Professor of Architecture & AAADS Mabel O. Wilson – DT011
Dean’s Table Podcast Episode
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About the Episode
Mabel O. Wilson
Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation and Professor of African American and African Diaspora Studies
Professor of Architecture & AAADS Mabel O. Wilson – DT011
Fred: Mabel O. Wilson is the Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and a Professor in African American and African Diaspora Studies. Mabel also serves as the Associate Director of the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia. Her work specializes in space, politics and culture in Black America, as well as race and modern architecture and visual culture in contemporary art, media and film. Mabel is the author of Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums, a book that focuses on how Black public history evolved from the Civil War through the 1960s civil rights movement. The book focuses on Black America’s participation in world affairs, Emancipation Exhibitions, and early grassroots museums. That book gives voice to historic figures such as Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Dubois, and Ida B. Wells — individuals who are not usually thought of as curators. Mabel is also author of Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The book portrays the history of this museum with a particular focus on the architectural details designed to help the museum reflect the culture and history it highlights. Mabel is also the author of two forthcoming books, one titled Reconstruction Architecture for America and the other titled, Race and Modern Architecture. In addition to being a scholar who writes about space, politics and culture, Mabel is also a practicing architect. She is a member of the architectural team tasked with designing the Memorial to Enslaved African American Laborers at the University of Virginia. In honor of her pathbreaking work in the field, Mabel received the American Academy of Arts and Letters Architecture Award for her work on the African diaspora. I invited Mabel to The Dean’s Table to talk about how she decided on becoming an architect, to reflect on her work that explores the history of Black exhibitions and museums, and to give us insight into scholarship and practice of race, space, and culture. Welcome to The Dean’s Table, Mabel.
Mabel O. Wilson: A pleasure to be here, Dean Harris.
Fred: Thank you so much. So, I’m going to start with a simple question: at what point in your life did you decide that you wanted to be an architect?
Mabel O. Wilson: I think that’s a really interesting question for me because I still don’t quite consider myself an architect yet. Technically, I’m not because I’m not licensed, but also I’ve had a very complicated — you could almost say love-hate relationship — with the discipline, discourse, and the profession, but I did grow up in a house of makers. My father was an engineer. He actually did the plans for the house I grew up in.
Mabel O. Wilson: My mom was a home economics teacher. She made things, she sewed, she cooked. And then I discovered later on that my father’s grandfather was a builder in North Carolina. And I have uncles who are artists; I have an uncle who’s a well-known artist named John Outterbridge. So, I feel like I came from a family of people, you know, who made things, who made do with what they had, and were wildly creative with material culture. So, that — I think that was a very important part of what led me into, at least beginning to, become an architect.
Fred: Right, and so you grew up in New Jersey?
Mabel O. Wilson: Yes, I’m from the Jersey Shore, Neptune.
Fred: Jersey Shore? Oh, nice. So, it must have been a very interesting place to, sort of, grow up, and thinking about all these things that contribute to building and creativity and that sort of thing. So, I guess it permeated your, sort of, livelihood and your imagination. But, you attended the University of Virginia as an undergraduate and UVA’s campus is known as Mr. Thomas Jefferson’s campus, right? Jefferson designed the center of the campus that is known even today as “The Lawn.” How did your experience there as a student influenced your thoughts about race, space, and culture?
Mabel O. Wilson: I feel that I was really fortunate in many ways to perhaps have ended up in a place like UVA. I probably think I’d you know, I’d never consider this, but may not be where I am had I not gone to a place like Virginia.
Fred: Why do you say that?
Mabel O. Wilson: Because I think that environment, where literally Jefferson is God, Mr. Jefferson’s University, Thomas Jefferson says this, he’s a founding father, you know, he founded the university, he built this amazing piece of architecture, we have to learn every nook and cranny. But deep down, I knew there was something missing in that narrative. He was a slaveholder, but we never heard anything about that. This was a region, you know, where slaveholding was prominent, but we never heard anything about an enslaved population at the university. So, you know, it just prompted me to be curious about. One: why don’t I know that history, why aren’t we being taught it? Two: Why didn’t I ever see anything about where I grew up or my history? You know, my grandparents, my mother’s family had a shotgun house, but we never learned about shotgun houses in vernacular. None of that stuff.
Fred: Now for our listeners — I know because I’m from Georgia, I know what a shotgun house is — for our listeners, tell them what is a shotgun house.
Mabel O. Wilson: Well, the urban legend is that it’s a house that has a series of rooms lined up where all of the doors align. So, it doesn’t really have a hallway. So, all the doors align and you could supposedly shoot a gun from the front porch all the way through the back.
Fred: Right, hence the shotgun because — right, that’s what I was told. So, it’s a legend?
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, no one knows exactly why, but it might have something to do with the way the rooms are lined up. But the migration of that form is believed to actually have come from Haiti with migrations of enslaved people after the Haitian Revolution into New Orleans. And that in Haiti, that also comes from West Africa as a form of building. So, it was a knowledge of buildings, a kind of spatial memory that Africans brought with them to the New World through the Middle Passage.
Fred: Right, and did you get your architectural degree at University of Virginia?
Mabel O. Wilson: I did, I did study architecture at UVA. So, that’s what I mean being saturated with this narrative of this great place, this beautiful architecture, its platonic forms, its representation of American, you know, values were drilled into it. But, you know, my third year in college, when you’re in architecture school, you work really late. As, if you noticed, the lights on are always at Avery up here at Columbia. So, you’re always working late, so you really get to bond with your classmates. It was amazing on that level. So, there was a little bit of all the “food groups” at the university: the frat boys, sorority girls, all that stuff. So, me and three friends, who were white, went for a drink one evening — it might even have been Halloween — my third year as an undergrad. And we went downtown to this bar, Miller’s.
Fred: Downtown Charlottesville?
Mabel O. Wilson: Downtown Charlottesville. Now it’s really busy, but back in the early 80s, it was a site of urban renewal, it was a walking mall, you know, there weren’t many businesses. So, it was late, it was probably about 12:30 when we finished. And we were heading home and we were walking to my friend Michael’s car and we were like, “What is that in the distance?” What do we see? These white sheets coming toward us. And I looked at my friend Paul. I’m like, “Paul, is that the Klan?” And we’re like, “Yeah, it’s the Klan.”
Fred: Was it really?
Mabel O. Wilson: There really were two to three people in Klan costumes, hood, everything.
Fred: Wow, and it wasn’t Halloween?
Mabel O. Wilson: I don’t think that would have been an appropriate —
Fred: Even so, I’m just trying to imagine, you know, just this is a random thing or is it something that happened —
Mabel O. Wilson: Well, it was pretty deserted. You know, that part of the city, it wasn’t developed then, it hadn’t been really gentrified. So, we took off running and they chased us.
Fred: Did they really?
Mabel O. Wilson: They did. You know, so that’s what I mean. You’re having this kind of discordant experience of one: being chased by the Klan and two: this is Mr. Jefferson’s university. But you could see the inequalities in that landscape, right? That clearly just on the edges of the university is a poor Black working class neighborhood, again, of shotgun houses. And you can kind of sense that relationship that might have been there under slavery or, you know, Reconstruction and then Jim Crow.
Fred: That’s funny because around the same time when I was an undergraduate of another Southern institution, the University of Georgia, which has this sort of — people would describe it as “beautiful Antebellum,” I think it’s Greek Revival architecture. And their fraternities and sororities would have something called “Old South Day,” where they would dress up in the hoop skirts and, you know, the you know, the old South days and their relationship to the community, at least within that ritual, was actually — if you can believe this — hiring some, you know, Black kids to be slaves on their floats.
Mabel O. Wilson: Wow.
Fred: Right. So, we were going to say — we’re going to talk more about, sort of, race in space and architecture.
Mabel O. Wilson: Well, that would explain Ralph Northam, you know, the Virginia governor that got busted either being in Blackface or in a Klan — you know, the kind of performance of, you know, these kinds of Southern tropes.
Fred: Right, so you went on to receive your master’s in Architecture at Columbia. What was that experience like, by the way?
Mabel O. Wilson: That came after working professionally for three years.
Fred: Oh, you did that?
Mabel O. Wilson: I did, yeah, I worked in the city for — I worked for Robert Stern, who would eventually — who was on faculty actually at Columbia, but then became the Dean of Yale.
Mabel O. Wilson: And that was, I think, a really remarkable experience. I strategically began to, sort of, split the kinds of classes I was taking between studio art classes. So, I took printmaking with Bob Blackburn, who’s a very well-known artist. Yeah, Bob was great; I took —
Fred: Oh, he was at Columbia?
Mabel O. Wilson: He was at Columbia. He ran the —
Fred: He was a printer, right?
Mabel O. Wilson: He was a printer, yeah, and then I took, you know, I was taking postmodern theory classes with Andreas Huyssen. So, I was interested in trying to develop a kind of theoretical framework for understanding — beginning to understand — race, Blackness, Black history in the built environment, but also still invested in a kind of materiality and making; trying to discover modes of making that could be understood again as coming from Black cultural traditions, things that I was not learning directly through my education. And so, my last semester at Columbia, I was asked by my studio critic, Stan Allen, who became a Dean at Princeton in Architecture, to use collage methodologies to work on the single family house. And it was fascinating because then I started looking at the work of, like my uncle, John Outterbridge, Betye Saar, David Hammons.
Fred: Yeah, these are contemporary African American artists.
Mabel O. Wilson: Yes, and these were really important influences, but there was one thing that was really mind blowing and it came from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.
Fred: And what’s that?
Mabel O. Wilson: It’s the beginning passages where she uses the Dick and Jane primer. Where she has three paragraphs and the first paragraph says what you expect: “See Jane run. See Scott run. See Spot run,” you know, that whole — and then, she removes the rules of grammar. So, there’s no capitalization or period. So, you could still read the words, but you don’t know the pauses. And then in the last paragraph, she squeezes out the space between the words. So, you can’t really occupy the text. And to me, it just, it gave me a clue of the power of representation and the rules that organized how words communicate. And so, I took that method, and then started to apply it to architectural representation, which are lines, dotted lines. It’s — you know, it has a syntax for how we read plans. And so, it allowed me to misread architectural drawings of things like the Levittown house, to say that Blackness is lurking within these hidden spaces of the house.
Fred: Now, tell our listeners — I know what Levittown is, but many of our listeners may not know — just a brief description.
Mabel O. Wilson: Oh, yeah, the Levittown houses were built first in Long Island, but you find them in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. And Levitt was a very shrewd builder who benefited from monies coming from the G.I. loans, particularly for white families who were able to then buy these very small single family homes. So, it kind of becomes a sort of incubator for the building up of wealth in the United States but also a kind of paradigm for the single-family American suburban home.
Fred: Right, and they were highly racially segregated.
Mabel O. Wilson: Absolutely, you had covenants that wouldn’t have allowed Jews to move into neighborhoods, Blacks couldn’t move into neighborhoods, Mexicans — I mean, it was, you know, again, it became a way to incubate whiteness and white wealth in this country.
Fred: Right. By the way, did you work with the architect J. Max Bond while you were a student at Columbia?
Mabel O. Wilson: I did an internship — or externship — with Max’s office when I was actually in undergrad.
Fred: Oh, really? So, again, for our listeners, I know who J. Max Bond is, but he’s a very famous African American architect. The late.
Mabel O. Wilson: The late. Max, yeah.
Fred: Yeah, could you tell our listeners a little bit about him and your experience in working with him?
Mabel O. Wilson: Sure, my story is I went to my dean, very boldly as an undergrad, and just said, “Look, I need to find a Black architect.” And it’s literally, I had never had a Black professor, we do critiques —
Fred: This is at University of Virginia?
Mabel O. Wilson: This is at UVA, no Black critics ever seeing my work, and so, I just needed to see myself mirrored in the field. And so, the Dean, Jaquelin Robertson, said, “Hey, my friend Max Bond,” who is a chair at Columbia, actually, and might at that time have been teaching at Columbia — I don’t remember, this is in the mid-eighties. I did an internship with his office, Bond Ryder James, and so it was really remarkable. And what I really admired about Max, who I believe was a Columbia grad, in fact — if that’s correct; or maybe he went to Harvard; I think he might have done his master’s at Harvard, but taught at Columbia. He had traveled, he had worked for Kwame Nkrumah in Ghana, built an amazing library influenced by European modernism, came back to the U.S. and established a really important practice. And so, it kind of said to me that, you know, there is a way in which you could be an academic, you could be a practitioner, you could address urbanisms, you could, sort of, weave in Pan-African sensibilities into your work. It gave me hope that there could be a place within the field for someone like me. And he was just a really brilliant person and very generous. So, I didn’t work for Max for a long time, but I kind of always stayed in touch. You know, we would run into each other or I would let him know where I was or what I was doing. And yeah, I think he was a very important figure, at least for me, as an inspiration.
Fred: Yeah, I’m familiar with his work because in Atlanta, he was the architect for the Martin Luther King Jr. King Center there, which has all these sort of African influences as a part of the structure.
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, no, he did a number of very important works. He did the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, he did the Studio Museum, addition to the Schomburg. He later merged his practice with Davis Brody, which is a very large architectural firm in Manhattan. And they were architects for the 9/11 Museum. And one of the last projects that Max worked on was the National Museum of African American History and Culture. He passed away right before the final phase of the competition was underway, which was very sad because I was on a team of one of the finalists and Max was not there. And it was clear that he was quite ill at that time.
Fred: So, you went on to attend graduate school at New York University, NYU, enrolling into a PhD program, not in architecture, but in an American Studies. Why did you decide to pursue a doctorate degree in American Studies?
Mabel O. Wilson: I would say that the program found me and that it was really a refuge. In between — when I finished my degree at Columbia, my master’s of architecture, my professional degree, I was just going to work professionally; I had no interest in ever pursuing a PhD or even teaching. But at the time, the economy had pretty much bottomed out. So, being able to get a job actually in the profession, even though I had experience, I’m very fast, I like doing construction drawings — I couldn’t find work and, in fact, I was going to go to Europe to look for work. And so, I had a professor here at Columbia who was just nudging me to teach, go, you know — and he got my name into two pools for positions at Ohio State and at University of Kentucky. So actually between my graduate, my master’s degree, and my PhD, I taught at the University of Kentucky. I had a very weird trajectory. I had a tenure-track position in architecture at the University of Kentucky.
Fred: How long were you there?
Mabel O. Wilson: I was there for four years.
Fred: In Lexington?
Mabel O. Wilson: In Lexington, yeah, and the remarkable thing was I became very good friends with a group of interdisciplinary scholars who formed a committee on social theory. And so, that group was phenomenal, I mean, it was just an amazing — and Kentucky is known for its geography department. So, it was a really great group of radical geographers thinking about gender, race, sexuality, and built environment, space. And so, they kept on pushing me like, “You really should pursue doctoral studies. You really…” And along the way, I actually started writing a bit, you know, publishing in journals, and then also starting to cultivate a practice. I did a project for the Wexner Center called House Rules. I worked with a feminist geographer and we looked at two communities in Lexington, a subdivision settled primarily by white families and a Black housing project in Lexington, settled by — with African American women primarily, and sort of looked at the language of domesticity in both those and relationships to power. And that really kind of set me off in a set of questions that I then took with me into a PhD, but to be perfectly honest, I applied to architectural Phd programs, history PhD programs, and they couldn’t figure out what to make of me. I wanted to work on race. They saw race as a social issue, as completely irrelevant to architectural history. And so, with not a lot of support from people I asked to write letters of recommendation, I couldn’t get into architectural history. I found out a year later why that was and I got an apology from one of the institutions because they realized they had made a huge mistake, but by then —
Fred: Well, a year later, or now that you’re, like, this famous architectural historian?
Mabel O. Wilson: No, literally a year later, they realized, “Oh, wait, she’s actually really sharp, doing interesting work,” but by then, I was at NYU doing American Studies, which for me, was amazing. It was like being immersed in the humanities and the social sciences. And, you know, and I had phenomenal classmates like Alondra Nelson, Davarian Baldwin, Jerry Philogene, Mia Mask. I mean, it was just a really —
Fred: Who did you work with there at NYU?
Mabel O. Wilson: I worked — well, I took classes with a number of people like my current colleague, Steven Gregory, Lisa Duggan, Andrew Ross, Robin Kelley, Wahneema Lubiano, Phil Harper. Yeah, I sat in on Jose Muñoz’s class. Yeah, it was a really amazing experience.
Fred: Right, so let’s talk about your first book, Negro Building. It has been described as a work that contributes to the fields of art history, architectural, visual culture, and museum studies; that it offers a bold interdisciplinary model for scholarship in African American Studies. So, one reviewer notes that Negro Building is, quote, “the most comprehensive study yet published about the long history of representation of, by, and for African Americans at world fairs and museums.” Tell us more about what this book, Negro Building, is about.
Mabel O. Wilson: Negro Building is actually my dissertation topic, which was called “Making History Visible.” And my interest in that came out of, actually, a very New York City story: looking at the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan. And that project was actually happening my last year when I was doing my master’s at Columbia and I was just fascinated by it. In fact, the first thing I ever published was actually on a competition by The Municipal Art Society on that project. So, I was just kind of keenly interested in what does it mean for Black history to be represented in the public sphere and that project showed me that they were huge stakes, what that could mean, political, economic, geographic; it was just, you know, it was such a fight for that project to even exist that I, you know, I just asked, “Well, could I look at something that could tell me something about that?” And I then became interested in the Black Museum Movement. I wrote stuff about the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis and how that came about, and I realized, “Oh, wait, what does it mean for African Americans post-civil rights to claim space to represent their history when that was not allowed, clearly, under slavery or under Jim Crow?” So, it was the taking of space and the representation of that history that was really the focus of my dissertation and became the kind of substrate for what became Negro Building. And in the process of writing the dissertation, you know, you write a prospectus — that’s one thing — but the archives will tell you something else. And I found a Negro Building and I was like, “What is this?” And, you know, and there was this thing called the Negro Building at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition in 1895. And it turned out Booker T. Washington was there. And I’m like, “There’s a story there.” And then, just doing archivally, I just discovered it wasn’t the only one; there were others. And then, it just unraveled this whole thread of people who were using exhibitions, particularly temporary ones under Jim Crow, to make all kinds of claims about what Black America could be and where it was coming from. And that’s what I found. You find Carter G. Woodson there, you find —
Fred: And these are curators, right?
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, they’re curating, they’re thinking about history, to different kinds of publics. They’re seeing it as a way to, sort of, leverage the promise of Black America: this is who we are, this is who we could be. So, it is very much about a Black imaginary. And they’re leveraging it for the rights that have yet to be granted.
Fred: Right, and so you look at different — I don’t know if you would call them cases, but historical periods or situations where there were exhibitions. You mentioned the Atlanta Cotton States Exhibition of 1895. I guess you did the one in Chicago — The Chicago World’s Fair?
Mabel O. Wilson: I mentioned that. It wasn’t a primary focus because there wasn’t exactly Black representation and that’s what Ida B. Wells writes about, why there are no color people. But the person who writes about the Black press, this guy I think, Irving Penn, he actually becomes the curator for the Atlanta Exposition, and Booker T. Washington gets involved with it. And through Booker T. Washington, they’re able to channel all of the emerging Black schools in the region to provide content for the promise — what then Booker T. Washington starts to say — of what industrial education could deliver to a South that’s attempting, in some ways, to industrialize. And that was the project at the Cotton Exposition. But then, you have a figure like Du Bois —
Fred: Who goes to Paris?
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, but what was interesting was that he was being lured to Atlanta University to potentially set up a congress, a sociological congress, that would have happened at the tail end of the Cotton States Exposition. He doesn’t come in time, but he arrives shortly thereafter and then starts a series of studies about Blacks in cities; that’s his sociological — that’s the Atlanta University conferences, which are counter to the Washington — and then, he takes that project with a Fisk classmate of his, and does this exposition in Paris, which Booker T. Washington is also involved with. So, you see the same group of people engaged in these displays serially. And then, both Booker T. Washington and Du Bois start to get involved in Emancipation Expositions at the 50th year anniversary of Emancipation. So, there’s a big one in Chicago, Dubois launches one in New York. And these Emancipation Expositions happen in the 40s. There’s a huge one in Detroit, there’s another one in Chicago. The one in Chicago has involvement from people like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, Horace Cayton.
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, Margaret Burrows, who goes on to found the DuSable —
Fred: Museum in Chicago.
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, and so I started to see them as, you know, expositions or cities in miniature, so they reflect back on urban politics. And starting to understand a rising Black middle class, their relationships with the working class and how those unfold within these curatorial spaces. And literally the expositions go to 1963 roughly, in Chicago. And again, at that exposition, Margaret Burrows isn’t involved and she really pushes for a museum and that becomes the DuSable Museum. And Charles Wright then starts a museum in Detroit. So, there’s a direct connection between these expositions in the Black Museum Movement that gives birth to the National African American Museum of History and Culture. And that project goes back to 1915 and again, a group of people who had worked on expositions who wanted to do a memorial building in Washington, D.C.
Fred: Right, so that’s a great segue because you also wrote a book about the Smithsonian Museum on African American history and culture titled, Begin with the Past. The book documents the selection of architects, designers, and engineers that culminated in a museum that embodies African American sensibilities about space, form, and material, and incorporates rich cultural symbols into the design of the building and its surrounding landscape. So, tell us how exactly does the design of that museum embody African American sensibilities about space, form, and material?
Mabel O. Wilson: The building, the final building, by a team that was called FABS, it was the late Phil Freelon —
Fred: Right, oh, he’s late too, I didn’t know that.
Mabel O. Wilson: He passed away about a year ago. David Adjaye, who’s the design — is on record as the design lead, the late Max Bond, and the Smith Group. So, that was FABS, even though David is often accorded its — but actually, it was a group of firms and particularly with Phil Freelon, which is now owned by Perkins and Will, African American woman architect Zena Howard was really a significant person in the building. But I think very early on, from what I could gather and, you know, again, this is Max, Phil, and David, was that they were thinking about what kinds of traditions could come from the American South, what might be drawn from West African cultural traditions and how that might merge into a building — that Lonnie Bunch described as is desirous of having a dark presence on the National Mall, is the way Lonnie framed it. And I got involved in the project in two ways: I gave Lonnie Bunch, who is the director, was the director of the museum and is now, literally, the Secretary of the Smithsonian — I boldly just gave him a copy of my dissertation because I thought that he’s a historian and that he would be interested in knowing this history of these expositions precisely because they were political projects, some Black nationalist, civil rights projects. But, the museums were never an end in and of themselves, but sites to leverage social and civil rights gains. And I thought that that needed to be part and parcel of the museum. And then, I was also on a team; I reached out to Elizabeth Diller of Diller Scofidio + Renfro here in the city, who just redid MoMA, has done the Highline. And Liz said, “Yeah, let’s go for it.” And so, we were shortlisted; we were one of the six of the international firms. So, when they wanted to write the book, they knew, “Okay, she’s an architect, she gets this part of the project, but she also has written this history; we could entrust her to do this whole project.” And so, what I proposed to Lonnie Bunch and Kinshasha Conwill, who’s the associate director, that one half of the book describes the current project, but another half, the first half, would tell the history of the museum starting in 1915, which is exactly the kind of narrative that the museum is trying to tell, that it’s not always a pull yourself up by the bootstraps, succeed, but there were numerous failures. And what does it mean to fight for spaces of representation? And so, that was an important part of the, sort of, narrative of the book and that interweaves in the ways in which we then start, you know, within the book, talking about how the museum has laid out the kind of central gathering space that people come in and the way it references the landscape and breaks down the, sort of, European neoclassical white marble building on a pedestal where it’s a very internalized experience.
Fred: Right, so, I think it’s a beautiful building. Many people describe it as a crown.
Mabel O. Wilson: A corona.
Fred. A corona, okay, and it’s just spectacular, particularly as you see it in the distance. Just out of curiosity, I want to get this from your perspective of history as well as an architect: how would you compare that structure, or what you call space and form, to other museums on African American life and culture? And I’m thinking in particular of the Underground Railroad Museum in Cincinnati. Have you had a chance to see it or visit?
Mabel O. Wilson: I’ve been there. I can’t say it left a necessarily lasting impression architecturally.
Fred: Actually, I’m asking because that’s the way I felt and I’m not sure why.
Mabel O. Wilson: Because I think, like, a lot of these buildings will try to draw on tropes of, like, Kente cloth, or certain — it’s the ship in the wind metaphor. And what I appreciate about the design of the African American — the National Museum, is the ways in which that corona is made up of these panels that are referencing the craftwork of Black ironworkers in places like Charleston and New Orleans. And those traditions, again, are diasporic, right? They come from metalworking traditions in Western Africa, you know, translated into these new world ideas and syncretic representations through religions of certain forms. And so, what David Adjaye’s team did was try to reference those and bring them into this very, almost plastic, transparent, dense sometimes, screen that surrounds the museum. And I think it’s very powerful; there’s a level of abstraction to it that I think is very powerful, but there’s a materiality that then kind of brings it into the present. And so, you know, I just think it was a very elegant design that could also go through an incredibly rigorous and almost, you could say ruthless, design review process. And I would credit Lonnie Bunch on that, of knowing what to fight for, when to fight for it, to keep the integrity of good design. And that’s having a client who really understands the value of good design.
Fred: Right, so I want to say more — ask you more, rather — about your direct engagement and public engagement. You are a co-director of the Global Africa Lab, which is a project that explores the spatial typologies of the African continent and its diaspora. What kinds of projects have the lab been involved in?
Mabel O. Wilson: I have co-directed Global Africa Lab with my colleague Mario Gooden since 2012 and we work with a researcher, Carson Smuts, who’s a brilliant programmer designer who is with MIT’s Media Lab. And we’ve been, sort of, looking at processes of urbanisation, globalization in Black cities around the world; so, Johannesburg, Cape Town, we’ve looked at Abuja and Lagos, Dakar, Rio, Detroit, New York City. And used techniques to, sort of, model the ways in which contemporary movements happen within those spaces in terms of people and goods, but also kind of a historical trajectory, understanding what is it, you know, what did the colonial project of empire wrought in space, particularly like in the South African examples, the legacies of apartheid and townships. And then the post-apartheid landscape under neo-liberalism, while those barriers are removed, there is still deeply embedded inequality. So, how do you start to map those and what does it mean to build within those contexts where people are not just moving through the city, but moving to the city from places like Zimbabwe and elsewhere? So, some of the work that we do is pedagogical, we do work with students, we teach architectural design students to graduate students, and we’ve done workshops in places like Cape Town and Johannesburg.
Fred: That’s wonderful. So, I have a final question. You, of course, attended the opening of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture, which was in late September of 2016. There were three days of events: there were celebrities like Oprah, Stevie Wonder and Patti LaBelle sang, President Obama and Bush gave remarks, and the legendary civil rights activist and Congressman John Lewis gave a heartfelt speech on how far African Americans have come to have a museum dedicated to their struggles placed on the National Mall. So, you had with you that day a unique vantage point. You have a deep understanding about race, space, and culture. What do you remember most about the opening of the museum?
Mabel O. Wilson: Well, I wish I were there in person.
Fred: You weren’t?
Mabel O. Wilson: I was not.
Fred: I’m making all these assumptions; I thought maybe you did selfies with Stevie Wonder and with Oprah.
Mabel O. Wilson: Yeah, me and Michelle. No, I was not. I did go to one of the openings of the museum, but no, I was unfortunately not there, but I did watch it on television. But I thought one, I thought it was very shrewd, you know, again, that somehow I think Lonnie and Kinshasha knew, “We’ve got to get this thing open in the last months of the Obama administration because we don’t know what’s going to happen in 2016.” And I thought it was very proud that here — what I’d like to say about the museum, which a lot of people do not know — and again, this has to do with the history of the Smithsonian, which I’m actually working on right now — is that the Smithsonian was a racial — to some degree, a racial project of constructing whiteness. And they did so in a way that basically primitivized the Indigenous people, which is why they had such a huge collection of Native peoples’ objects that then went on that they had to repatriate and then went on to set up the Museum of the American Indian. For Black folks in America, they didn’t collect anything because Black people had no history and had contributed nothing to America. And so, you see these things arising in the debates in the 1960s, and that I count in part in Negro Building and also Begin with the Past, and that African Americans like Charles Wright and Margaret Burrows, did not want the federal government to do a national museum.
Fred: They didn’t trust them?
Mabel O. Wilson: They didn’t trust them. You would never see, you know, Malcolm X, you couldn’t have Marcus Garvey, you wouldn’t be able to tell these stories, but by the 80s, there was a new push and John Lewis was critical to that. So, what they had to do is not just build a building, but then build a collection because the Smithsonian really had not collected much. That, I think, is really remarkable. And again, what I wanted to say with Begin with the Past was it wasn’t just from 2002, I think, when Bush signed the act that actually established the institution, but it was a long series of people who had kept trying and trying. And so, the museum is really built on that legacy of trying to figure out how to tell this story. And I’m just in awe that they really get into why, you know, as the 1619 project tells us in The New York Times, you know, that the creation of the Black and in the Americas was critical to the formation of modernity and also to the formation of the United States. And the museum, I think, tells that story.
Fred: Right, well, thanks so much, Mabel, for stopping through The Dean’s Table. This has been fun.
Mabel O. Wilson: Thank you for having me.