Jack Travis, FAIA, is an African-American architect, author, and educator with a deep commitment to exploring Afri-culture in architectural expression, and investigating “blackness” of culture, mores, and sensibilities.
Concerned with the dynamics of how people, particularly people in black and other under-served communities, use space and react to formal expression, Jack focuses on architecture, interiors, and urban planning that exudes a strong black cultural impact visually and tactilely.
After graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Arizona State University in 1977, and a Masters in Architecture from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1978, Jack established his namesake firm in 1985, after working in the New York offices of Skidmore Owings & Merrill, the Switzer Group and Sidney Philip Gilbert.
Jack Travis Architect specializes in architecture and interiors fused with African iconography. Despite an impressive client roster that includes Giorgio Armani, Time Warner Inc., corporate spaces for Spike Lee’s Forty Acres and a Mule Filmworks, and residences for Spike Lee and Wesley Snipes, the firm maintains an ardent commitment to public service, primarily in underprivileged communities.
He is the author of African American Architects in Current Practice, Princeton Architectural Press, published in 1992. And in 2004 he received the prestigious honor of being inducted into the American Institute of Architects (AIA)’s College of Fellows.
Driven by the idea of inclusion in a world of exclusion, Jack’s devotion to the education of cultural dynamics in architecture led him to found the Studio for Africulturism in Architecture and Design in 1994. Coupled with being an adjunct Professor at four New York City design institutions, Jack also runs six-week workshops for students of all races to study Afrocentric design themes and design issues relating to black communities where he engages and challenges young people to think about social directives.
Foremost of his many roles is that of Messenger*, believing that assimilation into the prevailing architectural discourse ignores the wonderful differences between cultures and does not provide the groundwork for the respect and celebrations of these differences.
Describe your first impulse to become an architect.
JT: The story I tell, whether it is accurate today or not, is the following:
I remember being in fifth grade at St Joseph’s catholic elementary school, in Las Vegas, Nevada, when Sister Juanita Marie asked the class to write on any subject that came to our minds. For some reason I choose to write about how the school building was not a very good design for children to run and play alongside.
I did not know, of course, that the structure was built in what is termed the Brutalist style. I remember stating in my report that the fact that the builders left the cement “oozing” from the bricks (because they did not remove or “trowel” – again a word I did not have in my vocabulary – off the excess amounts) made the project particularly dangerous as children could slip and fall against it and the injury would be even more severe. Sister Juanita Marie immediately blurted out as I finished, “Wow”, sounds like you ought to be an architect!” I had never heard the word before. She said go to the library and do some research. I found a series of “so you want to be” books and I selected “So You Want to Be an Architect”. I took the book home and read it several times. In fact I never returned it to the library. Yes, I stole it! Can’t imagine what my late fees might be at this point.
But I stole it, I just couldn’t take it back to the library and chance someone else seeing it and reading it and wanting to become an architect. I needed it more than they, I thought. I know, selfish.
I went home that evening, as I recall, and told my mother that I was interested in becoming and architect. She could not even pronounce the word. She said ar-“chi” tect (pronouncing the ch like “ch” instead of like “k”). My stepfather wouldn’t even try to pronounce it.
Both parents encouraged all four of us (older sister, myself and two younger brothers who were his biological sons) to follow our dreams and be what we wanted to be.
My mother, Mary L. Travis, graduated tenth grade from schools in the rural South, in a small town, Newellton, in Northern Louisiana where I was born. My stepfather grew up in Canton, Mississippi and as far as I know only graduated fourth grade where he attended all grades in the same one room school house with no finished floor.
My parents weren’t able to keep up with our rapidly rising education and therefore by fourth grade or so they were certainly not able to tutor us or really understand the rapidly changing dynamics of our living in a city like Las Vegas and the advanced education from a parochial education that their children were receiving.
So, the support they extended to us came from their hearts, perhaps their souls, and much less from their reasoning of what we should be focusing in on for personal gain. I think my parents preferred us to be happy, safe and self-reliant than prosperous or well to do. Racism was still a clear and ever present danger and fixture overtly practiced in American culture and we could definitely sense from a very early age that Black people (as well as Mexicans, Cubans and the few Native peoples) had a different set of circumstances to navigate than other people in the town.
I suppose the fact that my parents navigated from their hearts (soul) first and foremost is the reason I orientate myself towards architecture in similar fashion.
Architecture for me has always been about people solutions for equity in spatial navigation for making place.
Much of my focus is small scale and I have never been able to, or quite frankly interested in, navigating large scale problems.
Recently I have discovered that small scale solutions really lie in large scale concepts that are evidence based and conceived in collaboration with a whole host of players outside of the design field that we were not taught in school matter at all in the design process of making good and relevant design.
I’m referring to people such as activist, advocates, community organizers and simply concerned mothers and fathers and the like. I knew many people who were not architects by training but who not only built but maintained as well as designed and planned our buildings on the West side of Las Vegas. These people I learned to discount and ignore for the most part. However I later re-realized that these are people who really understood the pulse of the Black community as professional and politicians didn’t really seem to care so much.
Growing up in Las Vegas, on the Westside (the Black neighborhood for the entire town) I realized that the architects in our community were our parents and anyone who cared about the impact of the environment on those who lived there. Outside of the community, the only agency that really seemed to care and contribute to the betterment within, were the government agencies. The private sector forgot about us except when taking resources out of the neighborhood was profitable for them. Therefore again, my observation as a very young student propelled my interests and attitudes about government and private sector and how change within the environment is predicated less on matters of the brain than they are on matters of the heart.
There is another important fact that I would like to mention here about growing up where I did. Life on the Westside of the town was the main experience in my early childhood development. Attending Catholic schools from second grade to twelfth grade and having to navigate across town daily was very revealing as well. As Black people, we were constantly reminded of our lot or place in the overall scheme of things in that city. We saw firsthand what was possible and simultaneously what was marginally affordable for us. This is the plight of so many poor and minority residents in our country. When I look back I am not sure what kept the drive alive in me or why I was able to initiate the drive at all with so much to consider. But I was able to and my parents have to get a lion share of the credit.
I believe that there are three phases in an architect’s life. They are:
-Point of Origin (Beginning):
My point of origin as I began to study architecture as a career path for my life was (and always will be) PEOPLE OVER PROPERTY.
It was my childhood experiences with how the built environment can shape people’s perceptions of themselves and their fellow city residents, both positive and negative) that has informed my decision making process to date.
-Point of Reference:
My point of reference is MODERNISM.
I remember visiting the Architecture school library at Arizona State University one evening in the spring of 1974 I think it was, during my third year there and pulling a copy of a publication called “Japan Architect”. I found myself overly impressed with the consistent level and quality of work in that magazine. I also remember reaching for a copy of the 1968 issue of Architectural Record magazine. It was the Mid-May issue and on the cover was the “Smith House” by architect Richard Meier. I was stunned at the image and sat there staring at the cover for several seconds before I could navigate the pages. I remember saying to myself “That’s architecture!”
The project was a house, small scale again, and in my opinion brilliantly mastered in form and spatial dynamic as such. The structure was sited well and the natural light seemed to be playing its own symphony across the forms and spaces created. The sense of indoor to outdoor relationship was masterful as well and the views were spectacular. Later, in 1978, I visited that site on my spring vacation while I was attending graduate school at the University of Illinois and was no less astounded by what this architect was able to construct. Meier had a language, he had principles, a strong methodology and was able to define his strategies and process in his first major work. It was this project, this architect and the Modernist aesthetic that spoke to me as never before. The challenge up to my third year in studio had always been how to make an architecture for people. I had no vehicle and now I had one. Though that vehicle was not the make or model I was interested in specifically, the notion of being a driver and developing a vehicle that could get you to where you wanted to go was firmly planted. Development of the “Make and Model” for a new vehicle for my travels was now identifiable.
-Point of Departure:
My point of Departure is to evolve what I consider to be A BLACK AESTHETIC in my work.
This concern is highly controversial and will be hotly criticized I know. But I believe there is an argument to be made for a Black aesthetic in the environmental disciplines of Urban Planning, Architecture, Landscape Architecture, Interior Architecture, Interior Design and Interior Decorating. Why do I say this? Well, for anyone who has given this subject any thought, it is clear that there is a Black sense or notion of art, music, dance, fashion and even comedy for instance. Why is it that in practically all of the other arts, we have a concept of what is Black or African? I believe that there is a Black aesthetic in the environmental disciplines but that it remains hidden in plain view under so many layers of denial and controversy.
I further believe, that change and innovation starts at the bottom and works its way up and not vice versa. Therefore I think that for a Black aesthetic to evolve, within the environmental disciplines of urban planning, architecture, interior architecture, interior design and interior decorating, it will most likely come from the smaller scale applications of interior decorating and design then perhaps work its way towards the more complex disciplines where power and access become ever more critical.
How has your aesthetic and perspective changed from your earliest work in the 1970s to your most recent projects?
JT: Since the seventies, mainstream architectural practice has gone through Post Modernism and now seems to be sitting in an era where Pluralism seems to be the non-dictum dictum of the day. For non-traditional practices, there seems to be a number of directions and styles revealed such as Memphis, active and passive solar movements and sustainable/green directions. My opinion is that Modernism has never left us. What seems to have happened is that we have shifted from dogma to a more open interpretation of what it means to be Modern. I was very interested in Post Modernism and the work of Michael Graves. Graves used history, storytelling and color to make his language. I was drawn to the imagery and to the philosophy. I wanted to seek a new history and wasn’t sure what that might be. I also looked at and admired Memphis design. Memphis used bold color and did not seem to take itself so seriously. This would later be important as I had to deal with the anger and frustration within me as I really began to learn the reasons why a Black presence in design was so well denied.
It was in teaching that I found solace. I started my own practice here in New York in 1985 and after seven years I felt I needed a supplement. It was in teaching that I was able to see promise. The students were open and talented, on a consistent basis, year after year. Many of them listened to what I had to say, unlike my colleagues in the academy and certainly those in practice. Some were able to assist me in resolving some of the issues I was concentrating on at the time. I should also mention here that my first substantial position in the field after leaving graduate school in 1978 came when I joined Skidmore Owings + Merrill (SOM) in 1980. I chose to take a junior designer position in the interior department of the firm instead of architecture. This was timely and perhaps the most important decision of my young career. As I mentioned earlier, there was a real challenge for me to find a vehicle in order to make my work serve and connect to the people it was meant to serve, and in a meaningful way. Interior design was the make of that vehicle. In two short years at SOM New York, working under the supervision of Alan Denenberg, Carol Cohen, Gary Brigadoi and Randy Fahey, I learned more about design for purpose and for specific places as well as for aesthetic and functional appropriateness than I had in both graduate and undergraduate school combined. Perhaps I was ready at the time or perhaps they were great teachers – perhaps both.
When I decided on a teaching position, I immediately contacted the interior design programs first. There are a total of six here in the city. Little did I realize then that I had always seen design from inside out as opposed to outside in as I was trained. I now question as to whether this fact might have been a big part of much of the struggle I endured during my academic life.
In 1992, I joined the faculty at The Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) as an adjunct professor in the interior design department. I now teach at four of the six schools here in New York, Pratt Institute, 1999, School of Visual Arts (SVA) 2014 and New York School of Interior Design (NYSID) 2015. I taught at a fifth program, Parsons School of Design, New School from 1995-1998. And so the only program that I have yet to teach at is New York Institute of Technology.
What led you to begin fusing Modernism with black cultural iconography?
JT: One afternoon while sitting in my office in 1989 and having no work, I decided to go home and visit my family in Las Vegas. While on that trip my step father passed away. I was lucky to be home at that time and I was now in a very different, evermore keen, mindset as to the importance of community based design.
I began thinking about architecture and how after all these years the neighborhood that I grew up in hadn’t really benefited much from the efforts of those who belonged to my profession. What could I do? I went back to New York and began to think about the nature and culture of my profession and about how many Black architects I had met in my lifetime. The answer to that question was one. His name was Rushia Glenn Fellows. Rushia was a professor at Arizona State University who attended the school as well. Mr. Fellows began teaching at ASU when I was in third year or so and he did not teach design studio. I hated seeing him there for the first few months and never sought him out. I remember walking past his office when his door was open and the tension that I felt. Like I had some obligation to converse with him because he was Black like me. So I was in denial for a time. Rushia never sought me out either.
Later I think I learned because he knew it was best for me to come to him. He was correct. One day while passing his office I eventually said hello and ultimately went in and he became, as you might guess, my mentor. After we finally met, he became a beacon to me. With Rushia in my life I began to see the real possibilities of what I might realize for myself in this profession and the glass ceiling that was also hidden in plain view above me because of my race. I did not want to know this kind of reality so early on, although I knew it deep down. I didn’t want to embrace it for I thought it would be too devastating for me to continue on. In fact the opposite affect came over me. Not only was I more sober about the realities of minorities in Architecture, I began to focus my personal research and inquiry on social and community matters over design matters. The thought being that I would learn all I needed in terms of design from the academy and all that I need for understanding how design matters can positively affect matters of inclusion and equity on my own. Later, with inspiration from this professor and with time on my hands I envisioned a document on the work of Black architectural firms in the United States.
African American Architects: In Current Practice, Princeton Architectural Pres, 1991 was born out of this vision.
After the publication was released, I decided to do a follow-up book. The reasoning for such came at the insistence of many others who were not included in the first book and some who I met who were very talented and very young but who didn’t have established firms. Not wanting to do yet another book on established Black firms, and once again proving that we do exist and are actually capable of doing quality and large scale work, I began thinking of a way to make the next book as groundbreaking as the first. It was at this time that I began to consider the notion of showing the work of a small group of designers who were considering an African or Black aesthetic in their work.
I couldn’t locate one interesting project from one single designer that would suffice. I then began the idea of collecting school projects. The rational here was that unbuilt projects from students at the upper level of undergraduate schools, thesis projects and the projects of graduate students might reveal a far more interesting set of circumstances and visuals that might begin some real and cutting edge dialogue on the subject.
To make a long story short, though many students attending programs like Howard, Hampton, Tuskegee, Florida A+M, Southern, Prairie View A+M, Morgan State and University of the District of Columbia were considering culture in their projects, none that I could find really embodied an effort worth documenting. It was during this revelation that I decided to explore why this was so, and in doing so, try to begin to evolve a series of methods and strategies for realizing such in my own work.
What commonalities do you draw inspiration from given that black people are not monolithic?
JT: The most fundamental connection between Black people worldwide is a shared and unique sense of visual identity and the struggle we inherit due to our Blackness in the current world.
The irony in all of this I suppose is this duality of existence we share because people identified as being of the Black or African race seem to be marginalize worldwide across class and gender lines.
We are at once two types of beings, one rooted in a fundamental and historically significant cultural paradigm that cannot be denied. Though the legacy and way of being naturally along with what this has given to the world family cannot be denied, it must be denied significantly and often if one who is Black is to succeed daily in Western Society. And this fact is prevalent all over the globe. How can design reveal and thus expose and educate the human family to this very situation?
If we look at music, we see a strong and definite Black aesthetic. The artistic field of music has certainly allowed the very nature of Blackness to be exposed and enjoyed. How did those artists achieve such a feat? They were fortunate to be able to express themselves on their terms from the start and they were not bound by, or particularly influenced by, the prevailing critics and leaders of their field during that time. Blues music grew out of Gospel and the chants of slaves as they toiled. The songs and the music appealed to the very people it came out of at first. People like W.C. Handy, “Jelly Roll” Morton, Ma Rainey, Robert Johnson, Son House, John Lee Hooker and others made the music and lyrics “theirs” and did not worry about the critics. They had an audience. The irony of our condition is first and the most complex and difficult of the obstacles we have to overcome. It must be fully addressed and resolved significantly if we are to emerge a Black aesthetic in the environmental design field. The second biggest obstacle, in my opinion, is the lack of collective consciousness or will to present a strong cultural aesthetic or dynamic in our work and when espousing theory in as discuss strategies from of our commonalities within our Blackness to make design. The way we are naturally and by custom over a long period of time naturally allows any people to identify with their common traits even over great distances or total lack of communication over long periods of time.
Inherent in our culture I find the following:
– A special and particular appreciation and place in community for elders
– Extended family ties dominant
– Strong call and response connectivity between superior and subordinate
– Resiliency and resourcefulness with less, making it seem like more and sustainable by ritual
– Preoccupations with ritual, ceremony and celebration
– Great use of energetic motions, extravagant costuming in dance
– Preference towards a markedly louder audio pitch level
– Strong indoor / outdoor relationship
– Small scale and close proximity orientation
– Tendency to be earth over man nurturing, as opposed to man over nature oriented
– Intense use of color, pattern and texture
– Penchant for commodity and a solid understanding of art as utility first and foremost
Spirituality is another common trait that one will find consistent and formidable in Black cultures worldwide. This trait takes on a very unique and deep sense within our communities. While we entertain the idea that we all have one, and many Other cultures speak of a high reverence for the notion and place of such in their societies, Black people are really the only people associated with notion of soul beyond that initial sense of the concept. Soul is what we are and what we create from. Religion, being the organized and formal interpretation of spirituality is well established in our communities worldwide. Spirituality makes for a sense of humility in procedure as one goes forwards. The sense of someone or something greater than you and the sense that your fellow neighbor is equally as important as you are alive and well even in very dysfunctional Black communities, across the globe.
How can architecture and design be affected by each of these traits? Well, in my opinion it must begin to exhibit itself in the aesthetic of what we proposed.
Sharon Sutton at the University of Washington has proposed her own set of Black design principles and they differ from mine in many ways. I concur with Ms. Sutton’s efforts and I see and like her take on the subject. However I still argue that at the end of the day it will matter greatly how we image it. That is to say, how we create a vision from our Africanness, our Blackness to make an architecture expressive and truly one that speaks to and for the people.
In general Western technique and procedure will not give us that. However technique and procedure, on our terms and from our way of being seems to me to be more earth nurturing and that is just one of many aspects that will set us apart in positive ways from normal Western methodologies – that is f we learn and implement planning and design concepts from our cultural base and nature.
But to truly establish a place in the profession and in the minds and hearts of the students in academia, there will need to be an aesthetic.
Mr. Fields too has a strong set of points in my opinion as architecture remains one of the most segregated profession in society and one of the most backward leaning as well. To change this profession to be more progressive and inclusive of Blackness is a tall order indeed.
Though we are fully integrated both on the continent of Africa as well as in the world wide Diaspora with Spanish, English, Dutch, Portuguese, Italian, French and a host of other races and nationalities, for most of us classified as, or self -determined as Black, these commonalities will continue to bind us. Though we are not able to well define a Black aesthetic in the environmental design, I feel that other art and design disciplines have given us momentum to pursue such a concept and on our own terms. What is still in question is whether we as Black architects will develop a collective resolve to do so.
Given these commonalities, how can more African American architects get involved in the vast design opportunities in the Global South? And how can their own communities benefit from the experience brought back?
JT: African American Architects are currently overwhelmed with duties of a very basic nature, one of mere survival in this profession and have been since before 1892.
It is my estimate that we will continue to be burdened with the issue of survival well into this millennium. That is not to say that some brave and talented souls do not exist. Because not only do a few exist but the impact they are making is of considerable note.
Marcus Garvey, the eminent Black activist and Back to Africa advocate from around the turn of the Twentieth Century said, “If the Negro is not careful he will drink in all the poison of modern civilization and die from the effects of it.” Ultimately it will do us very little good to simply get more opportunities in the Global South or elsewhere if we do not ask ourselves and resolve the question, “Do we really want to continue to design while mimicking the kinds of socio-political society that marginalized us in the first place?”
I believe, as I have mentioned here earlier, that it is a collective will that is missing within us as a Black people on this earth at this point in time that might propel us Black architects towards another more sustainable and inclusive vision for our communities and for the practices of environmental design. Collective will doesn’t necessarily mean that you have everyone in the group buy in to a new idea in order for it to move forward. Rather a collective will or consciousness means that a few of the right type of individuals with the right kind of skill-sets and the right way of communicating and collaborating formulate a critical mass to set a new, different, innovative and hopefully more just way of design approach.
I believe Blues music reached that pinnacle for us. Now whether it was by luck, calculation or circumstance, who knows. But out of those early rumblings of mangled (and later refined) sounds, came Jazz!
Ultimately the Black architect will have to shoulder the burden of establishing a place in this profession for the legacy and contributions we have made and will continue to make. But I am of the opinion that it will take more than the Black architect to make the kind of change in this profession and at this time or any time in the near future.
Afrocentric influences in Western architecture are not a new phenomenon. In fact, although Le Corbusier never made any acknowledgements to West Africa in his writings, the intrinsic characteristics of that region’s vernacular are clearly reflected in much of his celebrated work. Do you agree? And with such universality, why do we not see more credited adaptations
JT: The identification of a contemporary African architectural style of imaging remains “hidden in plain view,” in my opinion, because of three main reasons:
– The architectural academy has not seen fit to offer the study of the works on the Continent as viable study material worthy of inquiry,
– Architects of African descent have not formalized collectively to present this material in any substantive or meaningful way in light of the above and,
– Politics have assisted in the negation of the importance of the very early works of architectural expression from Africa especially since what is termed The Cradle of Civilization is considered to be outside The Continent.
I can remember going through the first two or three years of undergraduate training at Arizona State University and not hearing one single voice on the importance of architecture in Africa except for a quick and early mention of the Egyptian Empire during one or two of the History of Architecture courses one was required to take. And I remember that this was not a real concern of mine as I did not think it relevant and especially if the esteemed professors of architectural history who were teaching me did not think it relevant. For you see I was already heavily indoctrinated with the fact that I don’t exist or matter – that I was special in my race and that I was going to lift myself out of and above the conditions of my race to become excepted by the larger society.
I was taught that the Middle East and Greece were where true civilization and architecture really began although Egypt had its own special starting place – I think because that place was undeniable. With this kind of early and complete indoctrination for many, too many, of us and with the very marginalized positions we represent in the field it became clear why the very fact that an African expression would be rare, undervalued if not simply devalued and very difficult to have garnered its own place as a legacy to be compared to.
Today one need only search the internet and it will open up an entire library on the subject of architecture and Africa. However, a student can still find themselves learning little if anything on Architecture in Africa from the historians in the schools of architecture. Therefore one has to wear two hats. I call it realizing the duality or the irony of the condition that we as Black architects face on a daily basis in society. The student really interested in the role of the Black African in our profession must look outside of his or her own formal education and acquire a dual educational process to compliment that which is taught in the traditional academy curriculum. We must revisit history, redefine circumstances and set new expectations as we go forward.
How different would American environmental design be today had African Americans arrived in America, throughout those same centuries, as immigrants?
JT: Of course no one can answer this question and be sure of anything they say as to what environmental design for Black communities would be like if we came her as immigrants and not as slaves. My guess is that we as a collective would feel a deep sense to maintain simplicity and order in much of what we would represent and to revere a very natural and very traditional approach to the creation of a spatial and formal identity in place making.
It is not in my thinking that peoples of African descent, in general, would have thought they needed to be as innovative or as progressive as Europeans have been. It seems to me, from my personal observations, that the early African settler might have been more akin to the ways and techniques of the Native Americans, not only in the United States but in Central and South America as well as the on the Caribbean Islands.
There are other fundamental questions that need to be explored around this particular question as well. For instance:
How would Africans as immigrants treat others, both original and other settlers in “The New World” if we weren’t slaves ourselves?
We know that there were tyrannical tribes and leaders who enslaved fellow Africans and took land and wives and occupied territories once the domain of others. So, perhaps in some ways we would not be so different. But I am thinking that as a collective, we would have resisted extreme temptation to the point that understanding the difference between those that presented a similar way of understanding the earth and the cosmos and those that incorporated a more imperialist way of being would have been fundamental to us as a collective. This would have more than likely put Africans at odds with the more aggressive European societies as this was a very rich land, the riches were found all over and often times these resources had to be taken from those who would not exploit them or cooperate with what we have come to learn was the level of exploitation necessary and used consistently.
How then might have we resist those strong aggressive outside forces?
Well I look to how other groups have resisted, either directly consciously or indirectly and unconsciously. The Haitians, the Cubans are good examples, but they do not exhibit in their communities a strong architectural voice in the construction of their cities and towns.
Creation of our spaces and places, for Africans arriving to these shores as immigrants, even with the scenario I put forth above, might have been different in more positive ways. The reason I say this is because of the current world population numbers of peoples of African descent. African descendants now number about thirty nine million here in the USA, about 25 million in the Caribbean Islands and over one hundred million in Brazil alone. Those numbers might be higher (or perhaps lower) if we came here as immigrants. Those numbers happen to be the highest by far of any migrating race or ethnic group to have come to the Western hemisphere who was not of European descent. We would have been able to resist significantly because of our numbers. We might have even made it a better place for the natives who arrived before us. In that resistance I think one could have seen a real connection to materials, simple materials, simple means of construction, a commitment to the ways of the past and a very skeptical sense of the man-made advancements of the future. Black people, in general, seem to me to be earth nurturing people, the subjugation and overall treatment of the native peoples might have been a circumstance would have prevented us from becoming a willing and able partner in the advancement of technology and the exhausting of resources on the level that was done.
Why would we have left Africa in the first place?
Africa is now seen as the last frontier. The continent is still self-sustainable and has had little comparative devastation over the centuries due to the advancement of technology and our modern way of living. Not sure that Africans would have left in large numbers now that I think about it.
Consider this, there are certain ethnic groups that have traversed the planet historically and there are others who simply have stayed in place unless they were forcibly removed. In the first category you have Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Thai, and Filipino, Jewish and Arab peoples. In the second group there are Africans, Aborigines, Native Americans, Inuit, Asian populations other than the four mentioned above and Pacific Islanders. Africans are the largest of the latter group in number by far. Currently the total population of the Continent is projected at over one billion people, third behind the countries of China and India. Even though we know that Africa is a continent where China and India are countries, I think the analogy is viable in a way since often many of us still tend to speak of Africa as though it was a country.
What relevance does this vision have for today’s designers when designing for communities of color, and for society at large? And how can we as a profession move towards that vision?
JT: The relevance for having a vision of cultural connection when designing communities of color is evident if you look at communities at large. For instance, the Europeans did not arrive upon these shores and build from the tradition of the Native American. Neither did Europeans arrive on any shore and build from the tradition of the indigenous peoples they encountered there. They brought their own forward. Otherwise we would have developed at least some contemporary architectural manifestations from the concepts of the Pueblo, Dugout, Wigwam and the Teepee.
Architecture informs a society, a people, a community, a people, the individual. Black communities remain faceless for the most part and absent, to a large extent and identity, in the design and construction from our own cultural ways of being. We continue to find ourselves bringing our children up in found neighborhoods. That is places and spaces designed by others for the way that they celebrate and define life both inside and outside. Our children tend not be educated properly, walk around with their pants hanging off their asses, get pregnant disproportionately at a younger age and aspire to become athletes, entertainers and models first and foremost. In short there are too many psychological as well as physical conditions and circumstance that plague our communities presently. I think environmental design strategies, though not solely or perhaps not even primarily have none the less maintained a very culpable role in developing the current set of problems these underrepresented neighborhoods continue to face.
“Children need to see faces that look like their own in the defining, governing, designing, construction and maintaining of the places and spaces that they live, work, play and grow up within”. I said this more than twenty years ago and it is still as relevant now as it was then if not more as population on the planet continues soar and the minority groups begin to emerge as the majority. Add to this fact that more people are coming to and will be living in cities and there is a real need to rethink our approach to making places for people, especially on the urban planning and architectural design levels of environmental design.
You developed 10 Principles for Black Cultural Design, as well a Cultural Design Primer and Resource Guide. Tell us a little about that and how the public can access these resources.
JT: Over the last twenty five years or so of my career I have been assessing the particular needs and ways of constructing in neighborhoods of color. During that time certain themes and manifestations were reccurring and constant. I began to list what I thought were the most crucial aspects or principles I needed to address and build from in order to make a more meaning design solution that would connect to community, in my case the Black community. So far there are ten principles. The Ten Principles of Black Cultural Design Composition, which can be found on my website and are now on your Blog, are the following:
Economy, Simplicity, Ease of Construction, Ease of Maintenance, Spirituality, Heritage, Duality or Irony of the Condition, Earth Centered/Earth Nurturing, Strong Indoor/Outdoor Relationship and Intense Use of Color, Pattern & Texture. The ten principles seem to embody Black Cultural Design at all scales from urban to buildings to interiors. While still a work in progress, the ten principles are presented here for discussion, debate and inquiry purposes as opposed to a dogmatic set of criteria.
The first principles have to do with basic infrastructure of resources and services so necessary and yet so often missing in our communities:
Economy is arguably the most significant of the principles when designing and building in communities of color where resources and expertise are scarce. Economy assures a condition of ease of construction technique. Simpler techniques can be taught informally and timely as well as in need for rapid rebuilding in disaster relief and recovery situations. Economy assures that a larger segment of the community can be involved in the design, construction and making of the environments that we live, work and raise our children.
Simplicity provides for clarity and understanding in the process of design and construction, thus assuring that a larger portion of the community will be able to understand, learn and ultimately participate in the design, making and shaping of the building, spaces and places of and for the black community.
3 EASE OF CONSTRUCTION
Opportunity for training unskilled labor for trade, technical and professional careers in urban planning, environmental design, management and construction can act to provide a strong advocacy approach in building and rebuilding efforts during relatively normal courses of events but especially during emergency and disaster assistance.
Economy, Simplicity and Ease of Construction act to form the core ingredients for emergence of a black cultural design evolution. Combined they form the foundation for creative endeavor to springboard from. This infrastructure is necessary and consistently lacking in almost every large-scale endeavor proposed for black communities nationwide and is often supplied by other non-black supporters.
4 EASE OF MAINTENANCE
Promoting the use of materials and methods of construction and detailing that would require a minimum of upkeep, replacement and/or repair over time within communities where lack of resources are often at issue is vital to maintaining positive aesthetic value and perception. Too often funds for upkeep and repair are scarce, non- existent or simply not considered due to other immediate concerns of operation in low income neighborhoods. Concepts and techniques that promote Ease of Maintenance would assist in encouraging longer lasting upkeep and reverence of properties over extended periods of time.
The next three principles address basic specifics that, in their manifestations, tend to differentiate and thus can act to celebrate black culture in ways that differentiate from other cultures particularly Euro-centric or Western culture.
Fundamental and at the core of much of our being and tradition as original Africans and descendants of original Africans in the Diaspora is a strong sense of life beyond this life. Spirituality, whether group organized based or non-traditional and of the individual, has its place and can manifest in every aspect of living, working, learning, resting as well as worship. The concept of SOUL embedded in the roots of the cultural paradigm in virtually every aspect is but one example.
Information, symbolism and physical memory of past legacy and achievement of peoples, events, places and dates act as reminders of what has gone before and is therefore critical to making place in the black community. Perceived evidence of efforts to suppress black heritage makes inclusive attempt to celebrate legacy meaningful. Educating those severed from such and reaffirming the importance of knowing from whence you came. Heritage integrated within the design process further fuels other catalysts in unifying and in creating healthy growth of our communities.
7 DUALITY OR IRONY OF THE CONDITION
Past and current situations of the African Diaspora cultural enclave attempting to co-exist within a dominant culture but with the former, by nature, being in direct conflict with the latter is an ongoing theme in our lives and in the make-up of our communities. The dual identity one exhibits and the irony of cultural non-acceptance while the collective is often deemed unacceptable is real for us and must be revealed for what it is as long as it exists. Artists have found ways to deal with this condition in positive and meaningful ways. The larger art form of Environmental design is challenged to seek ways to reveal this condition and its manifestations.
The last set of principles relate to themes that have direct correlation to environmental design principles as well as green and sustainable principles for making space/form relationships.
8 EARTH CENTERED/EARTH NURTURING
This principle expresses the need for designers to relate that which is made to that which is found. The African sense is to build with the found in respect and repose, existing within as opposed to on or over. Also implied is the respect for the ground or horizontal plane in an informal rather than a formal relationship where functions of movement and rest are incorporated within.
9 STRONG INDOOR/OUTDOOR RELATIONSHIP
This relationship promotes the basic sense that Sub-Saharan tribal groups practice in creating all typologies of shelter. The cultural concept historically affirms the notion that indoor and outdoor spaces are inseparable and crucial to existence due to climatic and other environmental factors. Activities are hybrid in use and therefore both kinds of spaces are often used for the same activity at different times of the day and of the season. Outdoor space seen as integral with indoor spaces act as “extended” reception, gathering and ceremonial enclaves fully entrenched in life style beyond climatic challenges.
10 INTENSE USE OF COLOR, PATTERN & TEXTURE
Essential in expression of spatial /formal content elevating the aesthetic qualities of our lives, it is the intensity of the use of these three components, presently and historically that differentiates the Western and the non-Western approaches. Africans and peoples of African descent incorporate Color, Pattern and Texture in intensities that rival if not surpass all other cultures.
You have designed buildings and interiors; you’re an author, and an educator. What lies ahead for you?
JT: The future is something I think about quite a bit, perhaps to a fault. At this point in my life I am more interested in the people and the planet. I have little interest in traditional practice. I love teaching and being in the company of young people. I know this because when I’m doing the things that I really love, I’m not aware of the passing of time.
I recently attended the United Nations ECOSOC Talks in May of 2014. This three day forum was brought about to address the fact that the urban populations will be increasing rapidly in the next few decades and it will be the midsize cities that will have to prepare most for increase of 2 or more times their current populations. Millions of people will be on the move for better opportunity and in constant transition. Many will be coming from rural and suburban areas to these cities as well and they will be mostly poor and looking for basic subsistence. It was there that I realized that there were a precious few people who really care beyond normal boundaries of human understanding. These are the kind of people that appeal to me. Not that I want to dismiss immediate and intimate concerns or even traditional practice. I simply find myself in another place.
I am interested in heightening the opportunities for Black architects over the next 30-50-70 years.
Africa has over one billion people now and even after so many trials and tribulations, the populations of virtually all of the fifty-four countries are still growing! Africa is considered by many as the very last frontier and the resources there will be prized by all developing countries including China and India and the established Western powers. There is potentially a tremendous opportunity for Black and African architects there and we must begin to see this.
In my work – which consists a great deal of what we refer to as paper architecture – I am trying to flush out my own interpretation of what might be considered the basic beginnings of Black aesthetic approach to the visual expression of environmental design disciplines. I plan to cultivate this process indefinitely. Black architects have to develop a collective consciousness to bring forth a uniquely new traditional approach that we only we can administer because of who we are, what we have experienced and what we now know of ourselves and others around us. European, Chinese, Japanese and Mexican architects have all tried with great success.
I was privileged back in 2009, to be present at the National Organization of Minority Architects Conference, in St. Louis, where local business entrepreneur Mr. Mike Jones delivered a powerful and compelling keynote address demanding that Black architects rise to the task of creating a Black Aesthetic. I’d like to end with these few excerpts from that landmark speech.
…As I thought about tonight, and the honor and responsibility associated with being your keynote speaker I struggled with the need to be relevant because of the profound regard I have for your profession.
I decided there were three critical issues, that have very synergistic relationship to each other;
• Your role in the development and evolution of public policy
• And the need for a Black Aesthetic
• How do you get paid…
…Think about this. You see if a space traveler landed on earth from another universe and there were current signs of human life, what would be the basis for their judgments of the species that lived here?
It would be the buildings we left behind. What they looked like, how the space was organized, what materials were used, how they related to their physical environment and each other.
They would tell our space traveler everything important about how we lived, how we worked and worshiped, how we played and what were our highest values. They would speak to what is or was the Soul of these People…
…You ask why I bring this up. In doing my research for tonight I was blown away by myriad types of architecture. They spoke to every human era, and every place on the planet with a notable exception. There was nothing on Africa. And in the Modern canon or citations on America we were conspicuous by our absence.
The great 18th century German writer Johann Goethe said, “Architecture is frozen music”. If that is true, then where is our music…?
…If you really want recognition and success you must free yourself from the tyranny of dead ideas. You must fight for public policy that speaks to and supports what is best about cities, You must produce a vision and an approach that exemplifies that policy in such a unique and compelling way- no barrier can stand against it…
…Now I know all too well the issues that have confronted and constrained the progress of Black Architects. This is not a discussion about history, but a challenge about the future. You see as difficult as some of the lives may be or have been, I would argue that no one in this room started their life where Louis Armstrong started his, or had overcome the demons that tormented Charlie Parker.
In the face of the most virulent structural racism, they produced, with all due respect to everyone else, what I consider to be the most extraordinary music the world has ever heard. They took the black experience in America as the vehicle to produce music that spoke to the world’s common humanity. And the world’s most powerful country was helpless to stop the world from embracing it and them.
How could they do it? They understood and lived an eternal truth that Shakespeare sums up so well, “To thine own self be true…”
A collective will involves the politics of resistance as well as a collective vision amongst a select few to push forward a better opportunity for the many.
The struggle, continues-on!
*This website owes its origins in part to Jack’s tireless advocacy of what black architecture is.