Germane Barnes’ Black Spaces

In 2022, the Bordeaux-based architecture centre arc en rêve and L'Architecture d'Aujourd'hui are initiating arc en rêves papers a new collaboration that will take the form of several essays from events organised by the Bordeaux institution.

For arc en rêve papers, American architect Germane Barnes, designer of Block Party, one of the most talked-about pieces of the Chicago Biennial, tries his hand at autofiction to talk about his research and design practice, which focuses on the link between architecture and identity. A social and political agent of mining architecture, he examines how the built environment influences black domesticity. He is the former designer-in-residence for the Opa-locka Community Development Corporation, where he led a multi-site urban revitalisation project. He is currently director of the Community, Housing, and Identity Lab (CHIL) at the University of Miami School of Architecture.

Barnes’ design and research contributions have been published and exhibited at several international institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, PIN-UP magazine, the Graham Foundation, the New York Times, Architect Magazine, Design Miami/Art Basel, the Swiss Institute, Metropolis magazine, Curbed, and the National Museum of African American History, where he has been identified as a rising designer.

Block Party by Studio Barnes (Miami, FL), avec Shawhin Roudbari (Boulder, CO) et MAS Context (Chicago, IL), Westside Association for Community Action (WACA), Open Architecture Chicago, et Freedom House pour la Chicago Architecture Biennial en 2021.

I would like to preface this “essay” by acknowledging that I have never written about my own work. As a professor of architecture we are trained to write in the third person. I, me, my, etc are taboo words in academic circles. Thus, I have always felt it more appropriate to write about others instead of myself. There is something inherently bizarre about self-reflection in this regard as I often find myself overly aggressive in criticism. I remember the negativity and slights, both real and perceived far more than I remember the positives. Public self-praise has always eluded me as I used to struggle mightily with Survivor’s Guilt. I find it easier to give compliments than to receive them, which I suppose is common. However, with this piece I will attempt to have a real conversation with myself about my work. I will attempt to ask the questions I wish interviewers would ask. Why do I do it, why does it fuels me, why do I care so much. So please indulge me and this unconventional method of writing and perhaps it will inspire someone to have a real heart to heart conversation with themselves.

*note: Both the interviewer and interviewee are me

Interviewer: Hi Germane, thank you for taking the time to sit down and allow me to interview you. This is going to be very conversational and laid back. I will take notes and may contact you later for clarity on some items if that is alright?

Germane: No problem at all. I do a lot of interviews so I’m quite familiar with the process.

Interviewer: Why do you agree to do so many interviews, if you don’t mind me asking? Do you enjoy them?

Germane: No, I don’t actually. I truthfully do not enjoy doing interviews, but I know that I have to. So it is what it is.

Interviewer: What do you mean “I know that I have to”?

Germane: Umm, this is a tough answer because if I’m honest with you we’ll end up down a rabbit hole of race and identity. Things that are very important to me, but not necessarily important to architecture as a profession and as a discipline. Sure, there’s been an added emphasis on these themes in the past two years, but are those gestures legitimate or temporary? Just know that I understand from an ancestral perspective why I have to do interviews, heavy lies the head that wears the crown.

Interviewer: Quoting Shakespeare I see.

Germane: No, that’s Kendrick Lamar. He says that line in his new album, Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers. It’s an album about his survivor’s guilt, his time in therapy, and reflection within himself with how he’s perceived by others. I identify so much with this album. He and J. Cole are probably my two favorite artists at the moment. They have verses in songs that I feel are narrating my life.

Interviewer: What do you mean “narrating my life”?

Germane: They’re writing about being in the midst of success and not being respected enough to be fully established while also receiving just enough attention to be a mentor to younger individuals. It’s a weird middle ground of reverence. But they both talk a lot about survivor’s guilt and that’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. Only recently have I begun to overcome it.

Interviewer: I do not believe that I have seen you speak about your battles with survivor’s guilt. Is that in an interview or lecture that I can find online?

Germane: Oh, I’ve never publically talked about it. That’s why you’ve never seen it. I keep those conversations to my close friends or with myself. Like I said before, these are issues that will lead us somewhere else and I’m sure that’s not the purpose of your interview. Aren’t you writing about my work? My projects?

Interviewer: Yes, those were my instructions, however if you would like to talk about something different. I am sure we can figure it out.

Germane: I don’t mind talking about my work, I love what I do. Black spaces and cultural influences on architecture don’t get enough recognition from major audiences so I feel like I’m doing important work.

Interviewer: Why do Black spaces not get enough recognition in your opinion?

Germane: There are a lot of reasons that Black spaces are ignored. There are the obvious ones, discrimination, and white supremacy, lack of representation in both academia and practice, I’m sure I’m missing more. I’ve said this before but it is criminal that in six years of architecture education I never had a Black professor, Black teaching aide, or Black critic. That should never happen but it is common for most Black architecture and adjacent professional degree students. And these problems still persist today! Some students are more fortunate, like my own. They have a Black professor, Black teaching aides and present in front of Black critics.

So when a student is trained in a culture of Whiteness, what does it mean to celebrate Black spaces? Projects authored by diasporic peoples are rarely shown as admirable precedents during studio projects and rarely shown in public discourse as beautiful spaces to visit. It is a tough conversation because it is not only perpetuated by non-Black faculty and practitioners. It is also a subconscious unit of measure in many Black professionals. Do I want to be seen as the “Black architect”? Should I stay away from projects that center Blackness so that I can be accepted by the zeitgeist? These are real questions we have to battle internally and externally in some cases.

Interviewer: I do not mean to be rude, but I do not believe you answered the question.

Germane: Really? Can you repeat the question?

Interviewer: Why do Black spaces not get enough recognition in your opinion?

Germane: Good catch, I really didn’t answer the question. Honestly, I think that they don’t get enough recognition because people believe Black spaces are ugly and of low craftsmanship. It’s that simple. Architecture magazines don’t want to put a warehouse that a community uses for daily activities, special events and social gatherings on their cover page. They want the star-firm led, multi-million dollar project, with glass façade to be seen instead. And that culture marginalizes simple projects that truly help people. They aren’t flashy, they don’t photograph well, but those are community treasures. Until those types of projects are recognized as beautiful, we’ll never break that cycle.

Interviewer: Are you speaking from personal experience?

Germane: Perhaps, (laughs).

Interviewer: Your work in Opa-locka and more recently your work at the Chicago Biennial, would you say that it is work that is celebrated or work that is ignored? Because those projects are published a lot, and they do not have the massive budgets you referenced earlier.

Germane: Those don’t count, and I will tell you why. Those projects were not publicized individually as exceptional examples of design. They were published because I was being interviewed by various media sources. And every reporter would ask me “Can you please share some projects with us to add images?” and I would send the same package so that more people could view them. That was totally strategic, Opa-locka for sure. The Arts & Recreation Center is a box. There’s nothing special about a box in architecture, but for that community it is a landmark. Block Party on the other hand was a part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, they had their own press so it had to be covered. Though I supposed the reviews could have been negative instead of positive.

Interviewer: So do you believe that your projects are properly recognized?

Germane: Yes, I suppose I do. But I’m not special, there are a bunch of other Black architects, designers, urban influencers that are doing equal and if not better work than I am. I’m just the one that’s getting the attention at the moment.

Interviewer: Do you believe the attention is unwarranted?

Germane: I don’t know to be truthful. I think I’m doing cool stuff that someone may find interesting. I know my work isn’t for everyone, but I think it resonates with a significant amount of people both within and outside of architecture and related disciplines. I’m extremely happy that I am receiving this attention; I’ve worked very hard to get to this point. I know that’s a cliché thing to say, but I really did work hard as hell to get to this point. I have no imposter syndrome; I know that I’m talented and that I deserve to be here. But in the back of my mind I think about all of the other talented Black kids from my neighborhood in Chicago and similar young people in the South Florida areas I do my work that succumbed to their environment.

Interviewer: Is this the survivor’s guilt you referenced earlier?

Germane: Yea, I guess it is. This work is hard. I think back to a conversation I had with a close relative and he said to me “You were supposed to take me with you. You left for LA and you never looked back”. That weighed so heavy on me for so long.

Interviewer: What did you say in response?

Germane: I was stunned at first. Then I said to him “I told you to come with me. I said we could be roommates. You wanted to stay here. I didn’t!” He didn’t want to leave our neighborhood. It’s where he felt the most comfortable and the safest even though our community is definitely dangerous. But that’s just goes to show you how the built environment creates and erodes our perceptions of safety. He would not feel comfortable in Burbank, a suburb of Los Angeles that by all accounts is very safe. But he would feel at ease in Garfield Park, an under-resourced area of Chicago. White supremacy is far stretching.

Interviewer: What is your relationship with your relative now?

Germane: He’s in jail.

Interviewer: I am sorry to hear that.

Germane: Yea, me too. It hurts to think about it. Maybe if I just pushed a little harder for him to move to Los Angeles with me when I began graduate school, his life would be different. Or maybe not.

Interviewer: Do you think there is a link between those feelings you have and the communities you work with?

Germane: Absolutely! I couldn’t save [redacted] but maybe I can save some other young people. Someone that doesn’t think the spaces they use on a daily bases are important or sacred.

Interviewer: Like your Sacred Stoops project.

Germane: Exactly, like my porch work. I tell people that all of my projects have a personal connection to them and I tend to present the work in the most positive light. I think it’s too easy to profit from trauma. I’d rather celebrate joy. But in reality there is also some darkness in my architectural mission. So I try to commit to work that will promote underutilized people and places. Maybe if those spaces are applauded more the residents of those communities will feel more pride as well and it can begin some form of healing. I know those are very idealistic thoughts but they are my dreams.

Interviewer: Lofty dreams…

Germane: Well if they don’t know your dreams they can’t shoot them down. That’s a J. Cole line for you.

Interviewer: Thank you so much Germane for taking the time to sit and talk with me. As I mentioned before I will follow up if necessary, but I think I have all that I need.

Germane: It’s over? We didn’t talk about my work.

Interviewer: I believe we did.

Germane Barnes will be the guest of arc en rêve in Bordeaux on Sunday 18 September, on the occasion of the European Heritage Days.
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