DARK SPACE: Architecture Representation Black Identity
GSAPP Columbia University
SPRING 2019 SEMINAR
ARCH A4552 (Modern and American)
Instructor: Mario Gooden, Prof. of Practice
T: 11AM – 1PM
A discourse on black subjectivity in contemporary architectural theory is virtually non-existent. Architecture historically privileges the construction of perspectival space through the gaze of the white male subject, from Pietro Perugino’s Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter(1481–83)—whose primary actors are represented as fair-skinned European men with Roman features (although Christ and the Apostles were from Palestine and likely of darker skin tones)—to Mies van der Rohe’s perspective collages that unbind space in a manner that dislocates the stationary viewpoint and collapses it at the eye of the author. Within this spectrum, architectural space is conceptualized as a rational, linear system of spatial projection in which privileged and honorific bodies are captured within view and all other bodies and objects that lie beyond the cone of vision are excluded from the frame of the picture plane. In architectural representation, black bodies systematically fall beyond the frame of reference for spatial inclusion; likewise in architectural discourse, black bodies are either invisible, occupy unspoken spaces of colonial subjugation, or dismissed to locations of repressive difference where the black body is simultaneously an object of desire and derision, yet has no desires of its own.
The initial questions that come to mind ponder over the subjectivities that were relegated to the hidden kitchen entrances and rear doors of restaurants, hotels, and doctors’ offices during the Jim Crow era; the subjectivities that occupy the servant positions within Modernism’s hierarchal dyad of “served” and “servant” spaces; and the subjectivities of the curved, feminized, and “primitive” bodies to which Modernism refers as irrational, dangerous, and difficult, but which nevertheless signify sensuousness in contrast to the straight-lined rationality of the modernist grid. However, such considerations rarely occupy a position in architectural theory. Hence, black subjectivity is not just an “other” in modern architectural discourse; architectural theory represents a space of exclusion of black subjectivity.
The basis for that exclusion can be traced to Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s posthumously published Lectures on the Philosophy of History,presented at the University of Berlin in 1822, 1828, and 1830. Hegel positions the “Negro” outside of analytical history through examples of intellectual, technological, and moral histories as well as cultural progress—all of which exclude the “Negro.” According to Hegel, “The peculiarly African character is difficult to comprehend, for the very reason that in reference to it, we must quite give up the principle which naturally accompanies all our ideas—the category of Universality...The Negro, as already observed, exhibits the natural man in his completely wild and untamed state.”  In the text, Hegel constructs a dichotomy of the Negro in counter-distinction to the white European, who is motivated by rational thought processes evidenced by organized forms of political and social orders, scientific and technological achievements, and desire for progress, in order to establish the superior of the white (implicitly male) subject. Yet the paradox of this dialectic is the required exegetical presence of the Negro. Hence, race and blackness have been fundamental to the teleology of the history of modernity and humanist thought; and by extension architectural discourse, rooted in humanist notions, is complicit in the maintenance of this racial power structure.
The seminar will examine the spaces of exclusion of black and African American histories from architectural discourse and the ways in which modernist architecture participates in racial hierarchies in terms of representation. Furthermore, the seminar will recover the narratives of black subjectivity and African American architectural production with regards to architectural theory to reveal liberation is a spatial practice
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