Advanced Architectural Design

Studio V fa 2012


"Cities in their present context are modern inventions, and as the new electronic pathways that crisscross the globe circulate and readapt images of the modern city,

they also produce desire for tourism that fuels new contacts and movements within already clogged global travel circuits, unraveling the strict hegemonic tendencies that have always made it difficult to read the map of spatial difference." From "Introduction" in Undersiege Four African Cities, Okwui Enwezor


Media/Memory/Multitude examined networks of media and temporalities that link people, institutions, and places in the vibrant global hub of Johannesburg, South Africa. The first half of the semester, the studio researched the topological, temporal, and cultural conditions of media systems: mobile telecommunications, social media, various media networks, and other forms of cultural media. The other focus of research examined infrastructure as a form of spatial/temporal mediation between residents: these included water, waste, electricity, and various routes of transport. The first four weeks students attended workshops introducing techniques of data mining and parametric modeling that allowed these systems and phenomena to be studied in magnitude from the global to the local along with how they change over time. These animated models (time based) and conventional mappings (palimpsests) captured the dynamic temporal and spatial dimensions of these systems and networks. The studio made a weeklong visit to Johannesburg midway in the semester for reviews, research, and workshops at GSAPP’s Studio X JNB. Drawing on this rich body of research, the studio developed propositions for the iMaginarium, a research center dedicated to the study and artistic production of new media sited in Maboneng district and a research station sited elsewhere in the city.

Posted by mabel on Jul 18, 2013


7AM. Crisp, chilly, snap feels the Joburg air. For my morning ritual here, I lay in bed watching the sun break the blue horizon and draw its light across the wall of my room.  At first a soft pink light peeks through the darkness. Slowly intensifying its yellow cast, the sun rakes its shadows down the rough-hewn wall whose bricks radiate the warm reddish gold of their Gauteng earth. I’m told that this particular intense winter light has a local name—it is called “masana.”


Joburg is a place of contrasts. The city’s legendary history as a site of human struggle echoes in the cadences of everyday life. Where we stay in Jeppestown, men and women lumber back and forth through the city’s streets carrying the burdens of inequalities in their large plastic sacks packed with used boxes and plastic bottles or in carts stuffed with fresh bananas, pineapples, and oranges. Elsewhere I’ve seen the tallest walls fortified with barbed stakes and guards with guns that corral most of the wealth in the verdant north of the city—whose privileged vistas gaze down upon brown carpets of makeshift shacks stacked side by side.


One friend told me that the day after Apartheid ended long entrenched behaviors of white South Africans changed instantly as if eighty years of disdain and disenfranchisement had never happened. “It was like they had forgotten that yesterday  they hated me,” he remembered. While another friend told me that too little had changed and that the economic regime of neo-liberalism championed by the multicultural powers-that-be have simply re-cast the spatialized economic segregation of apartheid under the supposedly surmountable guise class of difference. “Black woman you work hard, no harder, no hardest! And you too can share in the future bounty of our soon to be prosperous nation!” She’s not buying (literally) any of it.


Almost twenty years after the end of Apartheid, the sharp contrasts remain and divide. Stark differences in black, brown, and white come into focus under masana’s winter light.

Posted by mabel on Jun 03, 2013

Negro Building is on award winning writer Junot Diaz's reading list.  Please read the excellent new one by Junot:  This is How You Lose Her.








Posted by mabel on Jun 03, 2013

Jamer Hunt, designer education innovator and  director of Parson's the New School's new MFA program in Transdisciplinary Design, invited me to deliver a short commencement speech to their second graduating class.  Almost rendered speechless at the prospect of dispensing words of wisdom, this is what I managed to cull together to address an inspiring group of smart committed designer graduates:


Good afternoon graduates, and welcome to parents, spouses, partners, family, friends, administrators, faculty, and fanbases. I’m honored to be here and to have been invited address this year’s second graduating class from Parson’s Trans-disciplinary Design program. I hope these words of inspiration may ease what could be diagnosed as the onset of Post-Parson’s depression. I suspect that graduates throughout the undergraduate and graduate divisions of Parsons The New School are all biting a few nails and nervously asking themselves:  What will I do next? Where will I go? What have I learned? And the bottom line so to speak—will this degree help me find work? I would advise to hold off on tackling those existential interrogations till tomorrow because today is a day of celebration—we celebrate your determination and we applaud your accomplishments.


On this day, you should be elated at having completed two years of intense graduate study. Overjoyed at having survived: the studio critiques where of course the reviewers didn’t understand a word you said nor did it help your video links were non-cooperative; the Red Bull fueled all-nighters drafting that perfect sentence of the perfect thesis statement; the wack-a-mole deadlines, the never-ending paperwork, the giddy revelation that you might understand “thing theory” after all and the joys of correcting lay people that Deleuze and Guattari are not a Milanese fashion house. You should be buoyed by the optimism for how the implementation of your design strategies will reshape all facets of our shared domain—from reinventing the public of our urban streetscapes to imagining new learning scenarios and interfaces, from developing new procedures for adjudicating differences to creating ways that improve how healthcare, social services, and policy are delivered to various constituents. You have embraced a collaborative ethos in your work that has opened new pathways for what design can achieve. You better than anyone understand why design matters and to whom it should matter the most. Thus I want offer a few words take with you as you launch your respective practices of design.


We live in age where we no longer have to comb the stacks to gain enlightenment from musty leather bounds books. Knowledge—archival scans, census data, whole film libraries, redacted government documents—is literally at our fingertips—one key board stroke or swipe away. Indeed this past half century has been a digital revolution or perhaps more aptly put a digital revelation—one that never ceases to surprise. For example, just out of curiosity and since I’d only ever been on the listening end of graduation speeches never having to delivered one, I did a quick web search for graduation speeches.

Within 0.42 seconds Google connected me to a quarter million search results. The top ones in the yield:

  •’s great graduation speeches

  •’s newsfeed instructing how to give a commencement speech; the example cited Steven Colbert’s hilarious Northwestern University speech (upon hearing it my ambitions were duly checked)

And there was: 

  •’s wisdom on how to write ye olde high school graduation speech


Inquiring minds can find out almost anything if they have web access. The internet has radically altered our access to information (some say we now live in a knowledge economy, the scale of which none of us quite comprehend). But let’s put a damper on the giddy techno-philia for a moment. For I’m sure these sharp, well-versed trans-disciplinary design graduates would keenly remind us that access to the worldwide pool of knowledge is nonetheless contingent upon access to a computer or smartphone, which means access to electricity, but also assumes the level of literacy of the user and in many instances, given the content of the web, the ability to read and comprehend English. Thus perhaps the web isn’t so world-wide after all. This gap in access to knowledge is therefore precisely one that trans-disciplnary thinking and collaborative methods will tackle. You have learned to think across borders—to think and make differently. To work collaboratively outside the conventional disciplinary battle lines that inscribe where knowledge should be located, produced and dispensed. Your stealth abilities make you a double agent, someone capable of operating in two or more camps simultaneously. You are tomorrow’s design innovators and we eagerly await the outcomes of your dazzling multivalent abilities.


YOU—your talents and imagination—will change the world. To define change in the most basic material terms, we recently discovered through the most innovative and creative work being undertaken in the sciences that change in our world happens when scalar particles—known as bosons—interact and decay. On an everyday register, we experience change as social, cultural, political and economic transformations that shape where and how we work, live and play. “CHANGE” in all its red-white-and blue graphic splendor can turn a graffiti artist into a bonafide art star and make a presidential candidate from out of left-or rather center field appeal to voters of any age. And yet in the aftermath of electoral change, I think we’ve learned that regardless of all of the paraphernalia proclaiming “Change” that real change won’t transpire unless we occupy the streets and demand it happen. Rather than change the world, I think this group of spirited designers will create a different world. To create isn’t just an act of making something new. Instead I want to suggest that to create is to act ethically. The philosopher-cum-rapper-cum-Matrix phenom Cornel West has cogently argued that “every social issue has an ethical dimension.” Meaning, West writes, that “there is some value judgment built into every issue, some moral vantage point from which the world is viewed.” Design is a social practice as your theses projects duly demonstrate and therefore you have already assumed a moral vantage point through your work. The ability to engage difference—human, cultural, ideological, however you want to characterize it—is precisely that threshold across which the creative act bridges. Through engagement with the unknown new knowledge is created, new things emerge, new alliances form. That the creative act—the desire to pursue that which you do not know—is indeed a risky prospect we should be well aware. All journeys to the unknown, as Homer foretold, involve risk. But these are also journeys toward horizons of future possibilities, a quest sparked by curiosity and undertaken with courage.


To this newly minted cohort of trans-disciplinary designers, I will end by saying that you may not know what happens next when you will leave this room or when you leave this institution or leave New York City to head elsewhere in the world—no one knows. The unknown is where creativity flourishes. In launching your trans-disciplinary design practice be smart, be wise, be hopeful, be fearless, be bold in your ambitions but most importantly be CREATIVE.


Best of luck and we applaud your achievements!

Points for Future Reference

Presented at the tenth anniversary of the Graduate Visual and Critical Studies program at the California College of the Arts, "Points for Future Reference" considers the multiple modalities that visual images travel the globe and how methods of research and critical analysis have to adopt to those transformations.


Symposium Presentation


Essay in the journal Elastic vol. 1, September 2011

 Cover M Magazine.    Photo: Paolo Woods


First a caveat, if “the past is a foreign country” as the title of historian’s David Lowenthal’s remarkable study of the modern cult of nostalgia suggests, then I would argue that the future might as well be another galaxy. Outside of the invention of the elusive time machine—perhaps Hollywood wunderkind David Cameron’s multimedia conglomerate is busily developing one for the eventual Avatar 9—turning our cultural gaze toward the future will always be directed through a prismatic lens that starts at the fleeting present moment, then refracts through our hazy recollections of the past. Thus, any effort to cast a forward glance into the future will resonate with the ethos of our current post-postmodern condition. One has only to revisit the photographs of designer Norma Bel Geddes’ epic vision for GM’s “Futurama” at the Century of Progress 1939 worlds fair, for example, a brilliantly crafted propaganda that planted in the popular imagination the financially lucrative scheme for the U.S.’s eventual suburbanization facilitated by auto-mobility, to comprehend the futility of “future-casting.” Or one has simply to tune into a cable rerun of the 70s sci-fi flick Soylent Green,with its dystopic message cautioning the consequences of unchecked population explosion and resource exhaustion, to confirm that the sightlines that triangulate futurity are always taken from the position of where we are now. With this sound observation in mind, at this particular moment, I want to consider five contemporary points of reference that might forecast future visual studies methods and practices.


Not the Opposite of Forgetting

At the turn of the twenty-first century, it was not a modern style of architecture that became international; it was the intellectual capital of the architect that became global. The change is apparent as design professionals routinely jet between Dubai, Beijing, São Paulo, New York, Rotterdam, Accra, and Mumbai. The architects of today work with diverse constituencies and within varied contexts. A chapter in the collection edited by Hansy Better, Where are the Utopian Visionaries, "Not the Opposite of Forgetting”examines how architects might forge meaningful associations and exchanges as they build in places around the world when globalization homogenizes local culture and neoliberalism cultivates a politics of individuation, not a public demand for social justice.


Where are the Utopian Visionaries? Architecture of Social Exchange

Decommissioned Guggenheim Las Vegas
photo: Mabel Wilson


I’m writing you all this from another world, a world of appearances. In a way the two worlds communicate with each other. Memory is to one what history is to the other: an impossibility. Legends are born out of the need to decipher the indecipherable. Memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift. A moment stopped would burn like a frame of film blocked before the furnace of the projector.

Chris Marker, Sans Soleil (1983)


The cinematic narratives of Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (Sunless) breach the tenuous divide separating time from space, memory from history, and East from West. The stream of images composing the film parallels the ways in which memory forms in human perception and consciousness. Letters from an unnamed, nomadic cameraman punctuate Sans Soleil’s fragmented narrative. Marker assembles a patchwork of vignettes, remembrances written to a female narrator who recounts the cameraman’s adventures to the viewer. The subject of these stories migrates from island to island, from the film’s bank of images to our own memory. The narrator’s relay of the traveler’s recollections remind us that “memories must make do with their delirium, with their drift.” Marker’s compilation of found and produced footage explores how memory, enacted through rituals as well as recorded onto magnetic tape, forms in places impacted by various stages of modernization.


New City Reader
Real Estate Section

Published in November 2010, the Real Estate Section of The New City Reader asked the how much is real about “real estate” today? And what is real estate’s basis in reality? The New City Reader was a newspaper on architecture, public space and the city, published as part of The Last Newspaper, an exhibition that ran at the New Museum of Contemporary Art from October 6, 2010–January 9, 2011. Conceived by executive editors Joseph Grima and Kazys Varnelis, the newspaper’s content centered on the spatial implications of epochal shifts in technology, economy and society today. The New City Reader consisted of one edition published over the course of the project, with a new section produced weekly from within the museum’s gallery space, each led by a different guest editorial team of architects, theorists and research groups. These sections were available free at the New Museum and—in emulation of a practice common in the nineteenth­ century American city and still popular in China and other parts of the world today—was posted in public on walls throughout the city for collective reading.



Peter Tolkin, Peter Tolkin Architects


Research Fellows

Elizabeth Lasater

Zoe Malliaros



Carmen Argote

Chloë Bass 

Brigette Borders 

John Cantwell 

Catherine Ingraham 

Marisa Jahn/CUP

Olalekan Jeyifous 


Alexandra Lange

Mitch McEwen 

Minna Ninova 

Daniel Payne 

Alan Rapp 

Cassim Shepard 

Matthew Vaz


New City Reader

editorial page


How much is real about “real estate” today? And what is real estate’s basis in reality? There are of course the binding legal instruments, the deeds and contracts that abstract land into “real property,” subdividing it into tracts and rendering it quantifiable for transaction. Once land becomes designated as real estate, it can be registered in MLS databases and the columns of Excel spreadsheets, crunched by brokers before appearing in advertisements perused by prospective buy­ ers. One of Manhattan’s recent high­end listings, for example, was encoded into this brisk shorthand: $55m 5 BD/7BA 5500sqft NyC CPW Condo. If one were to text this offering to a friend via the New york Times’ nifty new Real Estate app,it might prompt a similarly encrypted response: 4sale @ $10g/sf OMFG!




With Craigslist, other internet classifieds and sites like Curbed thriving, daily and weekly real estate sections are quickly becoming a thing of the past. Online property listings, like news reportage, have exponentially expanded into an every­day, all­the­time posting cycle. This time compression, as Beatriz Colomina posited in the November 5, 2010, Leisure section of the New City Reader, liberates daily newspapers to focus upon lifestyle—and in particular the consumer frenzy of home buying. Current real estate reporting delves into an array of alluring lifestyle choices featuring both local denizens and home dwellers around the world. Even the marketing of urban apartments and condominiums hype ame­ nities that trump the drab linoleum­tiled common room of old; prospective residents are lured by lifestyle perks from luxury gyms and wine tastings to private concerts and landscaped terraces outfitted with propane grills, conversation pits and skyline views. Since twenty­first century workers never seem to punch out of their 24/7 time clocks, we wonder how many folks actually have time to partake in such mirth and merriment?




Negro Building

Focusing on black Americans’ participation in world’s fairs, Emancipation expositions, and early black grassroots museums,Negro Building traces the evolution of black public history from the Civil War through the civil rights movement of the 1960s. Mabel O. Wilson gives voice to the figures that conceived the curatorial content—Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ida B. Wells, A. Philip Randolph, Horace Cayton and Margaret Burroughs. As the 2015 opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., approaches, the book reveals why the black cities of Chicago and Detroit became the sites of major black historical museums rather than the nation’s capital—until now.


Related projects


- Sites of Memory

- African Burial Ground



University of California Press




"Negro Building is the most comprehensive study yet published about the long history of representations of, by, and for African Americans at world’s fairs and museums. Wilson’s book underscores why cultural representations have mattered and continue to matter for African Americans—and for everyone trying to understand what it means to be an American."—Robert W. Rydell, author of All the World's a Fair.



Negro Building, Atlanta Cotton States and International Exposition, Atlanta, 1895.
​From Cooper, Walter G. The Cotton States and International Exposition and South, Illustrated. Atlanta: The Illustrator Company, 1896.
Courtesy of Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library, Emory University


“With abundant archival insights, Mabel Wilson's highly original study of the role of world's fairs in the making of a black public sphere vividly illuminates the transition from Reconstruction to Afro-Modernity with page-turning brilliance. Making a unique contribution to the fields of art history, architecture, visual culture and museum studies, this book offers us a bold interdisciplinary model for first-rate scholarship in African American studies that profoundly enriches our understanding of the Black Atlantic world.”—Kobena Mercer, Professor of African American Studies and History of Art, Yale University



IAM Mobile Museum stationed on Twelfth Street, Detroit, 1967.
Courtesy of Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History. PH104-12.



Empiricism & Abstraction:
A Brief History of
Metals in Architecture

"Empiricism and Abstraction: A Brief History of Metals in Architecture," is an essay in the edited volume Post Ductility by Michael Bell and Craig Buckley.The third book in the series from Columbia University is focused on metals. Metals, as surface or structure as the generators of space play a role in nearly every strain of modernization in architecture. They define complete geographies of work, production, and political life. Non-architectural metals delivered in automobiles, and hard goods in the United States and worldwide have all been sourced as the engines of the sprawling late twentieth-century city in all of its forms. But in the received aspects of architectural history, metals, and in particular steel, remain less diluted; they are presented as intrinsic to the profession as material precedes concepts they are carriers of architectural meaning.


Post Ductility

At the twilight of the Age of Enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby’s painting Iron Forge from Without (1773) is last of the blacksmith series of works that anticipated the waves of industrialization about to inundate English society. From within the iron forge, the viewer witnesses the process of smelting as the smithy heats pig iron over coal-based coke and then pounds its formless mass into the productive tools of the emerging commercial age. The employment of a water-powered tilt hammer, a common technology, mechanized one phase of the ironsmith’s procedures. These discrete techniques would eventually be rationalized into large-scale industrial processes, wherein labor and material could be correlated according to efficiencies of time and cost. Here, already depicted by Wright, is the division of labor under industrial capitalism: the worker manning the forge, the manager overseeing his charge, and the owner surveying his enterprise. Joining the manager in watching this spectacle of production are his wife and child, who don trappings of their middle class status, exhibiting their new social role as the purchasers of the commodities being manufactured from the nation’s lucrative cotton industries. [1]


Iron Forge from Without, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1773



[1] David H. Solkin, “Joseph Wright of Derby and the Sublime Art of Labor,” Representations, no. 83 (Summer 2003), 167–94.

Listening There: Scenes from Ghana

Listening There: Scenes from Ghana examines African Modernism, specifically the modern architecture built in Ghana between the late 1940s and 1960s known as “Tropical Modernism.” Its photographs and videos were conceived of as a provocation rather than an exposition. The journeys to Kumasi, Accra, and the coast of Ghana were motivated by a desire to see how these buildings had fared in the half century since their construction, and to explore how they functioned in today’s increasingly urbanized and globalized contexts.


Research and Design Team

Peter Tolkin, Peter Tolkin Architects

Jeremy Schacht


Research and Design Fellows

Elizabeth Lasater

Kyle Hovenkotter


Design Observer essay


  • Exhibition Poster, Studio X_NYC, 2010
  • Statue of Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, looking towards the National Museum of Ghana, Accra. Architects: Fry, Drew, Drake and Lansdun, 1957
  • Architect’s private residence, Accra, Architect: Kenneth Scott Associates, 1961
  • Black Star Square, also know as Independence Square, built to commemorate independence from colonial rule, Accra. Architect: James Cubitt and Partners, 1961
  • American Embassy, interior, decommissioned and modified, Architect: Harry Weese & Associates, 1956
  • Kejetia Central Market, Kumasi, 2009
  • Beauty parlor, Osu, Accra, 2009
  • Engineering Workshops, Nkrumah University of Science and Technology (KNUST), Architect: James Cubitt and Partners, 1953
  • MTN Branch Office, Oxford Street, Accra, 2009
  • Installation, Studio X_NYC, fall 2010
  • Installation, Studio X_NYC, fall 2010
  • Opening night discussion, Studio X_NYC, fall 2010
  • Listening There video stills matrix
  • Installation, Studio X_Rio, spring 2013
  • Installation, Studio X_Rio, spring 2013
  • Opening night, Studio X_Rio, spring 2013