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Defining a Black Aesthetic

In a field dominated by white practitioners, what does it mean to create Black architecture?

By Demar Matthews

As published in GRAY magazine Issue 55

In a field dominated by white practitioners, what does it mean to create Black architecture?

“How often are white people coming into Black neighborhoods to hang out and spend their money?” asks architectural designer, theorist, and writer Demar Matthews. “How often do Black people go into white areas and spend theirs? Why? This image speaks to the importance of hosting space.” Image courtesy of Demar Matthews.

A while back, my girlfriend, Elizabeth, and I were driving back to Los Angeles after visiting my mom in Moreno Valley, California. We were on the 101 Freeway, about 50 miles away from home, when she spotted a small housing community. “Oh, my Godddd!” she cried out. “Look, it’s just like home!” Set back from the road was a group of vibrantly colored houses with an adjacent, bustling street market. It was a modest tableau, but it reminded my girlfriend of home.

Elizabeth was born in Guanajuato, Mexico, and in this neighborhood on the east side of LA, she had noticed a small, discrete house that, through its architecture, reflected the predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in which it sat. For me, it was nothing special. Just another house in a city full of houses. But Elizabeth and I have been in other predominantly Hispanic communities around the city, and she says the same thing each time. I watch her face light up with pride as she looks at the buildings, storefronts, and markets that reflect the values and ideals of her people’s culture. These built environments reflect specific cultural values, norms, and traditions. Elizabeth identified with the buildings and the neighborhoods.

As we drove, I realized that I never feel that same sense of pride. Where was the architecture that spoke to my identity as a Black person? I feel most comfortable in an environment with people who look like me, which means a predominantly Black neighborhood. That is where I feel at home.

For the first time, I analyzed the common elements that make up the built environment in LA’s historically Black neighborhoods, including Compton, South Central, and Watts: old buildings, graffiti, metal bars covering windows and doors, chain-link and barbed-wire fences, and shrines to people who have been killed. This is where people play, grow, eat, and sleep. This is the background of their stories. But this is not an aesthetic that instills pride, nor does it reflect the lives and culture of Black people.

In a field dominated by white practitioners, what does it mean to create Black architecture?

“This image illustrates a very important detail on the porch [of a home],” Matthews explains. “There is a mirror on the ceiling that reflects royal-themed graphics painted on the ground. No matter how the world sees a person, as they walk in and out of their home each day, they will be forced to see themselves as royalty when they look up. Inspired by artist Kehinde Wiley, the graphics are intended to help reinforce positive self-perception.” Image courtesy of Demar Matthews.

So, where is the Black architecture? Is Black architecture even a thing? As I began to research these questions, I posed them to professors and architects, as well as people not in the field. Their replies were similar; something along the lines of, “I don’t know.” My follow-up question is always the same: “What image pops into your head when you think of a Black neighborhood?” I watch their facial expressions grow increasingly uncomfortable before I give them an out by posing my last question: “Is it negative?”

The answer is always the same: “Yes.”

Although there is not an architectural style that represents Black culture, there is a negative image associated with Black neighborhoods. Diving deeper, I found that often, the housing built for Black people has a negative impact on residents. In Spatializing Blackness, author Rashad Shabazz analyzed how carceral power within Black Chicagoans’ built environments shaped urban planning, housing policy, policing practices, gang formation, high incarceration rates, and health. “The children here are surrounded by wire mesh and fencing that makes their living environment resemble the catwalks of a prison,” he writes. The abundance of security measures in these neighborhoods, and housing projects specifically, includes “policing, 24/7 video surveillance, perimeter patrols, apartment sweeps and curfews.” These oppressive systems made it seem “as if [residents] weren’t supposed to escape.” Shabazz proposes that such measures have radically transformed the built environment. Perhaps they, along with the overall lack of minority representation during the planning and design stages of the built environment, are at the root of this negative image of Black neighborhoods.

“Black [people’s] hair is special,” Matthews says. “It does things that other hair can’t do. I want to celebrate it through architecture. I used a popular hair technique/style for each design here and allowed its abstraction to become the architectural skin [that can be] attached to a building façade.” Matthews advocates using one property to provide as many resources to the community as possible. Images courtesy of Demar Matthews,

The institution of slavery stripped Africans of their culture in almost every way, including their building traditions. Most predominately Black neighborhoods are, and always have been, designed by people who know nothing about our way of life. The outcome superimposes someone else’s culture, image of us, and perceptions of our needs onto our neighborhoods. Having the opportunity to develop this architecture ourselves would provide a way to carve our names into the built environments of our neighborhoods. It is also a method of development without displacement: It gives people a reason to stay put and reinvest in their own communities.

OffTop is the design studio I founded this past April with the aim of employing architecture and design to improve the built environment in Black neighborhoods, using a comprehensive and collaborative method that draws on strong relationships with local communities and a deep understanding of their issues. “Unearthing a Black Aesthetic” is a case study consisting of nine homes that will be built in Black neighborhoods across the United States. I’m hoping to work with young Black architects, artists, writers, philosophers, developers, and anyone else who can contribute to this conversation to begin defining a Black architecture, as this is by no means something that can be solved independently or unilaterally.

Through the study, I’m looking to continue the work of Black architects before me, who asked these same questions about Black architecture, and to continue the development of an architectural language that derives purely from Black culture: design, dance, music, art, literature, fashion, traditions, values, and experience. Drawing from these resources will allow Black people to finally see their likeness reflected in the buildings that surround them.

LEFT: Matthews explores ways for Black communities to see themselves reflected in architecture. RIGHT: “The dances, postures, and fluid body movements of Black people are different than [those of] any other cultures,” Matthews says. “How do we approach very Eurocentric design and structure to make them represent us? This is inspired by [late artist] Ernie Barnes’ painting ‘The Sugar Shack.’” Images courtesy of Demar Matthews.

The first of the case study homes, which is currently in the fundraising phase, will break ground in the LA neighborhood of Watts, hopefully in early 2021 (a GoFundMe page is accepting donations from the public). The project is a collaboration with a Black homeowner whose family has lived in Watts for generations, and who has agreed to work with me to build an accessory dwelling unit on her property that will serve as an artist residence and makerspace. When speaking about her goal for the space, the homeowner expressed her desire to create synergy with her community, and to provide resources for everyone from local children to artists to home cooks. To that end, we’ve designed an interactive art walk along the property’s 256-foot-long fence line that includes canvases on which local artists can display quarterly exhibitions, a free outdoor library for the community, and a hanging garden with free fruits, vegetables, spices, and seeds, as well as pamphlets that provide growing instructions.

In these ways, “Unearthing a Black Aesthetic” is a collaboration with each project’s community, and we continue to speak with them about the approach to this new aesthetic that will be for us and by us. Our goal is for Black communities around the country to rebuild themselves—to take control of our image in architecture, to take control of the perception of our neighborhoods, and to elevate and celebrate Black life and culture.

Join us.

Demar Matthews is a Los Angeles–based architectural designer, theorist, and writer. He is the founder and principal of OffTop Design and currently works with the A+D Museum in Los Angeles as curator/exhibitions associate. Born in Moreno Valley, California, Matthews received his bachelor’s degree from Lincoln University—the nation’s first degree-granting Historically Black College and University—and completed his Master of Architecture degree at Woodbury University, where he was awarded the Graduate Thesis Prize for his dissertation project, “Black Architecture: Unearthing the Black Aesthetic.” His introduction to the field was the writing of “A Black Architecture Education Experience,” an article for Archinect. Matthews believes that architecture and good design should not be only for the privileged, but that every community deserves to be proud of the built environment around them, regardless of their income, race, and or gender.


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