’t we know?” Frank Lloyd Wright has a billion books about him. He probably is the best-known architect in the country. So Barry invited 12 scholars to come to the archive and work. What I worked on was a Rosenwald School that Frank Lloyd Wright had designed for Hampton Institute. There was almost nothing of this Rosenwald project, and so it required constructing the history of that project, drawing on all of these other archives. That was an additional kind of work that I had to do—a creative work, intellectual work to try to construct the narrative—precisely because, well, this was a project for this Black school, and it was considered minor, minor, minor Wright. As a Black curator walking in, working on a topic around both Wright’s racism but also of a Black institution like Hampton, required a different kind of work. I think the engagement with institutions in order to make a space to do this work requires an extraordinary amount of effort, as we found out when we were curating “Reconstruction.”

B&W: And the archival work is so potent in the presentation of the exhibit. It must be that it has to be. As a curator, you wrote somewhere that when you first approached MoMA for this project, you scoured the Architecture department’s 28,000 objects, and you found no work by Black architects. Is that correct?

MW: That is correct. I did some of that—I didn’t do all of that work. I contributed an essay to a book called Among Others by Darbee English and Charlotte Baraat, and its subtitle is Blackness at MoMA. As the museum attempted to finally acknowledge that modernism was a much more capacious category than, let’s say, Pollock and Picasso, there was an attempt to understand, well, what had the institution’s relationship to Blackness been? And they started to just ask curators. “Film! What’s there? What do you have?” In Drawing and Prints—what emerges out of that? They got to Architecture and Design, which is the first-ever Department of Architecture and Design ever at a museum in the world, and they couldn’t find anything.

Digging a little bit further, they did find a fabric swatch from a designer named Joel Richardson, who was trained as an architect, apparently at Cooper Union, but as he wrote in Ebony magazine, couldn’t find work in the lily-white world of architecture in the 1950s and so designed fabric. But it was in the study collection and not the main collection. Once that became public, Sean Anderson really was instrumental in bringing works by Charles Harrison, who was an industrial designer who designed a version of the View-Master. Then they acquired works by Amanda Williams, who was in the show “Reconstructions.” Really, those were the first two things to come into the main collection. Then, they moved Joel Richardson’s work from the study collection. I found a drawing, also, in the study collection by my Columbia colleague Gordon Kipping, who's Canadian, and so Gordon, I think, is now in the collection. But it was extraordinary up to that point that there was nothing in the Architecture and Design collection. We couldn’t go to the archive, in the history of exhibitions, to work on the show. For example, in the Wright exhibition—probably the 10th exhibition on Frank Lloyd Wright at MoMA—there are always ways of understanding, “Oh, well, this work appeared in this show in this way.” In our case, we didn’t have the archive to draw on.

B&W: For a show like Reconstructions, if that archival gap or erasure is the place you start from, what do you start with?

MW: We started with questions. Not just questions about Blackness at MoMA, like, “Why was there this absence in the archive?” But also trying to understand even more broadly, “What is that relationship between Blackness and architecture as a discipline and a discourse, but also a profession?” In the United States, there are very few architects of color, particularly Black architects. Given that context ... we established an advisory group to help us think through these questions. What was great about that group is that they were not architects, or most of them were not. There were poets, and there were lawyers, and there were scholars. So we tried to just draw on a very broad scope and perspective on, one, how to understand anti-Black racism and how it has shaped our built environment, but also to understand Blackness and the ways in which Black cultural practices have crafted spaces of Black life in the everyday.

B&W: Absolutely. And the show features 11 works by members of the Black Reconstruction Collective. What was your relationship with members of the collective like as you made the exhibit together?

MW: What we did was we invited 11 people, and David Hart, who is a multimedia artist, became someone we wanted to include in the show, who works very much on questions related to architecture. Though not trained as an architect, he’s very much immersed [in] and in dialogue with architecture, but clearly is working from a completely different set of critical questions and mediums. We also thought it would be great to have people who are trained as architects but don't necessarily practice. That would be Lek Jeyefous and Amanda Williams, who really work primarily as artists, and then people who have conventional practices like the landscape architect Walter Hood, or Mario Gordon, or Yolanda Daniels. And then people who are working in between, like Felicia Davis, who has a Ph.D. in computational design and ... works with textiles. Bringing those 10 people together with David was important, to show that we would have to question the nature of architecture. This show wasn’t going to be about solving housing (which is a very pressing issue), solving the wake of urban renewal, what to do about that—to bring Black designers and artists in to solve these problems. That was something that we felt wasn’t the work of the show and should not be the work of this group.

The other thing that we really wanted the group to understand was to be cognizant of the context of working within MoMA and what that meant, and also have a critical perspective in relationship to the tools of representation and the way in which architecture manifests itself. That was wholly necessary to critique and to question and move beyond in the show. We were really trying to open it up to say, “No, you don't have to have a program, you don’t have to have a site, and you don’t have to solve a problem.” Out of that, the group just said, boom! I think minds were blown, and they really radically rethought their approach to their projects. And out of that conversation became this sense that we’re not going to operate individually, we’re going to operate collectively. That's why 10 of the members of that group, of the people in the show, formed the Black Reconstruction Collective.

B&W: I have a question about refusal. When I encountered this on the wall text, particularly its contrast with resistance, I immediately thought of the way that prison abolitionists distinguish themselves from reformists by claiming an unadulterated program of anti-capitalism, anti-racism, anti-imperialism. Given the recent folding of resistance into a discourse of mainstream neoliberalism, is it fair to call refusal a radical critique of neoliberalism or perhaps of liberalism itself?

MW: Yeah. I probably should do more on the origins of the concept. Tina Campt has written in her “Listening to Images” text—Tina and Saidiya [Hartman] were the ones that formed the group that includes Christina Sharpe, who was part of our advisory group—and I always find useful the way Tina describes it as refusing the terms of oppression. Part of the reason we started to have this conversation around what does it mean to practice refusal … has to do with the fact that resistance is often allied with politics and the political, and is often masculine. A masculine space of politics, and also modern subjectivity—versus practices of refusal potentially occurring in the everyday, in everyday practices, as a kind of Black feminist concept [that] allows for agency and transformation at a different moment in someone’s life. So it’s not about being on the streets—it might be about how you make something, or how you engage in your home with something, or things that you refused to allow yourself to be identified as being.

B&W: That's fascinating. And it also brings me back to prison abolition and all the language of presence that people like Ruth Wilson Gilmore try to assert. It strikes me as so incredibly powerful that Gilmore and others use an architectural metaphor. They talk about building when they talk about creating a new society and a new world, which is, of course, what abolition is. I imagine this as a sort of utopian project, but I’m hesitant to use the word because it’s so different architecturally from the kind of modernist utopianism that we might think of. So this makes me want to throw out the word architecture altogether and just wonder for a minute: In the abolitionist vein, in the refusal vein, what can building and builders be?

MW: I agree. I like to refuse the term “architecture” because it’s the Western art of building, and it emerges parallel with the colonial project in the West. People build all over the place, and continue to do, without architects or architecture. And yet architecture did this trick of the universal, that everything has now become architecture. So I actually do prefer to use “builder” and “building.” Maybe this show really isn’t about architecture, but about building.

It offers possibilities of a world that can be made and other ways of building that world. Architecture is associated with the formation of property, its abstraction into monetary value, banking systems. We see how this plays out in Black and communities of color with subprime and the ways in which that wiped out any kind of accrual of wealth. It was completely predatory, all the way up the food chain. I mean, unbelievable. No one’s been held accountable for any of that, and yet the wealth is no longer there. So I think imagining how one might build a world outside of that and change the logic of how that works is, I think, really important. It may not be about gaming that system, but changing it, because there was a world prior to all of this stuff. Credit default swaps on home loans—all that stuff had to be invented for the extraction of value, of wealth.

B&W: Absolutely. You wrote in e-flux about the history of carceral architecture. You started with a description of a 2014 petition that asked the American Institute of Architects to amend its code of ethics and disallow architects from designing execution chambers, torture chambers, structures of solitary confinement. I would think this would be the bare ethical minimum, but the AIA declined the request. Only after such ethical amendments are made, you wrote, can architecture “recognize that Black lives actually do matter.” This request was made several years ago. Have you noticed any significant changes in the profession since 2014, especially after the mass social movement against anti-Black racism this summer?

MW: I know the New York AIA came out with a statement around the design of prisons. I think now there has been much more pressure. Unfortunately, I do not know the AIA’s current position on that, but I know there was much more flurry around forcing the AIA to make a statement around the ethical position that architects should stake relative to incarceration. I knew someone who was an architect for a firm, a company that built prisons. So you’ve got your architect in-house, you’re building the prisons, and then you also—it was a private prison company—then you maintain the prisons. If that is not an industry, I don't know what is. And architects are completely complicit in that. I worked for a while in a firm—the prison division was not there when I started. It arrived, and shortly thereafter, I left. [Laughter.]

B&W: This deep entanglement, as you describe it in the essay, between anti-Black racism and the modern, self-possessed liberal subject and the built environment. Do you think that that’s a question that’s being taken up outside of architectural history?

MW: I do think that there has been an interest in this question emerging from other disciplines. I often think, particularly in the United States, that people take the built environment for granted. Walter Benjamin says in “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” that we perceive architecture in a state of distraction. It’s not attempted like the film, which he says has this radical potential. Architecture might have it, but we have to recognize it’s just kind of there, and we don't pay attention to it. And yet it really is structuring so much in the world. I think that it does become an agent.

I’ve been thinking around the Foucauldian biopolitical dimension of it, and the fact that architecture is the Western art of building, and the way in which it emerges at this political moment in which Europe is developing through mercantile capitalism and industrial capitalism, and then these colonial tentacles moving all of this stuff around—all of that stuff gets built! The docks are built, the warehouses are built, plantations are built, the great houses are built. There is an economy that’s feeding it. The mills are built, the schools get built. All of that stuff requires a discourse of architecture for it to come into being. But I think the bodies that are sustained to “make live,” to use Foucault, are white bodies, the bodies that get racialized as white. Those bodies who are “let die”—modern governmentality—are those bodies of color. That is where resources are absent, right? That means you live in substandard housing. Your water is polluted—Flint. The air is polluted. The built environment does not sustain your longevity. That is the way in which the necro-political is operative in the built environment. The spring of 2020 was very instructive because there was a lot of attention and corruption around the heinous murder of George Floyd—we can see the way in which Black life is extinguished. Look at the pandemic: The pandemic came and it’s suffused all of those systems of crowding. It shows you: That’s how the built environment comes to play.

B&W: You’ve twice now used this language of a colonial project and a liberal project that’s very good at concealing its implications. This is why you brought up, as I understand it, Benjamin. What do you think it is about the U.S. that makes it so good at concealing its architecture and forcing us to do what Benjamin calls on us to do, which is look past the distraction?

MW: Certainly the United States is a testing ground and playground for the modern subject—the self-possessed, self-determined liberal subject that is constituted. That is called into being in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence and literally is constituted. That subjectivity that has all of those rights—this is my current book project, Building Race and Nation—Jefferson is designing all of these. He’s writing the constitution for the state of Virginia, which is a test case for what would become the United States. The second time, he’s like, “Well, where would this government be? How do we adapt these colonial forms of government into this modern self-governance?” He’s designing architecture for that, and yet that architecture is being built by enslaved labor. Here are these monuments … saying, “This will be a symbol and an image that we can use.” This is a primer for the values that we have to have and how to build them, and it’s built with enslaved labor. Yet the image seems to veil all of that, so it stands as this temple to democracy. They build a whole city, Washington, D.C., on that, built with slave labor. Here is the White House and the U.S. Capitol, these symbols of American democracy, liberty and justice, completely constructed through slavery. I think the myths of America are incredibly massive and brilliant in the ways in which they can’t reckon with, recognize, the fundamental problematic of how it was formed. I love the way Saidiya says it’s that problematic double-bind of the way in which slavery is always appended to the notion of liberty.

B&W: You’re arguing, if I’m understanding correctly, about a very specific connection between image and ideology emerging in the eighteenth-century United States. And those two things work in tandem to conceal original contradictions.

MW: Yes. We just did this conversation that I organized called “This is America”… with Robin Kelley, Jelani Cobb, Farah Griffin and Deva Woodly. I called it “This is America” precisely because Joe Biden kept saying, “Well, this isn't America,” after the insurrection. And it’s like, no, no, no, no, no—this is exactly who we are. But this myth of the yeoman farmer, that we have these aspirations, and we are a civil society veils the violence that brings the nation into being. And I don’t just mean the Revolutionary War, but the very violence of the dispossession of indigenous from the land and the violence that is necessary to turn a human into chattel in order to hold wealth in that body and then to produce wealth with that body. That’s an incredible violence. We don't recognize that truth, that history, and, therefore, it just repeats itself. It just erupts. It’s hard, because it doesn’t paint as beautiful, as morally upstanding. It’s not the shining city on the hill. Every time Barack Obama said that, my eyes just rolled up into my head and all the way back around, because that is exactly the wrong rhetoric. Or the question of exceptionalism. We’re not exceptional, and we’ve got to stop that.

B&W: As far as futures are concerned, there’s one piece in the show about New York. It’s Olalekan Jeyifous’s “The Frozen Neighborhood.” It imagines a New York transformed by climate change and proposes an extraordinary repurposing of the MTA for the disenfranchised, incorporating it into an urban ecology built and run by Black New Yorkers. What does this piece mean to you as far as the future of the city that we both live in?

MW: I love that one. Lek is an extraordinarily talented artist and one that has always questioned the tools of representation. I learned about his work shortly after he finished his degree at Cornell, and I’ve always been interested in both what he’s thinking and how he’s working. I also think that to see Crown Heights as a kind of quilombo is really amazing. It’s like it’s an enclosure, and you can’t go anywhere because you don't have the credits that allow mobility, in a moment where you have to have mobility credits to even move on the subway. Without that wealth, you can't go anywhere. So the subway trains become these spaces where people are traveling virtually through kinds of realms. Perhaps even a cautionary tale, because these systems collapse. These systems break down. And where does that leave us? That is the modern world from that wake of that ship that is moving across the Atlantic, whether it’s going to the Caribbean or going around the coast of Africa into East Asia to pick up, to trade—those are the same routes that these large cargo vessels are still traveling. Those networks have been persistent and consistent. But they’ve also ruptured.


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