Beginning With The Past

Mabel O. Wilson on race, memory, and architecture

Architecture East Professional Practice
(Courtesy Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)
(Courtesy Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

Recently, at The Architect’s Newspaper (AN) we have seen an influx of architectural projects—Motown Museum expansionThe Equal Justice Initiative’s The Memorial to Peace and JusticeEmancipation Parkwhich explore methods of memorialization and the celebration of black experiences in America. On the occasion of the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) last September, the museum created greater visibility for these narratives and formed new discourses on race. AN sat down with Mabel O. Wilson, an architect and associate professor at Columbia’s GSAPP, to discuss her new book Beginning with the Past which details the hard-fought process of realizing NMAAHC. Wilson also participated in the original competition for the museum in collaboration with DS+R and Hood Design Studio.

ANJames Baldwin, in his essay Many Thousands Gone wrote, “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans.” This quote reiterates a similar statement he made to Congress that you included in your book. Can you talk about that statement in relation to the aim you had for Beginning With The Past?

Mabel Wilson: I think what Baldwin was trying to say is that the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, and I would also put into that the genocide of indigenous peoples, are really the original sins of America. I think there is a way in which the notion of exceptionalism has never been able to contend with the violence that was necessary for the shaping of the nation.

national museum of african american history facade

(Courtesy Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

In 2014, the AIA released a report which surveyed architects and found that racial minorities are vastly underrepresented in both the academy and the profession. At the same time, many initiatives have emerged recently to address these racial inequalities: Paul Revere William’s AIA Gold Award, the Phil Freelon GSD fellowship, the AIA’s new diversity scholarship, the “Say it Loud” exhibition. Do these initiatives capture the reforms needed to address the systemic challenges that face the profession in the pursuit to increase diversity? What more can architects do?

I think there are many factors that have to do with the low number of minorities in the field. It’s like movie production, it’s a field that requires access to vast amounts of capital. And so you have to, in some fashion, be able to gain access to that [capital] as an architect.

I always tell people that if you want to find out the history of African American architecture, you have to go back and look at all the black builders who, particularly by the 20th century, weren’t ‘licensed architects.’ There were other ways [that] people were building and thinking about space, but it isn’t the stuff that ends up in the history books or recorded by local chapters of the professional association. But it’s out there so you have to look elsewhere.

To build is to have power. That’s not something given up easily, which women have found out in architecture. It’s not an easy ceiling to break because of the ways that buildings are tied to power structures and power relations and wealth.


As you describe in your book, the Smithsonian unsurprisingly sought African American-led firms and experts to participate in the competition process, casting a light on the deficiencies of architectural competitions to include minority-owned and operated entities. Beyond hiring black architects when they’re able to, what can institutional clients do to include historically disadvantaged voice in the development of large cultural projects?

I really respect Lonnie Bunch for insisting that the teams have a diverse range of architects. That’s huge in terms of opportunities because it’s fundamentally who you know; it’s social networking which often in this country is determined along racial lines. Even though I’d say the majority of people [and institutions] don’t think of themselves as racists, we’ve just had a huge racist backlash in this country that is showing up as antisemitism and islamophobia and other things. I think the effort to bring in diverse voices for projects is important. The Smithsonian, particularly under Lonnie Bunch’s leadership, produced teams that would not have perhaps normally come together.

national museum of african american history facade

(Courtesy Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

Your research into spatial politics and collective memory are present at various points throughout your book, especially with regard to the NMAAHC’s location on the National Mall adjacent to the Washington Monument. What does it mean for all Americans that these African American histories and narratives are consolidated on this particular site? In the wake of the NMAAHC, do you see architecture playing a bigger role in telling the story of black America?

Certainly, the museum has brought this kind of sensibility to a lot of issues. It has a very important presence in that it is visible to the world. And, it’s impossible to get a ticket, still, there is extraordinary demand to experience this history because it was never told and the material wasn’t collected. That was the big challenge for [NMAAHC]. Most people think that designing the building and raising the money was the hard part. No, it was building a collection.

I think it’s significant now, as we think about these legacies, how people mark these things that have already been forgotten. So that is why I think [NMAAHC] is important because that collection work was never done. I think we are still dealing with issues of race as a nation and as a world; we still have work to do.

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