Twisted: African-American Architects and Signature Commissions
by Craig Wilkins, PhD
University of Michigan College of Architecture + Urban Planning
Recently several choice, culturally specific museum commissions were awarded to equally choice, culturally specific architects. In and of itself, this is not unusual or even particularly noteworthy. Although choice commissions are not the most frequent of commissions awarded to architects, they come regularly enough to keep several professional magazines, critics, authors, and even a cultural institutions or two turning a profit. However, the recent commissions for the Museum of African American Music in Newark; the National Slavery Museum in Fredericksburg, Va.; and the Museum for African Art in New York City are indeed noteworthy, primarily for two reasons. The first is that the material culture that authorizes these institutions is quintessentially African American, which as a raison d’etre for architecture is still rare, and the second is that the authors chosen to shape those culturally specific elements are still neither rare nor African American.
Despite the exchanges—or more accurately, lack thereof—emerging in architectural and African-American communities surrounding the recent awarding of the Museum of African American Music to the Hillier Group, the National Slavery Museum to Chien Chung Pei, and the Museum for African Art to Robert A.M. Stern, with the development of similar projects on the horizon, it is not unreasonable to expect at least the African-American community to grow concerned about these choices. It is also not unreasonable to expect the architectural community to remain unconcerned about the same. So, situated as I am in both the architectural and African American communities, I feel somewhat compelled to address the selection of architects charged with communicating African-American history, particularly since I see the awarding of these commissions going beyond a concern about a particular edifice and indicative of one much broader. That broader concern—which by the way, isn’t only a cultural one, but also a professional one as well—is centered on the fact that African-American architects, historically and presently, are routinely denied serious consideration for commissions of substantial size, scope, and symbolic importance.
Given this state of affairs, in the context of current and future projects designated to represent aspects of African-American life, art, history, and culture, I think it a worthwhile project not only to make visible this transparent condition, but also to examine reasons why these omissions persist. I submit they persist primary due to archaic conflations of race and ability and thus, I will take the opportunity presented by these commissions to look closer into the ways in which race subtly shapes the study and practice of architecture. For brevity’s sake, I’ll specifically concentrate on three of the most frequently provided and commonly accepted reasons for the dearth of African-American architects invited to compete for high profile projects: existence, experience, and aesthetics.