A Response to Melvin L Mitchell’s “The Crisis of the African-American Architect”
From municipal planning down to furniture design, architecture is generally understood as the practice of designing and constructing the built environment. In order to answer “What is Black architecture?” one must understand that Black architecture cannot simply be identified by visual style. The stylistic and typological characteristics of buildings and spaces designed by Black architects have been influenced by classical European and modernist styles.
In The Crisis of the African-American Architect, Howard University professor of Architecture, Melvin L. Mitchell further complicates the supposedly clean lines of architectural history by illuminating the influence of West African visual culture on the likes of household names in the profession, Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright.
The Crisis of the African-American Architect is divided into three parts; the first is a historic detailing of the genesis of the Black architect, the second traces development during the early 20th century and the Black power period, and the third is Mitchell’s criticisms and suggestions for the future.
As the title indicates, the veteran architect highlights a crisis concerning the Black architect, because the architect, in general, is in crisis. Mitchell himself admits he doesn’t come from a Marxist position; and believes in order to prevent the crisis and develop an architectural tradition, the Black elite must also participate.
Claiming the field has become synonymous with one of high culture, Mitchell’s sharp critiques center the architecture school-studio education that socializes students into that high culture. Due to this process of socialization (and its assimilationist values) the model simply cannot develop critical Black architects and planners.
Mitchell recounts the first Black architects, and Booker T. Washington’s role in training the first generation of Black architect-practitioners. Through the Tuskegee Institute, Washington began the transformation of the formerly enslaved laborer to a planner. Mitchell contextualizes this by illustrating the white architect’s beginnings with Thomas Jefferson studying architectural standards introduced by the School of Fine Arts in Paris, which was considered the standard bearer of the time.
The French fine arts model was successful, to the extent that white Americans sought to replicate this mode of education. Booker T. Washington, while not himself an architect, believed in the necessity of the architect-planner in the economic development of the formerly enslaved. This belief led to the construction of the first buildings that became the Tuskegee campus. Washington himself saw to it that the campus was constructed and designed solely by Black builders and architects.
Mitchell notes “Mr. Washington believed that the principal role of the Black architect would be that of a change agent and catalytic instrument of Black community economic development on a land base.” This is in stark contrast to the natural affinity Jeffersonian architects had in exclusively designing for new white industrialists at the time. Knowing this, the criticism Mitchell makes of architectural education is apt.
After the development of the Washington/Tuskegee model, the interests of the Black architectural academy began to coincide with the interests of the rest of the architectural world. Mitchell turns to harsh critique of the French Fine Arts influence, and the current obsession with drawing standards in architectural pedagogy. In simpler terms, the Black architect is in crisis because the standard for all architectural training mirrors the European model, and the tendency to prize pure drawing skill above all else.
Mitchell states, “I simply caution them [his students] repeatedly that those beguiling and seductive artistic skills of two-dimensional doodling are not the critical abilities that will assist them in becoming a well-rounded effective architectural practitioner and leader.” He furthers this criticism by contending, “[...] it is an effectively, if not knowingly, anti-black (and probably anti-female) position to privilege manual drawing virtuosity (or pleasure) as a prerequisite for entrance to architectural careers.”
Washington birthing the Black architect was useful for economically advancing Black people, especially after the Reconstruction period. Unfortunately, Washington training Black architects the same way white architects were trained wasn’t ideal, and ultimately was not capable of dealing with the inadequacies of Euro-American architectural education in addressing the unique needs of Black America.
Although the gradual assimilation of the Washington/Tuskegee model into the broader architectural modes led to the crisis highlighted by Mitchell, Washington’s approach should be held in high regard for its scale of contributions to the Black architectural canon, and of course for founding the tradition to begin with. Consequently, Washington’s Black-focused agenda wasn’t fulfilled by generations of Black architects after Tuskegee.
Architecture as a profession, requires large capital investment, Mitchell makes mention of moguls like Diddy and Master P in arguing for the participation of the Black elite in developing that tradition. On the surface, this comes across as naive, but there is a utility in exploring the argument further. He observes that (Black) high culture is ubiquitous with music and film, and the risk capital required for these art forms is relatively low in comparison to that of architecture. This could suffice in explaining why there is no distinct Black architectural style, but Mitchell’s criticism of western architectural training expands the understanding of the original question.
As far as the curriculum goes, the pedagogical formula of the studio education can be commonly understood as being composed of two aspects. The first is the more “scientific” areas of study: learning how buildings are put together; studying physics, building technology, and construction methods/joinery. The second is the creative aspect, this usually entails studying architectural precedents, being presented with a prompt, and improving upon drawing skills to visually communicate proposed design solutions (either by hand or computer assisted).
The heavy emphasis on drawing conventions tends to produce politically dull architects. As far as design skill goes, it is more appropriate to regard them as “the architect as a stylist” rather than “the architect as a planner or innovator”.
Here lies the lack of emphasis, or failure, in developing critical and theoretical thinking skills. Beyond examining case studies superficially, the application of ideas and methods, then contextually analyzing them is lost on many graduates. Quite the pity, as many schools market themselves as producing innovative designers.
Which is not to say new tendencies and pedagogies are missing altogether. Architecture schools have been trying to develop specific methodologies and considerations in regards to updating the curriculum to match “21st century issues”. Schools pride themselves on producing sustainable and environmentally conscious designers. However, few if any of these efforts lend themselves to the development of Black architects in the improvement of Black life, economy, and culture. Little wonder: in predominantly white institutions (PWI), department heads would likely soil themselves if ambushed with questions of what their plans are for developing Black architects.
Prospective Black architects (and Black students in general) should be aware of the counterproductivity of white institutional inertia in this regard, which is why Mitchell stresses the importance of changing HBCU’s architecture curriculum to reflect the needs of Black America.
Where, then, do we go from here?
Ideally, the improvement of housing conditions and shifting of mass politics to collective land/property ownership is the top priority. In fact the absence of a modern land-based agenda evidences the removal of the Black architect from their beginnings. The western architect has seemingly given no thought to what the political consequences are of being neutral in these pressing matters, and adhering to a strict client-designer schema.To Mitchell, Black architects should be representatives of the communities they work in, i.e. Black homeowners, tenants, and small business owners.
The internal culture of architecture schools reinforce the architect as a non-political profession. Combined with the dearth of political involvement by architects in the public “arena,” Mitchell’s description of Black architecture in crisis is far from hyperbolic.
In the chapter “New Urbanism” versus “New Black Urbanism” and Film, Mitchell makes the case that Black film offers more insight to the relationship between Black people and architecture than given credit for. For example, John Singleton and Spike Lee’s depiction of Black residents in films like Boyz N The Hood and Do The Right Thing can be used as precedents to determine organization, building typology, and human interaction with the built environment. Mitchell even toys with the idea of incorporating Black film study in the formal architectural curriculum.
The architecture curriculum in the HBCU would certainly benefit from synthesis with Black and African architectural precedents, as well as region specific survey and history courses. Mitchell posits, for example, the offering of placements to students in rehabilitation/restoration projects in their local area. As matters stand, new Black architects are funneled towards developments in higher income white neighborhoods, their skills and potential for community revivification leached into the unsustainable miasma of gentrification and suburban blight.
In one of the later chapters, The Diaspora Perspective and an Alternative Future, Mitchell recalls a trip to Ghana and the excitement of Ghanaian architecture-practitioners seemingly having no interest in proliferating Euro-American aesthetics. In accordance with Mitchell’s views, he encourages Black architects to invest in Ghana in a developer’s capacity; in order for the country to establish an authentic African architectural tradition.
An interesting and hopeful proposition, along these lines, could be the establishmentof a working relationship between Black diaspora and African architecture students, researchers, and faculty. Following Mitchell’s criticism of the white architectural pedagogy, a Garveyite/Nkrumahist plan has potential for global disruption of the architectural story. Not only for developing new styles and innovations, but for the purpose of beginning a comprehensive study into the architectural traditions of Africans throughout history, a discipline which remains criminally understudied relative to its European counterpart.
An institution developed to storing and safeguarding records of all Black/African architectural works could not only shift aspiring students away from the Jefferson tradition, but provide a counter to that Euro-American heritage. A heritage which relegates Black and African contributions to individuated achievements. The one-offs of the assimilated minority.
Looking to Africa, rather than of Europe, could introduce a wide array of benefits for the Black architect/student. Native methods and forms would become tools within the arsenal of the Black architect to develop and innovate from. A syzygy of styles from Africans and the diaspora could itself become the basis of a “Black architectural style” which binds together the scattered architectural achievements of Africans, both at home and abroad.
Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer and architect, designed both The National Memorial for Peace & Justice and The Legacy Museum both located in Montgomery, Alabama. Upholding monuments like these are especially relevant today in the context of demands to remove colonial statues by Black americans. It is critical to understand this is a battle also taking place in the architecture and urban planning arenas, and reaffirms Mitchell’s point of view that the concerns of the white architectural world are not the concerns of Black architectural needs.
The Lycée Schorge Secondary School, designed by Francis Kéré in Burkina Faso. The building, constructed through the use and re-use of local materials, is a sustainable edifice that passively cools its interiors. Not only is the sourcing unique to the land around the project, but the assembly construction of the school was done cooperatively with and alongside the community.
The unfortunate downsides in achieving this endeavor, currently, is the reliance of “social entrepreneurs” in the financing of individual projects, considering these undertakings are often funded by outsiders whose motives and class position are necessarily antagonistic to the goals of the Black collective. Another is the fact that the continent has not a single world renowned architecture school that attracts a large influx of international applicants, the way American and European schools do.
The Crisis of the African-American Architect is essential reading for prospective Black students. It is also essential for anyone (especially professionals and instructors) interested in the relationship between the architectural profession and Black people. This text provides thorough criticism of the European influenced curriculum and stresses the need to create a curriculum specific to Black America.
Building from Mitchell’s criticisms, the best path forward would begin by establishing a working relationship between HBCU’s and Universities on the continent. When this collaboration is achieved, the Black architectural canon can finally emerge as a self-determined and wholly realized movement outside of the Euro-American tradition, to which today’s Black architects find themselves anchored.