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The new normal: exercises in American citizenship

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In recent times, events in the US have raised an awareness of the connections between the built environment and questions of justice, equity and political agency

In 2003, architect and critic Michael Sorkin wrote: ‘All architecture is political’. While the intervening decade and a half has shown a certain lassitude in the field of architecture to embrace this position, events in the US over the last few years, from the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement to the 2016 presidential election, provoked a renewed awareness of the connections between the built environment and questions of justice, equity and political agency. 

Shadowed by the aftermath of 9/11 and the escalating war in Iraq, Sorkin’s essay ‘The Avant-Garde in Time of War’ appeared in Architectural Record, a magazine with the ear of the profession. His words expressed outrage not only over assaults on buildings in New York and Baghdad, but also the subsequent militarisation of cities at home and abroad and a critical lack of engagement by the field of architecture in addressing escalating conditions.

‘The hardening of urban life against potential threats is still accepted as ordinary, with architecture defaulting to complicity’

Fifteen years later, the hardening of urban life against potential threats is accepted as ordinary, with architecture defaulting to complicity. We go about our daily exercises in citizenship amid and in spite of CCTV surveillance, facial recognition technologies (recently outed as racially and gender-biased), and police forces around the country armed with surplus military equipment donated by the Defense Department to local law enforcement agencies. These ‘new normal’ conditions, the last one especially, undergird the police violence against African Americans we’ve seen come to light in recent years. Which is why it is important to consider the design of The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, in Montgomery, Alabama, which opened to the public in late April, as something more than the significant and sobering monument that it is. It is a reminder that architecture’s relationship to politics goes deeper than theory, history or ‘social impact’.

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800 6-foot-long Corten steel monoliths – each representing a US county in which a lynching occurred – hang from the memorial structure roof as a stark reminder of brutal lynchings of black people. Ed Sykes, pictured in the foreground, was distraught to see his family name featured. Photograph courtesy of Bob Miller / Getty Images

Conceived by the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) and founder Bryan Stevenson, the memorial honours the victims terrorised by the abuses of white supremacy: enslavement, lynching, segregation and continued racial bias. Because the memorial and an adjacent museum sit on a 6-acre site overlooking Alabama State Capitol, the architecture also acts as a symbolic counter-ballast to, and a watchdog over, the governmental gears that actively and passively allowed such atrocities to take place.

The design, however, is more than an exercise in abstraction. MASS Design Group worked with EJI on the memorial square in the centre of the site – visitors arrive here after encountering a series of figurative sculptures depicting historical benchmarks of racial inequality. A weighty body of research underpins the project; the EJI documented more than 4,400 lynchings of black people in the US between 1877 and 1950. This material translates into a powerful visceral experience: 800 6-foot-long Corten steel monoliths hang from the roof of the memorial structure. Each is marked with the county where a lynching took place and the names of the victims – listed when known, but often simply etched as ‘Unknown’.

The politics of this architecture are overt and inarguable. Visitors first meet the Corten steel columns at eye level, as equals. Yet as people move through the memorial structure the floor descends below grade until the monoliths are above head height, a corpse strung up like strange fruit. The horrors implied by the spectacle are inescapable.

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The legacy museum exterior (1)

The Legacy Museum in Montgomery, Alabama, in tandem with the memorial, is dedicated to victims of racial terror lynchings. Photograph courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opens to the public at a time when citizens and cities across the country are actively reconsidering the future of Confederate monuments. Those statues in honour of Civil War generals were erected many decades after the war; in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement and efforts towards desegregation, they acted as a not so subtle reminder to African Americans of the ominous power of white supremacy – a sign, erected under the guise of good civic intentions, for people to stay in their place. In late 2017, citizen activists and city officials in Memphis, Tennessee organised to remove two such monuments: a statue of Confederate general and Ku Klux Klan member Nathan Bedford Forrest and Confederacy president Jefferson Davis. 

‘The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is a reminder that architecture’s relationship to politics goes deeper than theory, history or “social impact”’

This decision, made in a city that was a hub of slavery and first-hand witness to the assassination of Martin Luther King, surfaced in the work that Studio Gang is doing in Memphis, featured in the Dimensions of Citizenship, the US Pavilion at the Venice Architecture Biennale. On the Memphis landing on the Mississippi River, the firm is rethinking how that underused place might be redesigned into a monument for all people. The 8-acre site was the city’s main port during the height of slavery and cotton and it carries the burden of that spatial legacy. Stone Stories, the title of the firm’s installation for the US Pavilion, brings hundreds of stones to Venice. Studio Gang’s investigation is both material and narrative, featuring the impact of the stones themselves, alongside interviews with Memphis citizens – the ultimate stakeholders in questions of urban equity and public space.

‘For me, making justice visible in architecture is analogous to making dialogue visible. I am interested in how design can construct relationships between individuals, and further, between communities and their environment,’ explains Jeanne Gang when asked about her firm’s approach to projects that pack a political punch.

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Jars of soil collected from sites of lynchings in Montgomery represent the lives of the innumerable victims. Image courtesy of Bill Sutton / Flickr

In the recent past, design tropes symbolic of democracy, diversity and human rights included expanses of glass to convey openness, porous facades. Examples include the design by Adjaye Associates (in partnership with US firms Davis Brody Bond, The Freelon Group and SmithGroup JJR) of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, or central common areas to foster non-hierarchical interactions and discourse, as in Studio Gang’s 2014 project, the Arcus Center for Social Justice Leadership in Kalamazoo, Michigan. 

‘Architecture is more impactful when it goes beyond the design of isolated objects and conceives of its role within the wider web of relationships’, says Gang. ‘This often requires us to zoom out and look beyond site, beyond the brief and all of its inherited typologies.’

‘The architecture of the memorial and the adjacent museum acts as a symbolic counter-ballast to, and a watchdog over, the governmental gears that actively and passively allowed such atrocities to take place’

The need to make visible the spatial conditions of justice and injustice comes at a transitional moment in the United States, as the field of architecture adjusts to the conditions and ideologies of the current administration, one that has in tweets, appointments and policies shown that, among other things, it considers cities dangerous, climate change a myth, sustainability irrelevant, and adequate housing an unequal right. 

Political architecture, or simply architecture to follow Sorkin, is thus the architecture of continued resistance. While the tectonic vocabulary associated with this period is only just emerging, the power of materiality, the weight of history, and a chorus of many voices inform early examples. Any formative development depends on shedding outmoded conceits and too easy habits when building for equality and justice.

Lead image: The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, honours the victims of racism by white supremacists – it is dedicated to the legacy of those who were enslaved, lynched or negatively affected by the Jim Crow segregation laws. Photograph courtesy of Equal Justice Initiative / Human Pictures.

This piece is featured in the AR’s June 2018 issue on Power and Justice – click here to purchase a copy.