Dark Matter

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

Betsky's Bargain

There is an article in last month's Architect Magazine titled "Invisible Men: U.S. Memorials Fail to Honor Blacks" by Aaron Betsky. I agree with much of what he writes - that we need to increase the diversity of the architecture student body as well as our schools' pedagogy, we need to have memorials (he writes about Civil War memorials specifically) that acknowledge what the war was really about (slavery) and the black bodies who helped fight it, and that these memorials need to be expressive and well-designed. But I was tripped up by the sentence, "If there are going to be black monuments, should they not draw on the traditions of those cultures?" At first I wanted to say "no," because I think we need an American model of memorializing American events - that takes account of the richness of our many colored existence. American culture is a jostle of influences that includes Black culture. I can listen to (wow, I'm trying to think of a white musician who ISN'T British that I listen to - Led Zeppelin, Florence Welsh, The Rolling Stones, James Blake, hmm, uh, ok, they just sound British) Interpol while my white neighbor prefers Coltrane. But that seems an insufficient answer - again we come at the conundrum from another angle - what would a culturally Black memorial look like?

Oddly, I think it could be a moving target, atomized, and cloud-like, like the Blur Building. Or maybe it would look like a black monolith, strong and angular like Maya Lin's Vietnam Veteran's Memorial. Or like Adjaye's LxWxH, slatted with shadow. Or like Robert Farris Thompson’s “cool,” with blue light shining. No one asks a monument to be Neoclassical. No one demands that Black architecture be one particular way over another, just like no Black person is a facsimile of his neighbor. I don't think Betsky is calling for a "Black Architecture" per se, but an architecture of inclusion, a memorial with aesthetic resonance for the referenced community. The ways one interprets that cultural specificity through siting, material, and form can be as varied as the citizens it serves.