Duvall Decker Architects’ Addition to Tougaloo College
This paper is an excerpt from ongoing research, started singly by George Dodds, University of Tennessee, in 2015, and developed jointly by Dodds and Jori Erdman, Louisiana State University beginning in 2016. It is part of a larger monograph and symposium project with a projected end-date during the 2019-20 academic year.
The practice of Duvall Decker Architects has been taking shape across two decades in the relative remove of Jackson, Mississippi’s Fondren neighborhood. Duvall and Decker have embraced paradigms of the urban south, combining program, materiality, and landscape to create projects subtle and complex in a practice that is innovative in its structure and situ. Their work represents a sea change in convential practice; they are helping to redefine the nature of practice, and the relationship of the individual practice to the collective discipline. The surpluses they provide include regional specificity, socially-charged agendas, and real-time maintenance to ensure a building’s salubrity, just-in-time manufacturing facilities, education programs for contractors, and civically-minded project development. To varying degrees, all represent a re-architecting of practice, none of which is explained away by the emergence of digital technology. Our focus is the Bennie G. Thompson Academic & Civil Rights Center at Tougaloo College in Jackson. Along with their innovative rethinking of public housing (Jackson Housing Authority Mid-City Housing Project), this project highlights themes and strategies common to their oeuvre. For example, Thompson Center is informed by their deep appreciation for a reading of the history of the campus. Varied interpretations of the ubiquitous southern porch, striking site strategies. inventive detailing, and a limited material palette, permeate their work. But it the firm’s continued involvement on the site beyond the design and construction of the singular building that bears further study. The work of Duvall Decker represents not simply an expansion of normative practice; it is a re-architecting of practice: a 21st century, multi-valent practice wherein design intersects with clients, culture, and construction, producing works and ways of working that suggest a refiguration of the profession.
In all that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate there is not a single picture gallery worth going into, …or a single public monument that is worth looking at, or a single workshop devoted to the making of beautiful things. …[W]hen you come to critics, musical composers, painters, sculptors, architects and the like—there is not even a bad one between the Potomac mud flats and the Gulf. …In all these fields the South is an awe-inspiring blank.... H. L. Mencken, “The Sahara of the Bozart” New York Evening Mail (1917)
What is true of the geographical elements in building was even more true of the social conditions. Half the misdemeanors of architecture in every age are the result of an attempt to fit rational structures into an irrational social pattern. ...[I]n its larger applications, the quality of architecture is governed by the conventions and ideals of the community: architects will do things in one way when human values are uppermost…. Hence the international style cannot be a mechanical stereotype: it cannot take a form that was beautifully adapted to the geographic and social environment of Birmingham and apply it, without modification to Bombay; it cannot even take a form that was finely adapted to Birmingham and apply it blindly to Montgomery. Louis Mumford, The Architecture of the South (1941)
Architecture as building is always political, because it literally embodies a mixture of state interests and clan interests.... The sliding scale between collective and individual ambitions becomes frozen in structure; architecture is therefore always a snapshot of a political climate.” Jack Self, “Does politics have any place in architecture? The Architectural Review (30 September, 2015)
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