The Reconstruction of Approachability

September 13, 2021


Are you supposed to be here? Appearance is one of the most contested issues of modern times. One’s appearance can be the difference between life and death. A hoodie, dreadlocks, skin complexion, and clothing fit have all been reasons used by vigilantes to rationalize their overt acts of aggression. In the following conversation with Demar Matthews (DM), architect and director of Offtop Design, editors Shawhin Roudbari (SR) and Germane Barnes (GB) discuss approachability within the architected environment. Demar recounts stories from his architectural education and experiences of paranoia, isolation, and resilience. He explains his influential thesis proposal, The Search for a Black Aesthetic, within the framework of the larger canon and the necessity of representation within the field. Based in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, Demar reveals the complexity of building community and how architecture can be an accelerant and deterrent to ethnicities.

SR: In the “A Black Architecture Education Experience” piece you wrote in Archinect, you talked about your experience at architecture school, and you were using the idea of paranoia. We see paranoia and vigilance somehow connected. We were looking up the definition of vigilantism and vigilance comes from vigil, as in holding a vigil, being watchful. The definition that we found and have been working with is when people take the watching function of the government or the police into their own hands. With our idea of paranoia, there seems to be a modification to that idea. Is there something internal, something psychological that we are meant to feel about our vigilance because of the racism of the system? Does it cause us to be paranoid?

DM: I felt isolated. Of course, when you go to architecture school, if you are not at a HBCU (Historically Black College and University), most likely you are going to be the only Black person in the room. The percentages of seeing people like me get smaller as you go through education. I was fine with that. But to just have it thrown in your face in this sense, and to have to handle it and deal with a racial situation in school is something that has been going on for over a century. Germane and I were having a conversation on a panel a while ago and we were speaking about being approachable in school. Woodbury University was the first time that I was wondering if I was approachable. When I started school, I had hair like this [short dreads] but it was a little shorter. I remember I had this for maybe six months, perhaps a year, and people—students or professors—were not coming to my desk, and I was brand new in architecture. I just didn’t know anything, so I needed the help, and I was busting my ass though. I was staying in studio later than anybody. I was working full time. But I just felt like, for some reason, I wasn’t approachable at that point. To have dreads, little dreads, not even supermassive long dreads, and depending on your skin complexion, people will take you a different way, and I started to look hyper focused. Perception really ended up informing my thesis, and all the work that I am interested in now can be traced back to that one moment of being singled out.

GB: What about these interactions made you feel unapproachable? Woodbury is a Hispanic serving institution, so they may argue that their student body isn’t reflective of the profession. They would say that their student body is more reflective of the diversity that people want in architecture. Even those who may check white on the census, may be ethnically Armenian or they might see themselves as people of color. With those nuances, how do you think your appearance also shaped that paranoia and, as a result, shaped the way you experience architectural space?

DM: Even though Woodbury is a minority serving institution, there are differences in terms of who you see excelling, who you see getting the big internships, or getting a good amount of attention. When I was there on Saturdays, and I saw professors going to studio on Saturdays to sit with certain students; I wasn’t one of them. Typically, those students were not people of color, but even when they were, I wouldn’t say that I felt better because there were people of color at Woodbury. You have some international students, majority of Woodbury students, and you. You go to Woodbury and see a Rolls Royce, and this is a student’s car. You quickly see the difference in economics with a bunch of your peers. Money quickly became a big differential or differentiator. The professors that you see at Woodbury aren’t very reflective of the student body for the most part; there are still a lot of non-people of color. Even when you say people of color, a lot of us don’t feel great. If they ain’t black, I’m not feeling like they see my path. They are not going through the path that I am going to have to take to get there.

When most people are looking at somebody they admire or looking to see which path we set ourselves up to follow, I think I can only look to follow someone who is like myself because I am going to think that they are going to go through a path that is similar to mine. I can’t look at a white guy and say if they can do it, I can do it. We have a different path to get there. I tell Germane this all the time. Seeing his thesis, I was like, “Oh, I don’t even have to live in this world that I’m in right now.”

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Black elevation. © Demar Matthews.

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Reflection porch perspective. © Demar Matthews.

R: I am looking at the collage behind you [top figure]. I am thinking about what you said about approachability and appearance, and I am wondering if there is a connection. Do you see that connected to what you are doing in Watts right now?

DM: Definitely. These things are all from that idea of perception. When I got into thesis, I stopped looking at architecture that wasn’t designed by a Black architect or African architecture. I would not look at it and I ain’t looked at it ever since. The idea was to look at Black neighborhoods, mostly South LA, that will make me feel comfortable as a Black dude. If I am in Beverly Hills, I am walking like this [standing upright and rigid]; down in South Central, my shoulders can drop. But then, what is the built environment in South Central? I started analyzing the built environment. You would see a bunch of bars on the windows and on the doors. All these negative things that you see way more in Black neighborhoods. I started to think about things like old buildings, trash on the ground, graffiti, and you know all this stuff. Buildings that were meant to be temporary and should have been torn down fifty years ago. What is its effect on perception for Black people living in these Black neighborhoods?

How does this poor background lead to a negative perception? I didn’t tell you but, at the end of that first year when I had my hair like this, I cut my hair. The next day I remember people coming up to me and they were like, “Oh dude, you look so much nicer like this.” I am thinking, “Like what?”

I was so mad at myself that day and the day after. I was like, “Alright, I do not care what nobody thinks of me being approachable.” I was looking at building up Black perception based on our own values and our own aesthetics that we hold important. When you look at something like this one, yeah of course with the form, it ended up being a crown with all these things. We have had different inspirations behind them, but the ultimate goal of the building is to allow it to be associated as a positive perception. If someone sees you in front of the building it can speak to your culture as a Black person, it will raise your perception. However, if you are in front of a project building, with shitty walls, old paint, and bars everywhere, it ain’t gonna raise your perception. Unless you want to be seen as a street dude or something, it is just not going to make people look at you and take you in the way that I am looking to have people take me.

SR: Is there tension here? I am looking at this crown and what you are doing in terms of connecting perception and appearance. Maybe what you are doing is deconstructing a racist association that we have between Black folks and the environments that we think they belong in. Is there an apology embedded in that?

DM: This was kind of a “fuck you” to architecture for doing this to the Black neighborhoods, for leaving Black neighborhoods. I don’t know how South Central, Crenshaw, and Watts aren’t developed neighborhoods for Black people. Ten minutes away from Watts you find Manhattan Beach and they developed the shit out of it and it is nice. Why did architecture leave the Black community? This was what I was critiquing.

GB: There is even more nuance to this Black aesthetic where it becomes, what type of Black are you speaking to? The first time Demar met me, he didn’t know what kind of Black person I was. He had seen videos, articles, and whatnot. That is different than when you are unapologetically yourself. Then, we talked about the approachability politics, and I think approachability politics plays into the text. It actually breaks my heart to hear that you cut your hair. I think Shawhin perfectly put it when he said that your thesis was a reconstruction of that original appearance. How much of that approachability even lives as a 2D representation of architecture because the guy behind you [in the collage] looks more like me than he does like you.

DM: He is Black, and that is why I chose the photo. My decision was finding photos that were free, that weren’t licensed, but I was always looking for skin like mine. I got like twenty tattoos. But I would say people at Woodbury mostly saw me with a sweater on because you just end up subconsciously hiding things to gain that approachability. Kehinde Wiley and Titus Kaphar both influenced this a lot. That will contrast completely with Lauren Halsey and Basquiat, whose styles are a little less violent. It is architectural because we want to frame things in a specific way. Gritty is what I am really interested in. With this house, I was interested in patterns that a lot of Black people may use or be familiar with.

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Black aesthetic technique. © Demar Matthews.

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Post up perspective. © Demar Matthews.

SR: I am thinking about the audience of your work: who is seeing this work, what you want it to do for them, what you want it to do for yourself, and maybe, what you want to do for the future. It seems like your work has so much power to give people different ways of imagining new futures. Could you speak a little bit to what you see or speculate to be the power of this work, either for yourself, for your audience, or for the future?

DM: For Black neighborhoods, I would like to bring commerce into them. When I am at the site in Watts, I sit directly next to the Watts Towers. I watch people come in and out every day. They will go to 107th to look up at the towers. They might go and read some things, but they stay in the street. They don’t even walk around the actual Watts Tower side where people are and where the cultural presence is. These people will do this in like six minutes, and then they are gone. You are coming to Watts, a neighborhood that is full of rich Black history and that is getting lost. Thirty years ago, it was almost 90% Black. Today, it is less than 30% Black, so the history is really dwindling. The people who come here have never seen Watts before. Never. They probably don’t travel into Black neighborhoods often. They come, they get out of their car, they look, they leave, and they are out of that Black neighborhood. They are not going around other Black neighborhoods and they are not going to go to more places in Watts. They are not going to spend money. How do we get other people to come in and spend money in Black neighborhoods? It is also about allowing more Black landmarks to be able to see yourself in a building. I think it is powerful.

GB: What do you mean by resilience in your taxonomy diagram? I would like to understand the difference between the characteristics, the aesthetics, and the techniques. But then also, what would one of these look like if the word was vigilance or vigilante?

DM: For a Black person, you have to be resilient, and you have to get by with scraps constantly. You have to turn those scraps into gold and a lot of people have done that well. This picture reminds me of how hip-hop started, with people taking what they thought was a shitty disco record and grabbing one to four seconds of it and turning it into a beautiful song. That represents us better as a culture. The thought of the building and how it can come from sustainable materials, repurposed steel, the same steel that you would find on all the doors and windows. That is speaking to this image specifically. If we added vigilante on here, I could only imagine how many images I would want to put in the square.

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After researching Earnie Barnes’s piece titled Sugar Shack, my interest was in the difference of body language of Black people. © Demar Matthews.

SR: Looking at your columns, I am trying to understand a little bit more how you see perception operating and how you want to use perception as your tool to do the work that you are doing. How do you see it operating at very fundamental architectural elements like columns and walls or architectural spaces like circulation and threshold? Could you give very specific examples of elements like a column where you see whiteness and Blackness?

DM: I will start with this image [below]. We are always force-fed this image of the Greek or Roman man standing with his arms straight out and saying, “Do you know the columns are made off of these proportions?” You see a plaza full of columns, and I am just like, “Oh, it is a bunch of white dudes standing straight up here.” How is my body language different? How do I speak to my body language? How do I speak to our posture? How do I speak to how we dance how we move, and how we walk? For a lot of us, there is a little limp in the walk, or we just got a little style to it. How do I make a column do that? Black people have a certain whimsy about them—and we speak to this whimsy through paths. When you start to think about being whimsical, I think about when I was a kid and I was so happy and bubbly—you know, just giggly and thinking everything is cool. But then, by the time you are fifteen, depending on where you grow up, that stuff is sucked out of you. The whimsy is sucked out of you where you don’t even feel like you can smile and you get beat down by society. Allowing Black people to function whimsically again and free is really the most powerful thing to me.