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Light Gray Interior :
Ila Berman
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Thus, although we are not being asked to question the relationship between the promotion of black architects as a community and the architecture shown as a possible manifestation of this community's values, neither are we to evaluate its architectural merit against other standards, inasmuch as we are simply being asked to acknowledge that institutionalized value already presented to us.  The list of achievements, and the fact that the work has been both built and published in light of the consuming power that the struggle against racism has necessitated from each individual, is not only its sole legitimation, but also neatly and doubly deflects any potential architectural questions or criticism.  In this doubling we are faced with a disturbing contradiction.  Architecture is accused (and rightly so) of its exclusivity, and so it is presented with a model that demands the inclusion of a wider variety of voices.  Yet this model of inclusion tends to leave the fundamental assumptions of the canon unchallenged, supporting its norms, its structures of privilege, and its pretense of transparency, while (ab)using the argument of inclusion to sidestep the standards of certain evaluative norms for a select few who might simply desire the benefits and supposed value of exclusive self-promotion.  If we leave these norms unchallenged, then we must first ask whether this work does in fact consistently achieve the level of architectural quality that one would expect from an exclusive architectural monograph published under Princeton's legitimizing imprimatur.  I suspect the answer is no, given the range in the quality of work displayed and the obvious mediocrity of some of it.  If this is the case, then we must further question the nature of double standards being employed, the implicit racist stereotypes that they support, and the concealed tokenism that might be subtly advanced by such a gesture.15 

Given the quantity and diversity of excellent work being developed within architecture and related cultural, artistic, and theoretical practices by black women and Appendx 1 page break 110  | 111men (some of whom promote themselves within the context of minority praxis and some of whom don't), we must question why architectural work that doesn't consistently appeal to the same standards of creativity, integrity, and ability that certain normative institutions such as Princeton claim to promote is found to adequately represent the black architectural community.  That such representations are considered acceptable not only by traditionally WASP institutions that have been instrumental in the construction of racist stereotypes about black talent, but also by members of the black community who have interiorized these myths, reveals the problems that occur when some members of a community are not fully cognizant of the damage that such representations can cause to the community as a whole.  We must be aware that for minority groups the seduction of potential success within conventional frameworks must be resisted if such desires for acceptance are not to become the material employed by those institutions to advance racial/ethnic stereotypes. 

We must also question, from the opposite side of this issue, why efforts by certain individual contributors to resist and interrogate the assumptions of these nonblack institutions is somehow quickly subverted by the book's overall effect.  Although it is always difficult to locate intention and responsibility in collaborative works (especially given the way that our present publishing environment conveniently diffuses responsibility and often defers it to "normative practice"), whether the "effect" of Travis's book is the responsibility of its editor, its contributors, or its publisher is secondary to the fact of their mutual complicity (obviously for different reasons) in endeavoring to align it with dominant paradigms of "acceptable" architectural practice. 

Within this book, such alignment is secured by the employment of a very specific set of filters.  In the first place, the opacity of blackness as a metaphor for the opacity and complexity of African-American architects' and architectural theorists' creative work is subject to a severe filter of exclusion.  The book presents only work that conforms to a particular ideologically charged mold.  The "black professional architect", with professionalism the most transparent and most thinly "reduced" sign of architecture, is presented as its fullest representation.  Architecture, infested by economic and political instrumentalism, is presented as its truest form, and the opacity of architectural work is again transformed into an easily consumable, transparent condition.  Whether Travis claims to be telling an incomplete and uncritical story is beside the point, for the black book of architecture is making a statement that far exceeds his quiet disclaimers.  As the only explicit published representation of African-American architects, it becomes the representation.  It speaks for a communAppendx 1 page break 111 | 112ity whether they want it to or not (a community whose depth, opacity, and blackness have already been denied), because to be published, it required the belief that it was for, about, and representative of that community.  Although the broadness of the title alludes to a far less selective reality than its editor might admit, the opaque blackness of the cover also carries with it a latent suggestiveness about both the essentiality and the density of what is being presented.  The conditions of the cover, originally interpreted as a project of "opaque" resistance, now seem to be in the service of a different cause. 

In the second place, the specific repetitive mechanisms employed within the book provide a further filtering system to the lives and work of those exhibited.  They reduce each to a particularly normative and ideologically charged code—perpetuating the myth of middle-class professional success—while constructing the image that each is an individual member of a homogeneous architectural community.  Yet the seductive authority and illusionary validity of the representations produced are themselves an effect of this repetitive apparatus.  By sheer repetition the code of a community is constructed, where the values advanced by both text and graphic, individual statements and formal strategies, prove to be strikingly similar and mutually contrived.  The outcome of all of this, and one of the most disappointing consequences of the book, is that architects and other related practitioners within the African-American community have suddenly become subject to a double misrepresentation, muting their significant challenges to, and potential critiques of, this normative apparatus. 

If "blackness" has come to signify racist exploitation and the struggle by African-Americans against such oppression, it has equally come to signify the richness and diversity of black culture, which exceeds all appeals to its simple and transparent representation.  Within architecture blackness thus becomes emblematic of a counterstrategy both to the demands proffered by a whitewashing assimilation and to those narrow invocations for separatism or exclusive privileging.  Blackness is neither the place of sameness nor that of opposition, but instead advances itself as the critical and creative place of inevitable and complex intermixing.  Blackness for architecture can be understood as the place where its true density and richness reside: it is in its heterogeneity, its continuity, and its specificity.  This counter-praxis should offer the multiplicity of "black" architectures and black architectural practitioners that already exist within traditional practices, experimental practices, theoretical practices, and related or intersecting practices, without reducing them to a Appendx 1 page break 112  | 113preconceived and oppressive transparent code, or equating such plurality with a condition of empty stylistic eclecticism.  At the very least, such a project should attempt to indicate the multiple and complex subjectivities inscribed within each of us, while also exhibiting the true range of dialogues that exist between different individuals within the fabricated territories of a particular community. Although this might not have been Travis's or Princeton's objective in publishing this book, it was certainly the hope of others within the community that were unintentionally (or even intentionally) represented, and the illusion that the cover of this text seemed to inspire.  And yet, this is where the old cliché seems to ring true: "You can't judge a book by its cover." 

the end Ila Berman


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