Black hairstyles will inspire innovative building materials in new research

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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pennsylvania — The texture and styling practices of natural black hair — such as braiding, interlocking, and crocheting — will help inspire and generate new building materials and architectural structures using computational design processes in new research funded by the prestigious Graham Foundation.

The research team includes Felecia Davis, associate professor of architecture and director of the Computational Textiles Lab (SOFTLAB) at Stuckeman Center for Design Computing at Penn State, as well as researchers from four other universities.

Titled “Barber Shop: Translating Black Hair Practices for Architecture Using Computational Methods,” the team’s research project draws inspiration from the rich culture and history of African Americans to imagine transformative built environments. According to the proposal, “very little African material culture survived the transatlantic slave; [however] Black hair textures and styles are one of the most enduring signifiers of black identity in the United States.

According to Davis – who is also the director of FELECIA DAVIS STUDIO – the project developed during weekly conversations she had with Sheryl Tucker de Vazquez, associate professor at the University of Houston and director of architecture Tucker De Vazquez, during the summer of 2020 on how to translate ideas from textiles and use textiles for architectural applications. Davis and Tucker de Vazquez — along with fellow team members Marcella Del Signore, associate professor at the New York Institute of Technology’s School of Architecture and Design and director of X-Topia; and William Williams, Smith Visiting Professor at the Rice University School of Architecture and Associate Professor in the College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning at the University of Cincinnati – all developed architectural and large-scale works using textiles.

“Hair braiding, interlocking and crocheting are rule-based practices, much like the rule-based language of computer algorithms,” Davis said. “Drawings, photographs, and video demonstrations of a hair braiding workshop will be used to translate hair structures and processes into a grammar of shapes and Rhino Python scripts.”

A form grammar, she explains, is an accessible visual computational grammar that has been used to preserve traditional manufacturing practices and can be used to develop a material or fabric that can create architectural space. Rhino Python programming will then be used to develop hair or textile structures in code in order to 3D print “imaginary liberating” architectural structures.

One of the many contributions of the Hair Salon project is to demonstrate the richness of black cultural practices and to engender conversations about blackness, identity and architecture.

“We are thrilled that the Graham Foundation is supporting this work, which is not traditional architectural work or scholarship, and creating new territory for architectural design,” Davis said. “We want to generate and expand the conversation about black culture, its relationship to technology and architectural design and the concepts of translation and meaning-making.”

Davis said she hopes they can inspire other architects and those interested in black culture and the African diaspora to make their own contributions.

“In this time of rethinking what architecture can be, we want this work to support other generations of architects who will – and already are – remaking the world we live in,” Davis said.

Documentation of the team’s process will be showcased in an online exhibit and at Project Row Houses, a development in Houston’s Third Ward neighborhood that engages neighbors, artists, and businesses in collective creative action to help bring visions to fruition. sustainable opportunities in marginalized communities.

The Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts was founded in 1956 and “promotes the development and exchange of diverse and challenging ideas about architecture and its role in the arts, culture and society”. The foundation achieves this vision by awarding project-based grants to individuals and organizations that study the contemporary condition, expand historical perspectives, or explore the future of architecture and the designed environment, and by producing exhibitions , events and publications.

A full compilation of projects funded by the Graham Foundation this year is available via grahamfoundation.org/grantees.

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