09/11/20 BLACK HISTORIES MATTER
By Marianne Wenzel/Originally Published in Casa Vogue magazine/@casavoguebrasil
CO-FOUNDER OF THE AWARD-WINNING STUDIO SUMO, YOLANDE DANIELS is not an architect of postcard works. "Currently, we have been doing many townhouse renovations,"she says. Her three strongest achievements, commissioned by Josai International University, emerged from the other side of the world, in Japan. Taking into account social contexts in the development of each work is the office's premise, always based on solid research conducted individually by Yolande and her partner, Sunil Bald. While he investigates the connection between popular culture, national identity and modern architecture, she focuses on race, gender and territorial policies—a theme that has currency at educational institutions like MIT and Columbia. Today, as an assistant professor at the University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture, she teaches design and a course called Black City: Infrastructure and Ecologies of the Other in Los Angeles. From her home, by videoconference, she granted the following interview to Casa Vogue:
How was the experience of documenting slavery spaces in Brazil?
On my first trip, accompanying Sunil Bald, my partner at Studio Sumo, when he was a Fulbright fellow, I was intrigued by the number of museums dedicated to the history of slavery in addition to the many artifacts from that period, something we didn't have in the United States. Upon returning home, I put together a research proposal in order to obtain a scholarship and return to Brazil to analyze these objects. This dive resulted in an essay on spaces at Casa dos Contos [in Ouro Preto, MG]. Although located in the basement, the former slave quarters of the mansion were in danger of going unnoticed, because there were no explanations about them and they do not appear in plans. I was interested in this space because it is both present and absent.
What is the main conclusion of this work?
The effort and money invested in preservation caught my attention. Still, Casa dos Contos and other similar attractions are seldom visited, almost neglected. No one really pays any attention to them or truly wants to confront this issue. All of this made me think about how the past is inserted in actuality. On the other hand, there are more visible places, impossible to ignore, such as the Pelourinho de Alcântara, MA, that can be thought of in similar context to the debates about the monuments to the Confederate generals in America. I can imagine the oppression of living with this memory, but because the history of the slave system is hidden, the few remaining symbols demand that we examine the logic behind them and their effects on society.
Did this experience influence your next steps?
My work seeks to examine how the past informs the present. I was involved with this investigation in Brazil until 2000, when I lectured on the subject. When I started to focus on the issue within the United States, there were no similar artifacts and constructions from slavery. How do we evoke an architectural and spatial history of slavery without them? So, I focused on the available texts, a tactic that I had already used when I read Casa-Grande & Senzala, by Gilberto Freyre. I used interviews from the 1930s and 1940s recorded by the Works Progress Administration in one project. When dealing with the African diaspora, we must look beyond the obvious to find traces of history. While each project enabled me to do this better, the ground zero for everything happened in Brazil.
Studio Sumo has designed two spaces dedicated to African art, the Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art and the Museum for African Art, both in New York. In works of this type, does ancestry make a difference?
Yes and no. Yes because in architecture, some stories are left out, if not excluded. The standard approach does not favor the engagement required to value and include them. Because of the need to deal with the fact that my own area ofexpertise denies my existence, I want to act in order to contribute creatively to the world. It is very difficult to work in a profession that does not recognize your presence. So from that point of view, the answer is yes. As a university student, I often felt oppressed and silenced, so I looked to other fields for knowledge. I used disciplines that engaged people, society, and law to articulate questions about social inequities and, later, to pursue answers within architecture. On the other hand, every professional must know how to ask the questions pertaining to a particular job and be involved with sensitivity, regardless of their cultural identity. In the end, anyone who is able to question what happens around them becomes adept at addressing any type of project.
Why did you decide to focus your research on race, gender and territory policies?
Overall, gender and race function like technologies or tools to gain and maintain power. My work explores how these two aspects shape the spaces in which we live, and how power relationships influence them. Spaces are not dissociated from how we think and what we do — in fact, they result from these actions. This broad view (of architecture), beyond buildings and cities, makes it easier to visualize connections between social and physical constructions in work, exploring how issues of race and gender influence spatial dynamics and define spaces.
Could you give some examples?
In one project, I observed the rules for using public facilities throughout the 20th century. Who can go where? What happens if someone stops somewhere “out-of-place“? I emphasized the rail system, a type of conduit for people in the southern United States to set out in search of a better life. These trains traversed many states, and before the mid-1960s, each followed very different laws. That is, depending on the location, the passenger could have more or less access to public services. Minorities were oppressed—and while this varied over time incorporating other groups, such as Latinos and other immigrants, Blacks were always subject to restrictions. California even passed laws against the Chinese during the years of railroad construction. It is basically the desire to control the workforce. When studying these laws, it is clear which spaces were affected. These restrictions were wiped out only with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
What are you currently working on?
The analysis of the dominant narrative in American history in the 20th century, based on the opposition between integration and segregation, focusing on Los Angeles. I addressed the theme first in housing. In the 19th century, ex-slaves built their houses and communities out of thin air. These settlements were integrated (into civic economies) and accumulated wealth. In California, there was a gold rush and a more progressive atmosphere, allowing African-American landowners to become relatively wealthy at the turn of the century. Then there were setbacks, and, throughout the country, these communities suffered attacks. Some strategies were overt while others were more subtle. This characterized the beginning of segregation. I want to understand, in spatial terms, how these nuclei arose and why they shifted. Black migrations began from being enslaved and seeking to being free, and later included the search for work, the escape from violence, and a chance for education for their children, similar to refugees of oppressive systems.
Does this movement still happen?
Between the years 1915 and 1970, in the “Great Migration,” a large contingent of African Americans left the South towards the North and towards the Midwest and the West. The African American population more than quadrupled in cities. But, this amount has been decreasing.
Can architecture help to resolve deep social wounds, such as those arising from racism?
Architecture is a conjunction of materials imbued with meaning and capable of assuming our values. It can only gain value in relation to society. Design is a social tool and incorporates, whether explicitly or not, social codes and terms. As frameworks change, architecture needs to reflect them.
What message would you send to Black Brazilian architects?
Our field of action may not always reflect our reality. But there are allies in less obvious places, like in other disciplines. Don't give up, go around the obstacles, keep asking questions, change your approach and point of view to get answers. Architecture sometimes fails to explain context. I myself sometimes do not know what to do when I start a project, so I start with a question, an interest or a discomfort. Be persistent. Read a lot, visit everything you can, feed your curiosity and don't let anyone stop you from growing.