Another Architecture

by Mitch McEwen

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    Architecture After Death: On Solitude

    Mitch McEwen
    Apr 29, '21 9:50 AM EST

    It seems appropriate, though still unfortunate, that this review appears almost exactly at the moment that the exhibition On Solitude closes.  There is a flatness and emptiness to this work by Darrell Fields on view at the gallery of the Princeton School of Architecture that implies that you are missing something.  To miss this exhibit is, in a way, to get it. Also, even in person it is meaningfully difficult to parse the exhibit from the texts that surround the work, partially because many of the drawings have been published in books or as book covers.  The designer behind the works is such a cogent and prolific thinker through text-- a writer, editor, and theorist.  If you missed the exhibit, you can read this as a continued meditation with the exhibit on how much you-- or architecture-- might be missing; or how much you, yourself, might be missed in this overly empty and flat world that we call a discipline. 

    The work resonates with the title On Solitude.  There are no scale figures in the drawings.  When a person does appear in this exhibition, it is as an icon in portrait-- a recognizable Basquiat and another figure with locked hair turning away from the picture plane (Pod Caste, 2018), both seen in stark relief, black and white.  In the context of the exhibit - surrounded by renderings of deconstructed pitched roof houses and blank interiors that intersect themselves  -- the composition of the hair starts to register as already architectural. The exhibition text mentions the totemic.  Reading the hair as a found architecture becomes possible, as the portrait slips into the totem. 

    The exhibit layout invites you to study these prints in relation to a 3d printed model and an installation fabricated from perforated steel, situated between this model and the wall-mounted images.  The steel folds from the floor to the wall, narrowing at the base of the plinth that holds the model.  The print, model and steel fabrication together constitute one new work, King Alphonso (2021), titled after a Basquiat painting.  I read this as a tryptic, very concerned with architectural projection and asking for much more than the field’s usual questions of representation and immateriality to be at stake.  The work plays out geometric games of perception through dynamics of the totem and figuration in ways that I can only think through Frantz Fanon.  I am thinking of the psychoanalytic games of part-to-whole substitution (“He is turned into a penis”), as well as the accusation of looking and being seen (“Look, a Negro!”).  The outline of Basquiat’s hair also repeats as a cropped graphic applied to the gallery glazing, abstract from within the gallery, but legible to the visually initiated from the exterior.      

    If I had one complaint about this exhibit it would actually be that it is too full.  The repetition of images on the wall somewhat deflates the charge of the emptiness in them and disrupts the density between things.  The exterior graphic and the tryptic of Basquiat totemic projections could have been possibly more intense without the total of works lined up on the white walls.  There are some subtle moves applied to the gallery itself - a black scrim, a red line running through the gallery-- that could have held more of their own space. Only in writing this sentence did it occur to me to consider such moves in relation to Robert Irwin and his work on light and phenomenology.  I challenge anyone to make any such association when you are actually there in the gallery facing so many renderings on the wall.    

    But I also want to just pause on the compositional questions of hair.  

    In this past year on Zoom, I have grown the top of my hair long enough to braid, while keeping the sides closely cut.  As I used the virtual background feature, I have watched as my hair maintained a boundary of legibility in the camera vision and facial recognition outline and, then, all at once, exceeded Zoom’s understanding of what hair could be. Despite being fairly stable (my braids do not bounce) and moving only when my head moves, the braids on top of my head are cropped out, as if they were background.  Even the top part of my forehead is cropped out.  I have watched other people with hair that bounces not get their foreheads cropped out or their hair virtually disappeared.  I have seen colleagues with hair styled 3 or 4 inches straight up against gravity use a virtual background with the camera and background maintaining their hair intact.  Facial recognition implies hair recognition.  The definition of hair programmed into the facial recognition of Zoom does not recognize my hair as hair.  It negates my hair.

    This negation is something that Fields asks us to consider as architecture.  Or rather, Fields makes an architecture from the negative place of Blackness not being recognized by architecture.  There is a constant threat of this slipping into nothing - the minimalist tendency of the work.  If one mode of seeking a Black architecture leads to visual saturations of texture and pattern and cultural references-- whether Afrofuturism or Hip Hop or otherwise-- the blankness and erasure of this work chart another line of inquiry. (My own contribution to Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, on view now at MoMA, might be post-rationalized as an attempt to interpolate between these two modes).

    If facial recognition is implicitly racial recognition -- it is so in negation. My hair is not facially recognized because my hair is racially (not) recognized.  “Look, a Negro!” becomes “Un-see, a Negro, somewhat.”

    In a field that has been (overly) obsessed with the post-human, Fields work demands an architectural recognition of misrecognition and not-seeing as human problems.  I would be remiss if I did not mention the Hatcher Street Cenotaph project and the significance of seeing it on campus at Princeton right now.  In weeks when survivors of the MOVE bombing, Philadelphians, and a national chorus of those who care about Black lives have been shocked and disgusted to learn of Princeton University’s irresponsible presentation and handling of human remains, this work acquires another level of significance.  It cannot be called prescience because the practices of disregard for Black bodies in this country repeats-- the forms are familiar.  The Hatcher Street Cenotaph is introduced with a text that is partly under erasure down the middle, a site plan of sorts.  

    While we continue to acknowledge (or not acknowledge) the easy slippages in this country between social death and actual death -- Fields’ work invites us to think these abstractions and negations as already architectural.  To experience social death, then, implies an architectural experience-- even an architecture history-- one, as yet, largely unwritten and unbuilt.  Perhaps the existentialist critique that Fanon and Jean-Paul Sartre levied at Negritude could be turned on architecture, itself.  “Thus negritude [or architecture] is the root of its own destruction, it is a transition and not a conclusion, a means and not an ultimate end.”     

    All quotes from Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks

    On Solitude | Darell Wayne Fields, Ph.D. | February 22 — April 30, 2021| View online at Flickr and YouTube


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Posts are sporadic. Topics span architecture, urban design, planning, and tangents from these. I sometimes include excerpts of academic articles.

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