Mabel O Wilson is a writer, scholar, architect, professor, and designer. Her research and writing consist of political, sociological, and historical aspects of the society, focussing on African – American and African people. She is an experimental architect, and her research drives her designs. She is a professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) where she teaches architectural history courses. She also co-directs the university’s Global Africa lab and the Architecture, Space, and Politics Project (ASAP). Here are 10 projects by Mabel O. Wilson.
1. Memorial to Enslaved African American laborers, University of Virginia
Mabel O Wilson was one of the collaborators on this memorial project, along with Höweler + Yoon Architecture, Gregg Bleam Landscape Architect, and Frank Dukes, an environmentalist.
The central part of the memorial is a gathering space, where people can come together and share their stories and experiences.
A water table surrounds the central space, and a timeline of historical events in that region is inscribed in the same. This has been termed as ‘Liberation/Libation’.
Leaving space for people to walk, a curved stone wall surrounds the inner spaces. This wall has names of enslaved laborers and markers for unknown names/ persons inscribed. The outer surface of this wall has transformed portraits of the enslaved people, thus honoring and remembering them.
This memorial depicts simplicity and honors the enslaved African American people beautifully. The space also exudes a sense of calmness which leads to reflection of thoughts.
2. Begin with the Past: Building the National Museum of African American History and Culture – one of her books.
Mabel O. Wilson said in an interview “Often there’s little black history in the institutional archives. The Smithsonian collected almost nothing of black people from its founding in the mid-19th century. The project of the African American museum was not only to build a museum but also to build a collection. They had to make an archive of black life in America because there wasn’t one. So institutionally, it’s a radical proposition.”
In this book, she talks about the architecture of the museum and how the ‘four pillars’ of the museum’s mission shaped its structure. She also points out the cultural symbols and homages that are present in the design and the landscape of the building.
3. Negro Building: Black Americans in the World of Fairs and Museums
This book describes the evolution of black public history, right from the Civil War to the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It throws light on the participation of black Americans in world fairs, expositions, and early museums. Mabel has researched very deep and has managed to represent the people that created the curatorial content. This book also reveals why cities like Chicago and Detroit became the places for major black history collection i.e. museums rather than the capital of the nation.
4. Global Africa Lab at Columbia university
The Global Africa Lab (GAL) employs different design methods and research, going hand in hand with new technology and media, to explore the spatial topologies of Africa and its territories. The study of unique political histories and contemporary movements of globalization is done through innovative research. Similarly, how these movements shape the urbanism, architecture, culture, and ecologies of these places is also studied.
5. Marching On: The Politics of Performance
This is a research project and exhibition commissioned by Storefront for Art and Architecture, done by Bryony Roberts and Mabel O. Wilson. It explores and studies about the inevitable role of the community’s movements as acts of political resistance and cultural expression. In the past, marching bands allowed black people to celebrate in and occupy public spaces.
African -American communities in marching bands have been a symbol of cultural and political expression since early times. This project aims to present and celebrate the collective identities through organized forms of performance such as dance lines, step choreography, hip-hop, etc.
Roberts and Wilson have combined various layers of research and performance for the exhibition, resulting in a spatial installation. The theme of camouflage is seen throughout the exhibition, which is done through custom- printed fabric in hybridized patterns.
6. WBYA? – Who Builds Your Architecture?
WBYA? is a collection and collaboration between various architects, activists, educators, and scholars – all asking the same question – who builds your architecture? To study the links between architecture, labor, and the global networks that are involved in the forming of buildings. As more and more architects from the US work abroad, they explore the social, political, and ethical questions that emerge globally, but more specifically in countries located in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. WBYA? investigates the role of architects and architecture – from construction practices to worker’s rights to innovative design processes.
7. Carceral Architectures
This is a research study done by Mabel O. Wilson which sheds light on the prison/ detainment buildings in early times, which made a heavy racial impact on the communities. Thomas Jefferson designed one such particular prison building. The architect at the time segregated the cells according to gender, race, and crime.
The first two cells were designated for holding “White Male and Female debtors”, then the next two were “White Male and Female cells” and lastly “Black Male and Female cells”.
8. Architecture as Intangible Infrastructure
This project by WBYA? – Who Builds Your Architecture? aims to map the convergence of human rights with architectural design processes and construction logistics. It takes a simple example of a steel truss. It traces the drafting and fabrication of a steel truss as it approaches a construction site. The migrant workers at the site also travel from abroad to install the same.
9. WBYA? installation at the Art Institute of Chicago
Intricate, detailed, and lengthy processes of design and construction, involving a collaboration of architects, engineers, clients, contractors, and workers – are what make a building. The building may be a skyscraper, a museum, a residential complex, a commercial office, or a bank headquarters. The relationships between the people creating and constructing the building and the people inhabiting the spaces operate in a global network that involves knowledge transfer, manufacturing, and labor.
This exhibition represents the collected data of contemporary architects that investigate the critical issues in their projects. The research is based on migrant workers and the global construction industry.
The exhibition features two parts: the first is a brief graphical presentation of the construction process through an illustration of a fictional transnational project. The second part depicts the construction and design of some specific facade components from buildings in four global cities – New York, Chicago, Istanbul, and Doha.
10. WBYA? installation at the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial
In 2011, Gulf Labor, an artist-led campaign for worker’s rights, had staged protests related to cultural institutions, asking to resolve labor rights issues. These protests were based on building sites in Abu Dhabi. WBYA proposed an expansion of the human rights standards in the American Institute of Architect’s Code of Ethics.
For the biennial, a workroom was created as an installation by WBYA which explained their proposal and invited people to share and discuss the same. Topics such as – expanding the definition of sustainable architecture to involve sustaining human life, came up.
To say that Mabel O. Wilson is a revolutionary architect, author and designer would be an understatement. She is currently working on her 3rd book – Building Race and Nation: Slavery and Dispossessions Influence on American Civic Architecture and co-editing the first volume on Race and Modern Architecture (University of Pittsburgh Press 2020). Her sensitive, yet thought-provoking design philosophy results in iconic installations and designs. Her works have extended into all creative fields and continue to inspire people in and outside of the African American community for years to come.