Architecture of the Cool
Last night I attended a lecture and signing for Dr. Robert Farris Thompson’s new book Aesthetic of the Cool at the Studio Museum in Harlem. The lecture brought me back to New Haven, circa 1999, when I took Master T’s class on art of the African Diaspora (a "must take" while at Yale: From West Africa to the Black Americas: The Black Atlantic Visual Tradition). He gave a short, yet thrilling, talk on aspects of "the cool", such as wetness and blue light in interior decoration, frozen lips and alert eyes in visual art and performance, and offbeat phrasing and multiple meter in music. During the Q&A (preceded by an engaging conversation with Dr. Lowery Stokes Sims, head of the Museum of Arts and Design), I asked Dr. Thompson what were some key signifiers of the cool in architecture. Long pause. I mean LOOOONG. Then he gave a wonderful example of the use of very low doors by the Yoruba to make everyone kneel before entering a space. Humility is cool, brother.
But that long pause told me something that I already knew: there is vast critical space to examine the cool, or the Africanist presence in architecture. Thompson, the foremost scholar on African and Diasporic visual art and performance, knows a great deal about architecture, certainly, but probing it for artifacts of his main thesis are not his focus. So that leaves space wide open for other scholars to make it theirs.
On the train ride home, I transferred at West 4th station. Playing in the space underneath the stairs were some of the best subway performers I've ever heard. There was a drummer and a saxophonist, just jamming out with a sophisticated groove of poly-rhythmic syncopation. Performance, spectacle, ritual, and dance are key tools of communication for proponents of the cool - but all of these activities happen SOMEWHERE. What is it about a space, the configuration of its walls, the roughness of its floor, the arrangement of its inhabitants that makes this performance possible? Makes it thrive? What are the shapes of a vessel that holds the cool? (There's got to be a book in there somewhere!)
In addition to containing cool and allowing it to flourish, there must be architecture that emanates cool on its own. Again, this gets into the issue of codification - are there formal architectural precedents that are characteristically Black? Or from the African Diaspora in the way that certain spatial tropes are considered Greek or Roman? Dr. Thompson, I think, would have no qualms saying "YES! There certainly are." But architects themselves are tentative for fear of their work being labeled a "style". Naming is a terrifying act.
But as I put forth in a previous post, I do think it is worth pursuing, as long as the understanding is that this is only one lens through which to view this work. I remember clearly a conversation with David Adjaye where he remarked that it was important for him to build first - to be known as a damn good architect and then an African architect or a British architect. It took him a while to make his internal linkages public, and debate remains as to the success of those connections.
So there's the rub. Yes, there may be aspects of the cool in architecture, but labeling it, making it known, embracing it, it still a process that critics and historians may have a problem with, not least because architects themselves are tentative and/or unsuccessful about making those connections clearly. I think the way forward it to care less, to speak your voice more, and, like David, build your dreams no matter if the response is lukewarm.
Now THAT is cool.