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Interview with Amber Wiley: Public School Design in Washington DC

by Samuel Medina | Jan 26, 2021

The design of today’s public schools tends toward the underwhelming. Their formal and material solutions tell a story of frugality of means as well as of imagination. Even in those instances where the architecture does excel, where it manages to bond function with uplift, the effect is always hampered by a menacing apparatus of security devices and barriers.

It wasn’t always so. In 1960s Washington, D.C., Black architects drew on the prevailing Brutalist idiom in monumental designs that aimed to match transformational notions of schooling with sculptural massings in raw concrete. In various essays, historian Amber N. Wiley has given close scholarly attention to the design of Shaw Junior High School and Dunbar High School and the social currents that gave rise to them. She plans to extend this research in a forthcoming book tentatively titled Concrete Solutions: Architecture, Activism, and Black Power in the Nation’s Capital. AN’s executive editor, Samuel Medina, caught up with Wiley to discuss this surprising, tragic chapter of D.C. architectural history.

AN: How did you become interested in the history of school design?

Amber Wiley: The short answer is by accident. I went to George Washington University for a PhD in architectural history, after studying architecture at Yale. At GWU, I was in a seminar led by Suleiman Osman where we had to choose a research topic that utilized archives in D.C. I had heard a lot about Dunbar High School. Not only was it the first Black public high school in the nation—it was formed in 1870—it was the first public high school in D.C., period. (That part isn’t well known.) It just had this illustrious history, and I thought, “Maybe I’ll do my research on Dunbar.” Now, I’m from Oklahoma City, but D.C. is my second home—my mom was born and raised in D.C.—and I had never been to Dunbar. I pulled it up on Google Maps and saw that it was around the corner from my grandpa’s house. I drive over there, preparing myself to walk down the hallowed halls of this school, ready to soak up all this history. But when I get there, I thought I entered the wrong address. Standing in front of me was this high-rise windowless Brutalist building. It didn’t jell with the Dunbar I had in my mind.

What did you have in mind?

A brick school building [Laughs]. I immediately jumped to several conclusions, thinking that there was no way that the community had anything to do with this monstrosity. I started to do my research, and come to find out, the school was part of a community-led effort. I was blown away by how wrong I was. I came across Dunbar and opened up a can of worms.
Read the full article here

Amber Wiley joined SAH in 2008, and was awarded the  H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship in 2013.  She has since served on the H. Allen Brooks Travelling Fellowship Committee  and the SAH Data Project Advisory Committee.  


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