Posted by mabel on Jan 21, 2017


“I think one of the stumbling blocks is that the nature of the black experience in this [country], does indicate something about the total American history which frightens Americans,” declared writer and critic James Baldwin in reply the question posed in a 1968 congressional hearing in lower Manhattan as whether or not the U.S. government should fund a Museum of Negro History and Culture in Washington D.C. A fierce and focused student of America’s two original sins—genocide and slavery—Baldwin coolly reminded his interlocutors that this pair of difficult truths “contradicted the myth of American history,” myths that had been enshrined in the architecture of the nation’s capital where this new museum was to be erected.


It would be almost a half century before a museum of black history would open on the National Mall. The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, designed by architects David Adjaye, Phil Freelon, and J. Max Bond (who was a chair here at Columbia) opened its doors four months ago in September. On Monday, a national holiday celebrating the birthday of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., then president-elect Donald Trump abruptly canceled a tour of the new museum. Not surprising, it would seem this president has little interest in American history, except in digestible sound-bytes adaptable for late night twitter shaming. It might have served him well to have learn the complex and difficult history of the nation he’s about the lead. In the expansive history galleries some seventy feet below ground of the new museum, he would have learned about the geographic breadth and the deadly wake of the African slave trade. He would have encountered a bronze likeness of the author of the Declaration of Independence and third U.S. President Thomas Jefferson, holding one of his prized books—Palladio perhaps—that would become the foundation for the Library of Congress. But alas this president is shamelessly proud he doesn’t (or perhaps can’t) read. President Trump might have noticed that the noble statue of Jefferson was posed in front of a tall brick wall, one similar to those found at his Virginia plantation Monticello and at the University of Virginia, both designed by the nation’s first architect. If he were perceptive, President Trump also might have noticed that each brick bore the name of one of the 600 slaves that Jefferson owned over his lifetime—enslaved workers who labored not only to build what are now UNESCO Heritage monument sites toured by millions, but who lived and died to maintain Thomas Jefferson and his family’s lives in a manner of wealth befitting their social status. Yes, President Trump there is something about America’s truths, its total history, that may have frightened you.


To put this in an historical context, the wealth of the United States was built through the genocidal expropriation of land from indigenous people by waves of European colonists. On that land, now property, the planter elites sowed vast acreages of rice, tobacco, sugar and cotton. With the aid of the burgeoning merchant class they shipped these raw materials back to England, France, and Spain to be turned into manufactured goods for a healthy profit that became the back bone of the robust economy [wealth accrued from the slave trade funded the creation of Harvard, Princeton and Columbia among them.] As both land holdings and commerce increased, wealthy planters and merchants needed more stable pools of labor than indentured Europeans, so they legally enslaved men, women and children from the coasts of Africa who could provide a workforce—ruthlessly disciplined through violence.


As the nation’s first secretary of State under George Washington, Thomas Jefferson helped coordinate the construction of Washington D.C. The neo-classical monuments to democracy, liberty, and equality designed by architects William Thornton, Benjamin Henry Latrobe, and Charles Bulfinch possess their own hidden histories. When skilled craftsmen and unskilled white laborers could not be contracted either locally or from Europe, for example, the city’s commissioners paid slave-owners for slave labor to dredge, for example, the Potomac and build a suitable port to facilitate the decades long construction process. Surveyor Pierre L’Enfant directed teams of enslaved workers to clear roads and open plots to sell at auction. Teams of enslaved workers built the White House, a fact that mentioned by former First Lady Michelle Obama in her rousing speech at the recent Democratic National Convention, a truth that was greeted with disbelief by the American public and refutations by newscasters in the right-wing media-sphere. Elsewhere in the Capital City, teams of enslaved workers labored for years to erect the backdrop of today’s presidential inauguration—the U.S. Capital. Yes, there is something about the truth of America, its total history that may frighten many.


Eight years ago, on a blisteringly Tuesday morning, I stood bundled shoulder to shoulder with my fellow Americans on the frozen tundra that was the National Mall. We had gathered to hear the inaugural address of President Barack Obama. As he took the oath of office as the 44th President of the United States there was a collective and electric sense of optimism ignited by the election of the first African-American president. We had hope. That morning, to many in the crowd—young and old—President Obama represented the promise of America that perhaps “we do hold these truths to be self-evident that all men (and women) are created equal.” Not one to gush patriotic, at that moment I was proud to be an American. And why not my family had called this country home since the 18th century. I am an American whose mix of African and European heritage echoed that of the incoming President. But because my family roots in this nation are much deeper his, my one quarter European heritage is not the outcome of an interracial marriage that had birthed Obama. Rather, as it is for many African Americans, my heritage was the legacy of white slave owners raping black women to reproduce property and to expand wealth. That is the violent truth about America, its total history that some may find frightening.

In my seminar on Wednesday, my students and I read Chapter 11 from Michel Foucault’s Society Must be Defended. It instructively lays out his theory of discipline and bio-politics, that work in concert as technologies of power to form the modern state apparatus. In his targeted parsing of historical processes, Foucault argues that the modern state—born in the eighteenth century through the genocide of colonization—rages an internal war on its people. The modern State exerts its techniques of power, the disciplinary and the bio-political, to divide by racial difference. For Foucault, the State regulates by race to introduce “a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die,” or to put in more contemporary terms—whose lives matter and whose lives don’t. These mechanisms of power fundamental to the Racial State of America were manipulated aplomb by Trump and his minions to stir up a dark storm of racial animus (not to mention misogyny, homophobia, Anti-semitism, Islamaphobia), a toxic tide of racism that many believed to have receded after the fierce and deadly civil rights struggles of the 1960s.


We can count the ways that Donald Trump’s ascendance represents the truth about America, “the total American history,” that Baldwin pinpointed, “which frightens Americans.” But we as stewards and visionaries of the built environment, in the work that we do—I hope—represent the promise of America and certainly not the gilded “great America” that the developer-in-chief has deceptively peddled on the campaign trail. In the academy, we must be undisciplined. Only in this way can we exert the epistemic violence necessary to overturn forms of oppression embedded in the western onto-epistemological condition. As citizens, we must be unruly. We must see the nation and the world in all of its contradictions and failures. We must know our histories and interrogate rigorously our present conditions, so as not to cloud our vision but to reckon with the world that as is, so that we can imagine a future rich with possibilities and full of promise for all.

Dresser Trunk Project

Newark was jumpin’ and jivin’.

The singing Coleman Brothers opened the doors of the Coleman Hotel.

Their new establishment catered to black travelers and music industry folks who were prohibited from staying in Newark’s white owned hotels by du jure and de facto laws of Jim Crow, even in the North.

The city’s existing patchwork of jukejoints, taverns, bars, taprooms, and breweries when patronized by southern blacks—migrants mainly from North Carolina and Virginia—sparked one of the liveliest nightclub scenes west of Harlem. Billie Holiday, Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle, and Little Jimmie Scott could be seen checking in and out of the hotel’s busy front desk. At night they performed at one of the many nearby venues in and around the city’s Central Ward—the Adams Theater, the Hi Spot, Laurel Garden, and the Nest.

The Coleman Hotel brokered the action between competing nightclubs and dancehalls whose patrons swung to the tunes of Jim- mie Lunceford, Cab Calloway, Ellington, Hamp, Louis Jordan, Basie, and local talents like the sweet Sarah Vaughn. A barbershop, a restaurant, a swank cocktail lounge, and the Coleman’s own recording and broadcast studio for their record label, along with a fty rooms lled the six stories of the hotel on Court Street.


Long gone.
Remnants and remains packed away in a tattered blue suitcase.
Lyrical pro les and whispers of sounds captured like a curl of smoke dancing in the night. 




Inside the “Coleman Hotel” viewers discover illuminated cast resin pieces with found objects and an audio soundtrack playing the sounds of jazz and swing. The valise is one eleven trunks (memory boxes) that commemorates a signi cant site of refuge for black travellers who journeyed along the Southern Crescent Rail Link between New Orleans and New York City. The Negro travel guide, the Green Book, provided a list of safe havens for travellers, many of them musicians and performers, who could not nd accommodations and places to dine because of racial segregation. The Coleman Hotel was one such establishment that thrived for twenty years in the northern industrial hub of Newark, New Jersey. 


Dresser Trunk Project: Places of Refuge

curated by William Williams


Exhibited at

Kibel Gallery, University of Maryland, April 2009


Main Gallery, School of Architecture, Uni- versity of Pennsylvania, November 2008


Exhibition Gallery, School of Architecture, Howard University, September 2008


The Bayley Art Museum, University of Vir- ginia, November 2007


Extension Gallery, Chicago, Illinois - September 2007 

  • Istanbul Biennial: Who Builds Your Architecture?

    The Global Network Drawing by WBYA? maps the implications of global architecture projects through in-depth analyses of globalized workforces, in particular migrant construction labor. The ethics around migrant labor and iconic global architecture became a matter of public debate in 2011 when Gulf Labor, an artist-led campaign for workers rights, staged protests calling on cultural institutions to resolve labor rights issues on building sites in Abu Dhabi. As part of Gulf Labor’s 52 Weeks Campaign, WBYA? proposed expanding the human rights standards briefly noted in the American Institute of Architects’ Code of Ethics.


    For the 2nd Istanbul Biennial, The Future is Not What it Used to Be, WBYA? created a workroom that illustrates their proposal, asking questions such as: How can we expand the definition of sustainable architecture to include sustaining human life?


    2nd Istanbul Biennial - curators Zoe Ryan and Meredith Carruthers


    Kadambari Baxi, Jordan Carver, Laura Diamond Dixit, Lindsey Wikstrom Lee, Tiffany Rattray, Mabel O. Wilson; with Glen Cummings and Aliza Dzik of MTWTF; and support from Columbia University GSAPP

  • Carceral Architectures

    With the exception of the Haitian Revolution, the French and Americans failed to put an end chattel slavery after their respective revolutions, despite the fact that its logic ran against the grain of modern democracy’s values of self-determination and natural rights. As self-governing, democratic nations formed—no longer under divine rule of monarchies—new civic architecture needed to be designed and built, including prisons, an integral part of the judicial functions of the new government. But the presence of Europe’s Others in the United States—Native Americans, as well as, and more specifically, freed and enslaved blacks—complicated how prisons were designed and utilized, and how the newly constituted democratic values of America clashed with its slave-based economy.


    The essay "Carceral Architectures" appears withing the archives of eflux architecture's Superhumanity project that "seeks to explore and challenge our understanding of 'design' by engaging with and departing from the concept of the “self.” Superhumanity aims to probe the idea that we are and always have been continuously reshaped by the artifacts we shape, to which we ask: who designed the lives we live today? What are the forms of life we inhabit, and what new forms are currently being designed? Where are the sites, and what are the techniques, to design others? Over fifty writers, scientists, artists, architects, designers, philosophers, historians, archeologists and anthropologists will bring new insight to these and related questions." Superhumanity responds to Mark Wigley and Beatriz Colomina's question "Are We Human?" the theme of  Istanbul's  3rd Design Biennial. It was coedited by Nicolas Hirsch, Anton Vidokle, and Nick Axel. A Superhumanity reading room was exhibited from October 22 to November 20 at DEPO (Tütün Deposu Lüleci Hendek Caddesi No.12, Tophane 34425 İstanbul) as a part of the 3rd Istanbul Design Biennial.


    Read "Carceral Architecture" 

    This “space of Otherness” line of nonhomogeneity had then functioned to validate the socio-ontological line now drawn between rational, political Man (Prospero, the settler of European descent) and its irrational Human Others (the categories of Caliban [i.e. subordinated Indians and the enslaved Negroes])… 
    —Sylvia Wynter


    In 2014 the San Francisco-based Architects/Designers/ Planners for Social Responsibility (ADPSR) requested the American Institute of Architects (AIA) to adopt a rule prohibiting architects from designing buildings for the purpose of execution, torture, or solitary confinement. An estimated 80,000 prisoners currently live in some form of solitary confinement, including those housed in “supermax” prisons designed specifically to segregate. Not only are black and Hispanic men and women disproportionally represented in the prison population, but they are also disproportionally represented among those sentenced to solitary confinement. ADPSR was unequivocal in its stance that spaces purposefully designed to facilitate cruel, inhumane, and degrading acts should not be sanctioned by the profession and are “fundamentally incompatible with professional practice that respects standards of decency and human rights.” The AIA declined their request to amend their Code of Ethics (although the organization is currently reconsidering its initial response). Given that architecture is one the least racially diverse professions in the United States—according to the Department of Labor, 80% of architects are white—it comes as little surprise that an effort to ban the design of spaces for the unethical treatment of a largely black and brown incarcerated population would fail.


    Prison Map is a website and database designed to archive aerial shots of the prisons throughout the US and map its geography of incarceration. This project is developed by Josh Begley.

    Marching On

    African-American marching bands have long been powerful agents of cultural and political expression. These performances celebrate cultural identity while also asserting collective visibility and rights to public space. 

    Historically rooted in military training, the marching band performances that animated streets around the U.S. offered sanctioned means for African-Americans to gain access to public spaces that had been severely limited by Jim Crow racial segregation. From the end of the Civil War through and early decades of the twentieth century, men donning military uniforms and women dressed in the colors of religious and civic associations marched to publicly assert solidarity against racial oppression while simultaneously celebrating the rich cultural expressions of black music and performance.

    In the vibrant black crossroads of Harlem, marching thrived as a versatile medium that could merge the sounds of ragtime and jazz, while also serving to publicize the political causes of figures like Marcus Garvey. In these performances, acts of militancy and civil disobedience could be cloaked by military precision and the steady cadence of marching men, women and children. Drawing from these multi-layered histories, the designs of the costumes and choreography for Marching On play with the theme of camouflage as it relates to questions of public visibility and access. Performances of Marching On took place in Harlem’s Marcus Garvey Park, with costumes merging the geometric patterns of the park's paving with contemporary military camouflage. The performance’s choreography also draws from traditional military forms and formations to both blend and stand out in city’s public spaces and streets.

    Marching On was inaugurated with a series of performances by the Marching Cobra’s presented by the Marcus Garvey Park Alliance as part of Performa 17. The exhibition Marching On: The Politics of Performance will be on view at The Storefront for Art and Architecture from April 10 - June 9, 2018.



    Artistic Direction – Mabel O. Wilson and Bryony Roberts


    Commissioning Institution – Storefront for Art and Architecture


    Choreography – Terrel Stowers and Kevin Young of the Marching Cobras of New York


    Performers – the Marching Cobras of New York


    Costume Sourcing – Joseph Blaha


    Cape Construction – Colin Davis Jones Studios


    Fabric Printing – Design2Print


    Graphic Design – Nikki Chung and Dungjai Pungauthaikan of Once-Future


    Research Assistance – Mariam Abd El Azim of Storefront for Art and Architecture, and Mayra Mahmood, graduate student at Columbia GSAPP


    Production Assistance – Max Lauter of Storefront for Art and Architecture, Sasha Okshetyn and Maaike Gouwenberg of Performa


    Video - Feran Mendoza and Chris Balmer


    Photography Jenica Heintzelman

  • courtesy of Bryony Roberts
  • courtesy of Bryony Roberts
  • Paula Court courtesy of Performa
  • Paula Court courtesy of Performa
  • Paula Court courtesy of Performa
  • Paula Court courtesy of Performa
  • Changing the Subject

    Today, when civic structures and urban spaces are increasingly at the center of political debates—witness the resurgence of marches, protests, and strikes in cities around the globe—Artforum (Summer 2017) invited architectural historian Mabel O. Wilson to speak with senior editor Julian Rose about the politics of race, labor, and architecture.


    Read the Artforum article here

    "Changing the Subject"

    Jun, 2017

    Benjamin Henry Latrobe, The White House, Washington, DC, South Front Elevation, 1817, watercolor and ink on paper, 16 1/8 × 21 1/4".

    Rosenwald School

    Marking the 150th anniversary of the American architect’s birth, MoMA presented Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive, a major exhibition that critically engages his multifaceted practice. Little known is a design for a model school building for African American children, drawn up in 1928, for the Rosenwald Foundation, created by Julius Rosenwald, a co-owner of the Sears Roebuck Company in Chicago. The Rosenwald School program was conceived by Booker T. Washington and funded in part by the Rosenwald Foundation. One third or more was raised by black communities who yearned for fair and equitable schools around the South.


    Wright’s design would have reorient this program of schools for the segregated south from traditional clapboard school houses to buildings as innovative in their construction methods as in their architectural style.  As in all of the schools the students were intended to help build the school buildings, making hand’s on labor an integral part of education, something developed in particular in conjunction with the curriculum of the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute in Hampton, Virginia, a teacher -training school for African Americans.  As much as the design  reflects Wright's progressive views on education, comments in correspondence, interviews, and letters, suggest that he still believed Black Americans, were legitimately educated apart because of what he considered innate racial differences.  The project begun in 1928 never progressed beyond the schematic stage.  


    Frank Lloyd Wright at 150: Unpacking the Archive was organized by MoMA in collaboration with the Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, New York, and organized by Barry Bergdoll, Curator,  and Jennifer Gray, Project Research Assistant, Department of Architecture and Design, The Museum of Modern Art. 


    Rosenwald School section curated by Mabel O. Wilson

    How to See/Rosenwald School video 


    Purchase the catalogue here

    Frank Lloyd Wright: Unpacking the Archive

    Jun, 2017
  • perspective Rosenwald School, F.L.Wright, Avery Library Archives, Columbia University
  • plan sketch,Rosenwald School, F.L.Wright, Avery Library Archives, Columbia University
  • Construction of Rosenwald School, 1921, Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs, Small Collections Library, UVA Library
  • Rosenwald School, 1925, Jackson Davis Collection of African American Educational Photographs, Small Collections Library, UVA Library
  •  In the North the Negro had better educational facilities, Migration Series, 1941, Jacob Lawrence. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
  • Whittier School, Hampton Institute 1899, Frances Benjamin Johnston.The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
  • Hampton Institute 1899, Frances Benjamin Johnston. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
  • exhibition view, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
  • exhibition view, The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York
  • Critical Field Guide

    Who Builds Your Architecture? asks how can architects be most effective in bettering the conditions of workers employed in building their designs? Many points of pressure are needed to effect change in the various networks that coordinate the actors and resources in building these large-scale projects. Architects cannot shoulder this responsibility alone, or resolve the professional and ethical challenges that arise from these immense projects; it will require e orts from all parties within these networks. Labor unions and human rights organizations have become key allies of constructions workers to resolve issues with owners

    and governments. Some solutions will also rest within the purview of the architect’s expertise in housing and urban design and should become part of the international debate on these issues. The WBYA? Critical Field Guide offers an introduction to the issues and an outline for possible actions to this critical global problem. 


    Click link below to download and read the WBYA? Critical Field Guide

  • Global Networks of Architectural Labor

    In collaboration with Graph Commons, Who Builds Your Architecture? maps connections between building projects in four cities: Chicago, New York, Istanbul, and Doha. The database uses the design and construction of building facades to trace diverse relationships between architects, clients, consultants, and construction companies at a global scale.From our on-going research, WBYA? has excerpted case studies in four cities—Chicago, New York City, Istanbul, and Doha—to reveal complex local and global networks of the architecture and construction process, in particular highlighting connections between architects and the construction workers who build their architecture.


    View - Global Networks of Architectural Labor


    Who Builds Your Architecture? in collaboration with Burak Arikan and Graph Commons


    Online and in the Art Institute of Chicago WBYA? exhibition


    Oct, 2016
  • One World Trade Center, New York City, U.S.
  • Barclays Center, Brooklyn, U.S.
  • Hamad International Airport, Doha, Qatar
  • Who Builds Your Architecture? Art Institute of Chicago

    Who Builds Your Architecture?  was part of an exhibition series in which the Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago enlisted contemporary architects and designers to organize installations that investigate critical issues within their practices. For this installation, Who Builds Your Architecture? (WBYA?) presented research related to migrant workers and the global construction industry. The exhibition was divided into two parts:  one part looked broadly at the construction process through a drawing of a fictional transnational project. The second part examines specific structural components from buildings in four major cities.


    Project Space, Department of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago, curators Zoe Ryan and Karen Kice, with support from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts.


    WBYA? Kadambari Baxi, Jordan Carver, Laura Diamond Dixit, Tiffany Rattray, Lindsey Wikstrom, and Mabel O. Wilson. 


    Special thanks to Beth Stryker, Gulf Labor; MTWTF: Glen Cummings, Aliza Dzik, Michela Povoleri, and Sarah Dunham; Graph Commons and Burak Arikan; and Columbia University GSAPP and Dean Amale Andraos




    Nov, 2016
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver
  • WBYA? Jordan Carver