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A Design Supreme: One on One with Architect Melvin Mitchell

Shantella Y. Sherman | 2/5/2014, 3 p.m.
Melvin Mitchell spoke with the Informer about African-American architecture and its often overlooked significance in world culture.
Portrait group of African American Bricklayers union, Jacksonville, Florida 1900. (Courtesy photo)

"Architecture" has a dual meaning of culture on the one hand and science and technology on the other. What I am trying to move us towards is the position that just as it is clearly understood that "Jazz" is a connotation of African/Black music and European music, so must "(Modern) Architecture" be ultimately understood (Picasso gave modern architecture its visual appearance through his invention of Cubism which he derived from his discovery of and deep fascination with West African masks and sculpture).

WI: You document an aesthetic shift in Black architecture precipitated to some degree by the rise of the Negro middle-class and an elitist sensibility in the 1920s. Do you still find remnants of the Tuskegee / Folk model in present-day architecture?

MM: Today there is an even larger Black elite than existed in the late 1800s or the 1920s. That elite is interested, more often than not, in culture-specific expression that extends beyond music, art, literature and dance to now include architecture. Neither this elite nor their architects would necessarily use the term black architecture, but their intent and desire is very clear that they want their personal space to reflect who they are.

Time was that not too long ago Black students in majority or HBCU programs were forbidden to think of architecture as a medium for expressing Black culture. Fast-forward to today, there is virtual consensus that since architecture is culture, and therefore must be harnessed to express Black culture, values, life, etc. There is now a growing realization that America’s only art form — jazz and hip-hop — must have a deep relationship with modern architecture.

WI: Builders v. Architects -- Is the soul and artistry of the builder lost or compromised in the professionalization of the craft and the birth of the architect? Can they exist in one body?

MM: Once upon a time the architect was actually a "Master Builder" who moved effortlessly between construction and architecture, and was the de-facto "team leader." That role has been lost to builders. Today advanced IT offers the architect the tools and opportunity to reclaim the role of "Master Builder" and "team leader.

WI: How would you define your own shifting aesthetic in design? How much of it is grounded in your early childhood in Louisiana or even the visual breaks or continuity between Louisiana and Watts?

MM: Art is art, whether music, dance, cuisine, clothing, linguistics, etc. The Watts and Los Angeles I grew up in between my preteen years and my early twenties was in many ways a cultural replica of the 7th Ward of New Orleans where I spent my zero to eighth year of life. My parents — like most other parents in South Central Los Angeles — were "refugees" from Jim Crow Louisiana.

WI: Describe, if you can, the visual commodity afforded you in witnessing a black architect at your school’s gymnasium "holding an open set of drawings and giving orders to a racially mixed crew of construction workers." How important do you believe it is today for young Black males to be similarly marked by such representations?