gallery view

MoMA’s First Show on Race and Architecture Chooses Lofty Ideas Over Pragmatism

“Why settle for the probable when we could imagine what’s possible?”

Olalekan Jeyifous. Plant Seeds Grow Blessings. 2020. Photomontage, framed renderings printed on Luster 260 GSM. Art: Courtesy of Olalekan Jeyifous. The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Olalekan Jeyifous. Plant Seeds Grow Blessings. 2020. Photomontage, framed renderings printed on Luster 260 GSM. Art: Courtesy of Olalekan Jeyifous. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Architecture is a tool for sorting people. Houses broadcast the status of their inhabitants. Churches signal their denominations. Tech start-ups choose different office buildings from established law firms. The mechanisms that attract some members of society and distance others can be uncomfortable, but they are widely accepted as normal. Much harder for many people to accept is the plain but repulsive fact that American housing, roads, transit, parks, and commercial zones are designed to segregate by race. Architecture isn’t colorblind.

Even before finishing that sentence, I can hear the sputtering but-but-buts: You can’t drive down a suburban street and divine the color of a family’s skin from the exterior of their home. We all pull into the same highway rest stops and shop in the same malls. A roofer doesn’t roof, or an electrician wire, any differently depending on who’ll be sheltering from the rain, or turning on the lights. When residents of different races keep apart or struggle over turf, those are social issues, not questions of design and construction.

Much of that is true, but physical and social structures rearrange each other as they evolve. Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play A Raisin in the Sun ends with a Black family moving into a small house in a fictional part of Chicago, in defiance of their new white neighbors. Half a century later, Bruce Norris’s Clybourne Park opens as a white couple has bought the same house in what has since become a Black enclave, with plans to tear it down and replace it with something more spacious — or “inappropriately large,” as one neighbor complains, evidently part of “the long-range political initiative to change the face of this neighborhood.” The house that was once a reach for Black strivers is now too cramped and rundown for gentrifying whites.

The participants in MoMA’s polemical new show, “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” hardly even bother to refute the idea that architecture is a neutral stage against which the nation’s racial dramas have played out. To the Black Reconstruction Collective, as the dream team of architects and scholars has called itself, the argument is almost too obvious to articulate: Architecture, as it’s practiced in this country, descends from Europe but presents itself as universal, pretends to be apolitical yet carries the cargo of colonialism. A colonnaded portico, having wended its way from antiquity to McMansions, via aristocratic homes, cotton plantations, state capitols, and banks, reads differently to different groups. Seen through one end of the telescope, such a neoclassical gesture is the style of the Enlightenment and respectability; from the other, it embodies the aesthetics of oppression.

MoMA’s architecture and design department has dealt with thorny issues before, including prefab housing, suburbia, and climate change, but in its first explicit foray into race, the museum is predictably less assured. Physically confined and scattershot in approach, “Reconstructions” is variously exciting, precious, discomfiting, stimulating, and maddening. The show poses two questions it never quite gets around to answering: How would the country look now if Reconstruction had not been truncated in 1877, and Black Americans had had a stronger hand in building a postwar nation? And how might architects today shape a less racist American landscape? “The people who did the constructing and must now do the reconstructing are likely to be the same — laborers in one instance and authors in another — designers of this nation and of themselves,” reads the collective’s manifesto at the exhibition’s entrance. But, for all the talk of labor and construction, the participants get caught up in airy debates and abstract statements that might baffle the uninitiated visitor.

Walk past the dangling helicopter into the design galleries, and you find a group of professionals at war with their field. Black architects regularly recount feeling invisible starting in their student days, when they are fed a steady diet of Eurocentric principles until they have either internalized the brainwashing or hit a wall. “The discourse impacts how people, once they’re admitted to an institution, learn the discipline,” the Columbia professor Mabel O. Wilson once told Curbed. “Because that discipline is already racialized to the point where you’re alienated.” That’s dramatically true in the hallowed — and pallid — precincts of MoMA.

And yet you would never know from a tour of “Reconstructions” that Black architecture does exist in the real America and has for a long time. Harvard’s African American Design Nexus has developed story maps chronicling the architectural evolution of Harlem, from the neo-Gothic churches of Vertner Tandy and George Foster, through the Brutalist Adam Clayton Powell building by Ifill Johnson Hanchard and Max Bond’s Schomburg Center, to David Adjaye’s design for the Studio Museum of Harlem. (The project also highlights the landscapes of Walter Hood, a MacArthur fellow and one of the show’s stars.) That lineage is a slender one, one pioneer handing off to another, never multiplying into a crowd or prompting lasting change. Even today, only 2 percent of registered architects are Black. But doubling or even octupling that number would change little, so long as developers, investors, mortgage lenders, brokers, planners, legislators, and city councils cling to old habits and prejudice. Racism in the built environment reinforces itself less through aesthetic choices than through the application of tax code.

Perhaps that’s why the collective’s members reject pragmatism, which has marooned, displaced, and confined so many Black Americans in the service of everyone’s needs but their own. “After years of watching architects and urban planners apply empirical metrics to reinforce planning and design decisions … we can only wonder if their repeated paternal practices have compromised the ability … to imagine what a healthy, vibrant, and safe neighborhood might look like for Black and brown people,” Hood writes in the show’s catalogue.

Some of the works here are more murky than powerful. Mario Gooden’s “protest machine,” a winged kiosk showing video clips of civil-rights marches, aspires to link Nashville’s Black-owned trolley line, the first sit-ins, and Black Lives Matter, but it looks like a cumbersome contraption. Germane Barnes ostensibly “reimagines the connectivity and agency found among Black domestic spaces” with a deconstructed kitchen that features not a mere spice rack but a whole spice wall. Somehow, the explanation and the expression don’t match up. Others pieces are poetically allusive. Emanuel Admassu built a tabletop model of a particularly un-picturesque swath of Atlanta, then sprinkled it with black sand, turning it into a miniature American Pompeii.

V. Mitch McEwen. Film still of R:R. 2020. Art: V. Mitch McEwen, Courtesy of the artist/The Museum of Modern Art

The most convincing entries aspire to rattle the architecture profession out of its industrial torpor, to force it to consider how enmeshed it is in a system that prizes efficiency, standardization, predictability, and a global supply chain, and how those common attributes play out differently in different lives. V. Mitch McEwen develops a counterfactual New Orleans, the city- state of Republica, founded by slaves who freed themselves in an 1811 rebellion. Instead of being hemmed in by concrete levees along the Mississippi and oil rigs on the coast, McEwen’s city rises on a bamboo substructure planted in unspoiled wetlands. Traditional textile techniques make the leap into architecture as a woven concrete formwork, producing a textured, patterned surface. It’s an appealing vision, mixing technical research with Edenic wistfulness.

Olalekan Jeyifous takes a similar what-if approach, narrating a 1970s Brooklyn that is both wildly apocalyptic and uncomfortably close to pandemic truth. In his scenario, the need to curb emissions has shut down virtually all transportation, leaving New York fragmented and neighborhoods cut off. In Crown Heights, Black coders turn subway cars into pods that provide virtual travel experiences — VR arcades, I guess — and Jeyifous shows them overgrown, painted, wired, and stacked among blocks given over to agriculture. The vision is at once dystopic and joyous, an optimistic twist on a ruined metropolis in the rainforest.

View of Walter Hood, Black Towers / Black Power, Oakland, California. Art: Walter Hood /Courtesy of The Museum of Modern Art, Photo: Robert Gerhardt

Architectural fictions have a long pedigree, from the 18th-century visionary Étienne-Louis Boullée and, a generation later, Jean‐Jacques Lequeu (whose transfixing drawings appeared at the Morgan Library shortly before the pandemic struck) to the 1960s British firm Archigram and the fantastically baroque inventions of Lebbeus Woods. Beyond the field of architecture, Black science fiction writers, filmmakers, and graphic novelists have spent decades constructing a technologically rich alternate universe of Afrofuturism. The MoMA show’s participants, using collages, whimsical contraptions, and artful cartography, lay claim to a tradition that has always compensated for the real world’s disappointments with limitless fantasy. “Why settle for the probable when we could instead imagine what is possible?” asks Hood. And so he’s conjured up a gorgeous apparition of skyscrapers filing down San Pablo Avenue in Oakland, California, like an East Bay version of Wakanda.

Without wishing to crimp their imaginative freedom, I wish the participants had engaged more with reality, because it’s shocking enough to make their point. It’s still startling to review just how explicitly racist a system America erected as it modernized, and how enduring its effects. During the 1930s, federal inspectors fanned out to every neighborhood in the country, assessing the wisdom of investing money or making loans. Bedford-Stuyvesant got a grade of D and was shaded in red on the government’s maps, a signal for lenders to stay away. “Colored infiltration a definitely adverse influence on neighborhood desirability although Negroes will buy properties at fair prices and usually rent rooms,” the inspectors reported. Mortgages in central Brooklyn stayed scarce for decades — until white people arrived — and the effects of discrimination continued to compound. The Center for NYC Neighborhoods recently reported that, over the past two decades, stringent credit requirements and high prices have driven down Black homeownership in New York, with Bed-Stuy leading the way. Whatever modest gains Black New Yorkers made in the years between redlining and gentrification, it’s still tough for them to land that loan.

The consequences of a racist system aren’t theoretical; they can be seen, touched, and inhaled. Black urbanites suffer with shadeless streets in Los Angeles, cloudy tap water in the Midwest, gritty air in the Bronx, floodwaters in Houston, and lead paint in public housing all over. They disproportionately populate jails and homeless shelters. None of these problems are exclusive to one group, which means that addressing them helps everyone.

It’s because these problems seem so intractable that “Reconstructions” made me crave a more robust set of answers, a more hard-nosed attempt to move the conversation beyond a roster of injustices. I understand why Black architects resist: They shouldn’t be obliged to solve problems they didn’t create. They must be free to exercise their fantasy. And in any case, the system that made this museum show necessary will not be shaken by a museum show. Still, reshaping the landscape to honor America’s ideals and reject its most indecent practices is not just a task for Black architects, but for architecture writ large. Instead of taking it on in a forum as prominent as MoMA, this team of activist designers opted to refuse. That’s a missed opportunity and a depressing statement, especially if you believe that the actual America isn’t a hopeless case.

MoMA’s First Race and Architecture Show Refuses Pragmatism