Mabel O. Wilson is Updating the Narrative of American Architecture to Include Black Architects

by: Kimberly Dowdell, Metropolis Magazine

Now is an important time to catch up with architect Mabel O. Wilson. The Nancy and George Rupp Professor of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University is involved in multiple projects that hold the potential to change the way architectural history is being taught and to revise the methods traditionally used to record it. Her scholarship is chiefly aimed at repairing America’s incomplete narrative on African-American contributions to the built environment, and as public discourse on social justice expands, so does her audience: Her latest insights informed the University of Virginia’s Memorial to Enslaved Laborers, which she helped Höweler + Yoon design; she coedited the book Race and Modern Architecture: A Critical History from the Enlightenment to the Present with Charles L. Davis II and Irene Cheng; and she is currently at work on the upcoming MoMA exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America, which she is cocurating with the museum staff. Fellow architect Kimberly Dowdell, president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, spoke with Wilson about these moves and American architectural pedagogy. Metropolis listened in.

Kimberly Dowdell: You’re the common denominator in at least three significant projects that people are closely watching. Why are major institutions creating these spaces and shows now?

Mabel O. Wilson: I think it is the visible resurgence of white supremacy groups. People find that very disturbing.

KD: Yes, I was thinking that too.

MW: Also, MoMA finally realized that Modernism wasn’t just white men. The museum had previously put together a group to address blackness for the book Among Others: Blackness at MoMA by Darby English and Charlotte Barat. I contributed an essay on its collection. But guess what happened when we searched the archives for black architects? Out of 28,000 objects in the the permanent Architecture and Design collection, they had nothing on black architects. Zilch. And this museum was the first in the world to have an architecture collection. Philip Johnson, the founding chairman of MoMA’s department of architecture, established its objective to define Modernism.

KD: What did you think about that, given your research on the exclusion of African Americans from other historical archives on the built environment?

MW: Well, it makes you wonder: Is this an aberration? I mean, the fact that there was no J. Max Bond Jr., no David Adjaye. I did find a mention of Paul R. Williams, but it was only a record of the fact that he was part of a 1936 exhibition. Others were referenced in the museum’s study collection, where they are deemed useful for shows but not valuable enough to be stored in the permanent collection.

KD: Why is it important that certain items are kept in the permanent collection?

MW: It’s like being premium. I wrote about Gordon Kipping and he is now on view.