“The center of architecture is shifting and cannot hold,” writes guest editor Bryony Roberts in Log 48: Expanding Modes of Practice. This moment of change, in which issues of inequity and intersectionality are coming to the fore, represents “an invitation to think differently, a chance to reask the questions that haunted the 20th century.” To that end, Roberts conducted a series of interviews with experimental architects exploring new forms of practice, including this conversation with Mabel O. Wilson.
Mabel O. Wilson is a scholar and designer who has become a leading voice in discussions on space, politics, and memory in black America. She is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture at Columbia University, as well as a professor in African American and African Diasporic Studies and the associate director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies. Her books include Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums. Her interdisciplinary practice Studio & is part of the architectural team that designed the Memorial to Enslaved African American Laborers at the University of Virginia. She is also a founding member of Who Builds Your Architecture?, a collective that advocates for fair labor practices on building sites worldwide. We talked at an outdoor cafe near Columbia on one of the last warm days in fall 2019.
Bryony Roberts: The catalogue for Torkwase Dyson’s show “1919: Black Water,” which opened at Columbia’s Arthur Ross Architecture Gallery in September, includes a great conversation between you and the artist. You talked about the importance of decolonizing the tools of creation and listed some as “the book, the argument, the essay, and the memorial.” This was after a longer conversation about decolonizing form. Could you talk more about how you approach decolonizing these tools in your own practice as someone who makes books, forms, and arguments?
Mabel O. Wilson: Well the root problem is decolonizing knowledge. There is a Peruvian sociologist who recently died, Aníbal Quijano, who said we have to decolonize the episteme.
The Western body of knowledge that everyone takes for granted as universal actually isn’t. It has multiple histories and origins, and there are other bodies of knowledge – ways of knowing and naming and understanding subjectivity in the world – that are not Western at all. They were not necessarily centered on the individual, on the human body, on the subjectivity of liberalism. Even in the so-called West – Europe or pre-Europe – there were other ways of being in the world.
But the trick about the Western episteme, and you see this meticulously analyzed in Foucault’s writings, is that it becomes universal. That’s its trick. It absorbs all other bodies of knowledge and posits that there’s only one body of knowledge and one way of being in the world. Architecture is part and parcel of that – it’s the Western practice of building. I’ve come to the realization that the art of building is part of the formation of the Western episteme.
We can see how other cultures built – the Incans, the Chinese dynasties, Māori tribespeople – in ways that weren’t necessarily the Western methods of architecture. I’m talking about conceptualization and modalities of representation, like drawing, that rely on paper, ink, and geometric projection. Europeans did not invent geometry per se but borrowed concepts from ancient Greece and Islam. These tools were combined into a discourse and a discipline of architecture, which solidified by the 18th century. In the 19th century, architecture was a body of knowledge that was institutionalized within both a profession and modern universities. This all emerged alongside colonialism, which fueled the wealth of Europe and enabled the construction of museums, theaters, and government buildings. Architecture’s function was, in part, to house the modern nation-state and modern liberal society.
So those tools are what we inherit. That’s what we teach. That’s what we practice. But they have a very particular history.
BR: So, how do you think about your own process of writing, researching, and designing?
MW: I found early on, when I kept trying to explore black neighborhoods, spaces, and histories, that the language, tools, and techniques of architecture were completely inadequate because they’re not made to register and give meaning to those things. So, I was constantly developing new techniques, hybridizing them, turning things inside out, questioning, and renaming in order to begin to even record those spaces and imagine what those spaces could be. I looked at literature, art, and other creative ways that people have done work on these subjects and then tried to translate them into architecture.
BR: Torkwase Dyson describes “black compositional thought” as a way of improvising spaces and objects of liberation in an oppressive system. That resonates with what you describe in your book Negro Building and also with what you and I researched in our project Marching On. But alongside these ways of appropriating and manipulating a found system, there are recent moments of visible institution building, like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which in some ways takes on the monumentality of the colonial system. Do you see the improvisational techniques as being replaced by institution-building or as a means of creating alternative kinds of institutions?
MW: I think that there are two trajectories. One is Afro-pessimism, which argues that the Enlightenment project, including its institutions, is bankrupt given the contradiction of the presence of freedom alongside slavery, so there has never been a place for people of color to find liberation within it. We’re never going to survive in that system. And I think they’re right. But I’m more aligned with the optimistic position that we’re going to have to survive somehow. We’re going to have to make some way of being human in the world intellectually, in the mind, and also in the body, materially. So the optimist in me believes that to do that we’re just going to have to make do and rework what we have.
That’s why I think challenging and changing institutions is important, and the new African American museum is the perfect example, because it took 100 years to come into fruition. Different generations kept trying and trying again. It didn’t happen overnight. That was primarily because the archive was never meant to collect the culture of black peoples because the belief was that if you were African or of African descent, you had no history.
That’s what Kant argued, Hegel expanded, and European intellectuals debated, and the concept spread. So, often there’s little black history in the institutional archives. The Smithsonian collected almost nothing of black people from its founding in the mid-19th century. The project of the African American museum was not only to build a museum but also to build a collection. They had to make an archive of black life in America because there wasn’t one. So institutionally, it’s a really radical proposition.
BR: So is it useful to work with the normative conventions of institutions to gain a place in a canon? Or is it important to just create new methods and new forums that don’t follow those rules?
MW: I think you can do both. At some point, there are certain things – concepts, practices, or methods – that are just going to be exhausted, and you have to leave them behind. But there are also ways of working with what exists. For the Smithsonian to take on a project to build a black museum, particularly at this moment of such division, was a radical act. And now the museum is in a position to help a lot of other institutions, smaller black museums, and to transform other Smithsonian museums as well. So it is impactful.
BR: You’ve talked about how the institution of architecture has served as an instrument of oppression. For example, at the University of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson used elevational changes in section to obscure slave labor. Can you expand on that?
MW: An article could be written about Jefferson and the way he uses the section to hide what he knows to be a disavowal of his fundamental Enlightenment values. With Monticello, he develops all the dependencies below ground. The best signifier of that is the dining room’s dumbwaiter. The enslaved waiter remained unseen because he would just place the bottle on the dumbwaiter and pull it up. The other bodies in the intimate spaces of the main house were kept at bay or kept outside.
Jefferson did the same thing at the University of Virginia. All of the areas where the enslaved people worked were below the pavilions or in the gardens that everyone thinks were formal gardens but were actually work yards. Those areas weren’t meant to be seen. If you did happen to walk through that zone, your eye was delighted by the serpentine walls, right? So the aesthetic beauty of the brick wall shields the brutal labor of the enslaved just on the other side.
BR: A lot of your work is to bring history into the present and to wrestle with stories that weren’t fully told or weren’t recorded. I’m wondering how you work with someone else’s personal history or the reconstruction of someone else’s memory. How do you approach telling stories of people who are not here and can no longer speak for themselves?
MW: Part of it is personal – not knowing my family history, for instance, and trying to understand why that information was unknown. I’ve been piecing it together through genealogical research over the years, which has been fascinating. I had a white friend in college who said once, I can trace my family back to 12th-century France. He had the evidence to show a famous poet in his family lineage. By contrast, I didn’t know much about my family before my grandparents. Black folks just don’t talk about those painful histories. So I’ve always been curious.
When I studied architecture as an undergraduate, I learned canonical history, primarily European history, but I sort of felt like an outsider – not seeing myself in these narratives. Why should I care about the Villa Lante, for example, which is absolutely beautiful and its proportions are perfect, but in the end the heritage of the Italian aristocracy was somewhat meaningless to me. Now, of course, I find it utterly fascinating through its social history, its connection to the development of mercantile capitalism in Italy, and what it means to own land outside the city. But that’s not how architectural history was being taught at the time – as a social history.
The first opportunity that I had to consider black history and architecture was in a studio as an undergrad at UVA. We had a site named Oregon Hill in Richmond, Virginia, next to a very famous cemetery with a large pyramid that was a Civil War monument to the 18,000 Confederate soldiers buried there. On the cemetery’s other side was a black community, in the Randolph neighborhood. I was interested in the black community too, so I just expanded my site across the cemetery and into Randolph. That move in my project engaged the racialized spatial politics and histories of Richmond.
When I came to Columbia’s GSAPP to do my master’s degree, I was interested in probing these questions. My final project looked at race head-on through the lens of a single-family suburban house. I examined how the history and spaces of the house had been racialized by covenants and redlining. Levittown’s exclusivity – no blacks or Jews – was produced by those restrictions. So my project unpacked the racial exclusions buried in suburban domestic spaces and construction. Aunt Jemima, after all, still lurks in the kitchen cabinet!
In my project, I was extremely interested in how history and, more specifically, methods
of drawing can dissect and transform the meaning of architectural representation and architectural history. That became a long-term project, one that has nonetheless been
challenging because studying race, racialization, and racism in the disciplines of architecture and architectural history has made people uncomfortable.
Currently, I’m wrapping up a collection of essays with Irene Cheng and Charles Davis called Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present, and, in a way, it’s the project that I really wanted to undertake as my dissertation. But now, instead of just my voice, it’s 18 voices that explore race as part and parcel of the formation of modernity and modernism.
BR: Who are some of the people now, both in writing history and in design practices, who are inspiring to you?
MW: I think the work of Charles Davis, my coeditor, is really timely and thorough. It’s been great working and thinking with him about how the racial shapes modern bodies of knowledge. Darell Fields did a lot of the early work that was really impactful, and Irene Cheng’s work is also brilliant and probing important histories. We have some great people in the book: Dianne Harris, who wrote an important history titled Little White Houses, which explored how architecture helped build the whiteness of American suburbia in the 1950s; Mark Crinson’s scholarship on imperialism and the racial made important strides; Reinhold Martin, my colleague from Columbia, who has been thinking through the implications of racial difference in his work on American universities. We want the book to serve as a primer that can be foundational to future research. We want our proposition to be debated.
But I also look at artists like Torkwase, who explores blackness through space and the language of architecture. This semester
my studio is framed by concepts from the artist Kader Attia, who posits radical repair through reappropriating and transforming modernist architecture.
BR: Your work with Columbia’s Global Africa Lab also opens up other modes of representing these histories, can you talk about that?
MW: Along with my codirector Mario Gooden, we’ve been developing data spatialization techniques to look at complex landscapes, like post-apartheid Johannesburg, to ask if it’s really no longer divided. In some ways, it is unified. People move more freely. But in other ways, economic inequalities and racial stratification remain embedded. Working with data spatialization has helped us show that despite media images representing the city as world-class, neoliberalism and globalization are nonetheless reproducing precisely the same inequalities as apartheid.
BR: How do you work with these representational tools in a studio context? How do you transition from analysis into the design process?
MW: In terms of pedagogy, I’ve always found it helpful to show how representational techniques have their histories and their limits. You have to understand what the tools actually produce so that you could use them to produce not what you already know but new knowledge – new ways of working.
To spatialize data we used Rhino for the last six years, with software plugins developed by Carson Smuts, a researcher in the Global Africa Lab, to scrape and spatialize data from social media feeds like Twitter. We used it to trace how people move through and occupy the city. These types of mappings prompted a radical rethinking of the tools and techniques. But also, these tools and techniques document the transformation of cities over time, animating daily life as well as history in the making.
For my current advanced studio at Columbia’s GSAPP, we’re looking at the theme of repair and reparations. Students have worked on an object of radical repair, where they take two objects and try to use one to repair the other. We’ve looked at the artist Jan Vormann, who patches stone and brick walls around the world with LEGO bricks. It produces this playful but also incongruent landscape attentive to the everyday. We’ve also been interested in the artist Yeesookyung, who breaks apart beautiful ceramic vases and then reconstructs them in these crazy monstrous ways with gold adhesive.
The studio asks what would those techniques produce when you start to think about repair at the urban scale. My students examined the Cross Bronx Expressway, which forms a gash in those Bronx neighborhoods. So what would a protocol of repair do for the inequalities that are rampant in the South Bronx, how do we give them a stronger voice in the public sphere of the city? We aren’t interested in restoration – to return it to the thing that it was – but instead we are asking students to engage in actions of radical repair that recognize the transformation of time and the violent acts that have produced disruption and social divisions.
BR: How do you see the agency of design in the face of this historical violence? What might the design of radical repair look like?
MW: We need to delve into all aspects of architecture’s frameworks – its historical formation, its tools of representation, its academic structure, and its professional organization. All of these facets of the discipline emerge from the Western episteme and are thus just as entangled with the racial, racialization, race, and its legacy as they are with capitalism, another parallel modern formation. When it comes to radical repair, I like to rework Audre Lorde’s declaration on power and institutions in the form a question, can the master’s tools dismantle the master’s house?