Oculus Book Review: Dark Space: Architecture, Representation, Black Identity by Mario Gooden

Mario Gooden, principal, Huff + Gooden Architects, introduced his recent collection of essays, Dark Space; Architecture, Representation, Black Identity, at the Center for Architecture on 07.11.16. He was joined in conversation with Joel Sanders, AIA, RA, a professor of architecture at Yale University.

In the first chapter of Dark Space, Gooden interrogates the human impulse for freedom, referring to Foucault’s dictum, “Liberation is spatial practice.” He illustrates the deep history of space making in African-American history, from “bush arbors” to the pinnacle role played by the Black church in community, punctuating this history with a description of R.M. Schindler’s South Los Angeles Baptist Church from 1944. He identifies Schindler’s intent to uncouple the hierarchical structure of a traditional church by planning the central eave according to the performative nature of a Sunday service for the African-American congregation.  Gooden marches the reader through descriptions of Johannes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographics and Borromini’s Quarttro Fontane to analyze this wonderful building, an interesting, but not entirely necessary, approach. The very nature of American ecclesiastical architecture is a series of Frampton-esque morphing typologies: the Quaker meeting house and Henry Ward Beecher’s immersive Congregational interior where the parishioners encircle the preacher.

Later in the book, Gooden analyzes the avant garde artists Louise Lawler, Piper Aiden, and Martha Rosler’s work in the 1970s as he continues to search for spatial strategies concerned with “subjectivity and the repositioning of subject.” With these three artists, Gooden finds an unaesthetic aesthetic that perfectly mirrors his non-objectivity stance. Lacing these artists with the work of Bernard Tschumi from the 1970s illustrates the debt architectural discourse has to feminist identity politics of that time. However, the end of the essay devolves into a series of intellectual tropes – Lacanian psychoanalytics, Foucauldian discourse. One wants to utter, “You had me at RoseLee Goldberg.”

Gooden’s third essay is where his insights shine. His use of architectural theory to direct readers on their search for architecture that speaks to the African-American experience results in an analysis that combines deep conceptual underpinnings with authentic spatial experiences. He gives us a series of contemporary examples of African-American museums throughout the United States, and describes the pros and cons of each, demonstrating the connection between conceptual thought and architectural manifestation. Simply put, nostalgic photo images, motifs, and themes are not architectural concepts, and therefore make weak spaces. Only powerful architecture with strong conceptual underpinnings make spaces that are worthy of the African-American experience.

Gooden’s final chapter introduces the reader to the little-known African-American female architect Amaza Lee Meredith and her house (and, seemingly, manifesto), Azurest South. He pairs this work of architecture with Adolf Loos’s readily contested Josephine Baker House of 1928. Both houses are based on a Modernist construct of non-ornament and a program reconfigured for the individual rather than societal constraints. The mute envelopes of both homes are designed for different purposes, Gooden contends. The façades are devices that shift the “gaze” of the Modernist white male, whether for his benefit in the Baker house, or as a defensive mask in the case of Azurest South.

The success of this volume is Gooden’s amazing gift for walking a reader through a work of architecture to illustrate his thesis on subject/subjectivity. In his discussion with Sanders, a memorable and revelatory description guiding the audience through the Barcelona Pavilion in relation to the George Kolbe sculpture and its reflection of the building’s surface materials was spoken choreography. When Gooden speaks about architecture and not the theory that might surround architecture, he brings great meaning and poignancy to the nature of the African-American indemnity in architecture.

At the end of the discussion, Gooden addressed the heinous racial clashes of the last few weeks, explaining his innately hopeful position as an architect. He maintained that designers have a responsibility to design with the intent to “provide safe access to public space,” and that all of these tragedies happened on public streets, parks, and homes – all places that are under the purview of architects. In his gentlemanly way, Gooden gave us a call to action.