Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The stoop and the porch are prominent features of two new museum designs.
New York City’s Studio Museum in Harlem just revealed plans for a major new expansion. It’s the first in the museum’s nearly 50-year history, The New York Times reports: a $122 million building designed by David Adjaye, a British architect.
One feature that jumps out in descriptions of the design is the building’s entrance, which Adjaye describes as a “reverse stoop,” according to the report. It will be a wide staircase that leads from the front area down to the lower level, and it will serve as a public gathering space.
The Times’ report discusses how Harlem inspired Adjaye’s concept for the new Studio Museum:
In creating his design, Mr. Adjaye said he was inspired by the surrounding Harlem vernacular: the detailed window framing of brownstone homes coupled with the airy volume of the neighborhood’s churches. “I wanted to honor this idea of public rooms, which are soaring, celebratory and edifying—uplifting,” he said. “Between the residential and the civic, we learned the lessons of public realms and tried to bring those two together.”
Without passing any judgment on the design one way or another, it’s commendable that a major black architect is drawing on African-American vernacular architecture for a significant museum commission. And New York isn’t the only place where this is happening.
The National Museum of African-American History and Culture, which is already under construction in Washington, D.C., boasts a vast public entrance that its designers are calling the “porch.” Adjaye is one of the architects responsible for the project, along with Phil Freelon, who is maybe the leading African-American architect in the country, and the firms Davis Brody Bond and SmithGroup.
Those are two examples I can think of; one architect (Adjaye) designed or contributed to both of them. While it’s dispiriting that so few people of color are present in the design field, it’s nevertheless encouraging to see the vernacular architecture of black communities reflected in prominent designs for forward-facing, architecturally significant buildings.
The notion of the “stoop” or the “porch” was refined in cities such as Baltimore, New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. In part, stoops were created by powerful developers—people like Harry Wardman, who built so many homes in Washington, D.C., that it’s said that at the time of his death in 1938, one-tenth of D.C. residents lived in a Wardman home. But Wardman was only ever just one man; it was the black families who lived in those homes in D.C. (and Baltimore, and Philly, and Harlem) who turned stoops and porches into vital gathering spaces.
(And no, the porch isn’t a Southern thing; homes in the South were designed for rocking chairs and drinking iced tea, sure, but detached single-family homes never made for the same public social spaces as rowhouse stoops in the Northeast.)
The relationship between black communities, urban design, and civic architecture is the subject of a good deal of academic research but not nearly enough public scrutiny, as my colleague Brentin Mock observed. (After students at the Harvard Graduate School of Design complained that there are no urban-design courses touching on race and social justice, Mock wrote up his own damn syllabus for just such a course.) Sekou Cooke, a young black architect (and a graduate of GSD) has written that hip-hop itself is a cultural by-product of urban renewal.
This is all to say that alongside study, America needs practice: more designers of color bringing their worldviews to public and civic spaces.