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  • Emily Dowdle

Humanities on the Edge Preview: Milton S. F. Curry

In the introductory speech to the 2011 Curating Race Curating Space Symposium at the University of Michigan Museum of Modern Art, Milton S.F. Curry states that the intellectual project of architecture “requires more than inclusion and diversity as appeasement strategies, it requires direct engagement with persons, bodies, and subjectivities that are the objects of our discourse” (1). This is to say that the task of architecture is both to take up the conceptualization and reconceptualization of space as well as to understand the ways in which politics (which includes politics of race, gender, sexuality, and class) intersects with this conceptualization and reconceptualization of space.

Curry’s own body of work heavily engages with this intellectual project of architecture. Architecture, according to Curry, has a “necessary relationship to specific human conditions” and because of this necessary relationship the project of architecture and architectural theory does not and cannot exist in a vacuum but instead must recognize the racial and social conditions as foundational in this discourse (2). This is all to say that architecture as an intellectual and a material reality is part of the shaping and construction of identities - the conceptualization and reconceptualization of space is just as much a political project as it is a material project. In his contribution to Where are the Utopian Visionaries: Architecture of Social Exchange, Curry writes that when architecture engages in this project of reconceptualization of space,

it then simultaneously takes up the task of translation, confronts the problem of culture, and exists in tension with the construction of personal identity. Therefore, an architecture and an urbanism that make claims about the city - particularly the cosmopolitan metropolises that span the global landscapes - must be clear about the entanglement that urbanization has created alongside historically motivated class divisions and racial/ethnic divisions that are not only vestiges of past conditions but renewed sites of contestations. (3)

Any material and intellectual project of architecture exists within the context of the conditions of the past - the ways in which inequities have materialized in the construction of the urban area through redlining, housing developments, and generalized urban decay as well as that tension between urban decay and contemporary gentrification - but also exists within the cycle that renews and reinforces these same conditions. Thus, urbanization is not only a representation of these past conditions but at the same time “renewed sites of contestations.” For Curry, there is not only a necessary entanglement of any architectural project with these social conditions but also an interdisciplinary obligation to engage with fields such as economics, anthropology, political theory, social theory, philosophy, and social science and that “they be understood in relation to the visual and the mediated” (4).

Curry’s own 2004 project “NegroCity Housing + Harlem Target” as part of the Harlemworld: Metropolis as Metaphor exhibit at the Studio Museum in Harlem engages with these entanglements. Curry proposes a plinth of a two-story large Target store that “incorporates the everyday life of the Harlem street with the Old World charm of a Parisian department store” (5). Atop this Target store are five separate housing typologies, reminiscent of the typology of the public housing built between the 1940s and 1960s in New York. The purpose of the public housing space atop the retail store is to point out the degradation of the conceptual barrier between branded space and unregulated public space as branded space has now taken over the public space through branded lifestyles, branded products and the notion of a brand as an identity. The residents of the housing must enter through the retail store in order to access their home and the public spaces available atop the Target - the retail branded space of Target thus becomes the literal entryway into their private lives. Further, the project’s occupation in Harlem - the epicenter of black culture in the United States - plays upon the notion of culture as commodity: the literal commodities being sold in the Target entangled with the cultural production taking place in the space of Harlem.

Perhaps the best way to discuss Milton S.F. Curry’s body of work is to utilize his own words - in a 2013 lecture at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Detroit, Curry states:

I’ve been engaged in recent years in work that really is around trying to find the political within the aesthetic. In other words, to redevelop in some ways and renovate a political dimension to the discussion of form, space, and place that really begins to pull politics and aesthetics in closer tension with one another in their contextual relationship. (6)

It is through this redevelopment and renovation of the political dimension in the discussion of form, space, and place that discourse can begin to challenge and find solutions in the problems in the urban vision (or the lack of urban vision).

  1. Curry, Milton S.F. “Introduction.” Curating Race Curating Space Symposium, 12 November 2011, University of Michigan Museum of Art, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

  2. Curry, Milton S.F. “Urban Space Productions of Race.” Where Are The Utopian Visionaries: Architecture of Social Exchange edited by Hansy Better Barraza. Periscope Publishing, 2012, pp 48

  3. Curry “Urban Space Productions of Race,” 49

  4. Curry “Introduction”

  5. Curry ”Urban Space Productions of Race,” 53

  6. Curry, Milton S.F. “Urban Thought in the Films of Anri Sala." 1 November 2013, Museum of Contemporary Art of Detroit, Detroit, Michigan.

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