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Amanda Williams

If the Department of Architecture and Design at the Museum
of Modern Art began as an institution in search of the formal
limits of contemporary architecture, then it is now in the
uncomfortable position of needing to move beyond its own
mythical foundations in order to imagine its future in an

increasingly diverse field. This is to say that the general defi-
nitions for modern architecture that its first curators estab-
lished as a historical origin point of a progressive history

of design have proven to be not only outdated but almost
entirely based on a set of Eurocentric norms and assumptions
for art and art appreciation that are made embarrassingly
obvious by the exhibition “Reconstructions: Architecture and
Blackness in America.” Despite the running time of this show
(February 27–May 31, 2021) being criminally brief during
the first relaxations of pandemic restrictions, this is a historic
undertaking that is potentially transformative for the ways

curators will discuss the national and global legacies of mod-
ern architecture. The work created by the 11 artists and archi-
tects of “Reconstructions” – Emanuel Admassu, Germane

Barnes, Sekou Cooke, J. Yolande Daniels, Felecia Davis, Mario
Gooden, Walter Hood, Olalekan Jeyifous, V. Mitch McEwen,
Amanda Williams, and David Hartt – excels most when it
employs the fragments of modern architectural formalism
to reveal the countercultural projects of African American
modernity that have been continuously at work in the United 

States, from Reconstruction (1865–1877) to the present. This
projective historiography reframes the aesthetic criteria that
are necessary to round out the archives of the Department
of Architecture and Design by exceeding the European and
Enlightenment pedigree of its founding. In a similar fashion to
Houston Baker’s explanation of the unrecognized modernity
of African American literature during the Harlem Renaissance,
cocurators Sean Anderson and Mabel O. Wilson, with Arièle
Dionne-Krosnick, have crafted an exhibit that reimagines the
built environment by paying homage to historical modes of
Black creativity.1

If nothing else, this exhibit provides a curato-
rial model of intervention at institutions like MoMA that can

be applied to recover the historical contributions of other com-
munities of color when they have found themselves written

out of the canon of modern architectural production.
The formal premise of “Reconstructions” is that it is an

exhibit about the “centuries of disenfranchisement and race-
based violence [that] have led to a built environment” in the

United States that is constituted by its “segregated neighbor-
hoods, compromised infrastructures, environmental toxins,

and unequal access to financial and educational institutions.”2
However, this is surreptitious cover for the exhibition’s deeper
reckoning with the inequities that were precipitated by a
racially biased conception of modern architecture culture in the

United States. It is a vocalization of the need for a deeper histor-
ical accounting of the discipline’s broad role, and the museum’s

specific role, in dismissing, erasing, and appropriating Black
talent for the hegemonic cultural projects of a Pan-European
avant-garde dressed up as a universal style of building. The

cultural stakes of this exhibit are made clear by the racial poli-
tics surrounding its location in the museum, the Philip Johnson


In a process that inverts the colonial politics of era-
sure that Ariella Azoulay attributes to the political function of

“transcendental imperial art” and museological knowledge,
the participants of the show formed the Black Reconstruction
Collective and printed their Manifesting Statement on a tarp

placed over the wall sign outside the gallery, effectively mak-
ing it a gallery with no name.4

In doing so, they made it pos-
sible for visitors to specifically place the crime of Black omission

from MoMA squarely at the feet of a founding curator while

acknowledging the placelessness that Black artists and archi-
tects have endured as a result of this very crime.

Does “Reconstructions” solve the problems raised by the
historical erasure of Black artists at MoMA? Is it an effective
form of repair to the international branding that has given 

the museum such pride of place in the past? I believe such
questions are beside the point. Repairing MoMA’s reputation
is not the focus of this exhibit, nor should it be the job of any

Black artist or architect operating at MoMA. More impor-
tant, it is a powerful reclamation of the intellectual acumen

that was required of the generations of African diasporic art-
ists that found creative ways of existing in the modern world.

These modalities are a rebuke of early exhibits on “African
Negro Art” that categorized Black genius to be the result of
a mere intuitive mindset that was common, if “pure,” in the
primitive cultures stuck at a premodern level of industrial

The presumed importance of industrialization

and abstraction in the forward march of American modern-
ism is greatly complicated by the inclusion of Black radical

talent that is long overdue.
What to the “Primitive” is the Museum of Modern Art?
In 1852, Frederick Douglass asked a largely White audience
of Independence Day revelers the rhetorical question, “What
to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”6

He asked this question to
give his listeners, and every listener thereafter, an opportunity
to contemplate the aporias of American liberalism that went
unresolved due to the very existence of slavery. I think this
quote is often misunderstood because too many believe they 

were finally resolved after the abolition of slavery. However,
the barbs of his question persist, even to this day, because of
the very possibility of categorizing a subject of the United States
as a “slave” within a liberal democracy. The deeper lessons of
Douglass’s question provide us with an insightful parallel to the
work undertaken by the “Reconstructions” show at MoMA.
When Douglass uses the word slave to describe members
of the African diaspora living in the United States, he is not
offering an empirical description of his community, as there
were already Black people living outside of the institution of

slavery, even if only provisionally. He himself was a run-
away slave who touted his status as a freeman to demonstrate

the human potential of Black Americans during his lifetime.
Instead of being empirically descriptive, then, his use of slave
is analytic as it lays bare the poverty of imagination haunting
an American liberal consciousness that fails to identify and
expunge its anti-Blackness to find a proper place for Black

subjects on its shores. We must remember that American lib-
erty was based on rhetorical claims on universal freedoms and

suffrage for all, yet existed within a proslavery and settler-
colonial state. A slave is a nonentity in the ontological sense; it

has no legal recourse to being an individual but only operates
for the purpose of counting one’s property or things. In this
vein, Douglass’s question was no mere contemplation of the

impracticalities of an enslaved person celebrating the princi-
ples of universal freedom, because a slave was not even consid-
ered to be a person under the law. Slaves were merely chattel.

Instead, Douglass was asking his White audience to locate the

racial biases of American liberalism by posing the more com-
plicated question of what inherent limits are contained within

a democratic system that was incapable of properly defining
a Black person as anything more than a slave. He was asking
his audience to imagine slaves, perhaps even their own slaves,
as real people with their own modern projects. He was asking
his audience to confront an internalized system of racism that
was the result of an inherent hypocrisy embodied by a nation
of freed White men standing on the necks of the Black laborers
who brought them their current wealth and liberty.
Pairing the labels of “Architecture” and “Blackness,”
the “Reconstructions” exhibit poses a similar question to the
founding myths of modern architecture. Of what value are
the historical definitions, labels, and principles of a modern
architecture that are still too commonly understood to be the
universal exponents of the European avant-garde culture that
have now become globalized? Like the slave of the antebellum 

world, the discipline of architecture has been unable to prop-
erly define the African and African-diasporic modernities

that were created by the Black communities that have lived
in the United States. Instead of acknowledging the Whiteness

that was essential to the Pan-European conception of mod-
ern architecture birthed at MoMA – a Whiteness that seemed

capable of switching its support from American democracy to

Nazism or fascism if this better enabled the creation of beau-
tiful architectural forms – its founders invented the category

of the “primitive” to contain the seemingly aberrant modern

subjectivities that endangered the cultural and political hege-
mony of a sublimated European conception of architectural

form that promised to colonize the world anew. The cocura-
tors of “Reconstructions” invite MoMA to make itself anew.

“Reconstructions” asks MoMA’s curators, past and pres-
ent, and any architect who employs its avant-garde legacies

to support their own creative activities, the simple question,
“What to the ‘Primitive’ is the Museum of Modern Art?”
The problem with viewing Black artists and architects
as something more than the “primitive” subject of modern
architecture theory is not one that emerged from within the
Black community. It is a problem of the colonial and imperial
museum apparatus that fails to identify and authentically
express the creativity of these cultural agents.
Of what true value is an artistic worldview that tacitly
suspects all forms of Black modernity to be an act of mere
intuition, or a chance operation of premodern thinking? What

else would describe the historical omission of Black archi-
tects in MoMA’s archive? We currently lack the conceptual

language to even describe the broad range of modern cultural
projects that emerged to sustain the diverse forms of life that
have existed in the United States. So many of our inherited

frameworks only operate at the level of a presumed univer-
sality that must be achieved by all subjects, regardless of their

actual needs or desires. Within this restricted intellectual con-
text, Blackness has only operated as a symbol of lack, absence,

and want. It is the permanent underbelly of a rationalist
system of design that requires modernist cultures to renew
themselves with the premodern sentiments of so-called
primitive subjects. The very act of staging “Reconstructions”
is still critically necessary because it begins to provide us with
the appropriate lenses to properly see the racial aporias of
architectural modernity that we have inherited. However,

we are left with the difficult task of critiquing, deconstruct-
ing, and reconstructing these founding values so that they 

operate more inclusively. As pioneering as this exhibit is, it
does not delineate a prescriptive list of new vocabulary words
and design principles for its main audience. The value of

“Reconstructions,” for better or worse, is not spent formulat-
ing a didactic revision of MoMA’s institutional culture, but is

to be found in a powerful display of the mastery of its practi-
tioners. I, for one, welcome this new list of master architects

as I eagerly await the internal reconstruction of the museum’s
holdings that is inevitable in the wake of this effort.
The Reconstruction of Architectural Formalism at MoMA
The curatorial strategy for “Reconstructions” is purposefully
site based, both in terms of the viewer’s experience and in

terms of the geographic forms of Blackness that are investi-
gated throughout the exhibit. One walks into the gallery space

viewing three main orientation elements within: the afore-
mentioned manifesto by the Black Reconstruction Collective; a

large wall of text providing a summary of the exhibit’s inten-
tion to “take up the unfinished project of Reconstruction”; and

a wall-sized map of the United States orienting viewers to the
10 cities that the participants reimagine in their work. This
spine then splits into a series of perpendicular axes that take the
viewer on a virtual tour of what could have been if America had
dedicated itself fully to the historical mission of Reconstruction.
At least two pieces reconceptualize the potential meaning
of architecture as a discipline from an object-based practice
that is primarily concerned with the generation and aesthetic

contemplation of static form to a discipline focused on inter-
preting the building’s role in delineating the broader spatial

experiences of the built environment. As Gooden notes in his 

explanation of the piece The Refusal of Space, “Architecture
is about making space.”7

Moving beyond the presumed uni-
versalism of both postmodern architectural autonomy and

phenomenology, Gooden introduces the possibility of under-
standing architectural form through the physical and intellec-
tual emulation of Black spatial practices. Hood’s contribution,

Black Towers/Black Power, equally reimagines the formal
qualities of the freestanding object by infusing the meaning of
minimalist form with a complex and layered spatial program.
The architectural section drawings of each tower enable us to
concentrate on the structural power that subtends these forms

but is all too often ignored for a superficial and apolitical for-
malist discussion of a building’s exterior form.

Gooden’s contribution is a self-described “protest
machine” that encapsulates the Black struggle for spatial
inclusion in Nashville, Tennessee, during the 1960s and ’70s.
He specifically chose Nashville for his work because it was the
location of several important moments in American history:
its trolley-car protests predated the Montgomery bus boycott
by nearly 50 years and gave birth to the Union Transportation

Company, a privately owned Black trolley line that bet-
ter enabled minorities to navigate the city on equal terms.

Nashville was also the location of an early lunch-counter pro-
test that emulated the Greensboro sit-ins of early 1960 to end

racial segregation in private commercial spaces in the South.
The theme of spatial liberation is timely not only in light of
recent Black Lives Matter protests around the nation, but also

in relation to the political strategy of refusal that Gooden ref-
erences in the title of his piece, as Black Americans have had

to reject the dehumanizing labels that are a structural part 

of White supremacy. In disciplinary terms, Gooden stages
his protest machine as a stationary trolley that makes clever
use of the notational systems of architecture, both literal
and representational, to index the spatial dramas of 1960s
Nashville. As a stationary piece, it recalls the permanence
expected of architecture, but as a formal registration of the

Union Transportation trolley line, it subverts our expecta-
tion of such fixity with a tableau of projective orientations.

It remains in place only so we can rethink space through
circumambulatory practices. In framing multiple views of
the Black body in the urban landscape, The Refusal of Space
demonstrates the ways that architecture as an object in the
landscape is completely dependent upon the social meanings

it accumulates. Yet Gooden’s findings are framed by a care-
ful historical study of Black space, which refuses to make

generalist claims toward what these spaces might have meant
to the White segregationists or new generations of refugees,

Latinx, or Asian migrants living in the area. Even the black-
ened Confederate flag denotes the Blackness of this historical

struggle. The only transferable property of Gooden’s work is
its stripped-down aesthetic, which employs the assemblage
of standardized pieces of architectural structure to suggest a

series of open lines of action and projection. While these ele-
ments help us to understand the potentialities of space, the

piece does not resolve into a static object as might be expected
of a permanent work of architecture.
Black Towers/Black Power consists of 10 scaled totems
that represent a series of new skyscrapers designed for
Oakland, California, a city that provided an opportunity to

reimagine the contemporary materialization of the revo-
lutionary principles of self-governance and Black ownership

outlined in the Black Panther Party’s 1966 Ten-Point Program.
Hood’s experience growing up in the area led him to realize the

physical importance of San Pablo Avenue as a material docu-
ment of the race-based policies of containment that were used

to control Black space, as well as a living record of the rem-
nants of the Black Panther Party’s program in the social insti-
tutions of the area. On an aesthetic level, the eye is drawn to

Hood’s 10 black towers, which stand on axis as discrete mono-
liths in the gallery. At first glance, they seem to exist as pure

formal objects of contemplation. Yet Hood’s statuary transforms

the apolitical reading of these abstract elements into an activ-
ist tool. This is only made apparent when one spends some

time with the section drawings of each tower, which imag-
ine Black control of everything, from a community-managed 

police force to communal housing and a “Hall of Justice.”
Black Towers/Black Power establishes a material analogue to
the revolutionary outline that is often provided by the leaders
of Black social movements. On an aesthetic level that extends

the Black traditions found within MoMA itself, Hood’s pair-
ing of evocative architectural section drawings with the visual

traditions of minimalist modern sculpture recodes the poten-
tial social meaning of these objects in the museum, enriching

pure form in a way that parallels what was achieved by Louise
Nevelson’s social imbrication of the pictorial practices of the
abstract expressionists of the 1940s and ’50s. I find it to be a
clever way of smuggling the social content of architecture into
museum contexts that may be too conservative to entertain
the practical realities of “Reconstructions.” It is not hard to
imagine the display of Hood’s sculptures without any social

contextualization, much like the recontextualization of lit-
eral ethnographical objects as works of art within the formal-
ist interiors of Ateliers Jean Nouvel’s Musée du Quai Branly,

which was enclosed by a primitive forest that rehearses the sad
tropes of the aesthetic principles of Oceanic art so well trod in
early modernist circles.8
Cooke’s We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public
Space formalizes the memory of Black public spaces erased
by multiple phases of neoliberal development in Syracuse,
New York. His methodology recalls Felecia Davis’s Walking
Tours of Manhattan, which recovers the lost Black sites of the 

island, but Cooke primarily uses the language of hip-hop –
sampling, break, freestyle, and remix, to name just a few – to
think through architectural form that simultaneously indexes
these historical fragments in the present.9

Despite the formal
similarities to other layered architectural schemes, we know
that we are working with a palimpsest of memory because
of the superimposition of historical images of residents on
the facades of the site’s original low-rise buildings. In my
mind, this work operates as a visual form of oral history that
animates the site through the layered presentation of local
stories of everyday life. If Cooke’s piece is firmly rooted in a
visual archaeology of ground, then Williams launches us into
a utopian version of Black space that looks a lot like Sun Ra’s

outer space or a cognitive frontier that is placeless yet ubiq-
uitous in the minority subject’s imagination. At the level of

notation, her piece, We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here,
revises illustrations of patents of intellectual labor to index
Black creative genius. It physically consists of a video and a
series of representations of patented materials. It begins with
a cataloguing of the free towns that Black Americans founded
from Reconstruction onward to develop their potential in the
United States. The constant interruption of White terror and

racial suppression, however, necessitated a search for physi-
cal territory that lay further and further removed from such

negative forces. The beautiful supergraphic of a multicolored 

Jacob’s ladder stretching up into a metal superstructure that
hovers above the vernacular housing below should remind
us of the visual aesthetic of postwar utopian projects such as
June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s Skyrise for Harlem.
Like its predecessor, We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here
is also deeply infused by the specific memories and cultural
projects of the midrise community of Kinloch, Missouri.10
Of course, these are only some of the ways that
“Reconstructions” challenges the norms of architectural
formalism. The connections that are drawn between the fine
arts and architecture expand the content of architectural
formalism to include the content of new conversations on
the visualization and oral performance of Blackness in these

fields. I have written on another occasion of the deep refor-
mation of Blackness that Olalekan Jeyifous introduces to the

architectural canon as a member of the African diaspora, and
the inclusion of visual artists and architects such as Germane
Barnes and David Hartt connects the innovations of the
fine arts to those of architecture.11 One can only hope that
“Reconstructions” is an opening salvo that inspires others to

contribute to the reformulation of contemporary architec-
tural discourse. That would be an effective form of repara-
tions if ever there was one. 

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