Representing the “Architextural” Musings of June Jordan

June Jordan (portrait)

Introduction

“June Jordan was an architect,” or so declares the black feminist writer and blogger Alexis Pauline Gumbs.[1] This declaration involves some political risk on Gumbs’ part, as Jordan is more popularly known as a writer, playwright, and poet. Several rhetorical questions immediately come to mind when one considers the veracity of her claim. Questions such as, ‘Where did Jordan receive her architectural training?’ ‘What are her most influential buildings?’ ‘Who was directly influenced by her built (or unbuilt) projects?’ Of course, fielding all of these questions is a routine part of architectural historiography. Yet, too rigid a categorization of architectural talent leads to patent absurdities. For example, the Architectural Registration Board of the UK recently warned the local press not to refer to foreign designers (such as Renzo Piano or Daniel Libeskind) as ‘architect’ in print because they had no license to practice in the UK.[2] While this defense of the use of professional labels is laudable, the sole criterion of licensure as a criterion for inclusion is too narrowly legalistic to bracket the architect’s social influence. Etienne Boullée, Friedrich Gilly, Giovanni Piranesi and Lebbeus Woods might also be excluded from the architectural canon on the grounds that they rarely (if ever) produced physical buildings, choosing instead to focus on what has pejoratively been called paper architecture. Of course, paper architects have made some of the most influential contributions to the discipline, especially in the postwar period when architectural commissions were down and designers needed to manifest their ideas in ever more convenient ways.

All of this simply reveals the fact that tacitly accepted canonical categories have always buckled under the weight of close scrutiny. Of course these (mostly white) men should be considered architects. They think like architects, don’t they? They produce works that emulate architecture, don’t they? And they have influenced architectural culture, haven’t they?

But what is to be done when one identifies a body of work that clearly makes use of architectural principles, but is not manifested in the typical mediums of the professional architect (i.e. through drawing, modeling, or physical construction)? Is this work any less architectural, or should this person be considered any less of an architect? These questions are implicit in Gumbs’ historiographical inclusion of June Jordan in the architectural canon. Despite having no physical structures credited to her name, June Jordan – a female artist and woman of color, an autodidact with no architectural license – was indelibly drawn to and incorporated the principles of modern architecture into her writings throughout her career. This journey began with her entry to the Environmental Design major at Barnard College.[3] After Jordan dropped out of Barnard she began an independent program of reading architectural journals and writings in the art reading room of the Donnell library in New York.  She fondly recalls her “fantastic visual inundation” of Greek architecture in a series of biographical writings published in the 1980s:

At the Donnell I lost myself among rooms and doorways and Japanese gardens and Bauhaus chairs and spoons. The picture of a spoon, of an elegant, spare utensil as common in its purpose as a spoon, and as lovely and singular in its form as sculpture, utterly transformed my ideas about the possibilities of design in relation to human existence[4]

During this time, Jordan developed the roots of what one historian has called an “ecosocial” interpretation of the built environment, which considers architecture and the built environment to be an extension and manifestation of human ecology rather than as autonomous building forms.[5] This preference for the social led her to elevate Buckminster Fuller’s ecological speculations over Le Corbusier’s technocratic solutions for the city, which included distinctly zoned class enclaves and functional districts. Fuller’s solutions for 4D housing units, domed cities, and aerodynamic cars seemed to capture all of the mess and layering of the urban condition that characterized its organic and emergent condition. This textual fixation on Fuller blossomed into a real-life correspondence with the architect and subsequent collaboration on the “Skyrise for Harlem” project – an alternative urban design solution for the “New York” approach to urban renewal in Harlem.[6]

Skyrise for HarlemFigure – “Skyrise for Harlem” was published in Esquire magazine. Notice how Fuller did not credit Jordan in the signature to the project.

Jordan was later awarded the Prix de Rome for Environmental Design where she undertook research on communal agrarian reform and other forms of alternative land use. This research synthesized the themes of race and place by bringing together the communal ideals of Fanny Lou Hamer (the black feminist activist) and the utopian ideals she gleaned from examining Buckminster Fuller’s architectural speculations. However, the greatest testament to Jordan’s architectural expertise is likely to be found in the architectural descriptions and metaphors recorded in her literary work.

I tend to agree with Pauline Gumbs that “June Jordan was an architect” in the most expansive sense, that is to say in the sense that counts most for the development of the architectural discipline. Despite her lack of legal and professional credentials, Jordan’s literature is a virtual manual of the techniques, strategies, and suppositions that were used by progressive postwar architects. In light of this, it might be more fruitful to consider her literary output as a synthetic hybridization of her poetic and architectural talents. Such a reading builds upon Cheryl Fish’s identification of the “architextural” character of Jordan’s career; the architectural implications of her genius remain pregnant in the prose and poetry she produced in her literary oeuvre. My interest in Jordan’s architextural output extends an abiding interest I have maintained with postwar depictions of black spaces in novels and movies since the mid-1990s. For me, Jordan’s textual utopianism seems no less real or influential for not being visualized in traditional architectural mediums. In fact, the textual form of her output requires that her aspiring young black readers must actively dream and think of architecture as a mode of experimentation. Jordan’s literature served as an intermediary for the disenfranchised black readers who had limited physical agency to reform their physical environments, but were discovering a new sense of self worth and agency in the radical messages being communicated by black social movements in the 1960s and 70s.

Outline of the Research Project

This fall I began to critically engage June Jordan’s ‘architextural’ musings using the tools of the architect. My research project began by analyzing the architectural and urban design principles implicit in Jordan’s 1971 novella His Own Where.[7]

His Own Where (cover)

This book describes the experiences of a young black boy named Buddy who is forced to live on his own after his father is hospitalized by an errant car zipping along a Harlem crosswalk. Buddy’s life experiences teach him that the urban space is overtly aggressive and unforgiving toward black life and never to be trusted. In addition to the vulnerabilities that the urban grid presented to its poor black occupants, the institutional barriers of urban poverty, urban renewal (or ‘Negro Removal’ as Jordan called it), and the inhuman foster system are also apparent in Buddy’s life. The influence of the latter can be seen in the fate of Buddy’s girlfriend who is shunted from one girls home to another in a desperate attempt to escape her abusive father and jealous mother. In light of her troubles, Buddy chooses not to enter the foster home after his father’s passing. Instead, he tries to rescue his girlfriend by running off from society to live on the margins; a life of freedom, but of potentially endless danger and want. The one comfort Buddy finds in his life is located in the art of carpentry that his father taught him before being hospitalized. In the years after his divorce, Buddy’s father takes to radically restructuring the interior spaces of their 1960s brownstone along modernist principles. The closed off partitioned fabric of the Victorian interior that was so typical of turn of the century building stock was reconfigured to accommodate a three-storey loft space. This space rose to include all three floors of its height and was capped with a stained glass skylight that rested squarely above the now massive front room. The liberation of space serves as a corollary for the liberation of Buddy’s hemmed in life. As Buddy’s desire for independence grows, his increasing agency is mirrored by a daring transformation of the family home. Although Jordan never uses the term ‘architect’ to describe Buddy or ‘architectural’ to describe his transformation of the family brownstone, it is clear that her description of the spare and minimalist aesthetic of the now modernist interior is an allegory for Buddy’s self-determination.

figure 1

Figure 1 – Historic fabric of row houses found in Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn (c.1940-60)

The newly finished walls of Buddy’s formerly bourgeois interior manifest what I like to call the ‘alternative modernism’ that is revealed in Jordan’s postwar novella. This sort of modernism is alternative insofar as it is not an officially sanctioned action by any educational or professional body. Instead, it represents a mass form of appropriation of the modernist project that was supposed to initiate the social reforms of utopianism. The full embrace of architectural modernism was complicated by the commercialization of mass culture in the postwar period. It was also complicated by the modern architect’s desire to control and mandate the appropriate use of architectural culture. In contrast to Le Corbusier’s famous efforts to position the professional architect as the regulator of physical space via CIAM’s meetings and propaganda, June Jordan opted to place the transformative tools of architectural modernism directly in the hands of a fifteen year-old boy. He has no teacher besides his father and his own mind, and yet these are enough for him to gain control over his own space. In fact, he is doing more for himself and the Harlem he occupies than Le Corbusier was ever able to do directly in his lifetime. This informal architectural education even causes Buddy to rethink the city of New York in spatial and architectural terms. During leisurely rides through the urban fabric he imagines a new timeshare arrangement between the office workers and janitors that share the skyscrapers and business towers downtown. Instead of allowing these spaces to lay dormant after hours, he proposes that they accommodate the living quarters of those in need. They can clean up the space on their way since that is their job anyway. Buddy also values interior space as a physical element in its own right. He wishes to celebrate this space by removing clutter instead of filling it up with unnecessary possessions (an attitude that is critical of the consumer culture that upended architectural modernism in the postwar period). Jordan’s textual depiction of alternative modernism gives her character Buddy a glint of the handicraft roots of Adolf Loos or Mies van der Rohe, although his fate is far more tempered by the neglect and want of the ‘Negro’ in 1960s America. Hers is a radical black version of architectural culture that pluralizes its restrictive canons to include the most sympathetic of personalities – a boy abandoned by both family and society who refuses to lose all hope. In a biographical sense, Jordan’s attempts to synthesize race and place in her works constituted her efforts come to grips with the race riots and abject poverty that marked Harlem in the mid to late-1960s. She wanted to move beyond the hate she felt for her oppressors by providing the urban residents of these segregated enclaves with a glimpse of hope, even if this hope was largely textual in form.

figure 2Figure 2 – Model comparing traditional interior of historic row houses with the modernist renovations described in Jordan’s text

I began to materialize the architectural implications of Buddy’s world by physically modeling Buddy’s renovation of the interior space of a historical brownstone house found in 1960s Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. (Figures 1, 2) This simulated renovation reconstructed Buddy’s experimentations, including gutting the front rooms of the first three floors to form a loft space and cutting out the ground floor bay window to accommodate a floor-to-floor modern window. There were several other innovations described in His Own Where, including the non-conventional door openings and shelves that were flush with wall finishes and lit by bright primary colors (mostly blues, reds, and oranges) to segregate internal functionality. These colors can be seen in the plexiglass model in figure 2.

figure 3

Figure 3 – ‘Architextural’ map of Harlem revitalized by the urban design principles of Jordan’s text His Own Where (1971)

Historically speaking, Jordan’s version of architectural utopianism touches on at least two diverging historical traditions in the United States. On the one hand, postwar architectural utopian plans relied on the iconic image to communicate their changing ideals for modernization. On the other hand, a handful of communal reformist movements took place at the turn of the century that employed architecture as a direct institutional tool for managing the physical and social reality of an experimental society.[8] In this latter context, the spatial arrangement and ease of construction trumped the value that iconic images developed in the 1960s and 70s. Buddy’s approach to architectural utopianism synthesizes these two attitudes, but in a manner that was completely appropriate for his status as an ‘unauthorized’ minority designer in postwar New York. The redesign of his family brownstone aligned the minimal aesthetic of postwar utopianism with the do-it-yourself ethos of self-made communal utopianism. It is important to remember that a do-it-yourself spirit was becoming common at this time, which was manifest by the rise of postwar magazines that were being produced for a largely white readership that used Federal Housing Administration loans to invest in a new home.[9] Jordan’s choice to restrict most of Buddy’s renovations to the interior of the home depicts a restrained approach to architectural modeling that preserves the exterior features of the brownstone, but radically reconfigures the interior space. (Figure 2) This gesture could be interpreted in several ways, including a possible psychological reading of Buddy’s character as it changes throughout the novella. Just as relevant (and perhaps less obvious) is the potential influence that the racial politics of space may have played in Buddy’s life. As an outlaw who undertook non-permitted changes to his family home, Buddy had a lot to lose if too many outsiders discovered his actions. The tension between potentially hostile onlookers and black communal spaces was cleverly touched upon by the landscape architect Ian Grandison’s study of Tuskegee Institute. According to Grandison, black entrepreneurs the likes of Booker T. Washington were also often forced to hide the visible evidence of their steady progress from hostile onlookers, be they black or white.[10] This tense and restricted landscape forced a strategic negotiation of openings and reveals that give testimony to the racial politics of its time. Buddy’s experiments with creating his own version of architectural modernism was both done in response to similar factors; the fact that he was not a ‘man’ in the legal sense placed him in a precarious position, which even caused his poor neighbors to look upon him with suspicion. In this sense, Buddy is an ideal characterization of the social position of the black designer who cannot officially claim to be an architect, but still resolves to make use of the tools of architecture for their own means.

figure 4

Figure 4 – Collage illustrating the implications and roots of Jordan’s ‘architextural’ principles: (a) digital model of Buddy’s house; (b) ‘Architextural’ map of Harlem; (c) frontispiece of June Jordan’s His Own Where (1971); (d) Skyrise for Harlem (1969)

I turned my attention to the potential urban implications of Jordan’s/Buddy’s alternative modernism once I successfully modeled the shifting interior space of the family brownstone. This change of scale allowed me to speculate on the broader implications of Jordan’s work when her readership would likely turn their attention back to Harlem after finishing the novel. These possibilities are recorded in the form of a new map of Harlem that depicts the new individual utopias that spread within the interiors of the neighborhood’s homes. (Figure 3) In contrast to contemporary histories that omit any discussion of Harlemites’ active participation in design culture, this map reveals the potential influence of Jordan’s alternative modernism that was shielded by the unchanged surface character of Harlem’s material fabric. For Jordan, Harlem was a space of bright minds locked into a context of dramatically limited agency. Yet, this agency must be acknowledged and fostered if one is ever to actually use it when given an opportunity. The final collage I created attempts to gives us a glimpse into a typical 1970s black enclave as reconstructed by people like Buddy in His Own Where. The playful attitude of young boys and girls in the novella is redirected to reforming the interiors of inherited spaces. As the block recedes into the distance we can see superficial manifestations of others daring to experiment, and the avenue turns upward to reveal the larger context of Harlem silently participating in the reclamation and reformation of domestic space. The purpose of these illustrations is not to authoritatively represent June Jordan’s architextural speculations, but to provide them with a visual and material reality that the architect and architectural historian can recognize. Through her words, Jordan reveals the complexity of black urban space in the postwar period through an alternative vision of architectural modernism.

Conclusions

More important than arguing over whether June Jordan can officially be called an architect for the purposes of architectural historiography is her insistence on not identifying herself in exclusively careerist terms. Whatever we decide to call her does not matter if we can resolutely reclaim her hybridized and ecological approach to interpreting the built environment. In this sense, June Jordan is only one of many black artists and writers who found value in the principles of architectural modernism and urban design.[11] All it requires of us is to read through these speculations and continue to remake them in the present. Doing so would afford such work an even greater influence on architectural culture as it requires an active interpretation of the word-images that were recorded in the postwar period.

ILLUSTRATIONS


[1] See Pauline Gumb’s essay “June Jordan and a Black Feminist Poetics of Architecture,” March 21, 2012 (http://pluraletantum.com/2012/03/21/june-jordan-and-a-black-feminist-poetics-of-architecture-site-1/)

[2] See the ArchDaily column of October 9, 2012 covering this controversy at http://www.archdaily.com/280737/renzo-piano-is-not-an-architect/

[3] Environmental Design was an umbrella curriculum introduced in the 1950s and 60s to teach designers of all kinds the importance of shaping the built environment. Many of these programs were not accredited because they exceeded the boundaries of professional education.

[4] June Jordan. “One Way of Starting this Book,” Civil Wars (Boston: Beacon Press, 1981), xvi-xvii

[5] Cheryl J. Fish. Place, Emotion, and Environmental Justice in Harlem: June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller’s 1965 “Architextural” Collaboration,” in Discourse, vol.29 no.2-3 (spring-fall 2007), 332.

[6] June Jordan and Buckminster Fuller, “Instant Urban Renewal,” Esquire magazine, April 1965.

[7] This research was completed with the help of my research assistant Adam Caruthers, as well as funding from the School of Architecture and the Digital Arts Center. I want to thank Chris Jarrett, Peter Wong and Eric Sauda for their assistance with obtaining these funds.

[8] For information on the communitarian tradition, see Dolores Hayden’s Seven Architectural Utopias: the Architecture of Communitarian Socialism, 1790-1975 (MIT Press, 1976).

[9] For the racial politics of postwar magazine culture see Monica Penick’s “Framing Modern: Maynard L. Parker, Elizabeth Gordon, and House Beautiful’s Pace Setter Program,” in Maynard Parker: Modern Photography and the American Dream (Yale University Press, 2012), 161-189. For the racial politics of postwar housing in general, see Dianne Harris’ Little White Houses: how the Postwar Home Constructed Race in America (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

[10] Kendrick Ian Grandison, “Negotiated Space: The Black College Campus as a Cultural Record of Postbellum America,” in American Quarterly, vol.51, no.3 (1999): 529-579.

[11] I will offer a research seminar in the spring of 2014 that will afford students with this opportunity. The course is tentatively entitled “The Modernist Spaces of African-American Literature and Film”. I considered other titles, including “Black Urbanist Utopias” and “Postwar Archi-textualism,” but these things are a moving target.

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3 thoughts on “Representing the “Architextural” Musings of June Jordan

  1. Interesting Piece, Never heard of June Jordan before and its great that you have introduced me to her. I’m certainly going to use her ideas this semester however the idea that these are only elements of Modernism i think may take way of the potential of a movement being created out of the ideas you have outlined especially the taking control of built environment

    1. You are absolutely right. I have tried to achieve a balance between staying historically specific in my case for June Jordan and developing a general approach to this material. Hopefully, I will be able to develop a broader approach to this material in the near future.

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About cldavisii

Charles Davis is an Assistant Professor of Architecture History at SUNY Buffalo. He has a PhD in Architecture from the University of Pennsylvania and a M.Arch from the State University of New York at Buffalo. His specialization is the role of racial discourses in modern architectural style debates, including the ways that organic concepts of form allowed designers to invest buildings with racial and ethnic characters. In addition to maintaining this blog, his academic research and books reviews can be found in journals such as Architecture Research Quarterly (arq), the Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Harvard Design Magazine, Append-x and VIA. He is co-editor of Diversity and Design: Understanding Hidden consequences (Routledge: 2015), a volume of fifteen case studies examining the influence of diversity of contemporary design. His dissertation research will be published in an upcoming monograph entitled Building Character: the Racial Politics of Modern Architectural Style (University of Pittsburgh Press).