with Response by Alexandria Dial
In 2011, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial by ROMA Design Group opened on the National Mall. Landscape architects Oehme, van Sweden supported the effort. In Montgomery, Alabama, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice mourns lynching and terror. Designed by the multidisciplinary MASS Design Group, it was dedicated in 2018. In 2019, construction will begin on the Memorial to Enslaved Laborers at UVA. Höweler + Yoon Architects led a team which included Gregg Bleam, FASLA. Though each of these projects credits several black designers and consultants for their work, none of the memorials’ principal landscape architects (or architects) are black.
Statistically speaking, the absence of black leadership on these projects is unsurprising. According to a 2018 report by LAAB, black students represent only 3-4% of U.S. landscape architecture graduates. Though their perspective and leadership is desirable on projects that commemorate American history, there just aren’t many black principals leading landscape architecture firms. Should they be tasked with designing all of the memorials to black history? The United States needs diverse leadership in all sorts of landscape design - not just memorials.
So, how can non-black designers develop memorials about black history in ways that are positive for the communities that they serve? The traditional means of training landscape architects in the U.S. don’t prepare students for this sort of culturally-sensitive work.
The profession needs to discuss and develop cross-cultural design ethics - especially regarding the commemoration of black history. To that end, I offer the following principles to the ongoing conversation:
Incorporate black voices. Work with and hire team black members whose personal histories are impacted by American History. Give their voices weight and share the credit with them for their efforts.
Be humble. Avoid approaching memorial projects as a master architect. Accept criticism as the memorial being built and reflect on that criticism. Be willing to change course if that criticism has merit.
Be honest. The memorial design process should be transparent. Designers should be honest about their intentions, honest about what they don’t know, and honest what they hope to accomplish through the project.
Examine history. Read the stories of the memorial’s subjects in their own words. Understand history’s emotional impact. Read books about the subject written by black authors. Consider that black history is often the result of interactions with non-black peoples. Understand the history of those relationships.
The process is the product. There is potential to promote the healing of racial divisions through the design process itself. To be successful, a memorial that addresses issues of racial division must participate in healing and in promote difficult conversations.
Embrace edits. No memorial represents the final word on its subject. If the memorial must be changed after it is built, embrace the editing process and offer to help. If help isn’t wanted, accept that the project belongs to the community where it stands.
Since memorials to black-history will be shaped by a diverse group of designers, let’s learn how that can happen in a positive way. How do these thoughts strike you? I look forward to the conversation.
A response by Alexandria Dial, Landscape Designer
This could be attributed to many factors, one being the size of these firms with black representation. Understandably, the size and efforts needed to design and produce these projects at the speed necessary might attribute largely to the “why.” While another factor, as Matt mentioned, might be that they lack the desire to drop everything to focus solely on memorial projects.
My belief is that if there is the ability to bring in black principals it would create an opportunity to produce work that not only represents those being memorialized, but also those who are being affected today by some of the same prejudices our ancestors experienced. I believe that these factors coupled together could help to produce design details that might not be possible with non-black designers. I also believe that the conversation between a black principal and the black community is much different than that with a non-black principle. Those who share similar experiences and ancestral history have a way of relating on a more similar level and empathizing more deeply because it has affected them directly as well.
Although, I understand it is quite tough to make this all happen with the small percentage of representation that we currently have, I do believe that the suggested steps Matt shared for non-black firms to make towards these memorial projects is a great start. Through integration of black voices, thorough history research, sharing the process, and truly immersing oneself into the history and experiences of black people, it would allow for overall more authentic and well-designed memorials. My hope is that as more of these projects are being produced, more black principles could become involved over time.
The Landscape Architecture Foundation released it's annual report on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Surveys today. Timely! Check it out: https://www.lafoundation.org/sites/default/files/2019-12/LAF_DEI_2019_surveyfindings.pdf