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Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America at MoMA

Q&A with Sean Anderson, associate curator in the Department of Architecture & Design at MoMA.

Text edited for length and clarity by Rachel Gallaher

Sekou Cooke. "We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space." 2020. Digital print and screenprint. 12 × 12″ (30.5 × 30.5 cm). Image courtesy of the artist. The Museum of Modern Art, New York

Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, part of the Museum of Modern Art’s “Issues in Contemporary Architecture” series, features a set of commissioned case studies and runs through May 31, is an investigation into the intersections of architecture, Blackness, and anti-Black racism in the American context. As an accompanying deeper dive to the piece in in February/March 2021 issue, GRAY reached out to Sean Anderson, associate curator in the Department of Architecture & Design at MoMA, for more insight into the exhibition, which was more than two years in the making.

Is this exhibition a reaction or a response to the BLM movement and the country’s recent social unrest, or had it been in the works before?

We have been working on the exhibition for more than two years, first as conversations between Mabel [O. Wilson, the Nancy and George Rupp professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, a professor in African American and African Diasporic Studies, and the director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University] and myself as well as others, then alongside our remarkable Advisory Committee and ultimately the participants themselves. It is important to note however that the questions and histories that the participants are considering have been ever-present in the United States for decades, if not centuries. That the exhibition coincides with the global BLM movement from 2019 should not be surprising.

This exhibition, from the start, has been one of transforming the ways in which we imagine ourselves in public and private spaces, while recognizing the indelible presence of Black individuals and spaces in the formation of our cities, our landscapes, and our homes. We have attempted to prompt significant conversations about the erasure of Black communities as well as the continued absence of Black architects in architectural histories and practices, but not dwelling in them. Rather, we ask, how can we unbuild these histories to inform a more inclusive and equitable future?

Each of the works in the exhibition explores narratives that are particular to one city, its history, its writing, and at the same time showing how spatial relationships found across all cities large and small in the United States were at once developed through division but now can be overcome.

What can people expect from this exhibition and why is it important right now?

Our ambition has been to consider how histories of disenfranchisement, erasure and disaggregation among communities of color, and especially among Black communities in the United States, run counter to the capacity for architecture to be one of potential. The exhibition illustrates spaces in which to reflect upon joy inasmuch as refusal, the topographies of imagination and speculation, the transitory nature of the local and the global as a means to respond to and embody Blackness. It is an exhibition centered on hope, of potential and of care.

We cannot forget the violent engagements that formed much of the American-built environment because we are living in and among their afterlives today. We cannot overlook how infrastructures and neighborhoods were formed on the basis of segregating and disciplinary policies that enforced the separation of peoples. We cannot absolve legalized planning and banking policies that reorganized cities as well as states through redlining. We cannot look away from how architecture and urbanism is indicative of the disproportionate effects of Covid-19 on communities of color. We cannot forget that the US Capitol was built using slave labor.

The exhibition is composed of ten immersive installations, each one observing one city in the US, and can have multiple works including drawings, models, digital videos, as well as collages, sculpture and material studies. We also include a newly commissioned work by the artist David Hartt, who created a video and score based on research and footage from the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.

What do you hope people take away from the exhibition?

The eleven installations exemplify narratives and works that critically observe how the built environment, of contemporary architecture, urbanism, and landscape in the United States can be recognized and recalibrated around Blackness. There are intimate moments as well as humorous ones; there are also stark histories that must be seen and recognized; this is not your typical exhibition of architecture. Rather, we wish to show how architecture has the capacity to expand the ways in which we see ourselves and our nation. I think it is important to recognize that this is a beginning—for recentering Blackness not only in architectural practice, discourse and thinking but also to form collaborative ways in which to locate Blackness among schools of architecture, institutions and our society more broadly.


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