Travis, FAIA, on Black Identity
architect Jack Travis, FAIA, sees young architects today much more
interested in exploring issues of race, culture, and design than
in the new so-called "Hip-Hop Architecture" expression,
which he sees as an offshoot of a larger search for a "black" architectural
expression. The trouble is, he says "our children in general
lack a strong identifying nature with the historical references of
Africa, and their professors are ill-equipped to support their inquiries." Travis spoke with AIArchitect contributing editor Stephen A. Kliment,
FAIA, author of the current online Diversity series.
Travis. I use the term “black.” I
try to stay away from local and regional nameplates such as African
American, Hip Hop, or even African. Black is what binds us, an otherwise
non-monolithic group of individuals with very much to very little
in common. Exploring “blackness” of
culture, mores, and sensibility, I’m able look at the ways
the Sub-Saharan African behaves in space and reacts to formal expression.
I can so consider the West Indian, Haitian, Jamaican, Cuban, Panamanian,
and Brazilian in particular, along with the African American in my
These subgroups all have different manifestations, and we are today
all mixed with other races and cultures. But, over the centuries,
we retain one single identifying characteristic, our “blackness.”
Kliment. To uncover what is black about the different groups in
terms of space form aesthetic and functional decision making, you
have identified 10 principles of black cultural design:
- Ease of construction
- Ease of maintenance
- Irony of the condition
- Strong indoor/outdoor relationship
- Earth centered
- Intense use of color, pattern, and texture.
You observe "the ways of being" of the various groups
and note the similarities and nuances in the use of space and their
reaction to form in traditional post-colonial settings. Given this
range of influences, how do you find inspiration?
Travis. With people who are not so focused on Western traditions,
such as those found in villages and small town enclaves in places
like Senegal, Ghana, South Africa, and the Caribbean islands, you
find extended family life styles and a spatial reference uninterrupted
since the ancient tradition and sometimes markedly different from
our way of thinking. For instance, the use of color, texture, and
pattern is generous and often extremely intense in the dress, home
furnishings, and marketplace. The pitch of sound in the public space
is higher, and one feels the sense of place both spiritually and
physically. I was taught in school that this way of embellishment
is garish and even tacky. But as I find it in those places, it is
exquisite and uplifting.
Kliment. You like to compare the marketplace in an African city
to a large mall in a major metropolitan area anywhere in the United
States. Isn’t there a difference?
Travis. I like both, because, as an environmental designer, I am
concerned with the dynamics of how people use space, in this case
public space. There are similarities, but I am at once made aware
of the differences. In Africa, in the marketplace, proximity and
personal space boundaries are more intimate. Noise and verbal interchange
are more intense. How one carries away merchandise differs markedly.
In the marketplace, a young man or woman selling two fish caught
that day in their little homemade dinghy can exist and sell their
catch alongside fishermen who have hundreds to sell.
I contend there are cultural differences in other typologies, such
as residential, commercial, and spiritual worship that we have yet
to recognize and respond to through design. We know of a Japanese
Style, for instance, in all of the above typologies. When we as Americans
build in other countries, what is our reference point for architectural
expression? Surely not Colonial Style. Mostly we design our way,
regardless of prevailing cultural architectural context.
In an African village, I find practiced a natural sense of low-tech
and sustainability. So there are lessons of GREEN design in the study
of BLACK design.
Kliment. Currently much of your work remains conceptual. You have
completed to date residential projects for celebrities such as Spike
Lee, Wesley Snipes, and John Saunders of ABC Sports. But it’s
in the un-built projects that your ideas look most promising. These
include a "Glass" House for James Baldwin in New Canaan,
Conn.; A Spiritual Place: The Bronx Seventh Day Adventist Church
and Youth Center Complex; a passive solar residence in Phoenix; and
a bedroom and bath suite for Mr. Snipes in a leased New York City
loft apartment designed by Peter Eisenman. What about larger projects?
Travis. I’m also completing
two new projects in Harlem, working in joint venture with majority
firms as cultural design consultant. One is the Kalahari Condominiums,
with Frederic Schwartz Architects, P.C., a 240-unit residential complex
located on 116th Street to open in summer 2008 (see illustration).
The other is the Harlem Hospital expansion, with HOK Architects,
including a New Patient Pavilion, renovation of all floors in the
existing tower, and an atrium connection for the two structures (see
illustration). Both buildings will exude a strong black cultural
impact visually and tactilely in the urban planning, architecture,
and interiors of the common spaces.