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ART REVIEW

What if American cities were built for Blackness?

Walter J. Hood's "Black Towers/Black Power," on view at the Museum of Modern Art.
Walter J. Hood's "Black Towers/Black Power," on view at the Museum of Modern Art.Robert Gerhardt/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

NEW YORK — One of the first things to know about “Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America,” at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, is that the exhibition is less a finished product than something barely begun. Over more than three years of planning, the 10 artists, designers, and architects in the show decided to make a formal alliance apart from the museum itself. Together, they’ve become the Black Reconstruction Collective, now a registered nonprofit. Its goal? “We take up the question of what architecture can be — not a tool for imperialism and subjugation, not a means for aggrandizing the self, but a vehicle for liberation and joy,” they write. “With this commitment to Black freedom and futurity, we dedicate ourselves to doing the work of designing another world that is possible, here, where we are, with and for us.”

It has to start somewhere, and so the BRC begins with MoMA. That declaration of intent comes from the group’s Manifesting Statement, printed on a swath of denim that hangs strategically in the museum’s galleries dedicated to Philip Johnson, covering the renowned architect’s name on the wall. The collective asked the museum to remove Johnson’s stamp from the space, given his history as a Nazi associate and his gatekeeping role as MoMA’s founding director of architecture, where he presided over decades of acquisitions, exactly none of them by Black designers. But MoMA said no, so the erasure is temporary.

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A view of the BRC's Manifesting Statement, displayed in the MoMA gallery named for Philip Johnson.
A view of the BRC's Manifesting Statement, displayed in the MoMA gallery named for Philip Johnson.Robert Gerhardt/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

Even so, the exhibition is a landmark for an institution under mounting pressure to reckon with a litany of past inequities. “Reconstructions” isn’t MoMA’s first attempt at redress — it reopened in October 2019 after a six-month hiatus with a re-installed permanent collection self-consciously replete with artists of color and women — but the show is a powerful acknowledgement of shortcomings in a very particular silo of activity. Every piece here is new, a specific commission for the occasion. Mabel O. Wilson, a Columbia University professor and architect, curated the show with MoMA’s Sean Anderson; Wilson’s essay “White by Design” is one of several origin texts detailing the museum’s persistent failure to bring Black architects and designers into its fold. (The essay appeared in the book “Among Others: Blackness at MoMA,” published last year.)

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All that said, “Reconstructions” is so much bigger than the ugly racial exclusions of any one museum, or even a nation full of them. Like the title suggests, it’s about the core failing at the heart of American race relations and its manifestations in bricks and mortar. It’s about a society constructed psychologically and emotionally with division as its goal, and the physical world built to ensure it. And in a gesture of frankly shocking generosity, it envisions a chance at redemption — possible worlds, distant but imaginable, a better way. It means to frame old problems in new ways; instead of a traditional catalog, the collective describes the book it produced for the show as a “field guide,” to be applied in the real world.

Reconstruction is a critical term. As in its Manifesting Statement, the collective means it literally — a teardown and rebuild of the governing strictures of a society built on corrupt ideals. But the historical echo is just as intentional. After the Civil War, white power retrenched in the Jim Crow laws of the defeated south, a bleak marker of the Reconstruction era’s broken promise to deliver equal citizenship to Black Americans.

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Reconstruction, the failed political policy, is the foundation of a century and a half of Black marginalization. In its aftermath, race-based discrimination became enshrined in policies that shaped the American landscape of today. You don’t have to look far to see Jim Crow alive and well in the basic mechanics of 20th-century American urban policy. Redlining, for one, grew out of the New Deal’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation to systemically thwart mortgage lending in Black neighborhoods. By designating them high-risk for investment, the government-sponsored company denied generations of Black Americans a traditional path to social mobility through building equity in their homes.

Felecia Davis's "Fabricating Networks: Transmissions and Receptions from Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Flower Antenna."
Felecia Davis's "Fabricating Networks: Transmissions and Receptions from Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Flower Antenna."Robert Gerhardt/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

After decades of stasis, those neighborhoods, largely owned by absentee landlords, fell into disrepair, which led to the scorched-earth “urban renewal” policies of the 1950s and ’60s. The story repeats in cities nationwide, where blocks upon blocks — all of them poor, many disproportionately Black — were razed to build things like freeways and housing projects. If residents weren’t scattered to the wind, they might have ended up in one of those towers. An architect friend once described that dehumanizing process as “warehousing for the poor,” a phrase that chills me today. A failed endeavor by almost any measure, many of these housing projects were since demolished. Chicago’s notorious Robert Taylor Homes, an emblem of urban policy as a racist, community-destroying battering ram, was knocked down in 2007.

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“Reconstructions” embraces the simple fact that architecture is not just buildings; it entwines with the very structure of the modern world, from zoning and land use to the funding mechanisms that allow everything from houses and apartment blocks to cities, infrastructure, and community itself. The BRC project is every bit that expansive and more. It roots in mapmaking and structure and the precision of construction, surveys, grids, and lines. But it also takes flight in dreamlike specters that haunt the present with the weight of the past.

The main gallery is dominated by a huge spiral of black fabric, suspended from above like a menacing flower. It’s called “Fabricating Networks: Transmissions and Receptions from Pittsburgh’s Hill District, Flower Antenna,” by Felecia Davis, and it’s not just for show. A monument to the Hill District, a thriving Black neighborhood where, starting in the 1950s, more than 8,000 people were displaced to clear ground for the Pittsburgh Civic Center, the piece absorbs and broadcasts sound gathered from audiences in the gallery. (Urban renewal, now renewed — the Pittsburgh Civic Center was demolished in 2011 and the site is now a parking lot.)

“Reconstructions” considers a vast landscape holistically, dreaming big about possible futures — not all of them good — while holding the past close at hand. To get where you’re going, you need to know where you’ve been. And in a country quick to build monuments to its shining ambitions of empire, that’s been a selective process at best.

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From Sekou Cooke's "We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space."
From Sekou Cooke's "We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space."Sekou Cooke/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

And so, the BRC gives us history lessons. Davis’s is just one. J. Yolande Daniels’s elegantly-detailed mapping projects exhume LA’s bustling Black enclaves of generations past, their histories as city-builders papered over by a master narrative that left no place for them. Sekou Cooke’s “We Outchea: Hip-Hop Fabrications and Public Space,” is a surgically-precise examination of Syracuse’s brush with urban renewal. Cooke’s renderings show the elevated freeway trestles of Interstate 81 anchored in the backyards and living rooms of the city’s 15th Ward, a hub of Black community and commerce wiped away for the freeway.

“Reconstructions” also offers visions, both of where we’re headed — Olalekan Jeyifous’s dystopian multimedia presentation called “The Frozen Neighborhoods,” a future New York where pricey “mobility credits” are issued by a central transit authority, imprisoning the poor in their neighborhoods while the rich roam free — and where we may yet arrive, if only we’re bold and serious enough about the radical equity propositions the project demands.

Olalekan Jeyifous's "The Frozen Neighborhoods."
Olalekan Jeyifous's "The Frozen Neighborhoods."Robert Gerhardt/Courtesy Museum of Modern Art

There are glimmers everywhere: Cooke’s project moves from indictment to proposition with a remixed cityscape on the site of Syracuse’s Ward 15, building the neighborhood into a renewed urban scheme centered on Black culture. Amanda Williams’s video installation “We’re Not Down There, We’re Over Here” is a defiant sci-fi vision of a Black future on its own terms. (“Black space,” a free-form poem reads, “draws for freedom.”)

But the breathtaking pinnacle of all this is Walter J. Hood’s “Black Towers/Black Power,” a built embodiment of the Black Panthers 10-point program to repeal systemic anti-Black racism across a gamut of fields. Proposed as a 1-mile grand boulevard of Black empowerment along Oakland’s San Pablo Avenue — 10 majestic buildings, each modeled after an invention by a renowned Black designer — it is the aesthetic, intellectual emotional heart of “Reconstructions.” It proposes to do what architecture has always done, but almost never for Black communities: to engender and galvanize cultural identity in built form.

Architecture, at least aesthetically, has always been about empire; look at the Parthenon, the Great Pyramids, or the US Congress. “Black Towers/Black Power” imagines a revolutionary enterprise crushed by the status quo and rejuvenated as civic space — permanent, imposing, sheltering, symbolic. With its human-height black towers and its grid of ebulliently bright-colored scenes of the imagined community that would fill them, the work sparkles with positive energy. It is a breathtaking proposition of architecture at its best: Buildings that function equally well as both structures and ideals.

For all its dizzying depth, remember that “Reconstructions” is just a start. But it arrives at a key moment, with things truly starting to turn — being at MoMA at all seems evidence of that. The work is slow, but the BRC is committed to the long run. Its challenge is as unwieldy and grotesque and devastating and complicated and hopeful — still somehow hopeful — as America itself.

RECONSTRUCTIONS: ARCHITECTURE AND BLACKNESS IN AMERICA

At the Museum of Modern Art, 11 West 53rd St., New York, N.Y. Through May 31. moma.org


Murray Whyte can be reached at murray.whyte@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.