Graduate architecture students had a chance this spring to synthesize their design knowledge with one of the biggest stories of our time, the historical and ongoing racial violence crisis that has played out in American streets for more than two centuries. The resulting projects are rich in meaning, and devastating in their honesty.

Assistant Professor of Architecture Matthew Wilson, PhD, asked students in his ARCH 603 studio to envision a “Museum of American Violence” that would visually represent an ugly history in thoughtful installations across Midwestern states. Through readings, films, and other media, students learned about and reflected on violent incidents.

We talked about being in a learning environment, being professionals, and learning empathy through the act of design. I prefer to not reduce architecture to a building science as such. We talked about the importance of decentering the design curriculum. We also talked about how such foundational books as Bullard’s Dumping in Dixie (1990) showed many years ago that architects, planners, engineers, and designers have created policies, plans, and places that have disproportionately caused people of color great pain and suffering. Our aim was to learn to listen to one other…. Rather than making assumptions, we asked for clarification. In this way we sought to cultivate a culture of empathy and respect for each other.  – Matthew Wilson, PhD

The architecture students led discussion groups based on the readings and films in a partnership with the SOC 221 Race and Ethic Relations class taught by John Anderson, assistant lecturer of sociology. Anderson and Wilson had been looking for an opportunity to collaborate after discovering shared interests in sociology and social justice.

Both Anderson and Associate Professor of Architecture Olon Dotson, who served as a juror throughout the studio, are Black and brought an irreplaceable perspective, said architecture student Nathan Conley. “Olon, as a minority in America himself, has a very deep and personal understanding of these issues, more than I will ever be able to have, and being able to hear the issues from his perspective was really insightful,” he said.

Conley, who graduated in May, is now an architectural designer at red architecture + planning in Columbus, Ohio. He says high profile events of the past few years – such as the deaths of Freddie Gray and George Floyd — had given him some understanding of the violence imposed on Black individuals and that the class broadened his knowledge and helped him to empathize.

 “Many of the ideas for the design of the memorials in this studio were based around honoring the memory and sacrifice of the victims and envisioning how to portray that sacrifice in some kind of physical form. We had some guidelines on how we should initially begin our designs from our instructor Matt Wilson, and he did a great job throughout the course emphasizing the importance of the portrayals of the victims and why these issues are relevant to designers. I don’t think many people would think of architects first when they think of any kinds of social activism, but this course brought that perspective into it really strongly.” – Nathan Conley, M.Arch 2021

Wilson holds a doctor of philosophy degree with a major in history from University of London, in addition to a bachelor’s degree in architecture and a master’s in landscape urbanism. Great care went into crafting both the sociological and architectural aspects of the six-credit-hour class and making sure students in both classes felt safe expressing themselves. Wilson calls the design process a cathartic means for students to process the heavy historical material. The sociology students served as stakeholders for the designers.

“I had the students work in groups with an aim to emulate, in a small way, the design process in an architecture firm,” he said. “Some students did not realize that many firms specialize in designing specific building types, and that some people spend decades, for instance, only designing museums, or even a single museum. We looked at a lot of memorials, museums, and pavilions to see how architects had responded in different ways to difficult subject matter,” he said.

Anderson said the younger students applied knowledge gained in their readings to the graduate students. He relished the deep conversations that came with some of the cross-disciplinary discussions.

“I appreciated the opportunity to discuss the issue of “value signaling” with one student in particular,” Anderson said. “He shared a personal challenge that he was working through in the form of a question, “to what degree is what we are doing going into the territory of value signaling”? We discussed how “value signaling” is important for architects to keep in mind, particularly when the values of our common humanity are being affirmed and heralded. We discussed that there are instances where it is not really possible to be neutral when it comes to upholding principles of our common humanity.”

“Roots of Change” by Noah Porter and Brittany Williams interprets the lynching of two Black men in Marion, Ind., in 1930. “As the structure ages, the steel will progressively become more rusted and run down the panels and onto the ground,” reinforcing the imagery of blood and adding to the illusion of the “Strange Fruits” of the iconic Billie Holiday song.

“Remembering the Baltimore Uprising” by Joanna Daniyam, Aaron Strayer, and Brittany Williams commemorates the events following Freddie Gray’s 2015 death at the hands of police officers. Ribbons twisting through the site are inscribed with personal accounts of the riots.

“Memorial for the Charleston Church Massacre” by Nathan Conley and Noah Porter commemorates nine victims shot dead in 2015. Students wrote “… the interior form was created from manipulations of the church’s façade. Exterior panels were created from a series of glyph transformations spelling out the phrase ‘we mean you no harm,’” words spoken by one of the victims.