• The Black Home as Public Art
    Charles L. Davis II
    Mebane Gallery, School of Architecture, Austin
    Spring 2024
    University of Texas at Austin-School of Architecture

Stephen Shames, “Black Panther children in a classroom at the Intercommunal Youth Institute, the Black Panther school,” Oakland, California, 1971. Printed at 12 5/8 × 18 1/2 in. Courtesy the photographer

This exhibit investigates nearly a dozen artist-led interventions into the Black home that provide a new model of architectural practice that operates as a culturally rooted and politically motivated form of public art. Situated outside of commoditized interpretations of home ownership (as capitalist investment) or autonomous demonstrations of architectural precepts, these projects shape the built environment by concretizing the radical demands of Black social movements, contemporary politics, and generational ideals of racial uplift. Such practices are unique for the hybrid professional identity of the “authors” who, while not licensed architects, insist on the importance of aesthetic interventions in fostering a collective Black imaginary. From Amiri Baraka’s Kawaida Towers and Tyree Gordon’s Heidelberg Projects to June Jordan’s literary depictions of renovated Harlem brownstones and Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses, this exhibit recovers the innovative patterns of Black authorship that have been whitewashed or erased in disciplinary histories of licensed architectural genius.

Charles L. Davis II is an associate professor of architectural history and criticism at University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. His academic research excavates the role of racial identity and race thinking in architectural history and contemporary design culture. He is coeditor of Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present (University of Pittsburgh, 2020). He is also author of Building Character: The Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh, 2019), which won the Rufus Morey book prize from the College Arts Association. His current book project, tentatively entitled Black by Design: A Social History of Black Architectural Modernity recovers the overlooked contributions of black artists, architects, entrepreneurs, and radical homemakers in shaping the built environment from Jim Crow, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Civil Rights Movement to Black Lives Matter.

Jay Cephas is assistant professor of architectural history at Princeton University’s School of Architecture. Cephas’ research on the use of space in Black Detroit and his previous experience working with Tyree Guyton make him the ideal candidate to contribute an essay on the Heidelberg Project. His role in constructing the Black Architects Archive—a digital database that recovers the lost history of Black practitioners in the built environment—makes him an invaluable consultant for envisioning a new digital using works features in this exhibit.

Scott Ruff, principal of Ruff Studio Works and visiting associate professor at Pratt Institute, is the coauthor of In Search of African-American Space: Redressing Racism (Lars Muller Publishers, 2020). Drawing upon his experiences designing community development spaces such as the Guardians Institute for Native Americans in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans, Ruff authors an essay examining the sociopolitical implications of architectural works by Black artists such as Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, and Amanda Williams.

Bryan Norwood is assistant professor of architectural history at University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. Norwood’s research examines the formative role of racecraft, theology, and class in the formation of the architectural profession in the United States. His nuanced historical consideration of the label of “architect” enables speculation on the disciplinary horizons that are opened by the hybrid methodologies of the Black artists and activists included in the exhibit.

Tara Dudley is assistant professor of interior design and architectural history at University of Texas at Austin’s School of Architecture. Her book, Building Antebellum New Orleans: Free People of Color and their Influence (University of Texas, 2022) has received four book awards, including the best book prize by the Southeast Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians and the Association of American Publishers PROSE award. Dudley’s contribution contextualizes the long history of undocumented Black building expertise in the United States at the symposium associated with the exhibit.

The School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Austin was established in 1948. The School of Architecture seeks to assist those who wish to develop knowledge, sensitivity, and skill in design, planning, and construction, so that as architects, interior designers, and planners they may improve the human environment. The curriculum offers opportunities for a broad education in professional subjects and in the arts and the humanities. Through avenues that stress solving actual and theoretical problems, the school seeks to enhance the knowledge and skill necessary to link understanding to experience, theory to practice, and art to science in ways that respond to human needs, aspirations, and sensibilities. Through its consortium of architects, interior designers, planners, educators and scholars in these fields, the school provides a service to society and to the architecture, interior design, and planning professions by advancing the state of the art in design and technology.