This semester, my third in grad school, is the semester where I take a comprehensive studio. Comprehensive is something every architecture student must take to get a degree, and it’s a studio where you spend the whole semester designing one building (usually about 12,000 square feet) from beginning to end. Site plan, building themes, normal stuff like floor plans etc. etc., mechanical requirements… And, of course, since it’s taking us the whole semester it’s supposed to be far more detailed than the work we’ve done so far in school.
And that’s been really nice. I always enjoy thinking about the story behind my designs, and I try to always have meaning behind what I do, even if it is just a quick two-week project. But I’ve loved that this semester has allowed me to really get at the meaning behind my design and develop that fully.
The site we were given is an old plantation on James Island, South Carolina. This plantation still has many of the original buildings still standing, including a row of slave cabins that people still lived in until the 1980s. So you can see how this place might have a lot of deep meaning for me, a history buff and someone who believes very much in the sacredness of these sort of things. I immediately latched onto two walkways covered by live oaks on the site, one running right along the slave cabins. When visiting the site I got a real sense of being in a sacred place, in a serious and necessary type of space, as I was walking past these cabins under the oak canopy. So I began to think about how I might take that holiness and sense of spirituality and put that into my design. This project is one for a college which teaches the old forgotten building trades (the particular studio we’re designing is an iron studio for them), and I also began to think about the sacredness of the creation going on in the building I would design.
After all the architectural design processes, which I won’t bore you with because it just involves a lot of trace paper and chip board, I set on a basilica kind of design for the studio spaces. This, hopefully, will reference the church type of mindset I want in the design. It’s all coming along nicely, I think, as I begin to really detail out the design.
But more than just affecting my architectural design, these slave cabins affected me in general. On seeing them, I immediately felt that these six cabins were the thing to keep the most reverence for. Not the plantation house or the barns, but these tiny cabins which held African slaves and, later, freed poor people until well into the prosperous Reaganomics-era America. As these cabins held the people who gave life to the plantation, who worked the land and toiled for its success, so my design would try to revere them as it holds the students who work for the college’s success (please don’t think that I am here equating slavery with being a modern student at all).
And beyond that, these cabins fit in with my recent enlightening as to my position of white male privilege and the sort of Black history that doesn’t get taught in schools. As I’ve met dear friends like Anthony and Marie, I’ve began to understand more and more about Black theology and liberation theology, and am so fascinated by this whole side of life I’ve never really heard before. As such, I feel a bit unworthy to be designing something on this special site, but I am inspired to do what I can with it.
So it’s been a really worthwhile semester so far, as I think about sacredness and creation and white male privilege and poverty. It’s the kind of semester that you hope you get at least once in grad school, really.