June Jordan, the poet who designed urban habitats

The American Academy in Rome dedicates an exhibition to the first African American woman winner of the Rome Prize, and her work on the environment as a right to be designed collectively through words and images.

The Rome Prize is an award allowing since 1896 U.S. outstanding artists and scholars to spend a period of study at the American Academy in Rome, discovering Italy from a classical building on the Gianicolo hill. In architecture, the award is associated with names such as Colin Rowe, Louis Kahn, Richard Meier, Robert Venturi: all illustrious, but all unquestionably men, and white. Packing for Rome in 1970, however, we would find June Jordan (1936-2002), the first African American woman winner of the Rome Prize, in the field of Environmental Design.
Jordan’s practice embraced racial and gender equality activism that would be expressed through the creation and critique of space, both physical space and the space of words, strongly shaped by her biography. 

Colleen Browning. Door Street 1953. Oil on masonite. 29.21 x 92.71 cm (11.5 x 36.5 in.) Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of Mrs. Harry Lynde Bradley, M1966.150. Painting selected by June Jordan as part of her 1969 book Who look at me.

She became interested early on in architectural studies, but it was not an easy path for a young and certainly not wealthy Harlem mother. Then had come 1964, the riots that followed the killing of a 15-year-old African American by police, and a further realization of the power of the environment over lives and possibilities: Jordan was then to seek out Richard Buckminister Fuller, and with him to develop the Skyrise for Harlem. It is a habitat project, a spatial tool offering those residing in neighborhoods branded as ghettos not a perspective of removal, but an equal improvement in living conditions, in fifteen conical, transparent structures that line a hundred stories of new housing open to light and healthier air.

Design by R. Buckminster Fuller and June Jordan. Original drawing by Shoji Sadao. Skyrise for Harlem 1964. Medium: Digital print. Dimensions: 50.8 x 61 cm (20 x 24 in.) Image file from R. Buckminster Fuller Collection, Stanford University Library and Special Collections. Courtesy The Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller

The project is published on Esquire, classified as slum clearance and with only Fuller credited as designer: Jordan still has to accept the sole crediting of the article, once again for economic reasons. There is precisely this trait of often harsh reality running through her entire story, to make it unique by welding with the instead imaginative aspect of poetry as a tool for research and fight.

Jordan would keep integrating media: “‘These ideas have to reach beyond architecture,’ she said, ‘beyond urbanism, beyond the academy, we need to reach the masses, we need to reach the people,’ and her response was writing in images. (...) She didn’t have training in drawing, as she had had nobody to pay for her to go to art school, it’s a miracle she could pursue writing.” That’s what Lindsay Harris has told Domus, as the curator of June Jordan. The Poetry of Design, the exhibition that the American Academy in Rome is now dedicating to its alumna. 

The works on display unveil an expression based on seeing, on being visible (Who look at me is the title of the poetry-painting book Jordan published in 1969, as a means of countering racism through awareness and happiness of one’s own image) and above all a cross-media expression – through painting, spoken word, books, photography, design – which made Fuller able to sponsor her for the 1971 Rome Prize in the still fluid field of Environmental Design.

Giuseppe (“Peppe”) Traversa. Borgo di Dio, Trapetto (Palermo), Siciliy 1971. Gelatin silver print. 20.3 x 20.3 cm (8 x 8 in.) June Jordan Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

The exhibition starts from these assumptions and that specific period, exploring Jordan’s work on Rome and the Mediterranean, investigating space as form, and as a tool for reading and transforming life, soon reconnected to a role of transforming lives, as the projects for New York had already anticipated. Photographs appear, passages from films, poems speaking as projects, a novel, His Own Where, which is a story of relationships told through spaces: it takes place in America, it features a stairway on the cover, but this stairway is a very specific one Jordan had photographed in Rome.

There is the story of Jordan’s meeting with the educator and activist Danilo Dolci, whom Jordan visited in Sicily and whose myth she will face a partial collapse of, finding herself confronted with a still typical male figure of Italian postwar years, flawed by patriarchal traits, but whom she will also be able to describe in his nothing but human nature, thanks to this reality check, in the essay Danilo Dolci: one good man that would be published on the New York Times Book Rewiew in 1971.

Alice Neel. Abdul Rahman (Taxi Driver) 1964. Oil on canvas. 50.8 x 40.6 cm (20 x 16 in.) © The Estate of Alice Neel. Courtesy the Estate of Alice Neel, David Zwirner and Victorio Miro Mohamad and Mahera Abu Ghazeleh Collection. Painting selected by June Jordan as part of her 1969 book Who look at me.

The story on show is the story of a disruptive view on the world, anticipating those spatial practices and space-based activism rooted in the utmost contemporary dimension – a story of the last decade as well as of the themes that are announced to be structural for the 2023 Venice Biennale 2023 – that Jordan would later develop with her teaching at the City University of New York, recognized today as fundamental also by the realm of design, which accepts for once  to be only one among many realms that were embraced by an action, by a life, so structurally transversal.

Photograph by altrospazio, courtesy of the American Academy in Rome

Opening image: unknown, June Jordan. Rome, c. 1970. Gelatin silver print 20.3 x 25.4 cm (8 x 10 in.) Credit Line: June Jordan Papers, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

June Jordan, The Poetry of Design 
curated by Lindsay Harris 
Until the 11th June, 2023
American Academy in Rome 
Via Angelo Masina 5, 00153 Rome Italy

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