Built environments and public spaces in the United States are far too often decontextualized from their history. The prideful bravado of American urbanism is realized by the ongoing marginalization of Black and brown bodies, as well as the exploitation of their labor with which they construct the very surroundings that police their presence. To get a fuller understanding of the racist practices that make up our spatial understanding, as well as see the ways in which it could be redeemed, Arts of the Working Class sat down with Germane Barnes, whose research and design practice at Studio Barnes investigates the connection between architecture and identity. Mining architecture’s social and political agency, Barnes examines how architecture influences Black domesticity in his new hometown of Miami.
Can you tell us about your practice and how the built environment perpetuates violence?
My practice is rooted in the politics and agency of space. We aim to use architecture and design to recount the positive contributions of Black people throughout history. We intentionally avoid centering pain and trauma because those are the dominant narratives the world witnesses. The frequency of harm done to Black bodies is both tragic and illuminating; specifically, how the built environment facilitates violence. Air quality, lack of viable transportation, and inadequate housing are but a few ways in which the architected environment hurts this vulnerable group. Another way is pedagogical in nature, since most architecture and architectural pedagogies are rooted in Western, Eurocentric approaches. This is also manifested in various forms of architectural appropriation. One large example in the US is the linear cottage, also known as the “shotgun home.” Its lineage ties back to West Africa during the period of enslavement. The porch, a predominant feature of this typology, is also rooted in Black culture. One could also look at Russian Constructivist architecture as a predecessor of Modernist Architecture, except we are rarely taught about this timeline. It’s quite unfortunate that the knowledge-keepers omit certain periods for political and social reasons.
Omitting certain timelines often correlates with the highlighting of a so-called “predominant culture.” Speaking of which, you were recently selected to be the artistic director of the DieDAS Design Academy, where you will continue your work on the historical and political significance of monuments. Before we talk a little bit about those, do you think that it’s impossible not to have monuments in public spaces, wherever they may be?
Yes, I am very excited to lead the next iterations of the DieDAS Design Academy Fellowship. I do not think it is possible to have public space devoid of monuments, simply because the point of monuments is to memorialize a person or event, and, depending on the community, that can be presented in many different ways. It can be an object, a place, or a structure. Unless we remove every artifact from the world, it’s impossible. In Miami, where my practice is based, there is the I-95, 195, 395 interchange, and its location signifies the obliteration of Overtown, a historically Black neighborhood. From a certain perspective, that can be viewed as a monument. Having said that, I don’t believe that the abolition of monuments correlates with a withdrawal of shared symbolism. I think the abolition of monuments is actually an expansion of symbolism. The voices that were typically silenced have now forced the world to listen to and share their opinion on hateful signifiers. The global consciousness is now wrestling with the truth of their histories.
Is the monument itself the problem, or, rather, the symbolism of power the monument carries?
I believe it’s the symbolism that is harmful, less the object. In some cases—for example, monuments to enslavement or segregation—the problem is both the object and its symbol. However, a wall, for example, appears neutral, but the boundary it creates is symbolic of larger structural issues. Power structures are inherently forceful and imbalanced. Memorializing those issues reinforces power struggles.
But can we monumentalize a space, any space, without fetishizing it or its surrounding in the process?
I think the requirements of fetishization have to be clearly defined. In this context, fetishization is an interest in a space that removes critical observation and reciprocity. Interest that does not have a legitimate feedback loop; interest that does not implement the true desires and ambition of the oppressed. So, with some projects, my role isn’t to “lead” design, but to congeal separate thoughts into one coherent proposal. I think we do that well in our office, but no project is perfect, as there are many opinions to be considered.
One example is our work in Delray Beach, Florida, where we are working with a large community with very different opinions on space and access. Our job is to use our expertise to create a shared vision. We now have the beginning of a comprehensive proposal that captures the accomplishments and history of a historically Black neighborhood and makes everyone happy.
In your work, A Spectrum of Blackness—which was featured in Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America at the MoMA in 2021—you’ve emphasized the distinction between the Black workers who have constructed the high-rises of Miami as distinct from where they lived due to a slew of racist policies and redlining. How can drawing attention to the processes by which spaces are made change our perception of them?
I believe that it adds proper context. People think Miami is a very inclusive place, but it was built on Black labor that was segregated for decades. These are all truths that are less than a hundred years old. Compared to the rest of the world, that’s extremely recent. Embedding these histories in our schools and social systems is vital, or else we’re providing incomplete history. It will be hard for people to see themselves in a negative light, but we must unlearn fascism, racism, and terror.
- IMAGE CREDITS
Cover: Designer Germane Barnes in his studio at the University of Miami School of Architecture, where he is an assistant professor and director of the Community Housing Identity Lab. Lighting assistant: David Ortiz. Photography assistant: Helen Peña.