THEY REMINISCE OVER YOU: A LOOK BACK AT DESIGNING IN COLOR’S “FOR US, BY US” WORKSHOP ON NOMA 2018
Designing in Color (DCo) is a think tank and distributive digital initiative aimed at challenging the established rhetoric of architecture education and practice. Organized by young professionals located in Los Angeles, Boston, and Seattle, DCo seeks to provoke minority professionals, students, and their allies to confront environments that discourage their substantive creativity and multicultural identity.
The most impactful phrase of the workshop by far - the one that drew the kind of stunned silence only something profound tends to elicit - was, “a choice you don’t know, is a choice you don’t have.” Y’tasha Womack’s succinct description of Afrofuturism expanding the mind resonated with the hundred or so architects and designers in the audience. Many jotted it down, excited to bring up the architectural implications of Afrofuturist thought as soon as the members of Designing in Color (DCo) were finished speaking. Framed between the past of Floyd McKissick’s Soul City case study and the evocative future of Afrofuturism, DCo’s workshop, “For Us, By Us,” was a challenge to generate the idealized city block. Such an exploration was well within the central ethos of DCo: amplifying the voices of minority designers and fueling the growth of generational wealth. A well-designed city block, built for the community rather than wealthy interlopers, is one of the key engines for insuring the prosperity of the underserved who live there. And so, the members of Designing in Color converged in Chicago - hailing from Los Angeles, Boston, and Seattle - and kicked off the NOMA workshop series.
Designing in Color’s “For Us, By Us” workshop at the 2018 NOMA Unbounded Conference really ran with the “unbounded” theme of breaking outside of the walls built around our imaginative creativity. It pushed participants to explore paths beyond the boxes we are often placed in. Like Afrofuturism, what if we envisioned a future that doesn’t ignore the realities of the past, but chooses to recontextualize them? In adopting this mindset in our careers and everyday life, we can move forward implementing a new level of freedom and creativity that will not only change the way in which our built environment looks and feels, but will also shift the generational perspectives.
One of Designing in Color’s goals is to broaden how the history of our cities are distributed and documented. When lecturing our peers about the development of “Soul City”, a forward-thinking black community with a goal of ownership and empowerment in North Carolina, it was not surprising that most people in the audience were not aware of its history. The short success of Floyd McKissick’s enterprise has been buried underneath what is now a correctional facility in North Carolina - and sadly an embodiment of the country’s mass incarceration system.
For decades, the U.S. has actively disenfranchised black communities, making it difficult to create networks and new progressive discourses. In response to these challenges, black communities - dating back from slavery to the civil rights era of the 1960s - relied upon the sharing of wisdom via the elders’ word of mouth, passing down important and otherwise unobtainable information. Today, NOMA embodies this rhetoric through the various engagements between participants at different stages in their careers. It is common to have a firm owner of 30 years sharing conversation with a first year architecture student, conveying their expertise and passion across generations. Through activities where everyone becomes a resource for new information, we challenged participants to think broadly about the way in which they experience cities. This exercise was interesting because not only did it capture a broad range of information, but also a diversity of thought from regions represented across the room. The conference in Chicago had over 900 participants, all of whom were granted the opportunity to exchange information with people from a common background, limitlessly changing and encouraging their colleagues.
A Designing in Color workshop depends on the continuation of discourse. These new concepts, ideas, and explorations mean nothing if attendees emerge not understanding how to implement them into their professional and personal lives. “For Us, By Us,” therefore, concluded with a group activity - one involving the mass of people in attendance - getting them out of their seats and actively using the concepts of Afrofuturism and Soul City to construct something intensely personal and deeply vital: their ideal city block. Armed with the tools from the discussion prior, participants dove headfirst into the task. In minutes, large blank documents on the wall were transformed into tableaus of ideas and aspirations for their communities. An Ideal City Block functioned. It was indigenous. It exuded vernacular style, feeling dynamic and forward-thinking, yet very much of the surrounding area. The Ideal City Block downplayed the shrewd and vicious qualities of capitalism, while emphasizing a socially-driven mindset that valued the accomplishments of the individual for the community. The Ideal City Block thrived in spite of and because of hardship. It was a weathered rock, one that endured a difficult past, wore its scars beautifully, and used those markings to shape a gorgeous new aesthetic. “For Us, By Us” challenged the audience to synthesize the information they received over the event and create something meaningful. The breathtaking ideas left pinned to those large, blank documents were testaments to their success. And, paraphrasing Jay-Z, the members of Designing in Color measured their success by how many people were successful in that audience, on a chilly morning in Chicago.
To watch a recap of our “For Us, By Us” workshop at the NOMA Conference, head over to our website, designingincolor.com. Engage more with Designing in Color on our Instagram and Facebook (@DesigninginColor).
Christopher Locke: Christopher is a designer at ZGF Architects in LA where he is currently working on the renovation of a mid-century modern building on the Cal-State LA Campus. In addition to his role as a designer, Christopher co-coordinates the office’s Diversity Inclusion Advocacy Group (DIAG) which aims to create impact and change for the office work