What’s Good G?

If These Walls Could Talk

Germane Barnes

In his latest column, Germane Barnes spotlights Demar Matthews and Emanuel Admassu, two architects harnessing the built environment to tell important stories 

Welcome to the third installment of What’s Good G! Each month, I give a shout out to the people, places, and things moving me most in this moment. I am definitely a creature of habit, so let’s begin with a quick recap of last month’s article. My second column reflected on the work of Mark Fleuridor and Reginald O’Neal—two incredibly talented, multimedia visual artists from Miami who present radically different methodologies of Blackness and the diaspora. This time around, I will be focusing on two outstanding architects who each explore signage—an often overlooked, but key component of the built environment—in very different manners: Demar Matthews and Emanuel Admassu.

Image from Demar Matthews’ thesis. Matthews has said, “I am using architecture to change the backdrop of the images in Black neighborhoods.” Image © Demar Matthews

The first architect I would like to highlight is Demar Matthews of offTop Design, based in Los Angeles, California. Two years ago I was invited to virtually attend the final architecture thesis presentations at Woodbury University. It was during this time I witnessed a brilliant proposal entitled Black Architecture: Unearthing the Black Aesthetic that centered identity, architecture, and Black culture. And in this proposal, the building itself began to blur the lines between structure and advertisement—a feat of architectural signage and messaging. 

Visual from Demar Matthews’ thesis project; Image © Demar Matthews

What I found most compelling about Demar’s work then—and what continues to impress me today—was that it used cultural artifacts to inform building tectonics, materials, and function. Architecture has long been an artistic discipline that finds itself at the rear of social and political discussions. Architecture as pedagogy often removes culpability with regards to spatial impacts of the profession. It was refreshing to see Demar challenge these accepted norms through collage. As he rightfully asserts, “Every community deserves to be proud of the built environment around them, and the built environment around them should be based on the cultures of the people who live there; regardless of income, race, and gender.” The site of his thesis project is Watts, a historic neighborhood in central Los Angeles, near the iconic Watts Towers. The striking triangular geometries of his Black House mimics the steel towers in the background. The identity of the community becomes present on the exterior of the building and acts as signage.

Visual from Matthews’ thesis. He’s noted: “Hair has remained an important way to express cultural identity for Black Americans. I used shapes found in 2 of the most common hairstyles among black people, waves and box braids.” Image © Demar Matthews

The second individual is Emanuel Admassu, an Ethiopian architect based in New York City, via Atlanta, Georgia. Emanuel is one half of AD-WO, an architecture and design practice he directs with Jen Wood. His work has been featured in the Studio Museum in Harlem, Art Omi in Upstate New York, and most recently, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York during the landmark Reconstructions: Architecture & Blackness in America show.

Admassu's Immeasurability (2020), at MoMA. “We wanted to practice refusal against the ways in which architecture is typically defined, this urge to make the world measurable,” he says. “That allows us to engage with the city differently and to imagine radically different worlds.”  A tapestry depicts the Mid-Atlantic Ridge; collages show overlaps between nature and city spaces; the disk in foreground projects ambient sounds of Atlanta. Photo © Naho Kubota

It was during the MoMA exhibition that I first witnessed his work in person. Emanuel’s work, Immeasurability, centered on the ordinary spaces of Atlanta through the lens of southern Black culture and explored the ocean floor of the Atlantic as a traceable organism of the diaspora. Two components of his exhibited work particularly stood out to me. The first was the large vinyl murals of the ubiquitous Waffle House sign collaged into various landscapes across the Greater Metropolitan Atlanta area. If you are familiar with the musical influences of Atlanta via Freaknik, it’s impossible to separate one from the other. The second item that encapsulates the role of signage is the elegant and beautiful handwoven tapestry. The bright fabrics drawn across the dark background of the tapestry visually presents the racialized entanglements of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. The aforementioned ridge is a natural canyon on the ocean floor that metaphorically resembles a planetary scar: the disappearance and enslavement of Black life, lost on that voyage.

Immeasurabiity (2020). Admassu says: “We were really interested in the negotiation between this kind of lush, endless forest and the minimal nature of a Waffle House sign and how the moment you put a Waffle House sign within the forest it becomes a space of Blackness. They’re also spaces that would never qualify as architecture with a capital A. They're spaces that have been undervalued, just like the people who have occupied them.” Photo © Naho Kubota.

Both Demar and Emanuel utilize signage to tell very important stories—one of the absence of credible racial discourse in Los Angeles; the other a more historic one that reminds us of our tragic past. Together, they harness the built environment to serve the community in powerful and much needed ways, and to speak to the identities of those who engage it. If you would like to follow their work, Demar can be found at offtopdesign.com and Emanuel at ad-wo.com.