collage of forms and images with a person dancing in front

The National Building Museum Takes a Deeper Look at Social Justice and the Built Environment

Its Intersections series, launched this month, will present nationally recognized Black artists and designers including Mabel O. Wilson, Germane Barnes, and the BlackSpace Collective.

From September 16 through December 14, the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C. will host a series of talks and workshops that aim to “provoke new thinking, spark conversation, enlighten and empower.” Titled Intersections: Where Diversity, Equity and Design Meet, the series is a part of the museum’s ongoing commitment to exploring social justice and equity in the built environment, says Aileen Fuchs, its president and executive director. “We believe that design and construction are powerful tools that connect people to opportunity and empower communities to thrive.”

exterior of a building with american flags in front
Exterior of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, Church Creek, Maryland. Designed by GWWO Architects, this building has won several awards including AIA Maryland Excellence in Design Public Building of the Year and AIA Chesapeake Bay Excellence in Design Merit Award. COURTESY TOM HOLDSWORTH PHOTOGRAPHY

The series, which Fuchs hopes will motivate participants to become informed community advocates in D.C. and beyond, will begin with a conversation about how architecture, streets, and landscapes can amplify—or silence—narratives of identity and community led by Demar Matthews, a Los Angeles–based architectural designer, theorist, and writer. His studio, offTop design works to further the development of uniquely Black architectural language through collaborative methods and hosts educational programs for inner city youth, panel discussions, and exhibitions.

Other panels will include a conversation about preserving and interpreting culturally significant landscapes focused on Harriet Tubman and the historic sites of Underground Railroad, and a conversation between architect and professor Mabel O. Wilson and Glenn LaRue Smith, co-founder of landscape practice PUSH Studio, about the Memorial for Enslaved Laborers at the University of Virginia and how architecture can be a tool to reclaim history. Visual artist Amanda Williams will demonstrate how design can catalyze conversations about privilege, gentrification, and perceptions of communities of color, and the museum will present a screening of You Can Always Come Home, a film by multi-disciplinary designer Germane Barnes. Cory Henry, principal of his eponymous design atelier, as well as design critic in architecture at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, will close out the series with a discussion of how community-centered design can challenge traditional designer-client dynamics. Additionally, the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) task force of the American Institute of Architect’s (AIA) Large Firm Roundtable (LFRT) will share their ongoing work in a panel discussion led by Jonathan Moody, CEO of Moody Nolan and the task force’s co-chair.

image of an illuminated architectural installation
Germane Barnes’ The Pop-Up Porch is a converted 8-by-20-foot container with motor-operated panels that allow spatial occupation. Inspired by the Historic Settler’s District (The Set) of Delray Beach, Florida, rituals and experiences of the Black experience are now shared with the community. COURTESY GERMANE BARNES/STUDIO BARNES

On top of the discussions and talks, BlackSpace Urbanist Collective will host three interactive workshops focused on helping practitioners and the public use the principles of inclusive and culturally affirming design to imagine or reimagine interior spaces.

Intersections comes at a time when the architecture and design industries are facing an ongoing reckoning over diversity, equity, and inclusion both in the practice of design and in the built environment. Its theme of connecting broader social justice issues to back to the realities of who gets to design the built environment is highly relevant as architects and interior designers figure out their role in designing a more equitable future. Jacquelyn Sawyer, vice president of education and engagement for the National Building Museum, says, “We are thrilled to give a platform to these influential Black voices who speak to the role of culture and identity in design and the built environment and are underrepresented within the industry.”

collage of projects and people involved with Intersections at the National Building Museum

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