Rosalyn Wells | July 15, 2019
Inspiration for architecture thesis projects may stem from various sources including academic passions and personal connections. Such was the case for South Carolina native Phillip Smith’s graduate thesis project, a counterproposal for the design of the International African American Museum (IAAM) located in Charleston, South Carolina.
“Coming soon on one of the most important sites in American history, the place where more enslaved African captives arrived in the U.S. and were sold than any other location, the IAAM will present the largely under told experiences and contributions of Americans of African descent,” reads the banner on the IAAM’s website. The IAAM is a hard-won victory for the city of Charleston, South Carolina as it is at last coming to fruition after 30 years of consideration. After the 2015 Charleston Church Massacre, when an African American church was targeted by a gunman and nine parishioners murdered, former Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr. recognized the timely need for a place to mark the significance of African Americans in Charleston and catalyzed concrete plans to build the museum. Fundraising efforts raised $75 million and plans to break ground on the museum were scheduled to begin in May 2019.
Even though tragedy was the impetus to build the IAAM, the museum is more than just a response to a devastating event - an event that will likely be engraved in the minds of many Americans for life. Instead, the museum represents an opportunity to shift public perception of Charleston and to tell a story that honors the African people who were forcibly brought to the shores of South Carolina, cemented the area’s economy, and still live there today. Amid some controversy on how this story would be best articulated in the museum’s design, Smith completed his counterproposal that celebrates the contributions of enslaved Africans to the architectural heritage and building traditions of Charleston, reckons with the horrors of slavery, and lauds the courage and bravery of those subjected to the transatlantic slave trade.
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