Imagining the Emancipated City

How might the end of white supremacy transform American cities? Journalists and scholars have exposed their misbegotten foundations: slave labor and subprime mortgages, redlining and white flight, neighborhoods leveled by lynch mobs, renewal schemes, “natural” disasters, and interstate highways. Visions of an emancipated landscape, on the other hand, are fewer, and often left to be improvised by artists or mass movements. Last summer’s uprisings, which began with the torching of a police station in Minneapolis and survived through the creative occupation of streets, bridges, and civic centers across the country, gave many protesters a new ideal of solidarity and free urban space. Another city is possible. But who will draw up the plans?

“Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” an exhibition curated by Sean Anderson and Mabel O. Wilson at the Museum of Modern Art, offers a thought-provoking blueprint. It marks the debut of the Black Reconstruction Collective (BRC), a nonprofit group of artists, designers, and architects who banded together to support each other and future endeavors after separate invitations to participate in the show. Their commissioned multimedia installations analyze race and space in ten cities, focusing on contemporary life but also invoking the unfinished business of emancipation; each of the sites, from Watts to Syracuse, is marked alongside the locations of freedmen’s colonies on a map of the United States. This layering of Black spaces over time creates a kind of speculative scaffold—a platform to reflect, as Robin D.G. Kelley writes in the catalogue, “on what it means for a people determined to be free to build for freedom, to retrofit a hostile and deadly built environment for the protection and reproduction of Black life.”

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The first example of a hostile built environment is the museum itself. “Reconstructions” is installed in MoMA’s Philip Johnson Galleries, named for the once-celebrated architect and Nazi sympathizer who excluded work by nonwhite designers during his decade-long tenure as director of the museum’s department of architecture. Amid nationwide efforts to contest Johnson’s legacy, MoMA allowed the BRC to temporarily cover his name with their “Manifesting Statement,” which calls for the reinvention of architecture “as a vehicle for liberation and joy.” Its placement is emblematic of a spirit that reigns throughout the exhibition: combative, palimpsestic, and committed to planting a free future in the old order’s cracks.

View of Walter Hood’s installation Black Towers/Black Power, 2020, in “Reconstructions” at MoMA

The show (all works 2020) bristles with screens, speakers, and contraptions. Mario Gooden’s The Refusal of Space, a spare aluminum trolley flying a blackened Confederate flag, pays homage to a Black-owned streetcar line in Jim Crow–era Nashville. Archival footage of Civil Rights sit-ins plays in its rearview mirror. V. Mitch McEwen’s R:R imagines an alternative contemporary New Orleans in which an 1811 revolt—that also inspired Dread Scott’s 2019 “Slave Rebellion Reenactment”—had succeeded, transforming the city into a free enclave called Republica. A mock public-service video describes an eco-friendly metropolis where even architecture has been democratized. Any citizen can cheaply erect a floating hurricane-proof building using a mixture of bamboo and concrete, an implicit contrast with the aftershocks of displacement and gentrification that followed Hurricane Katrina.

There are flashes of utopia, but the artists pointedly avoid anti-racist problem-solving; often, they pay homage to historic survival strategies or forecast future hardships. The most provocative and carefully realized installation is Olalekan Jeyifous’s The Frozen Neighborhoods. It’s a slice of Crown Heights in an alternate world where the government fights climate change through a market-based system of “mobility credits,” leaving the wealthy free to travel and marginalized communities confined to their neighborhoods. Those cut off are forced to innovate: Jeyifous employs assemblage, prints, and digitally rendered video to showcase one district’s evolution into a vertical labyrinth of drone docks, “bubble farms,” bodegas, and storefront churches. (The anarchic density recalls Kowloon Walled City, an ingrown cube of fused high-rises that flourished lawlessly on the outskirts of Hong Kong until its demolition in 1994.) Jeyifous draws on a worldwide history of policing Black movement; in a wink at the MTA, the installation includes a “real” subway terminal controlled by hackers, with a screen that alludes to a revolutionary event called the “Breaching of the Turnstiles.”

Another standout is Immeasurability, a dreamlike evocation of Atlanta by Emanuel Admassu and Jen Wood of the studio AD-WO. It centers on a disc-shaped diorama of model train–size miniatures, all coated in sparkling black sand: backyards full of tiny families, sections of homes and freeways, a Waffle House sign half-concealed by skeletal trees. Above this grisaille cityscape—dusted, we learn, in sea-floor sediment—looms a silk-embroidered textile map of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, figured as a red gash surrounded by tiny aqua jellyfish. Juxtaposing diasporic dispersal with the fragmentary commons of urban life, it’s a haunting entry in a tradition one might call the Black Atlantic Submarine, an architectural cousin of Ellen Gallagher’s ongoing series “Watery Ecstatic” (2001–), Mati Diop’s 2019 film Atlantics, and poet Derek Walcott’s 1990 epic “Omeros.”

Felecia Davis, Fabricating Networks: Transmissions and Reception from Pittsburgh’s Hill District, 2020, digital file, 24 by 24 inches.

The installations strive to enlarge architecture’s sphere of concern, stressing that stoops and spice cabinets, for instance, can be as critical to understanding the shape of Black life in American cities as subways and skyscrapers. But the exhibition’s conceptual freedom also leaves room for works that respond only tenuously to its challenge. I enjoyed Felecia Davis’s Fabricating Networks: Transmissions and Receptions from Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Flower Antenna, a computational textile wired to detect and amplify visitor movements, but struggled to discern its particular connection to the district in the few lines of wall text about networks and collectivity. Amanda Williams’s We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here—which featured a mylar emergency blanket collaged with dates, quotes, coordinates, critical theory, and the mystifying phrase “black space will blackappoint you”—left me disoriented, and separated by a layer of abstractions from its subject, Kinloch, the first Black Free town in Missouri. Other works were only too reality bound. Walter J. Hood’s Black Towers/Black Power imagines a series of towers along Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue that residents of the city access through their dreams. Based on the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program, they resemble ordinary skyscrapers, one of which reserves special apartments for policemen.

Puzzlingly, for such a historically oriented show, none of the installations directly engage with the legacy of Black architects in the United States, such as Julian Abele, Vertner Tandy, or J. Max Bond Jr. (They receive a little more acknowledgment in the catalogue, which includes insightful essays by critics and scholars such as Aruna D’Souza and Christina Sharpe.) It feels like a significant omission in a show where Black people and localities sometimes threaten to disappear into Black concepts. There is more allusion than imagination, and a bricolage of references that gestures at a counter-architecture without always contributing to its elaboration. Even so, “Reconstructions” is worth seeing for its most insightful entries, and commendable in its demonstration that emancipation depends not only on securing rights but on clearing a space for their exercise. May it lay the groundwork for many other such exhibitions.


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