Amber Wiley, author of “The Dunbar High School Dilemma: Architecture, Power, and African-American Cultural Heritage,” is awarded the Catherine W. Bishir Prize for her excellent contextualization of an important site: the first African-American public high school in the US. Combining architectural and African-American history with preservation debates, Wiley portrays Dunbar as a crystallization of the social, economic, and political processes that have shaped black experience and education throughout the twenty century. Following the 1970s debates between old Dunbar alumni, the Washington DC School Board, and teachers and students,when the School faced demolition, Wiley reveals how the building itself reflected and mediated blacks’ understandings of themselves, shaping debates about difference and discord within the black community. Rebuilt in the 1960s and 70s, but again demolished in 2008, Wiley concludes “the grandiosity of the new design proposed for the school reveals an insecurity about the academic and cultural climate of the institution today, and rests on the belief that architecture has the power to redirect the course of a school that has a depleted and fractured institutional memory.” This article demonstrates the wide range of scholarship celebrated by the VAF, from close analysis of building form to highly contextual synthesis of a building’s meaning.
Comments by Bishir Prize winner: Amber Wiley
My formal introduction to Dunbar High School was in 2006. I had an interest in visiting this prestigious institution, one of the many black institutions in Washington, D.C. that my grandfather would talk about when I visited him at his home in LeDroit Park, simply to soak up the history of its hallowed halls. Upon arrival to the address listed on the school’s webpage, I was greeted by a stark, ominous 1970s school building, one that in no way resembled the image of Dunbar that I had fashioned in my mind–red brick, white trim. I was immediately pushed by questions to understand what I was seeing: “What is this? When did this happen? Who thought this was a good idea?” My research was also pushed by early assumptions: “Clearly this was not something the community wanted, this was forced upon the community by an outside agent.” When I set upon the task of answering the questions and buoying my assumptions, I discovered that not only was I wrong about the agents of change, but that in a particular time and place–post-riot Washington D.C.–the design of the 1970s Dunbar school represented a new form of Black power. This new form appropriated the leading avant-garde designs promoted by architecture and educational journals, while espousing a rhetoric of change and egalitarianism that was very important in the transitioning politics of Home Rule in the nation’s capital. I was overwhelmed and fascinated by the conversations about the meaning of design that were happening in the African American community. This was the type of dialogue that I longed to hear about, but rarely was exposed to in my formal architectural education.