Sun, 6/6 12:41PM • 1:11:58
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Episode Number two, with Dr. Mabel Wilson, Professor of architecture at Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture, planning, and preservation.
Welcome to the Institute of black imagination. I'm your host Daario counties and artists writer, brand consultant, generally curious fellow. And each week we bring you a conversation from the black genius, to inspire, engage, and help you unleash your imagination.
Today's episode is with architect, designer and scholar Dr. Mabel Olson, doing double duty as a professor of architecture and as Associate Director of the Institute for Research and African American Studies, both at Columbia University, Dr. Wilson's not your traditional designer of buildings, her transdisciplinary practice extends well beyond the built environment into the worlds of curation, performance art and cultural history.
Mabel is a founding member of who builds your architecture, a project that examines the links between labor, architecture, and the global networks that formed around the building of buildings, and is also co founder of the global Africa lab, for which she received the 2019 American Academy of Arts and Letters award and architecture, along with her colleague, Mario good, and in today's episode, we discuss how mabels problems fitting in as a young architect led to designing her own path to success, the ways in which design and structures have been used to create the concepts of both blackness and whiteness, and how mass incarceration not only tied a generation of black men to a failing capitalist state, but left a generation of black women without partners.
Mabel, welcome to the Institute of black imagination. It's so wonderful to have you on I know, it's been
a second with us trying to juggle our schedules, particularly
in the middle of COVID.
But yeah, it's, it's such a joy to have you here.
Maybe maybe to begin, could you explain to us when you felt that design would be a part of your life? Or when when did you first realize that design would be a part of your life and what you wanted to do when you grew up?
Um, I would say that the design really starts with just an interest in having a creative practice.
I'm just being the kid who always was drawing loved art classes, like to make things. I mean, I just the sense of like, being a maker was very clear, even when I was a very young child. And I also just came from a family of people who were makers who are artists. Oh, well, what did your parents do? Um, my dad was an engineer for the Defense Department.
And moved from the south to the north because he couldn't get work as an engineer in the in the segregated south in the early 50s. So he ended up moving up to New Jersey to work in the Defense Department. And he actually designed the house that I grew up in, he did the plans for the house I grew up in. So So I mean, my dad, even though he's an engineer could also draw a plan. So there was that and then my mom
taught Home Economics. So she she was a great cook, she could sew so she was always making stuff. And then her brother is a pretty well known artist named john Outerbridge. So, and then her siblings, a number of them taught art, and were artists in their own right. And, um, yeah, and then on my dad's side, my grandfather was a chef, and he came from a family of chefs. So I don't know, there was just a very strong sense of like,
you know, kind of making do with what you have. And that, I think, I don't know, just always been interested in making stuff. And is that something you bring into your practice? Now, this idea or concept of making do with what you have? I know that
it's definitely a part of an African tradition of making. I think that being creative and how you work is a really important part of it, which is why I consider as part of the reasons called studio and because it's studio and all the other stuff that I do. And it's also called studio and because I like and believe in collaborative engagement and working collaboratively on different kinds of projects with people.
And so, yeah, I mean, I think being creative with one's practice is really important. And I feel as a black person in America, that the
Professional and disciplinary boundaries don't allow you or did certainly didn't allow me to really do the kinds of explorations and explore the kinds of questions that I had. And so I had to become transdisciplinary, in order to just do the kind of work, especially the creative intellectual work I was interested in.
And what was one of those first boundaries that you encountered, I mean, as, as, as a black female architect, going throughout your educational process.
I mean, I, one of the first boundaries for me was just in my undergraduate education, like, is very rigid, I went to the University of Virginia, in architecture, and it was like landing in another planet. But that's a whole other story. Um, but oftentimes, when we were given projects, you know, the way they would teach it is like, you would have party one and party two, which are just basic diagrams, like diagram one and diagram two, you're either going to fit in one of those, and I would be on diagram three,
like, I would just invent a whole other way of figuring out how the project should go together. And I got very frustrated, because I didn't realize I was just not being intellectually stimulated. And I left for a semester and went to London to the architectural Association, and just found my piece I found.
You know, it was cosmopolitan. There were people all over the world, we travel, you know, we saw film, and we've read, theory and philosophy. And, you know, you could bring your own cultural experience to your work. And that's what was missing for me, in my undergraduate education. And I just, I really hit a wall, and I had to get out. And I'm so thankful that I did, because that really said, Oh, no way, you know, you've just been drinking the wrong part. You just you just need to drift into those spaces where you can find these productive dialogues with people.
And so do you feel that that limitation was one of geography? Like being in London versus being in America? Or was it one of just like that particular time in the world?
I think it was just that period of time. And yeah, like 84. I went to London, I think in 84, which is a great time to be in London. Um, yeah. And that just said to me, I don't know, it just stimulated a set of questions, a kind of intellectual and creative. Instead of interest that, you know, I just had to figure out how to get there. And I wouldn't work professionally. I went through a very kind of conventional route for a few years, when I finished my undergraduate degree in architecture. And then I just went back for a Master's of architecture at Columbia, and I went to Columbia, because Bernard Tschumi became Dean. Barnard is a Swiss French architect who was doing lavalette at the time, but Bernard had also taught, he taught at the AIA, he was kind of part of the MMA, you have people and I thought, okay, that means Columbia is gonna get really interesting. And what were some of those traditional jobs that you took coming out of undergrad? I worked in a large architectural engineering firm in Princeton, New Jersey, I worked on labs.
Designing the layout for lighting, and tiles. And yeah, I mean, it was just it. Yeah. I mean, I love the people I work with, but the work was a little mind numbing. And then I was like, I'm done with this. And after about a year, a little over a year, I quit. And I moved to New York, and worked in a firm there until I went to grad school.
And so now looking back, like, what would you What would you change about that path? Like, you know, imagine a young architecture student of color, like, would you advise that they take that traditional path? Or should they try to chart their own route? I think for me, and the group of people, like my generation of civil rights babies, basically, um, you could afford education, you had an affordable education, and you could go work. I think it's really hard now because education is so much more expensive. And I still think the salaries of architecture are pretty low. So I'm not sure I do architecture, just from a finance unfortunately, from a financial perspective. I think it's a really it's a tougher decision to make to go into because of the cost of education these days.
And so what keeps you going like what keeps you motivated every day to keep showing up and doing this work?
Um, I think there's just a lot to be understood and explored. Um,
That there just, you know, there just isn't enough work about specifically, which is primarily what I work on is race and architecture and also black this, and there's just not in the field of architecture much about that. And as a result, that's why it becomes so transdisciplinary because I've had to go elsewhere to get an understanding of what that might mean, and then try to translate it back into to architecture.
And when did you first feel that void, and I mean, feel like f e. l.
That void of dialogue between race and architecture, or how they influenced each other? I would say, Well, when I was an undergrad, I just never saw anything that had to do with my experience, I was learning, it was a very Eurocentric education. Everything are European examples, you know, and, and it was just,
you know, I just, I just totally, I just felt like a vampire, I was looking at everything, but I never saw myself reflected in those work, are the reason why I went to the AIA, and then could see, you know, there was a woman in my unit from Nigeria, and her first project was about, you know, she made a space that was about, you know, certain cultural ritual, you know, from Nigeria, from her people in Nigeria. And I was like, wow, you can do that.
You can actually have, you know, cultural expression in your work, and not it being ruled by party a party B, it's got like a Palazzo, or a villa, or, you know, it was a much more. I don't know, I mean, it just said, you know, there are other modes of expression. Okay, so you rushed back, so you could design what your life in New Jersey was like?
Exactly. The state of London and wanted to graduate and finish. So I came back, and then yeah, when in Jersey, and then just kind of just had to get the hell out of dodge. And
I realized I need to be somewhere cosmopolitan.
Absolutely, absolutely. And so so how would you? How would you describe good design? If, if there is such a thing? Oh, that's a really good question. No, I mean, an example that I thought was very, very, that's been very well done is a memorial for peace and justice. In Montgomery, I took my students to see that because I thought, you know, not only is it an important subject matter that the history of lynching and it's
it's invisibility, even though it was very widespread. And so, but I thought that the way mass design and the Equal Justice Initiative, thought about how you tell that story to a public who doesn't know, I'm in a really beautiful, forceful way.
Yeah, I think it's a really good piece of architecture. And I just think the larger project, not just in Montgomery, but they also have one, whether
it's like a restorative community, because restorative justice community project or something like that, where they're now putting markers, and it's at sites where people were lynched
is a very powerful one, because it really draws that whole landscape. It says it's not a place, but multiple places, and it forces communities to deal with their difficult histories. And I think just overall, it's just a very smart project. And so what is your like, what is your design process? Like?
You know, you're given a site,
there's something you want to curate, where do you begin? How do you start to begin to think about what you're going to create? I have such a hybrid practice, because I don't, I would say design at this point, maybe is 10% of what I do. Yeah, um,
so conventional design processes, you know, aren't necessarily part of, you know, kind of my everyday sense of like, what I'm working on, but what I am working on? Yeah, I would just say if I am working on something, a lot of it is just understanding, you know, just because I'm a historian is understanding how this place came to be like, I think that is really an important part of understanding what you're looking at, like, it's just not a tabula rasa. But there are reasons why things are the way they are, and especially if you're working with like, communities of color, they're they're always power dynamics and that and I think it's important to understand, you know, how those are
Play with what you are doing. And that's not something that is readily taught in design. Education, I think. Yeah, yeah, your I mean, your practice crosses multiple disciplines. I remember an exhibition of yours that I saw at the storefront for art and architecture called marching on. Could you maybe talk a little bit about that and the creative process around that exhibition? Um, that was a project where I was paired with someone named Briony Roberts,
by Eva Frank, who is the former director. So the exhibition is really the residue of a
collaboration as basically artistic directors of this performance called marching on that we did, and Marcus Garvey park in Harlem. And so it was kind of a, you know, like, sort of like a collaboration between us, the marching Cobras, and then storefront and performer, actually, so kind of supporting the performance. And so the exhibition was really showing
what we were doing in the project, and then the props of the
exhibition, which were the capes, and also just the exploration of it was the history of marching in the United States, as it pertains to African Americans and public space. So So again, I mean, that again, that whole thing started, the prop was history. I mean, Eva saw a project that Briony had done at the Chicago BNL, which she did with a drill team in front of a muse van der Rohe building, but Ava was like an Ava's from Spain. She's like, Why are young black youth throwing up? rifles? And why are they marching? You know, in this militaristic way? Like, what's the history of that? We need to unpack that? So that's the prompt where she approached me and Brian either say, Would you to be willing to collaborate? And so a lot of it was just understanding like, Alright, what was the history of marching and marching bands for, for for black American? So and that's what I mean, like the history can tell you a lot about, you know, spaces and why they are the way they are?
And could you explain a little bit about some of the things you discovered in that research, just because I remember when I saw the exhibition, I was just kind of blown away, like, I thought I knew, marching bands. But I obviously had no clue, especially as it pertains to the history of black and brown people in America. Yeah, no, it was great, because part of the project was also to teach the Cobras like the history of their craft, like this is what they do, but they probably didn't know like, where this really comes from. And so we've just looked at the history that
often enslaved or free blacks would be the drummer's or, you know, play the fight
in, you know, sort of military maneuvers or attacks, like from basically the Revolutionary War onwards, and then in, in this during the Civil War, one of the first public displays really in the United States of black troops was actually in New York and in Washington, in in Union Square, where a colored infantry for the Union Army showed their colors, which is what it was called, marched in front of a reviewing
a review, review, podium, in, in Union Square, it was huge. Um, and so, you know, that set into, you know, a kind of history of sort of partially blacks in the military, but then you also get
the influence of just band music, marching music in general, which leads to jazz trumpet, you know, just completely interwoven the way in which
black colleges in the south then took that and develop their own kind of style of performance and marching and, you know, and so we sort of traced that whole history also just of marching, one of the things we became interested in was like the way in which Mark Marcus Garvey would drive and parade around Harlem and he, you know, the whole idea of the uniform the epaulets, the women and their white, you know, they would wear their their white uniforms and March, there was a way in which African Americans were using the temporary ability to be in public space and March as a way of building solidarity around things like Pan africanism. And so we became interested in two things. One was a silent March organized by W. Eb Dubois.
That was a protest against lynching in I believe it's 1917 where they marked
marched down Fifth Avenue. 1000s of African Americans marched silently. They were just drumming and in lines of kids and then women all dressed in white and then men. And so it was very powerful. It was right after the East St. Louis riots that's really found that and then there was a another huge parade that attracted millions of New Yorkers, like, I think about two years later of the Harlem hellfighters, who were, again, another military unit infantry unit that,
that what didn't fight with the US because US soldiers didn't want them. But they fought alongside the French in World War One, very valiantly, but they also were amazing musicians and really bought jazz to Europe. So they were really remarkable band. And so they marched through, again, Fifth Avenue through the streets of New York and millions and millions of New Yorkers came. So we use that as a basis for interpreting our performance. So the dancers were the silent March, and then the drummers all the drum line, were the Harlem hellfighters in the performance, did you see Beyonce is Coachella performance? She stole that from us.
We were ahead of Beyonce.
You heard it here. First. Beyonce stole it from Mabel Wilson. Yes.
Yeah, no, no, no, that's so funny that that came afterwards as well.
And so and so pivoting back to design and space, I want to ask, What does black space feel like to you? Like, I know, you mentioned earlier about, you know, that void as you were going through your your education process, but like, What does black space feel like to you? Like? How do you know, when you're in it? And how can we think about creating more spaces like that?
Yeah, I mean, I think that part of it is understanding, you know, like, what those spaces of black sociality are. And they can be,
you know, they can be spaces of domination and degradation, right spaces where black life is developed, like I would say, just the mass incarceration in the whole prison industrial complex, that's a space. And I would say that, that space has become a kind of black space. Simply by the way, it's been designed, especially as of late
with the rise of mass incarceration from the 60s onward. But I also think there are other black spaces that are culturally
you know, sites of refuge sites of healing.
You know, these could be the corner, it could be the front porch. It could be the club, um, you know, they're all, you know, sort of spaces where black cultural practices,
you know, allow for certain certain kinds of engagement and oftentimes, you know, under enslavement, or Jim Crow, those things were either outlawed, and so they had to happen surreptitiously. Or, you know, they were on the other side of the tracks, like under Jim Crow. So, you know, which is why, you know, with marching on we were interested in the street because that then becomes a site of appropriation right by blacks. Whose public sphere ability to be in public space was limited.
mieville so I love this. What is this like this like, screen thing on your zoom of Jacques Tatties, play time. And for those of you who can't see it, behind Mabel, our long row of kind of miss van der Rohe ish like buildings, which, which makes me think about like Miss bender row and this idea of like, the radiant city or this concept of the radiant city, this like this kind of urban perfection. And then I think back to you know, as you were talking about, like the eighth East St. Louis riots, but St. Louis, which is where I'm from, and the now kind of
famous leaf failed, Pruitt I go housing complex that was
the prude I go joint housing project was a series of 3311 storey buildings built in St. Louis, Missouri, and first occupied in 1954. Designed during segregation and meant for middle income white and black residents. The buildings were divided into the window Pruitt homes, named after world war two fighter pilot and the William aigrow apartments after a US Congressman have the same name. However, in 1955, the year after opening, a federal judge ordered that the St. Louis housing authority and its practice of segregation
Causing occupancy to fall from 91% to less than 16% in less than 10 years, as white residents bleed to the suburbs, a phenomenon also known as white flight. By 1971, half of the buildings were boarded up, and the project was ordered to be demolished, which was televised nationally and seen as the day modern architecture died. Although grossly underfunded and maintained, Pruitt aigles legacy is one of urban planning and renewal gone awry. And his architect Minoru Yamasaki designed another set of buildings that were also destroyed on national television, the World Trade Towers.
Yeah, and, you know, what are your thoughts around, you know, these Western European ideals of order, and structure and the ways in which architecture has not served black people or people in general? And the ways in which black people have been made to exist in these structures that are not particularly designed for them? Or just designed with them in mind, period? Yeah, no, I mean, I liked the way you said made to exist, because I think that that's a big part of blackness.
And, and I say that, because one of the classes I'm teaching, called enclosures, I'm teaching with Sadie Hartman, who's done some really amazing,
really amazing writing around these kind of questions of like slavery,
of regimes of domination, you know, the history of slavery, and one of the people we read in the class is Sylvia winter. And she's not the only one. But you know, it just made it very clear that what the slave trade did was it made the black like, we were in Africa, we weren't black, we were whoever we were, like our ancestors were, whoever they were, it is precisely when we are captured and turned into property and then loaded onto that ship, that that's where that process of becoming black happens. Coming the Negro becoming the slave, right, you're made in that you're made in that process, it's the process of producing a subject that then has a certain position socially, right in the West.
And so that question of what you are made into,
is part and parcel of, of how blackness emerges as a as a category, which is necessary for the exact opposite of its production, which is whiteness, right? You know, that those people who were in what became known as Europe were whoever they were, right. But through these colonial encounters with Asia, and with Africa and the New World, they started to see themselves as an invent categories of racial difference that then give whiteness, its value, which is clearly superior, right? above the the negation, like probably the negative term of blackness. And so I think there are there ways in which you are made black constantly through slavery, through the violence of whipping through. Same as with Jim Crow, you're given citizenship, but that's diminished, because there's something they need from you, they need labor, they need to profit from you, they don't want to give you power, they want to give you land, they don't so so that you're constantly being being made black. And and I fundamentally think that what happened was that Europe comes up with a system of capitalism of an economic system, a social system,
culture, they define the terms of culture of what society is of history of nation, like all these things that we take, as a matter of fact, were invented by Europeans as part of this colonial project. But the problem is, it's universal. It goes everywhere, but it also has embedded hierarchies, right of domination, and that typically means that whiteness is the privilege term for everything. citizen is white citizen is not black.
Resident is white resident is not black. And so I think as such architecture as the European art of building comes out of that history.
Right. And so it is part and parcel I think of that European Western project. And as such, I feel that the discipline of architecture has a very hard time accommodating blackness because it's not made to allow blackness and people who live black lives to really survive. And so I don't think Pruitt AIGA would ever make it because not it's not just the architecture, but it's a lot of all of the other things that come together, that would have allowed black life to thrive.
But all of those things don't coalesce, they will coalesce, for the most part, on the white side of town, but deliberately not on the black side, which won't have good roads, won't have the funding for schools won't have, you know, electrical lighting won't have access to food that's affordable, won't have sewerage, won't have maintenance, won't have decent jobs, what you know, like all of these things, you know, sort of come together to produce a condition in which black life can't thrive, you know, which is something Orlando Patterson called social death.
And so I feel that architecture is part of that larger assemblage. And architects kind of don't see the complicity in it, because, one, that's how whiteness works and to architecture so allied with ideas of progress and betterment. And,
you know, like social advancement, which is the project of modernity, that, why would you question that? That's the logic of how you improve. So I know that's a long answer, but I think No, no, no.
Fruit eiga would never would it would never made it. And I talked to an architect, Michael Lewis is great architect in San Francisco, who actually grew up in improvement I go, he was some of the first families that logged into it. Wow. And he said, At first, it was great, but then the handles fell off the windows and nobody came to fix it. And then the elevators kept breaking down, and no one came to fix it, you know, and then, you know, the hallways flooded, and no one came to fix it. Right. So they built it, that there was nothing that the state did to maintain it.
And it just fell into disrepair. And that's why it failed. Oh, wow. I mean, you're so right. I mean, well, yes, obviously. Yes, you're right.
But you know, as you're speaking like, it makes me think about just the just the role design has played in the creation of blackness like how structures, for instance, like this, the slave ship, like, the slave ship is no different than the Pruitt I go housing complex, the ways in which designed has been used to reinforce this concept of blackness to then reinforce this other concept of whiteness. So, right, like, yeah, like, is there is there hope? Like, how do we move forward, knowing that these systems, these, these, these design codes are so ingrained and embedded within our culture?
It's hard because it's so profoundly embedded it is the way we think. And it is who we are. Right?
As some, so it's really hard to understand what else is possible. I mean, it's really it's really, but but I do feel that there is there was something before race, and there was something before nation, there was something. There were ways of being in the world that weren't like this.
And they're always, you know, there have been, I mean, there were just ways that people lived.
There is possible that we can live differently, we have been living differently for the last month and a half, we're not flying. We're certainly not polluting the air with automobiles, so much so that that oil is staying stuck in the ground. You know, we're staying local, you know, like, yeah, you can have radical change. If you want, we basically refuse the terms of capital.
Even though we can see how capital and nation are tied right with the pressure to open it up. So the economy can going and so, but even within Coronavirus, you can see the inherent inequalities around who's dying and who's living, right, who got out of New York City, I can choke him with people. New York City hadn't been this black and brown since the 80s.
second homes, right, black, even black and brown folks don't even have a first home, they're barely holding on to the home that they have.
So again, I mean, it shows you right, and as such they can they can distance themselves from the threat where black and brown people who are essential are smack in the middle and vulnerable for it, because that's where their labor's position, they don't have the luxury of being elsewhere. They're they're enclosed in that in that condition of servitude still, and vulnerability and death. Right? There's, you know, some people like Denise de Silva, whose work I love, she just says there's a horizon of life and has a rise of death. And usually black and brown folks are pushed toward the horizon of death.
In which ways have you
felt that that specter, that specter of death in your own career, or even just your life, I mean, you're, you're more than your career. And, you know, I should preface that by
mentioning the conversation that we had at Harvard that one time we were, when we were speaking about the invisibility of black women in the world, and I was, you know, in my sis male ness said that, you know, in a way, it's kind of like a superpower, because you're able to quietly and silently like, navigate these these corporate spaces, you know, to to arrive at a space of leadership, and no one see you coming. And you mentioned,
Yes, that's true. But by the time you get there, you've suffered so many nicks and scrapes, that you've lost surface tension.
Like, little micro cuts that just cut away at you until you just bleed out, and you're gone.
Yeah, no, this is why black women, you know, with with, with, with,
um, you know, pregnant women, I mean, there's so much more vulnerable, and it doesn't matter. I mean, Serena Williams just proved it doesn't matter how much money you have.
It's the stresses and the ways in which the system treats you. Um, and black life is a it's an aggregation, it's just devalued in comparison to I love. And it's hard, because I think there's, you know, after civil rights, it's like, playing field is equal. We're all up here. You know, I'm a Columbia professor, you know, and it's true that this is not necessarily what my parents went through. But I don't think my parents also had you had lynching that you don't have the wholesale genocide of mass incarceration, like they didn't like, and I think, you know, Jim Crow had its own limits, but mass incarceration was just like, we're just gonna wipe you out, because you're not useful anymore. You know, and we're going to take you, and we're going to house you in these spaces, because we don't want you in proximity to us again, again, it's like a form of social distancing, right? To use that term.
And buy that space. Right. And that's why, you know, prisons, again, with COVID, at the highest concentration of death is now in Marion, Ohio. Why? Because that's where a prison is.
So, yeah, I mean, there's the the ways in which
land territory property, building space, because architecture is also economic. And what whiteness buys you is that space, that's the space where you can live and have your own room and, you know, have your own office and have your second home or your third home or whatever. And for a lot of black people, it's still you're still crammed into a space that makes you very vulnerable to a lot of things. And that doesn't change. And even if you get that opportunity, like people did, let's say in the early aughts was ripped away from you with the recession, the subprime mortgage, right, a basically extracted, you know, they gave you a subprime mortgages, extracted the value and went went on went on about their business, but you lost your wealth,
which is no different than redlining. You know, it's just another form of wealth extraction from or what have you got poverty, capitalism, or something like that. Racial capitalism, I prefer to even say is that
I mean, and like, even you, like you personally, like, what were those moments where you were like, oh, okay, that hurt, that hurt. And then how did you recover?
Well, one of the things that was a big challenge for me,
was when I decided to do doctoral studies, right to get a PhD, who was not I was not the kid. That was I never thought when I would ever do a Master's, but I did. I had amazing classmates who really fostered an intellectual awakening. And I went on to teach for a few years, but you know, the people I just gravitated toward were some really interesting geographers, and philosophers, you know, who were doing critical theory work, and they were just like, you should think about doing a PhD. And then I kept, you know, people kept saying you should start finally apply to architecture programs. And then God bless her rosin Deutsch, who I adore, who's an art historian at Barnard said, you should apply to American Studies. And thank God I applied to American sides because I couldn't get into the architecture history programs. I think I didn't have the right pedigree. I didn't have an art history, background and architectural history background.
And then I wanted to write about race. And they were like, that has nothing to do with architecture. And so I think I was like,
double whammy, which is fine. So because I, you know, American Studies, like, we want her, she's great. And it was great for me because I got this amazing education and humanities that I wouldn't have gotten otherwise and have amazing colleagues that I would not have had otherwise had, I just stayed in the narrow lane of architectural history. You know, I love that I love this concept of, you know, one thing
not being given that allowed you, or provided access to something that was, you know, even better, that really kind of put you along the path that you really want it to be on. So, you know, what was the most beautiful No, you've ever received, that was probably one that was probably one of them. That was just like, it was very interesting. It's like, Oh, I didn't get in. And you know, at that point, it was just like, Oh, I guess I just didn't have whatever. And I didn't know that I was actually going into this amazing program in American Studies. But I was never resentful, like I,
you know, I got to be friends with a lot of people who were in those programs, who were both faculty and staff who were incredibly supportive of my coming in. And I, what I realized was, I think my work made a lot of the older white male faculty very uncomfortable in the kind of work because I wanted to work on race, and they were just like, no, she's black. She's gonna be angry.
And I don't think this has anything to do with architecture. Um, but I just, you know, I became, you know, friends with a lot of really great people. And
I would just say, as a consequence, one of those institutions apologize to me.
Because they actually realize they have made a mistake and not letting me in. Big mistake.
And that's how I found out about the whole thing I didn't know. I mean, I had no way of knowing it's like, okay, I didn't get in, you didn't think I was worth it.
But you know, it didn't stop me. I'm just curious. I want to know what people are working on. And so I was like, oh, okay, this was some serious racist stuff that just went on here. And so, I don't know. And I feel like my revenge was, when I finished my dissertation, it was awarded one of the top prizes in the field of American Studies. And then I turned it into a book that was also, you know, up for one of the top prizes in the field for my first book, and I was just like, bitches.
Yeah. So it just said to me, I am very, you know, I was a good, I did have the capacity to kind of work on the stuff I wanted to work on. And so now I have a book, a
collection of essays, I co edited with two other people, Irene Chang and Charles Davis called race in modern architecture, which for me, is the dissertation I never wrote. You know, it's a collection of essays that specifically explore the racial dimensions within the discourse of modern architecture, from the Enlightenment onward, and it's there. It's just whiteness does not allow you to see the terms you have to you have to kind of think through critically. Where ideas of culture origin.
organics, as you know, are coming from.
Okay, well, number one, I need this book. So when did the book come out?
It was supposed to come out this week. But I think because because of Coronavirus that it hasn't been able to get get to wherever it was being I think it might have been printed in Asia or something. And so it hasn't gotten here yet. Okay. Okay, cool. So it's so it's done. But like, what in this process? Did you learn? Like, what did you discover? How far back? Did these these codes and ways of being? Like, how far back do they go? Yeah, I know, it's been a six year project for us.
Um, and, you know, we did it very methodically, very slowly. Because it's the first of its kind, I mean, it's so unique, there was no one to really peer review it because there's nobody, we are the people who have the expertise in this area at this point. Um, but again, to me, what it said was how deeply embedded architecture and design is in a European understanding of a building specifically with architecture, but also design as a kind of invention, as well. And to me, it just showed how much it allies with,
with the project, the colonial project.
So much so like, I've been reading a lot lately, like all of those buildings that I learned in my history and UVA, you know, so and so's, you know, need in blah, blah, blah. Well, all that money
He was coming from Jamaica, from their sugar plantations in Jamaica. Right? So so much of this was so tied to, you know, you read about Robin Oh, Rob, Robert Owens, and you know, as a radical social reformer, you know, who had mills and new lanner, new Lanark, Scotland? Well, where was that cotton coming from? They weren't growing it in England. They were getting it from the West Indies, right? So the, you know, the ways and the entanglements of this kind of transatlantic slave, but also, you know, India, you know, these legacies of colonial domination are front and center in in these these histories. But
how would you know, if you didn't, you know, you didn't know, to look for the terms there?
Yeah, yeah. It's, it's interesting, this, this concept of, you know, now becoming the expert in a field, like what we haven't done, what we have done has not been done before. How do you find the courage to, to exist in that space, like, when you encounter a subject that literally has not really existed in the world? Um, how do you how do you? How do you draw the courage to stand in that space, and to move forward and to press forward? But I think that's the creative struggle, right? He creat to create something is to create something that's not been there before. That is the essence of creativity. But the problem with with a lot of people,
is, it's really difficult to address the unknown, right? I think that's why so many people retreat into what's familiar what they know, right. And I mean, that also on a social level, like, I just want to be around people who are like me, basically. And I think to be able to engage with people you don't know, who are not like you is a creative process is is a is a kind of ethic in a way. And it is it's scary, it's daunting. Um,
but I think you have to understand there's always something to be gained, or potentially lost in in that, you know, in taking that risk. So, I think, yeah, I think it's really important. That's why, you know, I think if we are going to move forward, we are going to have to create new ways of being social together, new ways of understanding that we are a species within a planet that sustains us and a bunch of other species. Because if we don't, we're over as a species is dead, we're done, the earth will still be here. But, you know, it won't be able to sustain us as a species, because we're going to kill the planet that sustains us.
And so we have to create new ways of being human together.
That may not be predicated on capitalism, or democracy or whatever. I don't know what that is. But I think it's an exciting prospect. And is that is that what wakes you up every morning? and keeps you going, knowing that capitalism ever looms above us?
Ah, yeah, well, I mean, it's, it's, it's useful to understand how it works and what it is and its own history, because it wasn't, you know, capitalism hasn't always been here. Um, so humans really understand how what it does and how it works, you know, is useful, actually, um, but again, there was a world world before capitalism. And even when capitalism information there were worlds outside that,
you know, there were people who were on this land before Europeans came, you know, had completely other worldviews and ways of being in the world and knowledge systems that had nothing to do with Europe. So Europe is not the end all be all, even though it tells itself it is. Yeah, you know, and I want to circle back actually, to this idea, this concept of the things that that make us and shape us, you know, I mean, earlier, you mentioned talking about applying for your PhD,
but like, looking back, what do you think was your biggest failure? And and how did you? How did you work through that? How did you recover from that?
that's a good question.
Well, I would say, I wish I had been more attuned to,
you know, just growing up, I always knew as a black woman work was going to be difficult, like it was going to be really hard. You know, just you just know, you know, you're going to be the first to do whatever, you know, especially if you go into architecture, you know, you just, they're never you know, I never had a black professor. Never had a black
On a review, I mean that black colleagues, you know, classmates, but again, like you don't have these kind of mentors or role models, the only one, the one person that I met who's amazing was max bond. And Max was like, for me, like, I want to be like him when I grow up.
And so meeting Max, when I was an undergrad was great was, it was amazing, that probably was a, you know, a big change agent in some respects.
But I didn't understand degrees to which I'm anti black racism was going to shape my entire life. And the way Richard has, and that, you know, for my generation of black women,
who were, you know, who is straight, and, you know, in, in seeking a partner in life, you just had no idea that drugs, right, the ways in which drugs, infiltrated communities, then
criminalization and mass incarceration, you know, as a New York Times said, just wipe out 3 million black men like God, poof, you know, off the census rolls, which meant from my generation, you know, it just wiped out, you know,
whatever it is, whether you're looking to partner with somebody, or whatever that meant, and I just didn't understand at the time how much that was going to impact because then, you know, you just, it's black women are one of the groups in the country that have no wealth, you just, there's, it's impossible, you're never gonna inherit it, you can't make it, because you're always paid 50 cents on the dollar, right. Um, even though you're sitting in the same room, often with white men, you know, who get $1.10 for the data for white women who will always benefit from being, you know, being partnered with someone who, both nationally and financially. And so certainly for my generation, I think of black women, you know, we got, we have role.
It's been, you know, Barack and Michelle, you know, are beautiful, you know, but I would say there's a third of that of our generation, that just, it just didn't happen for precisely for that reason, you know, that after, I think after civil rights, there was a whole other racial regime that came in, and part of it was, you know, criminalization, mass incarceration, Neo liberalism, let's just get rid of that, you know, we don't have jobs for people, we can't, you know, they're not going to get factories, they're not going to go work at four, they're not going to. So what are these black men are gonna do, they're gonna riot, they're going to steal, and they're going to, you know, and people turn toward underground economies, and that criminalized a lot of people and just white, you know, they died, they overdose, they were incarcerated, and they were real consequences, and mass incarceration is its own economy, in and of it. And, you know, I just didn't think
I didn't understand the degree to which that's just deeply embedded in the modern project, because of, of the ways in which race produce inequality, and how profound it is within the American project, this inequality, so much. So that's why black folks are dying from COVID-19.
We're just never given and allowed to accumulate things that allow us to thrive in ways that are equivalent to white Americans, which isn't to say, there are four white Americans who also have challenges of education and health and all of that, but their whiteness and their claims to whiteness will always give them
opportunity. Hmm. And so do you maybe feel that your biggest failure was failing to become a lesbian?
Am only I'm sweating that way. My brother, it would be different.
I mean, you know, if that were Yeah, and you never, you know, I always said never say never. But I think
by now, um, yeah, no, but but but my point is, and I, you know, I'm doing fine. But, but but there are actual consequences for the kinds of support that you have emotionally, economically, in order to be in these positions that I would just say,
more, those who are more privileged and who have those opportunities don't even have to bat an eyelash about because it's just there
in ways and I, you know, who would have seen this coming like who, you know, after civil rights is like, you know, if you ever watch that movie, watch stacks. It's by
what I say Steven Wolper was, well, no TV.
Producer, um, but he did a movie, maybe it's in 1970. And it's an amazing album, you could probably hear it on Spotify. But it had like Rufus Thomas, Isaac Hayes. I think Richard Pryor shows up. It's a concert filmed in the Coliseum in Los Angeles. And it is a parade of black beauty. It is just everybody is optimistic people are dressed in their finest. You know, and there's no surveillance state, there's no, you know, I mean, you just get the sense of the power and promise of a black is beautiful at that moment.
just wiped it out. Black Power, the Panthers, I mean, it just destroyed black leaders flooded drugs into black neighborhoods, you know, and just wiped us out.
Yeah, yeah, no, you're right. You're right. And I mean, I'm just thinking about, I'm just thinking about the role of the state.
And the ways in which has just been, it's just been an active participant in the perpetuation of, you know, you know, oppression and how it's been problematic on on multiple levels for such a long time. But like, how, how do you think that we, as a people, as citizens can engage with this the state our elected officials, elections in general, to, to push forward to, to shift things to change things?
And I mean, I hate to bring up, you know, prove it, I go again, but you know, I just think about the ways in which the state underfunded it, and that, like, it didn't have to fail. But the state continues to fail its citizens. So, you know, how do you, how do you think about
our role in and interacting with
Yeah, yeah, no, I think that's a really good example, what the state was, I think, at the time in which it was building housing is very different than the state is now. I think, at least, for better or for worse. There was some kind of sense of accountability to citizens that the state had both the federal government, the state level, local level municipal government, which I think with the rise of neoliberalism,
we can just state in order for capitalism to be able to move more freely. And what that brought, and that's why it killed public housing is that now you get public private partnerships, so development, built housing, but the problem is that the cost of the labor the land, the construction, means that it's very difficult to build now what's called affordable housing, right? So even then, and so there just isn't enough housing, there's just not enough housing stock, which is, again, why black and brown people are dying from COVID-19 is because there's just they're overcrowded again, and it's not accessible. And so I think the state has been withered away, you know, like, fetch her, Reagan. What was grover norquist said drown just junk government and a bathtub. So the right has really proffered this idea, you know, that all government does is it supports welfare queens, right, because that was the rights rhetoric rhetoric around that. And so I think that state power has really diminished. But the consequences Now, again, with COVID-19, is you see that there's no public infrastructure, we do not have public in those countries like Germany to have very robust public infrastructures, where the state in Germany came in to private companies and said, we're going to pay 80% of your people in your firm salary, so that they're not going to be unemployed, they will keep their job, right.
People hear they just throw it, you're, you're out on your own, and you got to apply and maybe the government's gonna give you some but you're not going to get it right away, you've got to go through hardship. So the sense of accountability toward its citizens have been you know, yet again, diminished. I think part of that is because white America, a good chunk of it has never felt like black and brown people deserve anything from from from the state, even though the state's the thing that organizes life as a democracy.
So, I don't know, I don't know at this point, given how crippled and we can see this at the federal level, right between the senate doing nothing except putting loony judges and so it can, you know, basically ban abortion and put black people back on the plantation.
Like whether or not government can be accused
accountable to the people. It's accountable to money. I mean, the republicans are only doing it because it's about these are my conspiracy theories, but, but I do think it's about money, it's about them, being able to continually make money not have to pay taxes, and not being accountable to the social hole, because they think that whole shouldn't include people like us. So maybe we'll just like a couple of other questions. And then I will give you back your day. Thank you so much. But I, I want to talk a little bit about like affordable housing, like, Is it even possible in this environment? And if it is, how does one go about how can we go about
and making it effective, not only for the developers or the people who are building, but also the people who live there? It's hard because of the ways in which land is valued and construction is financed and paid for, um, you know, and with development, it's profit, it's about profit. It's not about housing, it's about making money out of the building. And I think that's part of why it's very difficult to do, I think there may be other models for financing
the construction of housing.
But with current income inequality, I think it's very difficult to do that. So I think there would have to be
just somehow a completely different model. Other countries seem to be able to do it. I mean, they call it social housing.
But there are still monies available, you know, and projects that are being constructed in a way of supporting social housing. That's, that's not quite it's called social housing, because it's not class based. I mean, middle class people live in social housing. I mean, I think part of the reason that New York's NYCHA is a mess. And I think, you know, they're billions of dollars, I mean, to basically renovate it's like $22 billion to basically get, you know, NYCHA housing up to some like code or condition. But it's interesting that no New York City Housing has been torn down ever. And I think part of that was because it's not as isolated, it's not as ghettoized.
And then a lot of times when they also build a low income housing, they also built middle class housing, right across the street or nearby, you know, so, you know, it, it sits within neighborhoods that
that had the potential to have, like diverse kind of economic social conditions. And I think that's still important in Chicago.
Middle Class whites didn't want it.
And so that they were forced to actually build very dense units like the Robert Taylor homes like Cabrini green,
because white schools, not my backyard, they got sued for it.
In in the 70s, who got sued, Chicago Housing Authority got sued. And it was a very famous lawsuit law case, they won the plate plaintiffs won. Because the Chicago Housing Authority, the woman who ran it wanted to spread it all out, spread housing in all these low scale neighborhoods all over the NY people. As with redlining, we don't want black people devaluing our property values. We don't want negros It was so
again, distancing proximity to black bodies, was presumed to devalue your property. And that's what redlining maps basically put into place in a very systematic way. And so white people fought tooth and nail to keep housing, housing units out of their neighborhood. So that's why they became very tall and very dense in Chicago. And there was a very famous law case in the 70s that sued, and that's what led to
title six, I think, which was
the low scale, low density housing all over the place. Basically, it led to vouchers, housing vouchers, Section A, do you do you really, really believe that this American project can sustain itself that it will survive?
Do you really believe that? And if so, how? And if not, why?
I mean, I do feel
I feel like the aspirations of the Democratic Republic and an idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
We could, we could do that. Um,
but I think that
The already existing society. And those people who wrote those words, and the society that followed
was a complete disavow of that belief. You know, he was a slave owner, he owned human beings, he did not believe that people were created equal. And, and, you know, operated within a system that sustain his of his family's life, but he owned his own relatives, he owns his his wife's brothers and sisters.
And, and the ability to have that level of denial.
And believe in the mythology to the degree to which you don't see the hypocrisy, and that
is profound. And I don't think that we've ever
address that fundamental
issue of slavery and indigenous dispossession in relationship to those founding principles. And as such, those inequalities are still here.
And I think it's produced a kind of psychotic
patriotism that's completely warped. And not really recognizing the degree to which we do not live those values. Were not exceptional. Yeah, yeah. But on a more optimistic note, I mean, what do you imagine for the future? You know, like, what do you envision for a future that actually has, you know, empowered black people?
What are you fighting? For? What do you what are you dreaming about?
I think, Well, I think there are two things,
I think, is to recognize the
foundational inequalities that are structuring our so called equal system, and to make sure that people understand that.
And then to sort of imagine a world where black people really are equal.
You know, which means Yeah, we get the clean water, and we get the high land, and we get our second home, and we, we get the best education.
And, you know, we get to have family and our families survive and be healthy, and be happy.
And, you know, and it's not just for one set of people, but for everyone. You know, and that's what I don't understand, like, we have the will, we could do this, we could be a very equitable society, there's just the wills not there.
We have the resources. So yeah, so I don't know. I mean, I feel like it's, you know, if we're going to survive, it's worth striving for. But I don't think we're gonna get there unless people really understand how profoundly it's not, I don't think it's a process project of inclusion. I think we have to really radically change the system, if we have to destroy it and rebuild it. So be it. But I don't think including us in the current system, just yeah, it's it just, it wipes us out, it doesn't, it's not sustaining for us.
Well, maybe I just want to take a moment to acknowledge you for all of the like, just incredible work that you do for the visible and invisible labor
that you that you work through for your your your fealty to black people, black histories, black futures, and just like your sheer will, and drive to police yourself, or to put yourself in places where, you know,
you don't see yourself reflected and, and yet you stand there and proclaim yourself and proclaim the people that you represent, with a smile, and with intention, and love. And and I know, you know, we spoke earlier that, you know, there are nicks and scrapes that you've suffered because of that. I mean, there is there is a level of supreme sacrifice.
And so just you know, thank you. And, yeah, even throughout the multiple multitude of disciplines that you work, and you are always there to express and proclaim yourself so thank you. Yeah, thank you.
Great competition. Oh, and then before we go, like where can people connect with you? Like Where can we find your book? I'm Loki asking for myself.
How can people reach out to you can connect with you?
The book is coming out with University of Pittsburgh press sometime soon. Um, and you can find me on the Columbia website either under African American studies or African American and African diasporic studies, or architecture
studio and AMD and Twitter is Mabel Wilson
at Negro building,
and my website's Studio and.org.
Well, thank you again so much, Mabel, for spending some time with us here on the Institute of block imagination.
Have a wonderful day. I'll be sure to link everything up,
down in the show notes for everyone. Thank you.
I thank you all so much for tuning in today. I hope this conversation with Mabel was both informative and enlightening. Every time I speak with people I get like 70 new ideas and five new books that I need to read. And for me she represents exactly what this podcast is about innovation and critical thought via a black design aesthetic. If you enjoy this conversation, please share with your friends. Shout us out over on Instagram at Black imagination podcast. And let us know what part of the conversation you enjoyed the most. Be sure to subscribe wherever you received your podcast rate and review us on iTunes. And if you can drop us a few coins at the link in the show notes.
We have an incredible lineup ahead and I can't wait for you guys all to hear it. I love you all so much and I can't wait to see what magic you bring to the world. Black imagination is liberation. Stay curious. Keep dreaming.