Internationally renowned architect and lecturer Bryan C Lee Jr. delivered a rousing and galvanizing lecture at Madison College on Thursday morning.
Lee Jr. has been working on several projects based in New Orleans but on the national stage as well. Lee Jr. is a proponent of exploring how our physical spaces tell stories of injustice and contribute heavily to the continued racial divides in our country.
Over 75 Madison College students and faculty packed in to hear Lee Jr. speak about different ways we can change racial narratives and combat injustice by creating new designs that tell new stories. His words had a major impact.
“What I saw was a brilliant man who very clearly talked about the intersection of how we create space in society and how those combine in terms of inequities or racial justice ideals,” said Sandy Thistle, a Madison College professor in the Construction Department. “And that got me super pumped up. I think about those things alot. But to talk about how we build and how these things interact was great.”
Most of the public discourse about the racial history of architecture has been centered around things like the statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville or other confederate monuments. While insidious, those aren’t the only ways in which racial injustice play out in our society.
Some of the issues aren’t centered around past figures like Civil War generals, but around present structures and the narratives they bring.
For example, the issue of building an oil pipeline through Native American lands. Structures like that go through places like Reservations because- well- whites would complain loudly and successfully against having them run through their communities.
“It helped me see images of what Bryan Lee Jr. was talking about like the highway going through a district in New Orleans,” Thistle said. “It made me think of the oil pipeline going through the Native American Reservation. Whites complain so we move it and place it right through the center of a community.”
Lee Jr. told the students and faculty that there’s an answer even to those issues. In New Orleans, for example, he organized the community to reclaim the space beneath the underbelly of the highway. They built structures and spaces that could belong to the community even beneath the monstrosity that had seemed to run over what had once belonged to local citizens.
Lee Jr. inspired students and faculty alike to pursue similar ventures around the Madison community. Many students from James Madison Memorial High School have lamented the details of James Madison’s actual life. As a slave owner it bothers many students that he is allowed to continue on as the namesake of their school.
Madison College Professor Michael Ford teaches architecture at the school. He also has spent the past several years helping children envision spaces and structures that can represent hope and light for them. He was also aware of the now-dormant movement of the Memorial High School students.
“There was a discussion not long ago from Memorial High School students who wanted to change the name of the school,” Ford said. “We didn’t have any Memorial High School kids at the lecture today but I asked Bryan C Lee Jr. for his advice for students that want to do what he’s inspired them to do. How do Memorial High students move that beyond a Facebook Page about the issue? His answer was to complete the story of James Madison. To respectfully tell his story and by telling his whole story, it would help people be willing to make a change.”
Lee Jr. challenged students to use artistic ways to tell factual stories about James Madison and his slave ownership. To shape that change through visual art and structures.
Ford says that projects like that for students of Memorial High as well as the building of a southern campus for Madison College represent opportunities for the community to have a voice in shaping the future of how our places feel. Because, obviously, someday the future will itself be history and we don’t want to have to have people like Bryan Lee Jr. tell us how awful what we built was!
Lee Jr.’s lecture was the best attended speech they have had at Madison College to date. Both Ford and Thistle were excited about the prospect of having such an internationally renowned speaker and hope it’s a sign of things to come for the school.
Lee Jr. said that before we can have the conversations about what our society should be, we have to acknowledge to situation as it truly is. Monuments and statues that represent hate have to go, and people must learn to be vocal about it. Lee Jr. said that protest is hope in action.
For Michael Ford, it was rewarding to see the fire of that hope being lit in his students eyes. As an architect himself, he knows that the culmination of that hope doesn’t just lay in the physical forms we build. It’s the spirit with which we build.
“For me the reason I invited Bryan was to show our students that architecture is beyond bricks and mortar,” Ford said. “I wanted students to see a person of a young age have ideas and execute them. To see someone who is not as old as other lecturers we may bring but someone who has had even more impact than other lecturers we have brought to the college.
Architecture is about more than bricks and mortar.”