Mariam Kamara is a designer for local communities. Her design ideology is “design that sustains people,” and thus works intensely to create spaces that include everyone in a way that supports the equity, economy and environment of that area. As a Niger-born architect who studied in the US, Kamara utilizes her education to empower others who grew up in her native country. Kamara’s work highlights her social and emotional skills of empathy as she can truly understand the thoughts, emotions, and needs of the communities of Niger since she grew up there. In the Hikma Religious and Secular Complex, Kamara designs a dynamic space, redesigning the original mosque, adding a courtyard and a brand-new library. By adding a library, the architect reinstates the idea that knowledge can be secular and religious. Kamara includes women groups into the mosque with the addition of the library. Women in the region typically would pray at home, getting left out of the space of the mosque. The inclusion of this group begins to showcase Kamara’s empathetic design strategies, at the community level, creating a more inclusive space and experience. Graphically, the exterior and interior details of the building appear traditional for the Dandaji community, fitting into the local context, while using contemporary building materials. The work showcases a balance between tradition and contemporary style.

MASS architects design for the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a place to remember, reflect, and reengage with the untold history of racial terror in the United States. The memorial focuses on twelve southern states that had over 4000 lynchings during the period of Reconstruction. By suspending 800 weathered steel monuments to the ceiling, each representing a county where racial terror occurred, the audience encounters hanging objects -much like the victims of lynching- which documents the lives lost to the unpunished crimes of white supremacy. When the viewer enters the space, they face the monuments at eye level, like tombstones for victims. The viewer then descends beneath the monuments, seeing hundreds of markers suspended from the ceiling, feeling the weight of the heavy history, and creates an emotional space of reflection. This interior space forces the audience to grapple with the untold histories of racial terror, meditating on the magnitude of these atrocities. As the viewer moves to the outside “memory bank,” they see that the monuments have been duplicated so you can read the inscriptions. These monuments than become products for the communities included to claim and place in their community to engage with their history and continue the conversation of racial injustices which many of these communities still face today. To add to the experience, MASS and EJI designed the Legacy Museum. This museum is organized like an argument, presenting documents, images, and first-had accounts of racial terror from through history from the slave trade to the period of lynching and racial terror in Reconstruction to the segregation of Jim Crow, and finally to the mass incarceration of today. The museum contextualizes the racial struggle of today. Furthermore, the museum ends with voter registration information, volunteering information, and other resources to create a call to action for the viewers. The whole experience of the memorial isn’t to shame and belittle Americans today, it’s to urge them to reflect, empathize, meditate, but more importantly, make change!

The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) embodies the Black narratives, histories, and culture within the context of America. This space demonstrates the complex racial narrative of African American- expressing the painful tragedies of black American throughout history blended with themes of resiliency, hope, joy and healing. The designers of the museum express this complexity by using the basic Roman-Greco form of base and shaft topped by a capital, while using styles that evoke Black culture. Instead of a traditional Eurocentric neoclassical style that pervades the National Mall, the capital is instead a corona invoking the imagery of the crowns in West African Art. Furthermore, the placement of this museum is on axis with many important historical spaces from history like the White House, the Washington Monument, and other important historical monuments. These axial connections have spatially put the museum in conversation with the other monuments, furthering highlighting the context of race in America. The front entry of the museum evokes a familiar feeling of a porch- a recognizable space in Southern and Caribbean architecture that has been experienced by black lives in these regions for hundreds of years. This invites viewers into a familiar space before the journey begins. Beginning in the lower floors, viewers are taken through the history of Black lives in America starting with the transcontinental slave trade, working through plantation life, to the civil war and emancipation, up through reconstruction, to the civil rights movement, war on drugs, urban renewal, up to the modern era of mass incarceration and black lives matter movements. These exhibits feature items, texts, and historical accounts, making a powerful experience. These lower floors lay the foundation of black history in the context of America. As the viewers rise out of the foundation, they are taken through upper floors which are light-filled and full of the history of black culture. The dichotomy of the harsh history in the foundation and the hopeful culture of joy in the capital of the museum begins to explore the complex nature of black existence. Situated between the tragic history and joyful culture is a contemplative court featuring a fountain. This space allows visitors to contemplate and reflect on the themes of the museum. NMCAAHC gives a powerful processional experience evoking complex dark histories overlaid with joyous culture that came out of black communities in the face of brutality and oppression. The museum thus becomes a space of healing and reconciliation.

The Memorial to Enslaved Laborers (MEL) is a space to actively engage with the local history of the University of Virginia in the context of slavery. The open-air memorial is formed by two concentric circles opened to a brick pathway, symbolizing the broken chains and celebratory nature of emancipation. This circle, created by a rising and falling wall of granite, forms a semi-private enclosure for the reflection of the enslaved laborers who built the University. At the entry of the circle, words by a former slave and post-humorous Charlottesville citizen, Isabella Gibbons are etched at the entry:

“Can we forget the crack of the whip, the cowhide, the whipping post, the auction block, the handcuffs, the spaniels, the iron collar, the negro-trader tearing the young child from its mother’s breast as a whelp from the lioness? Have we forgotten those horrible cruelties, hundreds of our race killed? No, we have not, nor ever will.”

These words set up the framework of remembrance that the memorial attempts to capture. As the viewer continues into the circle, they’ll notice how the granite wall utilizes the graphics of “memory marks,” etching cuts into the stone (recalling the scars of lashed slaves as well as creating a symbolic scar on the granite much like the scar that slavery left on America) and is accompanied by names, familial roles, and job titles of the nearly 4,000-5,000 enslaved laborers who were at the University from 1817-1865.

As the viewers experience the rising wall of names and titles, they are invited to sit and contemplate the lives of the individuals. Many of these marks are left blank, indicating that no record of the names of these individuals have been discovered yet. Seeing the assortment of names, titles, and marks, the viewer is influenced to consider the very individuals who made Jefferson’s vision possible. One can imagine the enslaved African Americans that maintained the university, keeping it alive and functioning: cooks, masonry workers, construction workers, people who chopped wood, carpenters, roofers, transporters, etc. Marks like “mother,” “grandfather,” “son,” etc. work to forge empathetic emotions with the viewer, influencing the active reflection of these people. Furthermore, the environment affects the memorial, changing with the lighting and weather conditions. On a rainy day, watch the water droplet stream down each mark like tears running down a face as the memorial seems to weep for these enslaved laborers. The aforementioned Isabella Gibbons is referenced graphically outside the granite wall when the sun is at the correct orientation, revealing her eyes cut into the stone. To inform the audience, the inside seating circle has etched events of enslaved laborers in relation to the University. In the very center of the circle, there is a patch of grass, inviting the audience to activate the space with events and activities. MEL is not only a memorial honoring the lives of enslaves laborers at UVA, but a space of active and empathetic reflection.

Romare Bearden utilizes his experiences with the complexities of contemporary and historical materials to create works that reveal aspects of the black experience in America, palimpsest with themes of the human condition. Bearden’s body of work explores the plasticity of his own perspective and fluid identity in unison with the minutia of human life to create pieces that uncover the depths and dynamisms of not just African American life, but the lives of every human. For example, in Bearden’s Projections (especially The Street), the artist delves into themes of the black experience within the context of the urban sphere, capturing and revealing aspects of his own history as well as the diverse lifestyle of city life. The Street deals with a crowd of black folks in Harlem (or Bearden’s fantastical collage of a streetscape in Harlem), and the many experiences: young and old, laughing and stoic, sleeping and active, eyes open and eyes closed, etc. The constant visual contradiction of found images collaged in a mosaic of human emotions and experiences begin to reveal Bearden’s own image of Harlem, allowing him to capture his perspective of that time and space. The graphic medium of collage and montage frees Bearden to express the dynamic and contradictory nature of the lives of black peoples within the context of American history on one hand, while on the other hand is a portrait of feelings, expressions, and experiences of a human being. Another piece in the Projections series is Tomorrow I May Be Far Away.

Contrastingly, Bearden explores the rural communities of black individuals, creating an abstract quiltlike work that appeals to his southern upbringing in North Carolina. By exploring two seemingly disparate spaces, Bearden can link his own journey from southern ruralness to northern urbanity. At the same time, he seems to express that despite the differences in locality, within the black experience (and at times the human experience), there are similar struggles, hopes, and dreams. While he focuses on black communities, his work is inherently empathetic. Bearden’s dynamic and contradictory collages influence one to “feel-into” the black experience, revealing the innate humanity of these communities. Whether the audience is exploring a street scene in Harlem, a jazz scene, a religious scene, a rural scene or any number of settings Bearden creates, the viewers are left discovering the plastic and dynamic perspective that Bearden provides. All of Bearden’s use of the 6D’s -space, systems, objects, products, graphics, and experiences- are plastic, dynamic, and complex much like the life of the artist.

Rachel Whiteread’s Holocaust Memorial in Vienna, Austria is an empathetic space meant to disrupt the urban fabric to evoke powerful themes of cultural memory. The form of the memorial is a solid concrete structure resembling a WWII bunker. A set of sealed doors creates the front façade of the memorial, symbolizing the sealed passage of time. Upon closer inspection, viewers begin to realize that the outside of the form is comprised of cast concrete book shelves, with the books also sealed closed, never to be opened. As the audience circles about the structure, the closed books begin to parallel the victims of the Holocaust: full of life, experiences, joys, sorrows, etc. but never being able to access them. It’s as if the books remind the spectator that the narrative held within the binding is inaccessible, yet the unified shelves of books is a message in itself: much like the individual lives of the Jewish people and minorities who were brutalized in the Holocaust are mostly lost, but the collective experiences through this atrocity can be understood. That thematic atmosphere is further echoed by the graphics on the ground around the structure, which name the major concentration camps where the atrocities of the Holocaust were committed. The figure-ground reversal, found in many of Whiteread’s works, explores the preservation of a space, what she has called “mummification” or “fossilization.” By preserving the interior of a space and making that the exterior, while making the actual interior inaccessible, Whiteread evokes the memory of a space, metaphysically exploring the innerworkings of the space and its implications to history, culture, social nature, etc.

Without showing any imagery from the Holocaust, Whiteread subtly reminds Austrians to remember these events and imagine the experiences of the victims of the Holocaust. Many Austrians choose to forget the atrocities, leading to a generation of ignorance surrounding the event. This memorial gets people questioning, asking what does this memorial mean, what is the significance of the site, and begin to stimulate a conversation of cultural memory surrounding the Holocaust.

Alejandro Aravena

Alejandro Aravena of ELEMENTAL addresses the social needs and human desires of communities while considering aspects of political, economic, and environmental spheres. While the other architects and artists I’ve explored have a direct correlation with empathy by creating civic structures such as museums and memorials (or artwork that has been recognized in these types of institutions), Aravena works mainly with social housing (although has worked across architecture typologies). His work in what he calls “incremental housing” is empathetic by nature. For example, the Quinta Monroy Housing displays the ideas of incremental housing, where Aravena has designed “half a good house.” This housing project in Iquique, Chile is a form of multifamily, affordable housing done on an extremely tight budget. The housing, as designed by the architect, includes two bedrooms, bathroom, and a small kitchen; which is enough to cover all the basic needs of a family. The real soul of the design is within the void. Aravena designed half of the house and left space for the individual families to build the other half of the house as they see fit, fitting their individual needs, style and desires. While this design technique came from the budgetary limitation, its empathy is rooted in bringing the family into the design process. While most social and affordable housing is built with cheap materials and depreciates in value over time, Elemental’s design designs half of a quality, middle-class level house. Iquique is a small Chilean city engulfed in poverty. For most of these families, they had been living in generational poverty, never dreaming of being able to afford middle class housing, even if it’s only half a house.

And, by producing half of the house, allowing the families to design the other half, the families have a greater connection to their homes. Aravena has stepped into the shoes of these impoverished peoples and elegantly designed a solution that addresses people. Where many social/affordable housing projects are looking at the statistics and empirical data in order to design very cheap boxes for people to live, Elemental considers the actual lives of the ones inhabiting the space. Quinta Monroy Housing, as well as Elemental’s other incremental housing projects like Lo Barnecha, Monterrey, and Villa Verde Housing (which utilize the same typology but different form adjusted for the climate of each) are a testament and reminder that empathy is a key characteristic to the architect that wants to solve problems while maintaining the humanity of space.