Mabel O. Wilson is Updating the Narrative of American Architecture to Include Black Architects

A new book, an upcoming MoMA exhibition, and a recently completed memorial are informed by the Columbia University professor's unflinching critique of traditional architectural pedagogy.
Wilson 2 Credit Dario Calmese

Mabel O. Wilson, Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, Columbia GSAPP Courtesy Dario Calmese

Now is an important time to catch up with architect Mabel O. Wilson. The Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University is involved in multiple projects that hold the potential to change the way architectural history is being taught and to revise the methods traditionally used to record it. Her scholarship is chiefly aimed at repairing America’s incomplete narrative on African-American contributions to the built environment, and as public discourse on social justice expands, so does her audience: Her latest insights informed the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which she helped Höweler + Yoon design; she coedited the book Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present with Charles L. Davis II and Irene Cheng; and she is currently at work on the upcoming MoMA exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, which she is cocurating with the museum staff. Fellow architect Kimberly Dowdell, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, spoke with Wilson about these moves and American architectural pedagogy. Metropolis listened in.

Kimberly Dowdell: You’re the common denominator in at least three significant projects that people are closely watching. Why are major institutions creating these spaces and shows now?

Mabel O. Wilson: I think it is the visible resurgence of white supremacy groups. People find that very disturbing.

KD: Yes, I was thinking that too.

MW: Also, MoMA finally realized that Modernism wasn’t just white men. The museum had previously put together a group to address blackness for the book Among Others: Blackness at MoMA by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. I contributed an essay on its collection. But guess what happened when we searched the archives for black architects? Out of 28,000 objects in the the permanent Architecture and Design collection, they had nothing on black architects. Zilch. And this museum was the first in the world to have an architecture collection. Philip Johnson, the founding chairman of MoMA’s department of architecture, established its objective to define Modernism.

KD: What did you think about that, given your research on the exclusion of African Americans from other historical archives on the built environment?

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In 2018, Wilson cocurated with Bryony Roberts the exhibition Marching On: The Politics of Performance at Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York. Courtesy Miguel De Guzman

MW: Well, it makes you wonder: Is this an aberration? I mean, the fact that there was no J. Max Bond Jr., no David Adjaye. I did find a mention of Paul R. Williams, but it was only a record of the fact that he was part of a 1936 exhibition. Others were referenced in the museum’s study collection, where they are deemed useful for shows but not valuable enough to be stored in the permanent collection.

KD: Why is it important that certain items are kept in the permanent collection?

MW: It’s like being premium. I wrote about Gordon Kipping and he is now on view.

KD: That’s interesting, that certain work will not be shown without that kind of intervention.

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The video installation (Im)mobilities and the Afro-Imaginary (above), is by Global Africa Lab, which Wilson co-directs with Mario Gooden; it was part of Mpho Matsipa’s African Mobilities exhibition at the Architecture Museum of the Technical University of Munich. Courtesy Mpho Matsipa

MW: Yes, it is. I’ve noticed an inadequacy, or an inability among some mainstream critics to even make the effort to write about work by black artists and architects. Then when they do, they write as if they can’t understand the work and what it is meant to be. These observers—in the media as well as among scholars and curators—don’t have to address this group of architects’ work, so they say it’s opaque. That happened with Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor, a 2004 architecture show at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Only the New York Times wrote about it.

KD: I think for those who find these expressions inaccessible, your work provides access and a language for examining it.

MW: That’s why I said yes to being a part of the MoMA show. This is how you do this kind of work—you have to change how you work in the archives by acknowledging past inequities. Architecture sees itself as a progressive field—progressive and feminist—because, perhaps, architects voted for Barack Obama. It’s hard for my white friends to see that being different can get you in the room, but it doesn’t mean it places you on equal footing. There is structural racism. A person of color can bring insights and address things that go unseen by people who don’t have to be aware of them.

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She is currently co-curator of the exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, slated to open later this year at the Museum of Modern Art. Courtesy Germane Barnes/The Museum of Modern Art

KD: Is that difficult for some to hear?

MW: Well, I’m very forthright with people, because we have to be honest about the legacy of race. It has built inequality.

KD: What was your first encounter with architecture?

MW: My dad was an engineer in the U.S. Department of Defense, starting in 1955. I grew up in a house that he designed. My grand-father was also a builder. But when I studied at the University of Virginia, I still had a hard time connecting with what I was learning. What does an Italian villa say about me?

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The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia was designed by Mabel O. Wilson in collaboration with architecture firm Höweler + Yoon. Scheduled to open this year, the memorial is a critical element in the efforts to honor the lives of enslaved people who worked for and built the university. Courtesy of Höweler + Yoon

KD: Yes, you mentioned during your presentation about Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on a Virginia Statehouse: Race, Slavery, and Jefferson’s America,” that you were never taught by anyone African American—no one like me ever sat in on your reviews and that you were never shown anything a black person ever conceptualized or made as an architect. So how did you decide you wanted to be an architect?

MW: I spent a semester at the Architectural Association in London with students from Nigeria and Cyprus. My unit was very cosmopolitan. Zaha Hadid and Nigel Coates were around. All of a sudden, I saw that you could bring your culture to the work and build with that. I came back a different person.

KD: And did that experience encourage you when you returned to Virginia?

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She coedited Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present, released this month by the University of Pittsburgh Press, and contributed an essay to Among Others: Blackness at MoMA by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. Courtesy the publishers and authors

MW: Perhaps, when I realized that racial difference, or rather the Western pedagogy of race, architecture, democracy, and humanism were all being invented around the same time, and yet Asian and African architecture preexists the Enlightenment.

KD: If those beginnings are still informing views of what’s considered good architecture today, what does progress look like for practice?

MW: It starts with us taking a somber look at how the profession is allied with apparatuses of domination. Asking questions like, how do architects get work? In my own experience, they build that first house, often with parental money. For a person of color, and African Americans especially, the ability to acquire that experience is prohibitive. It determines who can go into this field, based on access to capital.

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Kimberly Dowdell, 2019–2020 President of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Courtesy HOK

KD: As president of the National Organization of Minority Architects this past year, looking at the number of black architects stagnating at around 2 percent for the past several decades, that issue was part of my platform. Of course, when people ask me why people of color aren’t going to architecture, I tick off the required six to seven exams, 12 years of training, and then the starting salary, which is illogical. I got scholarships, otherwise I couldn’t have done it. Then I talk about the racial wealth gap: A 2013 study [by the National Bureau of Economic Research] found that the median net worth for white families was $117,000, but $1,700 for black families; and for black women–led households, by some calculations it was zero!

MW: Yes. It’s interesting that everyone turns to architects and designers for solutions, but what if these disciplines were already enmeshed in questions of race? The field has to be honest about why the roadblocks are there. If we understand that, maybe progress can occur.

You may also enjoy “How NOMA Is Helping Architects of Color Shape Our Future”

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Categories: Architecture