Winifred E. Newman, Ph.D.
Long overdue, Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America was the title of an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in spring 2021, complemented by the online course Reimagining Blackness and Architecture, organized and taught by Sean Anderson, the Associate Curator, Department of Architecture and Design, MoMA and Arlette Hernandez, Assistant Educator, Department of Learning and Engagement, MoMA. The online course elucidates the ten commissioned exhibition works by architects, artists, and designers, addressing the questions, “How does race structure space in America?” and “What does it mean to create and occupy space?” The focus is on Blackness as lived experience and identity, but the scope is liberal. As the artist Garrett Bradley asserts, this is “…not just black history, but American history.” MoMA created Reimagining Blackness and Architecture with support from Volkswagen of America and Bloomberg Philanthropies.
There is ample scholarship on race in America, but not surprisingly, less that addresses spatial inequities. In American histories of architecture, Black landscapes are barely mentioned. The plantations, Black towns, or neighborhoods of northern migration rarely figure into narratives of public space, either in design or planning. The ambition of Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America and Reimagining Blackness and Architecture is to fill this gap with stories whose narrative drive and intimacy open discussion about the more significant social, economic, political, and intellectual challenges of those under the yoke of racism in America. This exhibition is the fourth in the Issues in Contemporary Architecture series and the only one with an online course.
Six one-week course modules include five themes based on the exhibition projects: Imagination, Care, Knowledge, Refusal, and Liberation, with subthemes. Modules introduce a cast of artists, academics, museum directors, and curators through videos and lessons. Learning outcomes precede modules, and assignments or quizzes follow. The course offers a certificate if one opts to pay, but otherwise is free online with registration and is suitable for learners at the high school level and above. Course materials include digital images of the physical works from the exhibition and drawings, photographs, artist’s maps, newspaper clippings, magazine layouts, video, and audio. A dictionary of key terms is given for the course and prompts guide the learner to the additional discussion, including comments, threads, and online forums. Including multiple examples of artwork, architecture, and design to contextualize the themes the course offers alternative points of view. Coursera hosts the course and will track your progress, organize a calendar, and download reminders.
If there is any criticism of this collection of stories and scholarship, it is the underdetermination of the term ‘Blackness’ outside the American context to Black identities. There is a rich history of artwork, buildings, landscapes, and places outside of the United States that are likely not mute in the circum-Atlantic discussion of race and diaspora. The idea surfaces in Germane Barnes’ A Spectrum of Blackness in Miami, Florida and Emanuel Adammau’s Planetary Scar, but the reading in the course doesn’t open a broader discussion of the global phenomena of what Senegalese poet Léopold Sédar Senghor called negritude or “the sum of the cultural values of the black world, that is, a certain active presence in the world…” (Senghor, 1970). Perhaps that is the subject for future iterations of what is a welcome focus in architecture, design, and art.
In “On the House,” K. Michael Hays, Catherine Ingraham, and Alicia Kennedy wrote, “Architecture is fictional at a fundamental level. Yet its fictions are not just make-believe worlds, but the making of worlds, constitutive of our social being.” This course is a testament to the capacity for history—our collective, complex, and contested story—to shape who we are and may want to be.
Senghor, L.S. 1970. ‘Negritude: A Humanism of the Twentieth Century.’ The African Reader: Independent Africa. Edited by W. Cartey and M. Kilson. New York: Random House, pp. 180.
Hay, K. M., C. Ingrahan and A. Kennedy 1995. “On the House.” Assemblage: A Critical Journal of Architecture and Design Culture 24, (August 1994) Cambridge: MIT Press, pp. 6-7.