goto Appendx main menu Black on Black with
Light Gray Interior :
Ila Berman
text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | notes
previous page 

The architect deals with material, the opacity of which provides a certain resistance to codification—or at least to any process that attempts to reduce its substantiality to an easily "readable," transparent condition.  As an architect (one who deals with the density of material), as a woman, as a living body, as a Jewish ethnic body, I have a built-in resistance to my own and others' credulity; I search constantly for the opacity lurking behind the obvious, while preying, by a process of rigorous decipherment, on the challenges offered by the presumably transparent text.  Jack Travis's book, African-American Architects in Current Practice, has been found to furnish such a challenge.  Its consistent appeals to justice and sincerity, and its seemingly transparent presentation of a community of architects' sobering truths, proffers us an authentic and unquestionable "reality"; its appeal to transparency acts to quickly lure us toward its so-called content, deflecting any closer inspection of the conditions of its own artifice, while skillfully concealing the density of an "other" reality that might live behind or beyond its myths.  To initiate a reading of this text, beginning with a challenge to its apparent transparency while questioning the values assumed when one speaks of its "content," already leads us into the project of demythification, and it is toward such a project that this review will be directed. 

I will proceed as an analyst of cultural artifacts, approaching the book on the one hand in the mode of an archeologist who might undertake to reconstruct the particular layers of a world that such an object would seem to implicitly represent and embody, and on the other, as a somewhat self-conscious participant in the multiple cultural identities in which this object is presently situated, to evidence how my own and others' discourses, located at specific yet indefinite intersections of these "subjectivities," can claim no pretense to neutrality or transcendence.  Whereas the archeologist endeavors to reconstruct a past, I am attempting, through its representations, to understand and expose the mode of construction of a particular cultural present.  And yet I am fully aware that I cannot decipher this work without transforming it, and that my review is not simply about the book as much as it is an attempt to intersect with it—to probe it, to engage it, and to enter it into a dialogue of forces that I hope will be affirmative and productive as well as interpretive and critical. 

Descriptive analysis tends to proceed via divisions.  My first broad cuts attempt to discern the text's lines of suture, to determine the distinct parts and implicit structure that together constitute the "book."  I identify four parts: (1) the cover: the container and those elements that bind and secure the identity of the book; (2) a collection of essays that attempt to historically and theoretically define the nature of the Appendx 1 page break 88 | 89African-American architectural experience; (3) a series of profiles on African-American architects currently in practice; (4) a factual and statistical compilation providing chronologies, geographies, associations, and other information to supplement the text.  Two sets of pages, however—a double-page collage and a foreword by Jack Travis—tend to exceed the precision of these divisions.  Extending themselves along the lines of suture, they are found to occupy a site within the book that blurs the inside surface of the container with the outside surface of its interior content.  Whereas the collage differentiates itself both from cover and text, the foreword attempts to assimilate itself with the first collection of essays.  Although I read these two sets of pages as a mode of stitching, the mediating edges themselves, in this discussion I will deal with them as part of the container, for together they express the boundaries and the identifiable territory of the book that I will venture to critically disclose. 

The container—as cover, title, collage, and foreword—provisionally frames the work.  The book is perfectly square.  The cover is black on black: satin-gloss black lettering impressed in a black matte, woven material background, the former subtly differentiating itself by its texture, finish, and datum—primarily a difference of intensity.  Reminiscent of the monochrome canvases of modernity, which originally attempted to eliminate all figure-ground and chromatic distinctions while abolishing the particular denotative functions of color in order that meaning be subverted and materiality revealed, this cover reintroduces these issues in the form of a complex cultural symbol.  Although the cover alludes to a foregrounding of intense opacity, placing its materiality in direct confrontation with the easily appropriable transparent text that it both grounds and obliterates, it also reduces this opacity by advancing it as an embodied sign of African-Americanism.  The term opacity is employed here to evoke many of its multiple connotations: the power of the other, and in this case specifically the power of blackness; the unknown and the unknowable of immanence; the obscure, archaic, and material conditions of the real; and the density and complexity of a living world believed to precede its representation. 

Although one could posit that the cover most directly manifests African-Americanism both as embodied blackness and, possibly more important, the signification of such blackness, the allusions to the modern work are not insignificant.  The size and shape of the book, the abstraction of its square structure, the bands of character strings on the cover, and its monochromy strengthen specific allusions to a modernist art and architectural sensibility. At one level—perhaps the most obvious—this Appendx 1 page break 89 | 90relation is primarily a superficial aesthetic, supplying us with information about the world of art monographs (understood broadly to include architecture) with which this book is to be affiliated.  Yet there is a more subtle connection here between the sign of blackness as a sign of the opaque and the sign of the modern that attempted to embody (and possibly appropriate) a particular opacity, a material primitivism that finds its direct historical roots in Africa. 

African tribal art, an inspiration for Picasso's cubism, was the source of particular developments in the modern aesthetic sensibility, and the influence that such work had on an entire stream of modern art and architectural practice has been fairly well documented.1  Yet the Western art world's concealment of these intersections and their lines of influence would have one believe that all references to modern art are necessarily a promotion of Eurocentricity; the mastery of "primitive material" and the convenient erasure of its African contextuality attests to the structure of a hypocritical colonialism, whose appropriation of such so-called primitivism attains value only at the expense of devaluing the source of this material's autonomous status and original difference.  The multiple sign that we have in front of us thus seems to have come full circle.  First, the cover as sign evokes an immediate doubling of referents, conflating the more direct reference to black as the sign of African-Americanism with a symbolic reference to blackness as a deeper and more opaque condition.  This symbolic reference produces a fullness that both completes and confronts the transparent thinness of the sign's more direct, yet evidently superficial, informational condition.  Second, the cover establishes a particular affiliation with an art world that is both present and past, generating another doubling that again exhibits a conflict between its surface reading and one of greater potential depth.  It is this depth—providing a third reference embedded within the second sign—that tends to complete this circle.  It supplies us with a signifying loop linking the first two sets of references, while revealing a moment of the first symbolic historically hidden in, and repressed by, the second. 

The doubling of the first and most dominant condition of the sign with its direct reference to African-Americanism already bespeaks a condition of opaque blackness and the paradox of its duplication when represented as such—a duplication that is both a filling of the representation (its embodiment) and its reverse operation (the emptying of its material content via the intellectual consumption of the sign).  Thus the intense materiality of blackness and the duplication that constructs its representation (blackness as a self-referential sign) confront each other, just as the multipliciAppendx 1 page break 90 | 91ty of the sign that renders it opaque confronts its more obvious informational singularity.  The struggle implicit in this confrontation of the opaque and the transparent is symbolic of larger issues of cultural representation that this book, whether deliberately or not, engages; its own container acts to provide both a thematic frame and insertion point for the thread of this analysis. 

My intention in opening up the implicit differences between the opaque and the transparent is to show how their confrontation, although exhibited in the density of the text's cover, is immediately hidden once one enters the interior of the book.  The belief in the neat resolution of their difference, mirrored both by the apparent unity of representations of African-American architects and the parallel stories of their experience, can somehow be extracted only at a price.  For this specific community, the price becomes the repression of the "other" term (and thus the repression of all opacity), the maintenance of their binary opposition, and the neutralization of all positive heterogeneous difference.  In "The New Cultural Politics of Difference," Cornel West develops a particularly clear discussion that highlights the problems with this approach, specifically as it relates to the present and future of a continually emerging black consciousness.2    I will borrow from his work in my analysis to clarify the problematic nature of this kind of resolution, which "uncritically accepts non-Black conventions and standards, elides differences (historical, cultural) between Whites and Blacks," while homogenizing black culture and obliterating internal differences (class, gender, region, sexual orientation, etc.).  I will further argue that although this type of unity is only achieved by the exclusion, repression, or containment of difference, the parallelism that it invokes belongs to a mode of transparency that finds its sources in the whiteness of modern rationalism, that this transparency is a necessary constituent in the process of marginalization, and that opacity (with its affiliations with blackness, with the feminine, with plurality, with art) by its own positive density resists this type of false resolution and apparent neutralization. 

A closer look at the containing elements of Travis's book, in light of what they appear to contain, already seems to indicate the problematic to which Cornel West refers.  At first the allusions to the modern, to art, and to the monograph that attempt to affiliate this work with, and embed it within, a specific cultural set (and possibly even to reclaim certain of its concealed sources) seem to be countered by the efforts the book's container employs to differentiate itself from this set, to found an exclusive identity for African-American architects.  The black square of the book, which becomes the sign and delimited territory of these black architects, distinguishes itself Appendx 1 page break 91 | 92from the others, reversing the figure-ground relationship while cutting itself out as a particularly determinate figure.  Although the ground of the architectural shelf upon which this book might sit (especially at this moment in our rising minoritarian consciousness) is an indeterminate multiplicity of color, within the book itself, the ground against which it claims to pit itself both figuratively and historically is by necessity white; it is, by the nature of its own devices, a black architectural book situated within a white architectural world. next page

text | 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | notes
appendx inc.©1997