Essay by Sekou Cooke
In thirteen years of teaching architecture studios, fall 2019 was my Blackest semester. Not in terms of student demographics, of course (the odds of me having even one Black student in my class is less than one in forty), but in terms of the studio’s subject matter. Blackness as a subject—in all its most culturally, socially, and politically provocative senses—took a front seat instead of its usual tangential role as a byproduct of my own Blackness. In response to a course-wide coordinator-prompted theme of “biopolitics,” I chose to focus my third-year undergraduate studio section on mass incarceration, its effects on Black families in America, and the connection between those themes and the history of the marginalization of Syracuse, New York’s Black citizens. Little did I know that later that semester these same themes would be amplified across the entire Syracuse University campus after a rash of racist graffiti on dorm walls triggered prolonged student protests and ignited the “NotAgainSU” hashtag. This was also almost a year before Jacob Blake,1 Breonna Taylor,2 and George Floyd3 captured the public’s attention as they fell victim to police violence in the form of public executions.4
At the time, I lacked these specific motivations we now reflect on as a discipline. Regardless, I was emboldened by the research I was doing into hip-hop culture and its intersection with built environments, public space, and Blackness for the manuscript Hip-Hop Architecture. I was also mentally preparing for participation as one of ten architects and designers in the Museum of Modern Art’s (MoMA) exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, which would also require research into Syracuse public housing and the use of public space within Black communities. The original goal of using Blackness as a design tool within the studio course was to refine a thesis for my MoMA submission. The entire experience, however, served to reinforce my presuppositions that being Black in any predominantly White institution is inherently political and that using Blackness as the subject of architectural pedagogy is overtly provocative.
The course, “Respatializing Blackness: A Transition Beyond the Carceral State,” heavily referenced Rashad Shabazz’s Spatializing Blackness and foregrounded Blackness in its research questions and design techniques, as well as its site and program. Where Shabazz asks, “How does the American carceral state shape Black communities?,” the course asks, “Can architecture proactively respond to Black parolees’ reintroduction to their former environments?,” seeking an appropriate architectural response to Shabazz’s thesis. It then uses Southside Syracuse (home of the nation’s most concentrated poverty rates for Black and Latinx Americans) as its site and asks students to imagine a transitional living facility for recently incarcerated Black men.5
In addition to Shabazz’s text, readings from Ta-Nahesi Coates, Adrienne Brown, bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Ana María Léon, and Charles Davis II foregrounded class discussions and early design studies.6 This list was an intentional departure from what typically constitutes canonical or foundational texts for students at this level. As divergent as it may have seemed to teach a studio on urban design and public space without referencing Kevin Lynch (The Image of the City) or Henri Lefebvre (The Production of Space), curating texts around ideas of social justice and racialized space was well in keeping with the coordinated studio-wide theme of biopolitics. The course bibliography was also in keeping with current calls to move beyond texts that view architecture and design solely through a Eurocentric lens. Coates’ essays “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration” and “The Case for Reparations” were particularly illustrative of the conditions and contexts within which students were asked to situate their work.
American politicians are now eager to disown a failed criminal-justice system that’s left the US with the largest incarcerated population in the world. But they’ve failed to reckon with history. Fifty years after Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s report “The Negro Family” tragically helped create this system, it’s time to reclaim his original intent.7
In addition to divergent content, context, and texts, I was particularly intent on challenging typical research and design methodologies in the studio. Collage was a key tool in translating nontraditional starting points into a digestible visual language. This process produced some of the more visceral imagery of the semester and grounded students in the personal and poetic aspects of the design process. Imagery ranging from Black families being torn apart and reconnected with an adhesive bandage, to nooses attached to trees juxtaposed against the lyrics of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit.” Syracuse and its history of marginalizing and repeatedly displacing its Black residents was also interrogated in this phase. As such, depictions of city-wide divisions caused by the introduction of Interstate 81, the erasure of the 15th Ward (a historic site of Black prosperity in the city), and the subsequent impoverished state of the current Black enclave, the Southside, show up in many of these student collages.
“How do these make you feel?” was a question I posed during our first pin-up session.
“Angry!” was one response.
“Is there an architecture of anger? What does it look like?”
I had never before experienced questions and responses of this nature in a classroom. This confirmed my original intention of challenging norms and my suspicion that we were entering uncharted waters.
As the final studio in the undergraduate core sequence, the course had a heavy responsibility not just to research and design, but to the development of complex programs and urban-scaled solutions. Once collective focus shifted from individual collages to the consideration of more specific urban interventions in the project site, students grappled with translating their radical attitudes into a design for the neighborhood as well as for the building. Organized into groups of four, they first looked at designing master plans for blocks or strips within four separate mixed-use areas of the Southside, each plan meant to identify potential locations for their individual building designs and strategies for approaching any future development. Proposals ranged from repurposing vacant buildings into sites of intervention and reconstituting empty lots into throughways for pedestrian travel to creating sites of memory and reflection within the shared backyards of adjoining lots. These block-scaled strategies paved the way for a series of provocative building designs encoded with the same DNA of their earlier collages.
Typically, this is where a presentation of research work or a studio project would be more descriptive of its findings. The merits of its products would be weighed against the validity of its research questions or the fulfillment of stated project goals. A more detailed analysis of the students’ work would be used to formulate a new argument for global impact on design pedagogy. What was to happen next redirected the emphases of the studio, the overall focus of the semester, and the general climate of the university. Instead of complete derailment, these campus-wide events reinforced the studio’s approach, attitude, and assertions all intuitively chosen as a harbinger of imminently changing realities.
By week thirteen of a fifteen-week semester, after several days of on-campus protests, multiple school-wide listening sessions between the students and the dean, and one quite dramatic account of a white supremacist manifesto being Airdropped to phones at a university library, there were several internal debates about how to complete the semester’s work in an environment where some students and campus community members feared for their lives. First-year reviews were cancelled and converted into an exhibition of student work. Some faculty reduced final requirements or gave extensions to self-identified “affected” students.8 Others decided to experiment with online teaching tools like Zoom, Blackboard Connect, and Conceptboard (many of which we are all now too familiar with) to reach the students showing up to class, those hunkered down in their dorm rooms, and others who decided to leave campus altogether.
My approach was a bit different. Instead of dividing my class into students who wanted to keep on working, students who were drawn to go protest, and students who felt safest at home, I took the opportunity to convert the last two class sessions into open discussions about racism in America, our privileged position in academic institutions, and how these ideas had already been explored in our studio’s research to that point. In a small side room on the fourth floor of Slocum Hall, my students and I began those conversations. (How many of history’s most impactful conversations were had in small rooms like this one?) Together, we made a few decisions.
First, no new work would be produced for the rest of the semester. This was likely the most procedural of our decisions. It allowed us to avoid inequities that might arise between those able to separate their work from the events that surround them and those fully distracted by concerns over their personal safety. It also allowed for a recognition of the work already done as the most important part of the semester. All else was mere window dressing to impress critics and bolster self-worth.
Next, no one would worry about grades since everyone would receive maximum points for their work thus far. This went hand-in-hand with the first decision. If you are no longer worried about your grade, then you can forgo any last-ditch effort to produce a set of glitzy presentation drawings. Another entrenched inequity was challenged here, one that enables those with additional financial resources to outspend their classmates on 3D prints and wall-to-wall glossy plots. No grades meant that the coherence of the argument was privileged over the beauty of its presentation.
Next, we would still hold a final review with guests, but we would fundamentally transform its format. Instead of a standard review, we had what is called a “dirty pin-up” (something I had only seen a few times before and never in a final review setting) where everything being worked on, everything being referenced, and everything still under development is posted on the wall without being concerned with how it looks or whether the thoughts are complete. This approach revealed itself to be a perfect methodological call back to the collages done earlier in the semester.
Finally, our most important decision was to stage the review as an interactive public event in the middle of the first-floor atrium—the veritable agora of Slocum Hall. Anyone entering or circulating through the building would be confronted by work atypical of third-year undergraduates and indeed more provocative than most work produced in the school. Additionally, instead of having anyone stand in front of their work to defend it against an intellectual onslaught from our learned panel of invited experts, everyone sat around the work and had an open discussion about all that had transpired and our role as architects within this new ecosystem.
Each adjustment to its traditional format elevated our review from the level of public presentation to public protest. Our corner of the campus, often regarded as immune from the general concerns of the rest of the university, now stood (or sat) in solidarity with those occupying the Barnes Center, the epicenter of the #NotAgainSU movement. The School of Architecture was, for a brief moment, no longer isolated or exceptional.
Within the context of a university confronting its relationship with its minority population, the studio made incisive public commentary about the reflexive relationship between the carceral state of the country, the conservative tropes of architectural education, and the corporate structure of their sponsoring institutions. The university, the discipline of architecture, and the prison industrial complex share similarly prevalent challenges in their relationships to Blackness. In one studio in 2019, at least, Blackness was no longer seen as a subject for distant study, but as a lens through which to critique existing pedagogical precepts and to create new realms of design practice. The students, their work, their attitudes, and their decision-making exposed the first layer of discomfort lying just beneath the surface of traditional architectural decorum and discourse. In the year that has followed, many more sensitive layers have been removed more rapidly and more painfully, like bandages from wounds yet to be healed. What they will reveal at the core of our discipline could dictate its ultimate relevance.
1. On August 23, 2020, in Kenosha, Wisconsin, Jacob Blake, an unarmed Black man, was shot in the back seven times by police officer Rusten Sheskey while reentering his SUV after a traffic stop with three of his sons in the backseat. He somehow survived.↵
2. On March 13, 2020, police officers Jonathan Mattingly, Brett Hankison, and Myles Cosgrove, all dressed in plain clothes, forcibly entered the home of Breonna Taylor and her boyfriend, Kenneth Walker, in Louisville, Kentucky. After Walker fired a warning shot at the would-be intruders, Mattingly, Hankison, and Cosgrove opened fire, killing Taylor.↵
3. On May 25, 2020, George Floyd was arrested after a store clerk alleged that he paid using a counterfeit twenty-dollar bill in Minneapolis, Minnesota. During the arrest, officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on Floyd’s neck pinning him down to the pavement in front of his SUV for a period of eight minutes and forty-six seconds. Floyd died shortly after in an ambulance headed to the emergency room.↵
4. The widespread protests, civil disruption, and public attention on police violence and social justice in the US began shortly after Floyd’s death in May 2020 and continued throughout the summer months of 2020. The studio brief for “Respatializing Blackness” was written in August 2019.↵
5. Paul A. Jargowsky, “The Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” The Century Foundation, August 15, 2015: 11.↵
6. The entire reading list on the course syllabus included: Aaron Gordon, “The Highway Was Supposed to Save This City. Can Tearing It Down Fix the Sins of the Past?” Jalopnik, July 30, 2019; Sahra Sulaiman, “Nipsey Hussle Understood Cities Better than You. Why Didn’t You Know Who He Was?” Streetsblog Los Angeles, August 15, 2019; Adrienne Brown, “Architectures of Habit,” e-flux architecture, May 15, 2018; Ana María Léon, “Spaces of Co-Liberation,” e-flux architecture, May 17, 2018; Ta-Nahesi Coates, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015; bell hooks, “An Aesthetic of Blackness: Strange and Oppositional” in The Object of Labor: Art, Cloth, and Cultural Production, eds. Joan Livingstone and John Ploof (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007); Charles Davis II, “Black Spaces Matter,” The Aggregate website, Volume 2, March, 2015; Rashad Shabazz, “Carceral Matters,” in Spatializing Blackness: Architectures of Confinement and Black Masculinity in Chicago (Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015); Ta-Nahesi Coates, “The Case for Reparations,” The Atlantic, June, 2014; Toni Morrison “The Site of Memory,” 1995; bell hooks, “Gangsta Culture—Sexism and Mysogyny,” 1994.↵
7. Ta-Nahesi Coates, epigraph to “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” The Atlantic, October 2015.↵
8. In the wake of the protests around racist graffiti found in dorms on campus, students were considered to be “affected” by administrators if their ethnic, religious, or national identity was among those targeted by the graffiti’s sentiments. As reported in various articles between November 11 and 25, 2019, by The Daily Orange (the student-run newspaper that first reported on the incidents), the graffiti included racial slurs directed at Blacks and Asians and at least one included a swastika. The manifesto that was allegedly Airdropped was the one written by the Christchurch mosque shooter earlier that year. As a result, the students, staff, and faculty fearing for their safety primarily included members of the university’s African American, Asian, Asian American, Jewish, and Muslim communities. “November Hate Crimes,” The Daily Orange, accessed January 1, 2021, http://dailyorange.com/tags/november-hate-crimes.↵
Sekou Cooke is an architectural practitioner and educator based in Syracuse, NY. He is currently Assistant Professor at Syracuse University’s School of Architecture. Through his professional practice, sekou cooke STUDIO, he brings thoughtful processes and rigorous experimentation to a vast array of project types. His current research centers on the emergent field of Hip-Hop Architecture, a theoretical movement reflecting the core tenets of hip-hop culture with the power to create meaningful impact on the built environment and give voice to the marginalized and underrepresented within design practice. Cooke holds a B.Arch from Cornell University and an M.Arch from Harvard University.
www.sekoucooke.com | @sekoucookestudio