November 27, 2023

Black Modernism—Questions for Consideration and Dialogue

A conversation with Brandon Bibby of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

Curved concrete, glass skyscrapers, structures integrated into nature: each Illustrating the familiar visual language of the Modernist architecture movement, a language synonymous with the style's equally well-known architects such as Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Walter Gropius, Eero Saarinen, Richard Neutra, and Frank Lloyd Wright.

However, where—and who—are the Black Modernist architects? Answering that question is the start of a not-so-simple conversation about the movement.

For many, Black Modernism, the adaptation and influence of the Black experience in Modernist architecture and design, is a vastly undervalued and under-researched field. If Modernism was about considering the future in design and the way humans lived, how did the idea of Black Modernism shift and change in this period, particularly with the transformation of both the Black experience and community?

A view looking up of the roofline of the Second Baptist Church in Michigan.

photo by: Corey C. Johnson, Jr.

A glimpse of the roofline of the Second Baptist Church of Detroit Education Building, a 2023 Conserving Black Modernism grantee.

In 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and the Getty Foundation’s Keeping It Modern Initiative launched Conserving Black Modernism, a two-year grant program to preserve Modernist architecture by Black architects and designers. The Action Fund and Getty announced the first round of grants in June 2023, which included a range of building types such as a swimming pool and pool house in Wichita, Kansas; an educational building at Morgan State University; a city hall, and educational wings at Black churches. However, while the program is called Conserving Black Modernism, it is also about the ongoing conversation around understanding and defining Black Modernism.

To dig into some of those questions (which often led to more questions) I spoke with Brandon Bibby, senior preservation architect of the Action Fund, and for more information on how to recommend sites for this program visit the Conserving Black Modernism guidelines page.

A view of the shade area at the McAfee Pool in Witchita, Kansas, when looking down the center the concrete structure looks like a T with parallel beams on either side.

photo by: Nicole Bissey

A look at one of the concrete structures at the McAfee Pool in Wichita, Kansas. The McAfee Pool received a 2023 Conserving Black Modernism grant.

Where does Black Modernism begin, and where does it end? How does it fit within and expand beyond the broader American Modernist architectural movement?

The short response is that there is not a definite answer, but Conserving Black Modernism (CBM) aims to get closer to an understanding of what that might be by opening up a dialogue regarding the Black experience in design, as well as the influence of Black culture on Modernist architecture.

There are a few key moments and movements in American history that cannot be separated from the discussion: the end of World War II and Black soldiers returning with the means and opportunity to buy homes; the broader Civil Rights Movement in the United States (influenced, of course by Jim Crow laws); the battle of integration in the education system; and of course, a society structured on the idea of separate but equal and the reality of that system being challenged and strengthened within the politics of planning.

Modernity brought the idea of an American Utopia, and for Black communities that vision was one of escaping the realities of the dystopia, if only within the confinement of one's own home. It was a new enough aesthetic, so it was not tied to the experience of oppression and injustice typically associated with Black spaces where there isn't the feeling of fear or unworthiness present, such as in the aesthetics of Federal and Antebellum styles.

In short, Jim Crow doesn’t live here.

Interior of the Watts Happening Cultural Center Coffee shop. It has a large "Watts Coffee House Sign" and some posters and music about the history of the site.

photo by: Elon Schoenholz

A view of the interior cafe at Watts Happening Cultural Center in Los Angeles, 2023 Conserving Black Modernism grantee.

How does that connect to the intent behind Conserving Black Modernism?

If you were to look at the timelines of both the social history of the United States and the trends in style and design, you would find some interesting parallels. We are looking for those points of connection in defining Black Modernism through this program.

For instance, post-WWI, an international anti-colonial movement was born that influenced the politics of space in art and architecture. The Harlem Renaissance contributed to that movement in the United States among African Americans with influential figures like Aaron Douglas.

From WWI to WWII, the rise of the Black Intellectual and the emergence of a Black Middle Class became a target for Urban Renewal and the reemergence of white supremacist groups that wiped out, relocated, or burned Black communities to the ground.

How do you rebuild community, and is the way you rebuild a choice or a necessity? Several Black architects, designers, and developers embraced the formal qualities of Modernist buildings as an opportunity to create a new image.

Black Modernism, in particular, is heavy on the "form follows function." So much that we must look past form to understand and see its blackness. It's about how the space shifts and transforms through the acts of the people and the function of the architecture to the people of the community that makes it different from other Modernist works.

So, we ask, what did the "future" look like for Black communities in America through the lens of Black architects, designers, and pioneers of the Modernist movement? Did it come to fruition? What is there to learn from it? This program is not simply about identifying Black architects who practiced within a specific period; it is much bigger than that.

What are the challenges with identifying architects and sites of Black Modernism?

Initially, we set out to identify architects and sites designed and built by Black architects. However, we must account for the social, economic, and institutional barriers to licensure for Black Architects then and now. The reality is that only a few broke through the barriers at the time of Modernism, like Max Bond, Norma Merrick Sklarek, Paul Revere Williams, and John Chase. For the most part—we know who broke through. We know less about those who didn't and what they have contributed.

To this day, many states do not require a licensed professional to design homes, so many African Americans may have gone on to develop residential projects. A big part of the discussion around Black modernism is in the Black home, so identifying residential sites designed by Black architects eligible to participate in the Conserving Black Modernism program is challenging.

We are broadening our lens to find Modern works designed and stewarded by Black architects, designers, builders, or even developers to meet the challenge. It is not a perfect solution, though, as there is an equal lack of documentation and representation among Black contractors and builders.

However, we can work through that via research and asking questions like where are the Midcentury Modern neighborhoods, like Collier Heights in Atlanta, built for and by Black people? How did their designs intentionally prioritize the safety of residents and guests while balancing the desires and needs of creating a family home?

African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund: Conserving Black Modernism

Exterior view of the Watts Happening Cutural Center. It is a rectangular edifice with narrow beams supporting an overhang.

Have a site to recommend for Conserving Black Modernism? Check out the guidelines page for information on the application timeline.

In 2023, the Conserving Black Modernism program provided grants to eight sites of varying uses around the country.

What questions did these sites raise in the conversation about Black Modernism?

Our inaugural grantees represent a story of Black Modernism, from recreation to worship, in works by eight Black architects and designers across seven states. As the jury and team made the final selections, there were insightful discussions about representation and what was missing.

While we had strong examples of extraordinary institutional design in black churches, university buildings, and civic spaces, we were missing projects that spoke to the other side of Black Modernism—the ordinarily familiar places we often overlook, like private practice law firms, medical buildings, banks, and housing that make up the majority of Modernist building stock in communities of color. These are the sites most at threat of demolition, with many already gone.

The additional challenge is that Modernist-style buildings, particularly those in Black contexts, were built with inferior or cheaper materials that have deteriorated over time. Coupling that with deferred maintenance and the impacts of climate change on communities of color, the remaining structures in this style are few and far between. The CBM Program is about mitigating the erasure of modern architectural sites by Black designers from big ideas and everyday gestures.

Interior of the Carson City Hall with a curved staircase. The interior is largely white in color.

photo by: Elon Schoenholz

A view of the interior of Carson City Hall in Carson, California, a 2023 Conserving Black Modernism grantee.

Exterior of the Carson City Hall which is white stone rectangular stacked on a larger rectangular base, but with an arched entryway.

photo by: Elon Schoenholz

Main entry and exterior plaza of Carson City Hall.

The grant program intentionally uses the idea of conservation over preservation; why the distinction? And what about Black Modernism needs conserving?

It's an important distinction. Conserving is an act to save or protect. Conservation means that along with preserving and saving, there is something significant to be studied over time. To know those lessons, we must identify those spaces that are physical and living records and resources and acknowledge that they mark a significant history in our country that is both beautiful and bleak. The work of CBM is to employ preservation treatments (preservation, rehabilitation, restoration, and reconstruction) to conserve Black Modernist sites across the country.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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