Dark Matter

a mixture of the unknown and the tangible - by Jennifer Newsom

Mentors, Part II: Eisenman's Ghost

In honor of Peter Eisenman's birthday on August 11th, I thought I would explain why he is one of my "mentors." (And why do I know about his birthday? My husband took Eisenman's studio at school, and somehow it must have drifted onto our calendar.) Peter is the reason Black Boxes began. One day while sitting in his first-year architecture course, I listened stunned as he went on a tirade about how Black Architecture, Chinese Architecture, Latino Architecture, et cetera didn't exist. Whether or not it was true, his assertion struck me in my gut. All of a sudden I felt hot under the collar and like the protagonist from the Invisible Man, unseen even though I was sitting in the room. What did it mean that my professor, someone who I was suppose to learn from, would seemingly ignore my presence? What did his statement even mean?

His comment inspired a lot of soul searching and prompted me to apply for a newly proposed fellowship the school was offering. I realized I was just as ignorant as Peter about African-American contributions to our field. I needed to probe this history, especially if my teachers weren't interested in doing so. The Black Boxes conference grew as a way to engage in dialogue about architectural history, theory, and practice by black people, not necessarily to come to a firm conclusion yay or nay about whether there exists a term so monolithic as "Black Architecture." (See my Metropolis Magazine article.)

In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn't have been so shortsighted in my vision. An article in The Architect's Newspaper challenged why I shied away from a firm conclusion. At the time, I think I was more concerned with getting a multitude of voices out - I didn't want to put a label on what I was revealing because then everyone would view it through that lens. I stand by that reason, and so it is for that reason - the not-naming-ness of the issue - that I must admit (here it is folks) that Peter Eisenman is right. There is no such thing as "Black Architecture" per se, because:

1. We as a race are not homogenous (duh).

2. "Black Architecture" as way of building/seeing/living pervades. It is a way of being that is apart as well as a part - it is inside and outside the western cannon at the same time. It is a dark matter.

3. That said, there are buildings that put forth an African-American or Africanist aesthetic, spatial organization, and material composition, but this is a much more layered, nuanced, and complex notion than an applique of adinkra symbols. It is NOT necessarily the overarching lens through which this work should be viewed/labeled.

Black Architecture cannot be named, contained, have a finger firmly put upon, and thus set aside. Does that mean it cannot be known? Given exposure, given a chance for students/professors/the public to see a different way, you might recognize it when you see it.