The Annual International Berkeley Undergraduate Prize for Architectural Design Excellence 2018
Berkeley Prize 2018

[ID:1883] Center for the Preservation of Gullah/Geechee Oral Traditions. Savannah, GA, USA Team: Design Corps

United States

In the United States, a fair amount of attention has been devoted to the plight of the urban poor. And this is not to say that the attention is not deserved; the widening gap between the richest and poorest of this country is cause for great concern. Unfortunately, there also exists a much quieter, less apparent segment of society that suffers as greatly, if not more so: the rural poor. Because of its isolation, so far removed from the gaze of population centers, rural poverty fails to receive its due consideration until urban sprawl begins to push at the edges of the rural community, eroding the boundaries between urban and rural into those nebulous zones we call “suburban” and “ex-urban.”

The pressure of urban sprawl and development is prevalent throughout the Lowcountry and Sea Islands extending from South Carolina to Northern Florida, where communities identified as Gullah/Geechee have worked the land sustainably for generations. But now these communities face losing their land and their access to the traditional means of subsistence. The Gullah/Geechee peoples descend from West African slaves brought to the American Southeast to work on coastal plantations, typically cultivating rice. After the Emancipation, these former slaves settled in isolated, rural hammocks where they remained, relatively undisturbed, until the latter half of the 20th Century. In their isolation, the Gullah/Geechee have retained a distinct Creole language, folk legacy, oral tradition, and social economy. However, encroachment on their lands by development and sprawl is resulting in diaspora and dissolution of traditional practices.

The greater Savannah, GA area is currently undergoing a substantial population explosion, and the saltmarshes and coastal islands that have been home and socio-economic epicenter to the Gullah/Geechee for over a century are being targeted as particularly desirable to satisfy the housing and recreational needs of the area’s new residents. Rising property assessments are forcing a great number of the Gullah/Geechee off their lands, and many are leaving the area to seek employment through non-traditional sources. In this diaspora, the traditions and values of the Gullah/Geechee are threatened with extermination.

I am proposing a center for the preservation of oral tradition to serve the Gullah and Geechee peoples of the Sandfly community near Savannah. Why Sandfly? The fact is, Sandfly is a relatively small community of only a few hundred residents that lies in a small pocket at the edge of the Savannah metropolitan area. Settled by freed slaves from the nearby Wormsloe Plantation, it was once rural, sitting along the intercoastal waterways and saltmarshes of the Georgia coastline, but now one can barely differentiate it from any other poor suburban community in the south. And while it is included in the National Registry of Historic Places, it is being hit directly by commercial development and road widenings, all of which act to displace residents, and its residents are now struggling to preserve their cultural identity (www.gaconservency.org). And while the community’s resistance to the intrusion of a new Target store gained it some national press, it has garnered little lasting outside attention. And still, why Sandfly? Because it still has a chance. The ways of cast net fishing and rice farming are long gone in this community, but it retains a strong Geechee identity, and a cultural heritage with some vibrancy yet. It is a community in immediate danger, but fortunately it is already organized. Aside from the existing churches that act as community nodes, the residents of Sandfly have created non-profit community development organizations, which provide points of entry by which to engage the community at large.

When faced with a community in crisis, it is hard to know where to start to try and affect some positive change. Unfortunately, in the desire to do good, the concerned citizen all too often rushes in, identifies and prioritizes the “problems,” and then sets about to design a solution. Did he ever stop to simply ask the community what it thinks the problem might be? To be perfectly frank, I suspect my proposal for a cultural center falls squarely into the category I have just described.

This is why I think that Design Corps is the perfect partner for a design solution to the situation in Sandfly. The reason I chose them as appropriate collaborators was not just their work in the American South, but for their experience collaborating with isolated and bicultural groups, as evident in their migrant farmworker housing in North Carolina. Whereas my program seeks to strengthen community identity through the interpersonal connectedness of storytelling, Design Corps has experience working with groups to promote community stabilization and progress in human relationships. Design Corps conducts design/build studios and has taken on working with students from NC State to engage the community in Seaboard, NC, reflecting a solid experience in student collaboration. Further, they appear adept at fundraising, having secured an NEA grant for the Seaboard project. But it is what Design Corps has demonstrated by working with Hispanic farmworkers in North Carolina that has impressed me the most, and which makes them perfect for my proposal. They don’t assume the need, they ask.

When considering which design team to work with, I was particularly struck by their motto, “Good design should be accessible to all.” What I pulled from this statement is that design can be artistic, conceptual, and beautiful, but without meaning and without function, it lands a bit flat. It becomes irrelevant over time. What I am trying to accomplish with the Sandfly community is a structure and program that transcends generations, and that can remain relevant for years to come. I bring to the table an artistic design sensibility based on symbolic and experiential meaning. I believe Design Corps brings a practical sensibility, a working knowledge of architectural practice and sensitivity to site, and an ethic of restraint and social justice. Together, I believe as a design team we can cover the bases to craft a beautiful, meaningful, practical, and enduring build environment for Sandfly, but more importantly, and I will reiterate this throughout the essay because it is supremely important, both Design Corps and I understand the absolute importance of collaboration with the client to ensure a relevant built environment.

Architecture should reflect the collective will of the people. The idea that “if you build it, they will come” is not relevant in the modern world, because modern people have a lot of places they can go. Social architecture is not building to make people come to any old place, but building where people feel they need to be. Social architecture should affect positive change for the people on their terms. As I developed my proposal for a preservation center, I was haunted by the lingering fear that the efforts were moot, and that given its druthers, the community in question might have a completely different set of prerogatives. Maybe elevated property taxes or affordable health care are the more ominous problems facing the community, and holding onto traditions is on the back burner. Who is to say? Well, they are who is to say. Let’s ask them. The reason I am proposing a cultural center is not to suppose that it addresses the most obvious and pressing physical need, necessarily, but because it helps foster the context of community value and identity that are central to galvanize a people in unified purpose. Here the proposal acts as a point of entry to generate dialogue. A stepping-off point, as it were.

In fact, there already exist a number of centers along the southern Atlantic coast addressing the very problem of preserving Gullah/Geechee identity. The Penn Center in St. Helena Island, South Carolina has been around for over one hundred years as a sort of “Vo-Tec”, if you will; a school that teaches the local Gullah community traditional craft and agricultural practices. SIGARS, a community development outfit in Sapelo Island, Georgia, works with the local community to preserve land rights. Up and down the coast, annual Heritage Days are held to celebrate Gullah and Geechee folk traditions, from basketry to storytelling to song to dance. But underlying all this remains the persistence of diaspora, either in fact or in spirit, and when the last Gullah or Geechee child leaves (or is forced to leave) the ways of their ancestors to make a go through the modern existence, these cultural centers may very well become museums.

The center I am proposing in the Sandfly community would serve as a place to exchange, record, and archive stories and traditions, and would be an anchor for the community – a symbolic totem, gathering place, and cultural resource. Through function, form, and place, the center would be a link of communal identity and purpose between the generations – a place where they might not only pass to the next generation a cultural legacy, but also for that next generation to forge a new future.

The program is conceptually and functionally centered around the art of storytelling. A center to preserve oral tradition cannot solve the myriad issues facing the Gullah/Geechee today, but no one building is a panacea for all the woes of a people. The center addresses one issue squarely: Identity. Shared experience and purpose are leading factors contributing to communal identity, and this sense of belonging to a greater purpose is a major catalyst in affecting positive change for the group. Where a challenge may exist facing a group, an appropriate initial response is to create a medium for interpersonal connection within the context of a valued collective memory. Storytelling satisfies this need for connection and is an art that links individuals and which restores and preserves communal values. Storytelling is a dynamic practice, not a static product, and while the center would celebrate the product of storytelling, it is more designed to celebrate its practice. The program would include a recording studio, listening library, and gallery space for the preservation and exploration of storytelling’s product, but it would also include an outdoor amphitheater, workshops, and studio spaces to encourage its practice.

The expansion of the Savannah metropolitan area has already consumed the Sandfly community, and the boundaries between tradition and modernity have already been blurred. It is important, then, not to conceptualize the preservation center as a museum, but as a bridge, a communicative link between both worlds that will remain relevant throughout the changes of time and culture. The architecture of the center would be contemporary, but with symbolic motifs of form drawn from traditional Gullah/Geechee culture, and it would respect the vernacular of the area. Lastly, the architecture would be sustainable. Symbolically, the correlation between sustainable architecture and preservative function is simply too obvious to ignore. Because the heritage, culture, and values of the Gullah/Geechee have been traditionally linked to the bounty of the land and of the sea, the center should address both land and sea in its site selection and orientation, and the program would celebrate and fuse interior and exterior space, catalyzing this connectedness. Architecturally, the center would announce itself by telling the story of the Gullah and Geechee peoples.

So let us assume that we build this preservation center. Will they come? The grand assumption is that the center is relevant in the people’s eyes. Is it? If the building is a bridge between tradition and modernity, does its function reinforce that bridge? One can tell a story anywhere. “Story Time” by the Gullah painter Jonathan Green depicts a group of men gathered around a looming live oak tree to tell the tales of the day. As the fundamental archetype of place, what more is needed than a sacred natural feature? But in modern times, there are all manner of new media for telling stories. Whereas there is cultural value in the telling of tales, there is also educational and vocational value in learning how to tell stories through these new media. Mastery of audio/visual technology and digital media are valuable skills, and through the local arts college, Savannah College of Art & Design, Savannah is become increasingly relevant in these industries. I imagine a collaborative approach in the design and execution of the center with the arts college, where the center also functions as a vocational outreach adjunct of the college. Another collaborative partner could be AWOL, Inc., a local production company that engages at-risk youth through spoken word, poetry, hip-hop, and the performing arts. . From their mission statement (www.awolinc.org), “AWOL All Walks of Life Inc is Savannah’s first and only spoken word (poetry) and hip-hop based youth development organization. AWOL’s mission is to promote and provide self-awareness through the use of poetry, hip-hop and life. This mission is met by providing young people with safe afternoon and night time youth programs that encourage education, respect, creativity and most of all nonviolence.” AWOL, Inc. comes to the community through shared values and experiences to affect positive change by sympathetic means.

Interestingly enough, Congress passed in 2006 a law designating parts of the Southeastern seaboard as a cultural heritage corridor. Included in this is $10 million funding for cultural preservation efforts targeting the Gullah and Geechee communities, to be administered by the National Parks Service. And here again is another potentially valuable partner!

And while the NPS, AWOL, Inc. and Savannah College of Art & Design are appropriate partners, bringing to the table material, educational, and programmic resources, the most valuable collaboration partner remains the Sandfly community itself. To exercise the greatest potential for the center, the leadership of the community must be engaged from the very beginning of the design process. Church and civic leaders should be approached and solicited not only for input, or because they act as gatekeepers, but because they are in the position to direct the design process toward a more relevant design product. With Design Corps as mediator and mentor, the collaborative approach must have the ingrained flexibility to respond to the needs of the community, and who better to express those needs than the community itself?

From the beginning of this proposal, I have meant to impress the very important caveat that a design solution is only as good as its actual functionality for the end user. I have proposed an effort that targets oral tradition and storytelling as valuable cultural resources worth preserving, not only for the communities it directly affects, but because these are art forms that enrich the social tapestry for all mankind. And while there many people in the world whose situation is so life threatening, so dire and immediate, it begs the question if a cultural heritage center is really the best allocation of scarce resources. To this I can only respond that we as concerned citizens must affect good where we can. This project affects good, and we can do it. By engaging a community in crisis, and working with them to identify and solve their problems on their terms, the benefits extend far beyond one community, beyond one project. It sets in motion the models and the experiences that mobilize individuals, communities, and resources toward a greater social benefit.

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