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Nowhere But Up

Skyrise for Harlem plan

R. Buckminster Fuller Estate

A rendering of Buckminster Fuller and June Jordan's “Skyrise for Harlem” project published in Esquire, April 1965

On July 16, 1964, James Gilligan, an off-duty police officer in New York, shot and killed a fifteen-year-old Black high school student, James Powell, who was almost certainly unarmed. Dozens witnessed the shooting.

The evening of Saturday, July 18, around 150 people followed a pastor from Fountain Spring Baptist Church to the police station in the heart of Harlem. The crowd grew to 250, chanting, “Murder! Murder!” A confrontation developed, eventually overtaking much of central Harlem. By Sunday morning, one person was dead, thirty-one were injured, and thirty arrested. The entrance to Harlem Hospital was spattered with blood.

At the time June Jordan was living in housing projects across the Queensboro Bridge in Brooklyn. She had just completed work on a film, The Cool World, produced by Frederick Wiseman and directed by Shirley Clarke, that took place in Harlem with a nearly all-Black cast of non-professional actors. She was embarking on a freelance writing career. Her first commissioned piece was for the New York Herald Tribune about the Freedom National Bank, a Black-owned institution meant to serve Black residents of Harlem.

Jordan heard about the Saturday night riot the next day on the radio. She learned that Powell’s funeral services would take place that night. “I had been shocked and enraged to read two or three days earlier,” she wrote in her book Civil Wars (1981), “of the murder of this boy, half the size of the big Irish cop wearing no uniform and electing to shoot a kid who allegedly held a penknife. This cop, Gilligan, is the recipient of a citation for four times disarming men. I decided to pay my respects to the boy.”

Entering Harlem from the Triborough Bridge, Jordan said she found

a challenge to credulity. Literally scores and scores of helmeted, white policemen patrolled the streets in hubs of 25 or 30 each. Harlem was extremely quiet. There were more policemen than people on any main street…. The presence of so many policemen began to make me nervous, frightened, and angry. We went to the 38th parallel: 132nd Street and 7th Avenue. Past this corner, no one was allowed…. The territory was clearly invaded. I could not believe it when still another bus would brake to a stop at that intersection and disgorge still another hundred combatants. Overhead, helicopters dawdled and dived and contributed to the unreal scene of a full-scale war with no one but enemies in view…. Bottles began to pelt the street aiming at police cars, policemen. Every time there was a hit, the probably thousand of us on both sides of the street would yell and applaud. Cops were firing endlessly now. They would stand on the curb and fire up at all the windows of the tenement buildings. People were screaming obscenities: MOTHER FUCKERS SHITS WHITE SHITS WHITE MOTHER FUCKERS BASTARDS MURDERERS GILLIGAN GILLIGAN.

Jordan moved between the streets and makeshift clinics and Harlem Hospital. “My main accomplishment that night,” she wrote,

was not to vomit. I had never seen the back of a bashed-in head, a kneecap split by a bullet—blood…. People sat on waiting benches, blood pouring from wherever they’d been hit…. We all felt completely defeated. Only the endless harassment of danger, of really running from the guns, kept all of us awake and going.

A week after the riot, Jordan’s husband wrote to her that he was not returning home from his graduate studies in anthropology in Chicago. They were effectively separated, and now she had to raise her six-year-old son, Christopher, alone.

After another week, Esquire proposed that Jordan write a piece on the situation in Harlem. She responded by suggesting a collaboration with R. Buckminster Fuller, the unclassifiable thinker and designer who considered himself a “philosopher of shelter.” “He was the only person I was willing to try,” Jordan wrote.

Maybe working with him could save me from the hatred I felt, and the complete misery I felt, the want. When it became firm that Bucky and I would collaborate on an architectural redesign of Harlem, I put my whole life on the line: Now I would work and work and work and wait on this beginning, as a writer, thinker, poet.

The project they designed together was “Skyrise for Harlem.” Though this multiple-tower housing proposal for Harlem never came to fruition, it was an unprecedented and unequaled collaboration between a white designer who uneasily flits in and out of architectural history and a Black designer who is virtually never considered part of that history. It was a creative response to despair and negativity that was itself a form of annihilation. It was a complete redesign of a dense urban neighborhood, one of the most symbolically and materially fraught areas in the United States. It was a response to an urban rebellion devised at a moment when all of the words bound up in the project—Harlem, housing, architecture—were perhaps at the peak of their contestation. It was also an attempt, within a recognizably abolitionist framework, to provide a social solution to what was largely thought of as a community at once abandoned and self-consuming through violence.

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“Skyrise” acknowledged Harlem’s history and future as a Black neighborhood—as the Black neighborhood—at a time when even sympathetic writers and thinkers worried over its wellbeing. Well into the 1960s, Harlem retained an idea of itself as a Black capital. But a range of observers argued that urban rebellions and displacement were sapping its life.

Jordan’s article for Esquire begins, “Harlem is life dying inside a closet, an excrescence beginning where a green park ends, a self-perpetuating disintegration of walls, ceilings, doorways, lives.” The urban historian Daniel Matlin has noted that her language here is “suffused with the liberal pathologist imagery of Black urban life that had intensified since the 1940s and now peaked in 1965”—the same year that saw the publication of Kenneth B. Clark’s psychological study, Dark Ghetto, and Claude Brown’s memoir, Manchild in the Promised Land, both of which were about Harlem’s degeneration, as well as the federal government’s Moynihan Report on the “crumbling Black family.”1 Jordan also pointed out in her article that half of Harlem’s children were living with one parent or none, echoing the obsession with Black family structures displayed by many contemporary observers. At times, these bleak descriptions took on a prophetic or even an apocalyptic tenor. “Walk through the streets of Harlem and see what we, this nation, have become,” James Baldwin wrote in 1960.

Urban renewal projects in these decades divided and overwhelmed the area. As the historian Brian Goldstein writes, “Harlem was by no means the only New York City community transformed by the urban renewal of the 1950s and 1960s, but it represented a favored site for officials seeking ambitious redevelopment of the built environment.”2 Three public housing complexes were erected in central Harlem in the 1950s and 1960s—the Polo Grounds Houses, Colonial Park Houses, and St. Nicholas Houses—as well as two middle-income housing developments that transformed twenty-four acres on Lenox Avenue. In East Harlem, the city spent $250 million to build several projects that would house 62,400 residents. One project, the James Weldon Johnson Houses, took up six city blocks.

James Weldon Johnson houses under construction

Al Aumuller/Library of Congree

The James Weldon Johnson housing estate under construction, East Harlem, 1947

By the 1960s there was a growing sense among residents and critics alike that the project of renewal had failed. Jordan refers to the popular quote: “Urban renewal means Negro removal.” Baldwin called Harlem’s public housing “colorless, bleak, high, and revolting.” He concluded that a law must exist, apparently respected throughout the world, that public housing shall be as “cheerless as a prison.”

While Jordan and others (including Amiri Baraka in Newark) tried to imagine alternative forms of housing, white designers and critics of urban renewal programs proposed demolishing existing public complexes, replacing them with lower-density housing that would ultimately reduce the number of actual public units, and redesigning structures to focus on crime prevention. Jordan and Fuller’s effort too is an attempt, from another direction, to transform urban space to prevent crime. In both cases, design was elevated as having a potentially palliative, or uplifting, impact on society and a decisive influence on public behavior.

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Jordan was not an architect as conventionally understood: she was not a licensed practitioner. But if you take the word to mean someone who proposed and sought to build interventions in public space, she was. Her interest in architecture was the result partly of academic training—she had studied it somewhat at Barnard College—and partly of autodidacticism. “Architecture became an obsession,” she wrote in Civil Wars,

that I satisfied by, once a week, going into Manhattan on the night the Donnell Library stayed open late… This was my one evening out, every week: Michael would come home by 6 o’clock, if humanly possible, and I would then leave him and Christopher to eat the dinner I had already prepared, and rush to the corner bus stop. At the Donnell I lost myself among rooms and doorways and Japanese gardens and Bauhaus chairs and spoons. The picture of a spoon, of an elegant, spare utensil as common in its purpose as a spoon, and as lovely and singular in its form as sculpture, utterly transformed my ideas about the possibilities of design in relation to human existence. If my mother had held such a spoon, if I could have given her such a useful piece of beauty, even once, perhaps everything would have been different for her: she who committed suicide, not so many years later: she who admired but never wore the dress-up overcoat that my cousin and father gave to her, and which she “saved” in the closet, until her death. If I could make things as simple, as necessary, and as wonderful as a spoon of Bauhaus design, then I could be sure, in a deep way, of doing some good, of changing, for instance, the kitchen where I grew up, baffled by the archaeological layers of aimless, wrong-year calendars, and high-gloss, clashing wall colors, and four cans of paprika and endlessly dysfunctional clutter/material of no morale, of clear degenerating morass and mire, of slum, of resignation.

It was in the Donnell that Jordan first came across the work of Buckminster Fuller. “Even more than Corbusier,” she wrote, “Fuller’s thinking weighed upon my own as a hunch yet to be gambled on the American landscape where, daily, deathly polarization of peoples according to skin gained in horror as white violence escalated against Black life.”

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The spirit of revelation that seizes Jordan in the Donnell library, confronting the spoon and imagining her mother’s life taking a different turn, has its analog in Fuller’s mythologizing of his own life. He often told of how he sat by the waters of Lake Michigan in 1927, thirty-two, jobless, penniless, nearly homeless, a failure. It was winter, and he calculated how long it would take him to freeze to death in the icy waters. As he readied himself for the plunge, he found all of a sudden that he could not. He was, in fact, no longer on the ground. He was being lifted, he was floating, and he was being spoken to. Whether the voice was coming from inside or outside his head, he couldn’t quite tell.

“You do not have the right to eliminate yourself,” the voice told him. “You do not belong to you. You belong to the universe.” His mind was there to be shared with the world: such was Fuller’s calling. And so he went home. He told his wife that he did not need a job, that his job now was to think. He spent the next two years in silence, filling five thousand pages of notebooks with drawings, ideas, plans. He felt he had the salvation of humanity in his grasp.

That salvation combined a number of different programs, including the design of low-cost shelter with the possibility to house millions. As the journalist Douglas Murphy notes in his book Last Futures, Fuller was an early advocate of moving away from a carbon-based energy system, arguing, in Murphy’s words, that “the energy that had gone into making coal and oil over millions of years was drastically wasted if it were to be completely depleted in just a few hundred years.”3 He was a utopian by necessity: humanity would not survive if it did not work out systems to efficiently construct the shelter that would allow it to survive.

“This generation,” he said, “knows that man can do anything he wants, you see…. And they realize—or at least they sense—that utopia is possible now, for the first time in history.” Still, in the same breath he also doubted it: “I think it is absolutely touch-and-go whether we are going to make it.”

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Reflecting on her reaction to the Harlem Riot of 1964, as she termed it, Jordan wrote that the week afterward was

a week of lurching around downtown streets like a war-zone refugee (whenever I heard a police or fire engine siren I would literally hit the pavement to flatten myself before the putative level of the flying bullets)… I realized I was now filled with hatred for everything and everyone white. Almost simultaneously it came to me that this condition, if it lasted, would mean that I had lost the point: not to resemble my enemies, not to dwarf my world, not to lose my willingness and ability to love.

Buckminster Fuller at Black Mountain College

North Carolina State Archives

Buckminster Fuller helping erect a geodesic dome at Black Mountain College, North Carolina, 1948

So instead, she resolved

not to run on hatred but, instead, to use what I loved, words, for the sake of the people I loved. However, beyond my people, I did not know the content of my love: what was I for? Nevertheless, the agony of that moment propelled me into a reaching far and away to R. Buckminster Fuller, to whom I proposed a collaborative architectural redesign of Harlem, as my initial, deliberated movement away from the hateful, the divisive.

Her first meeting with Fuller was several hours long, Jordan wrote, “just the two of us, alone,” in Fuller’s room at the St. Regis Hotel:

And when we separated, agreed on the collaboration for Esquire magazine, I felt safe in my love again. We would think and work together to design a three-dimensional, an enviable, exemplary life situation for Harlem residents who, otherwise, had to outmaneuver New York City’s Tactical Police Force, rats, a destructive and compulsory system of education, and so forth, or die.

In an early letter to Fuller, she identified the aim of the project: “I would think,” she wrote, “that this new reality of Harlem should immediately reassure its residents that control of the quality of survival is possible and that every life is valuable.”

This was the period of “last futures,” in Murphy’s words, in which apocalyptic pessimism generated utopian thinking, and in which “massive interior environments of the time, both imaginary and in some cases built in germinal form, were some of the purest architectural visions of social and natural harmony conceived of in human history.” Jordan and Fuller intended their project to be built, but it was at once deadly serious and speculative, consisting of fantasy megastructures that exceeded the technical and urbanist criteria of the time. It could be described as Afrofuturist, though this was then an inchoate discourse. And yet it was also akin to the megastructural projects of the postwar Metabolists in Japan, particularly with its hint of modular construction, one tower being built on top of another.

“Following the Harlem Riot of 1964,” Jordan wrote in the Esquire article,

a profusion of remedies for what was at last accepted as a critical situation appeared everywhere; nowhere, however, was environmental redesign given prime emphasis. Yet it is architecture, conceived of in its fullest meaning as the creation of environment, which may actually determine the pace, pattern, and quality of living experience.

The cylindrical towers of “Skyrise,” which look a lot like stylized nuclear cooling towers, were supposed to be flown in by helicopter and placed on top of existing housing. They would be completed while people continued to live in the houses beneath them. “No one will move anywhere but up,” Jordan wrote. The rest of the landscape could then be razed and replaced with green space.

A cross section of these structures resembles abstract, stylized Christmas trees evenly broadening toward their base with central, supporting trunks. Each tree town is 100 circular decks high. The lowest level begins 10 stories above ground, above dust level and major cloverleaf-highway systems…. Circling the central mast is a parking system of ramps that never cross. The huge interior space next permits a circling of shops, supermarkets, game rooms and workshops on every deck, plus, on some levels, a cross view of 400 feet. The penultimate circling of the central mast contains dwelling units, which provide an average of 1200 square feet per family as against an average of 720 in today’s public housing…. Every room has a view. From these hanging gardens, both rivers will be visible…. Rather than the commonly known sidewalk, there will be wide walkways entirely separate from the cloverleaf ribbonry that will divide the high-speed through traffic from local traffic.

The article ends:

Where we are physically is enmeshed with our deepest consciousness of self. There is no evading architecture, no meaningful denial of our position. You can build to defend the endurance of man, to protect his existence, to illuminate it. But you cannot build for these purposes merely in spasmodic response to past and present crises, for then crisis, like the poor, will be with us always. If man is to have not only a future but a destiny, it must be consciously and deliberately designed.

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When Esquire published the essay in 1965, the editors changed the title from “Skyrise for Harlem” to “Instant Slum Clearance.” Though she was by then divorced, Jordan was referred to by her married name, June Meyer. And any contribution she had made to the project was edited out. The design was referred to exclusively as Fuller’s. 

Some historians have taken “Skyrise” to be a deeply anti-urban vision. Matlin writes that “Skyrise” amounts to an “erasure of Harlem—the destruction or evacuation of the entire built environment within which Black Harlem’s history had unfolded, and which, for all its deficiencies, had contributed powerfully to Harlem’s culture, politics, and symbolic significance within African American and Black diasporic life.” One of the most striking aspects of the proposal, indeed, is its abolition of a crucial site of so much Black sociability, expressive culture, and political mobilization: the street.

June Jordan reading at the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, Jackson, Mississippi, November 1973

Jackson State University/Getty Images

June Jordan reading at the Phillis Wheatley Poetry Festival, Jackson, Mississippi, November 1973

But in her letter to Fuller, Jordan argued that the rectilinear layout of Harlem, and its separation from the waterfront, made it restrictive and life-denying. Jordan and Fuller suggested an entirely different understanding of the possibilities for urban life that, however problematic or solipsistic on its own terms, attempted to claim free Black space distinct from the urban grid, which it rejected and portrayed as asphyxiating. As Jordan wrote in her early letter to Fuller:

Given our goal of a pacific, life-expanding design for a human community, we might revise street patterning so that the present patterns of confrontation by parallel lines would never be repeated. The existing monotony limits pleasures of perspectives. Rigidly flat land is ruled by rectilinear form. The crisscrossing pattern too often becomes a psychological crucifixion; an emergence from an alleyway into a danger zone vulnerable to enemies approaching in at least two directions that converge at the target who is the pedestrian poised on a corner.

On the one hand, the reference to someone who is “vulnerable to enemies” brings to mind the violence that Jordan described in the 1964 rebellion. On the other hand, it also brings forward the notion that Harlem’s urban space was a zone particularly susceptible to and encouraging of crime. Here, at least, it overlaps with the discourse of contemporary urbanism, which fixated on New York City’s especially high proportion of high-rise public housing. These towers-in-a-park exude an incredible symbolic power and suggest the massive scale of social investment that postwar countries poured into housing construction.

By the 1980s, something resembling a nationwide consensus had been fomented against public housing as an incubator of crime and a prison of poverty. Many people blamed architects. Paul Gapp, for example, the architecture critic for The Chicago Tribune, wrote, “Overall, much of the blame for the Chicago Housing Authority’s failures must be attributed to architects. The influence that began with Le Corbusier has persisted, and ugly, oppressive buildings have multiplied.”

In the US, the growing consensus against public housing owed no small part to virulent racism against its disproportionately African American population. But another source was a series of polemics against architecture and planning, each drawing on the other. Jane Jacobs’s much admired The Death and Life of Great American Cities (1961) is one source of this common sense. For all her wisdom, as Lewis Mumford wrote in his review, Jacobs’s “ideal city is mainly an organization for the prevention of crime.” He notes that Jacobs even laments many of the great parks of New York City as an invitation to criminality. Though Jacobs herself was insistent that design could not be the source, or the solution, for social ills—a manner of thinking she labeled “the physical fallacy”—her own conclusions were ambiguous on this front, and few of her acolytes took care to avoid environmental determinism in their own proposals.

Drawing on Jacobs, the Canadian architect and planner Oscar Newman pointed to the criminogenic potential of dark stairwells and blind corridors in Corbusier-style high-rise projects. In his book Defensible Space (1973) he described a model for low-rise residential environments that inhibits crime by creating the physical expression of a social fabric that defends itself. It became the best-selling architecture book of the 1970s. His theories came to be widely adopted, and he worked as a consultant to various housing authorities in the US. It was in part due to the influence of Newman’s theories that the HOPE VI program came into being, under the auspices of which housing authorities demolished most larger towers, replacing them with low-density, suburban-style tracts. Thousands of units were not replaced, leading to an overall diminution in the stock of public housing.

Somewhere between “Skyrise for Harlem” and Defensible Space lies a range of Black architectures that historians are still considering, or reconsidering. One is the unfinished project Kawaida Towers, proposed by Amiri Baraka—the poet, playwright, and organizer who was one of the founders and theorists of the Black Arts Movement that began in Harlem—as a kind of spiritual and artistic counterpart to Jordan’s work. After he secured funding from the New Jersey Housing Finance Authority and planned to build two majority-Black housing towers in the city, the project was ultimately beaten back, stymied by politicians, majority-white construction unions, and police. An opportunity for Black space and Black public housing was lost.4

As I was finishing the lecture that became this essay, a young Black man, Walter Wallace Jr., twenty-seven years old, was shot and killed by police in West Philadelphia. This was near the end of a year, 2020, in which millions of people—anywhere between 15 and 20 million Americans—participated in Black Lives Matter rebellions in immediate response to the police murder of George Floyd. These were, at the very least, outcries of rage against racist police violence; near their maximum, they were radical challenges to the order of racial capitalism. Also as I was finishing my lecture, a protest encampment on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway in Philadelphia led to an extraordinary transfer of derelict properties from the Philadelphia Housing Authority to a community land trust. As in 1964, a challenge to the established order turned, in part, into a proposal for housing.


This essay is adapted from A Rage in Harlem: June Jordan and Architecture, published by Sternberg Press and the Harvard Graduate School of Design. 

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