The Toron A-frame is an affordable housing prototype that hybridizes prominent features of African and European architectural typologies to formalize the cultural complexities of the African American experience. It is envisioned as a contemporary form of developer housing that will contributed to the revitalization of segregated black communities in Rust-Belt cities across the United States. These areas have experienced years of redlining and disinvestment and are now under threat by new waves of gentrification. In areas like Buffalo, New York this has been manifested by an increase in abandoned housing and empty lots. One solution to addressing this situation is to develop a unique brand of affordable housing that can replace the empty lots in the neighborhood.
The Toron A-frame combines the affordability of the modern A-frame, which was established by Rudolph Schindler in 1934, with a modern interpretation of traditional features in vernacular African design. The latter feature of this design is the toron plank that serves as a form of permanent scaffolding for domestic and religious mud-brick structures in West Africa. The most famous example of this technique if probably the Mosque of Djenne in Mali.
Toron scaffolding is often carved and shaped to present an ornamented element to the main facade, often alongside blind window openings (as shown in the image above). The Toron A-frame combines the ornamental function of toron scaffolding and the blind windows in this vernacular building approach to create a new form of fenestration in contemporary architecture–the toron window frame. This window consists of a truncated pyramidal shell that is capped with a fixed piece of glazing on the building’s exterior and an operable awning window on the interior.
During the initial phases of construction, the toron skylights are lined up at the base of the structure to ensure the proper spacing between unit bays. Once this is complete, the contractor will lay out rough door openings and floor finishes on the interior. The builder can then return to the toron skylights to slide them in place to offer the best lighting conditions on the interior. These window units also help to stabilize the vertical A-frame supports by “braiding” them together–a procedure that emulates the hair braiding techniques of fourth century West African women. The final function of the toron skylights is to provide a form of permanent scaffolding for laying down the finished roofing materials as well as seasonal maintenance, depending on the material chosen for the finished roof.
Returning to the theme of braiding, the bathroom unit for this prototype consists of a prefabricated unit that includes a formal space for working on black hair. Unlike previous forms of developer housing, which were made for European-Americans, the spaces offered for grooming in this home are specifically designed for the needs of people of color. In the black homes that I grew up in, my mother had to move her and my sisters from the bathroom to the kitchen sink and the living room to complete hours long rituals of washing, cleaning, and braiding hair. In the Toron A-frame, all of these activities can be done from one integrated suite.
A full-sized salon chair, washing booth and oversized mirror are located immediately adjacent to the bathroom unit, which then opens up onto the main hallway that connects residents to a common corridor that snakes its way through all of the major areas of the home. This spatial arrangement combines the social space of the beauty salon with the informal use of kitchen and dining rooms spaces often found in black-owned homes. In the final design, the beauty space, the kitchen and the back porch all form an integrated enfilade of space that connects all activities back to the living room in the front of the house.
The complex transnational networks of language, capital, and material culture that initiated countless formal experiments within African American culture have already been successfully formalized in new types of music, grooming, and speech patterns since the late seventeenth century. However, much of the complexities of black space remains latent in our built environment because of several lingering historical factors: the legal segregations that prevented minorities from registering as architects, the redlining practices that prevented the issuing of affordable home loans in predominantly black neighborhoods, the high rate of renters in certain black enclaves and the prohibitive cost of building construction for many urban homeowners. This project acknowledges the complexities of black spaces by developing an visually iconic form that would make homeownership accessible to many first-time home buyers. In addition, its linear arrangement makes it simple to add additional units onto the front or back of the home in the near future. The steep slope of its roof makes it a feasible form of construction across the US, from cold regions in the Northeast to more temperate areas on the West Coast.