The Echo Art Fair has become an annual event for showcasing the latest trends of curators and artists connected to Buffalo, New York. This year’s show took place in an old Albert Khan factory located on the East Side of the city, which is now home to many African American residents. Khan, a prolific American modern architect, was responsible for many of the period’s signature industrial designs including the Pierce Arrow building still extant in Buffalo. The planners of this year’s show wanted to expand the traditional focus on framed artworks to include several examples of architecture and architectural inspired works. Jordan Geiger, an Associate Professor of Architecture at the State University of New York at Buffalo was asked to curate the architecture exhibit. He used the theme “Light Industry” as a prompt to get people thinking about the conceptual relationships that existed between Buffalo’s historical industrial heritage, it’s current status as a rust-belt city, and the new lighting technologies inaugurated at the OSC plant now in charge of the fair site.
The final show was populated with four pieces, all of which interpreted the terms “light” and “industry” in very distinct ways. I was most taken by an installation created by Ang Li, the current Reyner Banham Fellow at SUNY Buffalo. Li created an ornamental column that echoed its industrial surroundings by enabling visitors to experience the site in a completely unique way. Her faux column–hollow on the inside, and thus rendered obsolete from a structural perspective–enabled visitors to occupy the center of a space that is usually filled with matter. For me, this gesture metaphorically opens up Buffalo’s industrial history by reconfiguring some of its most ubiquitous material elements: terra cotta and steel. Using digital tools to carve out the arched openings alternated in its terra cotta tiles, Li stages views for peering back at Khan’s works from a once privileged perspective. The plain views afforded of the underlying steel frame reinforces the ornamental function of the terra cotta cladding, which creates a dialectic between the mid-century structural surroundings of the warehouse and our contemporary admiration of such historical works.
While Li’s piece privileges the material reality of Khan’s now aging warehouse, it operates on a register that continues to reify the canonical place of this structure in the history of architectural modernism. One should note that this particular warehouse, the warehouse that was located on Buffalo’s East Side, was ‘rediscovered’ just before the Echo Art Fair. Of course, this discovery should give us joy, and as an architectural historian I can see its historical merits. However, such discoveries also provide an opportunity to question why this contribution was lost in the first place? Might it be that its very location, its very proximity to a marginalized underclass held unintended consequences for Albert Khan and his architectural designs? Louis Sullivan’s designs experienced a similar fate as many of his masterpieces on Chicago’s South Side were lost to history. They were the victims of the shifting tides of white flight and institutional neglect that were part and parcel of urban renewal. But they did not die alone. They were occupied by hundreds of black bodies that witnessed this destruction, and even, at times, raised their hands to prevent it.
This acknowledgement–a full documentation of the simultaneity of American architectural genius and that of its modern occupants–is what is at stake (for me at least) in Li’s intervention. This is where its potential ‘blackness’ lies. I find that she provides an unacknowledged space for the displaced minority residents of the area to occupy the center of the very architectural material that provided Khan’s masterpieces with its strength. This very gesture reiterates the labor that was extracted from workers and laborers throughout Buffalo’s industrial history; just as the concrete column holds up Khan’s warehouse, so did the cheap labor extracted from the working man’s body hold up the American economy. The only difference is now that body need not remain mute in its support of American capitalism. Li offers regular people an opportunity to peer back at architectural genius. However, she does so by propping up Khan’s work as a material masterpiece. The column can stand on its own, but only gathers meaning by being juxtaposed next to its industrial surroundings. This is an interesting tension between presence and absence. One can almost imaging the parade of laborers and workers (many of whom participated in staging the show) finally appearing as a material element of modern architecture…
It might interest readers to know that I grew up not two blocks from the location of this year’s Art Fair. I still fondly remember the many times I witnessed neighborhood boys playing football on the large lawn on the west side of the plant. This complex served as a physical anchor to the end of my block. In fact, my mother and father still live there. However, for as long as I can remember, I could not point to one person I knew who worked at that plant. As I grew older, I came to realize the irony of having an industrial site responsible for creating hundreds of Chevy parts for cars around the country situated next to an army of unemployed African Americans. Literally hundreds of black bodies were located within a heartbeat of Khan’s masterpiece, and all of this labor–no longer free or indentured–was elided during a major period of industrial expansion. To add insult to injury, I can remember walking to my bus stop for school only to see many white laborers driving pick up trucks and sedans to work. These people did not live in my neighborhood, but they could find gainful employment there.
The historical tradition of worker’s towns at the turn of the century located housing units within walking distance to sites of employment in order to integrally tie together the fate of entire neighborhoods with that of its workers. In this case, however, the relationship between place and labor had shifted to connect the continued rise of white wealth with the migration of the white working force. And the same historical neglect that dogged black labor also dogs an official recognition of the vernacular genius applied in these neighborhood corridors. Both historical traditions engaged with modernist design principles, but only one the most canonical is currently celebrated by architects, architectural historians, and other taste makers central to the success of events like the Echo Art Fair. What I wanted to do was engineer a reversal of the typical historical gaze to fixate us back onto the people whose lives were conducted under the shadow of Albert Khan’s rediscovered modernist plant. Using the phrase “Light Industry” as a prompt, I decided to create a contrast between the heavy industrial fabric Khan created to serve the city’s expanding economy and the light industrial improvements that were being undertaken by minority residents no more than a few hundred feet away. I wanted to concentrate on the black vernacular genius that was necessary to sustain those who were cut off from the wealth building options offered by official channels of employment.
My corner of the Echo Art Fair consisted of two displays that are products of an ongoing faculty research grant entitled, “Building Black Utopias: Architectural Modernism and African American Writers, 1960-1975.” While not directly related to the Khan warehouse on Buffalo’s East Side, this project examines the modern architectural principles elaborated by African American writers during the postwar period. It uses architectural drawings and models to visualize the utopian implications established by the writings of the novelist Paule Marshall (1929- ), the poet June Jordan (1936-2002), the dramatist Amiri Baraka (1934-2014), and the philosopher Angela Davis (1944- ). While most of these writers never received formal training in architecture, they each found ways of incorporating the language and principles of architectural modernism into their reinterpretation of poor, black, urban spaces. These literary discourses radically incorporated the language and principles of architectural modernism in ways that moved beyond mere description. I argue that their rhetorical manipulations of space operate on the same level as utopian architectural schemes: both mediums liberate the architect’s imagination by relaying a set of physical strategies for reforming the built environment. In the end, this exhibit will help architects and architectural historians to recognize the seminal contributions of artistic producers in allied fields, which expands the historiography of architectural production to reflect the genius and contributions of non-white producers that are often overlooked in canonical narratives of the past.
Existing studies of postwar architectural utopianism fail to recognize the architectural themes of radical black writings, in part because these works deviate from the traditional mediums of architectural practice. In addition, the historian’s traditional privileging of the thoughts and intentions of licensed architects continues to marginalize producers of the built environment who have contributed to the reform of public space without needing access to the restricted and consecrated realm of professional architecture. None of the four historical figures mentioned above used architectural drawings or models to illustrate the principles of their work, and except for Amiri Baraka, none of them tried to consolidate the principles of their utopian theories in real-time. Yet their rhetorical manipulations of architectural space successfully isolated the latent potentials of architecture in the black community: Paule Marshall’s Black Girl, Brownstones (1959) metaphorically deconstructs the northern brownstone to illustrate the Barbadian migrant’s syncretic assimilation of American norms; June Jordan’s His Own Where (1971) reimagines the spatial potentials of historical brownstones and walk-ups in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant for black life; Amiri Baraka’s Four Black Revolutionary Plays (1969) uses the Black Arts Reparatory Theater School as a social hub for creating a black nationalist enclave in Harlem, New York; and Angela Davis’ Are Prisons Obsolete (2003) summarizes her postwar thinking on abolishing the “prison industrial complex” that exploits free black labor in American cities. Each of these examples reconfigures a modern building typology central to industrial black life in a radical way.
This interdisciplinary exhibit combines the critical tools of the architect, the architectural historian, and the literary critic to recover the architectural contributions of African American writers. It contributes to the growing field of interdisciplinary studies on architecture and literature. Research in this field is exemplified by publications such as David Spurr’s Architecture and Modern Literature (University of Michigan Press, 2012), William Gleason’s Sites Unseen: Architecture, Race, and American Literature (NYU Press, 2011), and Thadious Davis’ Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature (UNC Press, 2011). Each of these works examines the architectural themes of literary production, and the latter two use this approach to expand and pluralize the historical canon. A similar pluralization of the architectural canon is possible if one recognizes the full range of creative work that reformed the city, be it in architecture or an allied field of the fine arts.
June Jordan was the only figure to formally receive academic training in architecture, although it mainly consisted of pre-professional studies. Her undergraduate coursework was in Architectural and Environmental Design. She later went on to work with the utopian architect Buckminster Fuller and was awarded a Rome Prize in Environmental Design with his support. She published a novel in 1971 entitled His Own Where that examines a few months in the life of a young black boy named Buddy. I have entitled the display for His Own Where the “Carpenter’s Brownstone” because Buddy uses basic carpentry skills to transform his father’s three-story brownstone in Bedford-Stuyvesant. Jordan’s literary imagination demonstrates what is possible when everyday people decide to transform their local spaces for the better.
I organized each display with a pair of illustrations that juxtapose an author’s words, shown on the left panel, with a utopian map of Harlem that extrapolates the spatial implications of each writing sample. In the case of Jordan’s work, I also included several smaller images that illustrate the urban implications of His Own Where. Two of the samples included below were produced by undergraduate students in a research seminar at UNCC.
As a whole, the Carpenter’s Brownstone materializes the hidden principles of black vernacular spaces that Jordan reveals in her work. A good summary of her intentions can be found in a 1971 interview, which was looping in the background on sound equipment placed inside of the display. Since most of Jordan’s novel takes place in Bedford-Stuyvesant, I decided to paint the back of her display with a supergraphic of that area of New York. Once this pattern is complete, it will cover the entire base of the display.
The second display I included in the Echo Art Fair was entitled the “Thespian Brownstone.” This work illustrates the radical implications of Amiri Baraka’s conception of the Black Arts Movement as practiced from his Black Arts Repertory Theater School (BARTS) in Harlem. This school, which subsequently spread to several major cities across the United States, used the poetry and plays of the Black Arts Movement as an instigator for social change. In the 1967 poem “Black Art,” Baraka cries out for “poems that kill,” or art that elicits real material change. At one point, he even states that he “wants the world to be a Black Poem” filled with the content and rage of black nationalist thought. In response to this mission, I interpreted his BARTS schools as a social hub for ultimately de-colonizing the white controlled black enclave of Central Harlem. A theater space tucked into the basement of his brownstone headquarters presents a physical context for reeducating black society, which would in turn produce the desire to establish black social institutions and full ownership of the land. The desires of black nationalists such as Baraka for full economic and political autonomy channeled the traditional tools of modernism toward completely separate and self-governed space within the heart of New York City; a sort of self-created reservation of space for black social development.
One of the architectural detail models I included in this display was a “mobile theater unit” that applied the situational logic of Archigram’s mobile architectures towards Baraka’s aim to spread the Black Arts Movement across Central Harlem. As a result of this tool, the radical message of the BARTS schools could be spread more quickly. A modified Sanborn map (showing the building locations on each block) imagines the phased transformation of the Harlem block that housed the BARTS school, and projects the networks through which the entire space of Central Harlem could be de-colonized and taken back for black governance.
The Echo Art Fair operated a beta test for a solo exhibit on black utopian thought, so I am grateful to Jordan for including me this year. My hopes are to create at least five self-enclosed displays that are capable of traveling across the U.S. At least three will explore the vernacular innovations to brownstones in Central Harlem, the third of which will be dedicated to Paule Marshall’s book Brown Girl, Brownstone (1959). Two other displays will examine the renovation and reform of American prison spaces. Stay tuned for these additions! I have another research seminar tentatively scheduled in the fall to design and construct another full-scale display. Let me know what you think of the work so far and feel free to make any suggestions on writers, artists, or activists that should be included in this research.