“On Roots and Regeneration”

HBCU Africa | Architecture Lecture Series | Session 5 – Amber N. Wiley from ArchiAfrika on Vimeo.

On April 16, 2021 Amber gave a public lecture entitled “On Roots and Regeneration” for the HBCU Africa Architecture Lecture Series. The talk covered Wiley’s time as the inaugural H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellow with the Society of Architectural Historians, as well as her experiences teaching on the hidden landscapes of slavery in the continental U.S. Wiley traveled and researched the architectural history in six countries, including Ghana and Ethiopia to see not only the ways that communities create, inhabit, and think about space, but what these interactions reveal about the society in which the space is produced. Through this research she connected the deep intersections of culture, geography, design, preservation, and public history. More recently, she has taught courses highlighting the diasporic presence in the United States, in addition to the lesser known histories of enslaved Americans, both in the North and South.  Thus, she presented new ways of thinking about roots and regeneration through a cross-continental lens.

The HBCU Africa Architecture Lecture Seriesis an ongoing series led by the African Diaspora NationHBCU Africa Homecoming, and ArchiAfrika organizations. In collaboration with several HBCUs like Morgan State University, the lecture series will host eight distinguished individuals discussing the benefits and opportunities the HBCU system and the African Continent have with each other.

“The Architecture of Exploitation in Ghana”

Amber’s newest publication is out and ready for order. She was one of the numerous contributors to the Architectural Guide: Sub-Saharan Africa edited by Philipp Meuser and Adil Dalbai. Her essay, “Firmitas, Utilitas, Profectus: The Architecture of Exploitation in Ghana,” covers the history and evolution of Elmina and Cape Coast Castle in Ghana.

Despite the growing interest in Africa, the continent’s built environment is still largely unfamiliar in many parts of the world. The seven volumes of the Sub-Saharan Africa Architectural Guide form the first comprehensive overview of architecture south of the Sahara that does justice to the region’s wealth of buildings. In 49 chapters, each focusing on one country, richly illustrated texts by more than 350 authors from Africa and across the globe come together to produce a superlative work.

On the basis of 850 selected buildings and over 200 thematic articles, the continent’s building culture is elucidated and contextualised. The diverse contributions paint a multifaceted picture of Africa’s architecture in the twenty-first century, a discipline shaped by traditional and colonial roots as well as today’s global interconnections and challenges. An  introductory volume on the history and theory of African architecture provides essential background knowledge.

“The Revolution Continues: The Legacy of Black Heritage Movement”

On March 4th Amber gave an evening talk sponsored by the Graduate Program in Historic Preservation and the Center for the Preservation of Civil Rights Sites at the University of Pennsylvania Weitzman School of Design. Her presentation re-examined the legacy and impact of the work of the Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation (ABC) in Washington, DC. It illustrated how the ABC set the precedent for a more nuanced understanding of the American past, expanding the National Park Service’s inclusion of Black historic landmarks twenty-fold. The ABC’s mission was to increase participation of African Americans in the 1976 Bicentennial, to direct projects that highlighted Black history, but most importantly, to be a “‘vehicle’ for improving the lives of Black Americans.” The organization worked to “continue the revolution” through the “process of decolonization, a movement toward self-realization and self-government by people determined not to be kept in a subject status.” Preservation was a tactic of curating a cultural heritage that hitherto was rendered invisible, but the aims of ABC were also a part of the larger freedom struggle for Black Americans.  In this way, ABC was an outgrowth of both the advent of Home Rule in Washington, as well as the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. Historians Charles H. Wesley and Mary F. Berry, Senator Edward Brooke and Representative Shirley Chisholm were a few of the power players on ABC’s advisory board. The talk covered the long-time collaboration between the organization and the National Park Service (NPS), which continued when the ABC re-organized as the Afro-American Institute for Historic Preservation and Community Development.

To view a recording of the talk, please visit the Weitzman School of Design YouTube.

“Shameful Shaw” and Narratives of Black Pathology

This keynote lecture was offered as the culmination of the Latrobe Chapter of the Society of Architectural Historians biennial symposium, “Race, Ethnicity, and Architecture in the Nation’s Capital.”

This research came from Wiley’s current book project, a history of Black Washingtonian’s ambition for education as a means towards racial uplift and the repercussions therein. During the height of the Jim Crow era, White reactionaries in the city used urban planning as a tool for racialized spatial elimination, dislocating Black residents and shuttering Black schools, causing increased overcrowding in near Howard University in Northwest. A 1950s Washington Post crime reporter argued the schools in the Second Police Precinct faced competition from the neighborhood alleys which were “classrooms for trouble.” Black youth in the historic mid-city neighborhood were continuously pathologized in print, on television, and in academic reports.

Wiley argued that despite major gains in federal Civil Rights legislation, Washington public schools continued to flounder throughout the 1960s, in large part due to the absence of Home Rule. Black parents in the city fought against a discriminatory ability tracking system implemented by Superintendent Carl Hansen shortly after integration. Federal education policymakers put their hopes first in New Frontier juvenile delinquency programs, then in Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, to lend aid to the crippled school system. Wiley contended that the bankrupt school system, which relied on Congress for budgetary appropriations, was the recipient of federal grants because Black youth were criminalized, not because of the decrepit condition of the schools. The problem of Black schools in Washington, according to policymakers, was the problem of Black pathology, not white racism. Thus, federal dollars were spent on compensatory programs rather than bricks and mortar projects, until the 1965 uprising in Watts forced a change in the administration of urban policy projects. Shaw Junior High School (known by then as “Shameful Shaw”), was a symbol of both bureaucratic disfunction in the city and the supposed “cultural depravity” of Black youth. In an effort to avoid urban unrest in Washington, Shaw and the neighborhood around it would become the basis of a Model Cities urban renewal project promoted by local clergy and activist Walter Fauntroy.

Re-Centering the Margins

For decades, some of the most groundbreaking work happening in historic preservation was not written about. It wasn’t taught in the classroom or regularly celebrated at conferences. And it did not catch the eye of practitioners or government agencies. Until recently, it has lived on the edges of the field, often operating under the guise of museum studies or urban planning. Yet, this important work, and the individuals behind it, are poised to not just disrupt the field of historic preservation, but crack it wide open.

Over 30 practitioners, academics, community advocates and policymakers—arguably some of the brightest minds in historic preservation—gathered for the first time to share their work in addressing equity and justice in the practice. “Re-Centering the Margins: Justice and Equity in Historic Preservation” will took place virtually on Wednesday, January 27 and Thursday, January 28, highlighting the research, work and perspectives of BiPOC, women and queer practitioners.

Amber participated in the first day of the symposium, presenting in the session entitled “Case Studies from the Field: Disrupting the Standards.” Her presentation covered the work she did as a co-principal investigator updating the Carter G. Woodson National Historic Site landmark nomination form.

Toward an Anti-Racist Architecture

On January 23, 2021, Amber sat on the panel Toward an Anti-Racist Architecture, a panel hosted and moderated by UCLA Architecture and Design PhD students.

How do we interrogate the architectural discipline and promote an anti-racist approach to the discourse?

This panel began a discussion on building an anti-racist discourse into architectural practice and architectural history. The intent was not simply to highlight or reify the concept of race or racism in architectural practice and history but to begin to build a language to dismantle and advance beyond these destructive forces. The ambition was to create a platform for exchanges and to link with other arenas that are already undertaking this anti-racist work and suggest how students can apply this practice in their futures. This panel brought together four professionals and scholars in various fields of overlapping design practice and study, asking them to speak not only about how they have integrated an anti-racist discourse into their work but also about how they have transformed their respective practices into moments of self-criticality in order to build an equitible and just future for design.

Panelists included:

  • Tsione Wolde-Michael, Curator of African American Social Justice History, Smithsonian National Museum of American History
  • Germane Barnes, Assistant Professor and the Director of The Community Housing & Identity Lab (CHIL), University of Miami School of Architecture, Founder of Studio Barnes
  • Amber Wiley, Assistant Professor, Rutgers School of Arts and Sciences Art History Department
  • Sara Zewde, Assistant Professor in Practice of Landscape Architecture, Harvard GSD

Interview in the Architect’s Newspaper

The design of today’s public schools tends toward the underwhelming. Their formal and material solutions tell a story of frugality of means as well as of imagination. Even in those instances where the architecture does excel, where it manages to bond function with uplift, the effect is always hampered by a menacing apparatus of security devices and barriers.

It wasn’t always so. In 1960s Washington, D.C., Black architects drew on the prevailing Brutalist idiom in monumental designs that aimed to match transformational notions of schooling with sculptural massings in raw concrete. In various essays, historian Amber N. Wiley has given close scholarly attention to the design of Shaw Junior High School and Dunbar High School and the social currents that gave rise to them. She plans to extend this research in a forthcoming book tentatively titled Concrete Solutions: Architecture, Activism, and Black Power in the Nation’s Capital. AN’s executive editor, Samuel Medina, caught up with Wiley to discuss this surprising, tragic chapter of D.C. architectural history.

To read more, visit the article.

Tangible Remnants Podcast

Amber recently sat down with fellow UVA architecture alum and preservationist Nakita Reed for an conversation on Reed’s podcast, Tangible Remnants. The podcast explores the interconnectedness of architecture, historic preservation, sustainability, race & gender.

The conversation covered Amber’s travels to Mexico, Guatemala, Ghana, Ethiopia, India and Vietnam through the H. Allen Brooks Fellowship sponsored by the Society of Architectural Historians. The topic was A Sense of Place, reminisces about traveling through these countries as a Black woman, and the deep history of sites like Tlatelolco in Mexico City, and the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City.

To listen to the podcast, click here.

Kelly Tukee Lecture at UVa

On October 26, 2020, Amber delivered the Kelly Tukee Lecture in Historic Preservation for the University of Virginia School of Architecture. While her initial topic was “On Standards and Integrity,” she chose also to add an introductory segment entitled “Material and Memory.” The beginning of the lecture focused on her positionality as a Black women within academe, citing the work of Anna Julia Cooper, Carrie Mae Weems, and Saidiya Hartman. She then transitioned to discuss her work with the National Park System Advisory Board National Historic Landmarks Committee, as well as her research conducted on the Carter G. Woodson Home National Historic Site.

To view the lecture, click here.