GSD launches the African American Design Nexus

Felecia Davis's 1993 proposal for a museum and memorial for an African Burial Ground in lower Manhattan

The Harvard University Graduate School of Design is proud to launch the African American Design Nexus (AADN), a virtual collection that illuminates African American architects and designers from various generations, practices, and backgrounds. AADN employs a variety of interactive media to chronicle the history and ongoing promise of African American design practice across three categories—people, projects, and places—and to reveal previously undiscovered or under-acknowledged practitioners, theorists, and spaces.

AADN aims to not only introduce and highlight these various designers and contributions, but tell the stories behind each. In foregrounding these narratives, AADN seeks to attract and inspire the next generation of underrepresented designers, while exemplifying a value at the heart of Harvard GSD’s pedagogy: Designing the built environment must call upon insights and voices that represent a diversity of backgrounds and experiences.

AADN content includes video interviews, visual portfolios, and engaging written biographies and narratives, all curated by a team of Harvard GSD researchers. AADN launched last Friday with an initial collection that includes designers Alison Grace Williams, Mabel O. Wilson, and Walter Hood, and projects including the National Museum of African American History and the August Wilson Center.

AADN’s debut represents four years of research and development, a collaboration among Harvard GSD’s African American Student Union (AASU), Harvard GSD dean Mohsen Mostafavi, architect Phil Freelon (Loeb Fellow ’90), and Harvard GSD’s Frances Loeb Library, where AADN is housed. As such, the AADN both represents and advances Frances Loeb Library’s ambition of innovative information access and knowledge creation.

“By establishing a virtual collection for African American design resources, Harvard GSD’s Frances Loeb Library will ensure the legacy of African American architects by collecting, cataloguing, and sharing their work and stories,” says Ann Whiteside, Librarian and Assistant Dean for Information Services, Frances Loeb Library. “As a place of knowledge, the library’s role is to ensure the collection and dissemination of knowledge that promotes our goals for diversity and inclusion for Harvard GSD, and for the design fields. Creating an online platform for this allows us to share this information broadly.”

Following its launch, AADN will be expanded and maintained by a research team, charged with identifying people and institutions of interest, assessing gaps in knowledge, and advancing collaborative relationships. This research team includes Whiteside as well as Alix Reiskind, Research and Teaching Team Librarian and Team Lead, Frances Loeb Library; Gabriel Ramos (MUP ’19); and other Harvard GSD students and Frances Loeb Library researchers.

AADN took root following Harvard GSD’s inaugural Black in Design Conference in October 2015, as student organizers and AASU members considered how to proceed with building coalitions of African American designers and enhancing their visibility. Freelon and Mostafavi were engaged in parallel conversations; in dialogue with then-AASU president Dana McKinney (MArch/MUP ’17), Mostafavi envisioned an authoritative compendium of individuals and institutions that pursue a pattern-break in design education and practice.

“The African American Design Nexus is a powerful platform for disseminating knowledge about the remarkable achievements of a diverse group of designers, as well as projects,” Mostafavi says. “It also illustrates, more broadly, the legacy and power of the canon they have generated. I am incredibly proud of and grateful for the work that has been done to bring this incredible collaboration to fruition, and hope that it continues to evolve and provide inspiration for future generations.”

AADN represents the most recent and most public undertaking of the Dean’s Diversity Initiative (DDI), a portfolio of projects aimed at inspiring students from critically underrepresented populations to pursue design, and maintaining an inclusive environment that promotes an active and effective exchange of ideas. Establishing DDI was one of Mostafavi’s first actions as dean of Harvard GSD.

Visionary philanthropy has the power to preserve this important narrative and inspire future generations. A gift to the GSD in support of the African American Design Nexus will provide seed funding to begin this important work over the next two years. Please contact us at [email protected] to discuss how you can contribute to this project.

Is there an architect, designer, or theorist whom you believe should be included in this collection? Please let us know what you would like to see featured on the African American Design Nexus website. Send your ideas and suggestions to [email protected].