Germane Barnes

of Studio Barnes

Barnes’research and design practice investigates the connection between architecture and identity. Mining architecture’s social and political agency, he examines how the built environment influences black domesticity. His design and research contributions have been published and exhibited in several international institutions. Most notably, The Museum of Modern Art, The Graham Foundation, The New York Times, Architect Magazine, DesignMIAMI/ Art Basel, The Swiss Institute, Metropolis Magazine, Curbed, and The National Museum of African American History where he was identified as one of the future designers on the rise.

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Ryan Tyler Martinez: Did you know early on in your career that you wanted to be an architect, or is this something that slowly progressed over time?

Germane Barnes: I’m one of those weird kids who’ve known their entire life that they wanted to be an architect. The earliest that my mother can recall me mentioning the profession is around six or seven years old when my aunt asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said an architect. And fortunately, that’s been able to happen now at thirty-five. So twenty-nine years and it hasn’t changed.

You’re a licensed architect now in Miami?

I have three more tests to go.

How is that going?

It’s awful. It’s the worst. When you’re actually getting work, and you’re doing things, it’s hard to find a balance between working, studying, and your own personal time. I graduated from Woodbury in 2012. I worked for a year and a half in LA before moving to Miami. When I got to Miami I worked in a non-traditional setting for the first six years, non-traditional meaning not in a capital “A” architecture firm, but for a local community development corporation. They were a nonprofit and I was the entire design department. So I’m getting all this architecture experience. I’m getting all these hours but there are certain things like HVAC details that I’m not getting, but I did get to understand the business aspect of project management. All the things that, when it was time to start taking my test, helped me knock out those practice and project management exams easy. Those were a breeze because that’s what I’ve been working through. Then the last three exams are more detailed and construction document focused. Some of that stuff I don’t have much experience with, even though I’ve built quite a few things. We just outsource it to M.E.P people, I don’t have to know all that, my engineer will do it. ‘

The Marshall

You’re an educator, so you know the tension between the discipline and the practice of architecture. There have been some recent conversations about licensure and how hard it is to become a licensed architect. Now that you’re doing all this, do you think it’s necessary?

I hate the process. It got to a point where I failed one test two times in a row. This is before they changed to 5.0 when they gave us the vignettes, where you can get 100% of the multiple-choice questions correct, and if you do poorly on a vignette, you fail the exam.

This process is a massive barrier for people of color. One, because these exams aren’t cheap. Each one is $250. If you fail it, you have to pay for it again. There is no reciprocity for payment. I feel like it should be a one-time payment, and I should be able to take the test as many times as I need until I pass it. We shouldn’t have to pay every single time we take the exams. Also, when you add the fact that if you want to take a long break between exams, there’s a rolling clock. Why are you putting a time limit on me to where, if I pass an exam one year, and I don’t finish the rest, I have to retake that test? I might not have the time to continue taking the rest of the exams, because that’s a luxury. There are so many stupid things that go into it, that I just find it annoying.

The Marshall

Maybe these types of conversations will help fuel the fire to change it. It is ridiculously expensive. Unless you have the money, and the time, it’s hard to become a licensed architect.

Being a licensed architect is something that I’ve always had as a personal goal. Before understanding what real practice was, I never met an architect when I was younger. I’m from Chicago, I lived down the street from Frank Lloyd Wright homes. I also went to the Guggenheim when I was in seventh grade, and I enrolled in art classes. I really was on this trajectory. But I never understood what licensure meant. I just assumed once I finish school, I can start designing and building things. Once I learned all of the behind-the-scenes process, I was like, Oh, this is just a massive money grab, like a lot of this isn’t even necessary. In reality, you really don’t need your license, as long as you are charismatic enough to get projects. And if you have five or six streams of income, you have enough equity to where you could hire licensed architects, or you can make partnerships with offices that have licensed professionals. You can still get all the acclaim of the design, while not having to worry about the sort of lawsuit of being the architect of record. For me, I want to be one of those black architects, that pays it forward to young black designers when I’m old. That’s the reason why I’m doing it. I don’t need it. I’m already designing and building stuff now
The Marshall
I’m sure the perception of architecture and also being an architect has changed since the beginning of your education to now teaching architecture. You went to undergrad for architecture and then you went to Woodbury for graduate school. What was that like? How was the educational process for you as a student?

Massively different. Absolutely polar opposites in means of education. My undergrad school is practice-based, which essentially means that every single semester, you’ll have a drawing, a studio, and a systems course. As a result, you really understand the tectonics of how buildings get put together. When it was time for me to pick a graduate school, I thought, how can I find a program that can actually teach me how to design well, that can teach me how to be critical, that can teach me how to think about architecture. I felt like those were the things that I was missing. All of my history courses in undergrad were just survey courses. Here’s Brunelleschi, here’s the Prairie School, etc. It wasn’t until I got to Woodbury where I started to learn and think through architecture, to think through space to understand history and theory. I began to impose my own personal anecdotes within that history and theory and then began to speculate outside of a box because that was really all I knew at the time. When you put those two different approaches together, I think you get a very well-rounded individual.

Symbiotic Territories

It seemed like your graduate thesis project Symbiotic Territory’s was pretty important for your body of work, but also for your career. I’m wondering, now that you’re an educator, do you see the graduate thesis in architecture being important? Because it seemed like for you in your career, it was something that kick-started everything.

It’s funny because that entire project happened by accident. I didn’t set out to make this landmark project that created my career trajectory. The idea was just to do some cool stuff with hip hop and architecture. It was through some conversations with some thesis advisors that really pissed me off and told me that I couldn’t do stuff around race in architecture. That project was me giving a middle finger to the professors. And somehow, I was able to find my voice through that project, to where it propelled me to where I am now. But on the other side, as an academic and having taught thesis three of the last four years, I’ve learned that it’s not for everyone. Some people don’t care about the criticalness that comes with thinking and thinking through the built environment. Some people just want to be in production. And I think that’s okay. I don’t think everybody has to be the super theoretical individual that contributes something to capital “A” architecture. I think you can be the person who just does construction documents or project management and you go home at night. I think that’s okay. So for me, it’s kind of hard to reconcile how much sweat equity and emotional perseverance it took me to finish my thesis, and then see students who don’t care as much about their own. So that’s sort of the crossroads I find myself at because, on one hand, I understand it’s not important for everybody. And on the other hand, it was so important to me, and I wonder why it’s not important to everybody. Does that make sense?

Symbiotic Territories

Yes totally. There’s a spectrum of ideologies across the discipline of architecture, ranging from practice to theory. I think whatever you get out of it, is what you get out of it for you as an individual. I am curious though because I thought it was an extremely relevant thesis, and I’m wondering if you index it, or if you reuse your body of work from that for new projects.

So Ingalill Wahlroos-Ritter was at my thesis review, and I love Ingalill. She said something to me that I will never forget, which at the moment, I was, like, “what is this that you are talking about?”. But she said to me, “this is your autobiography, this is your personal story”. And the whole time I’m working on the thesis, I’m thinking “just give a finger to these professors.” That’s all this is. I’m not thinking that this is telling my own story until I was two or three years away from the project. I looked back and I thought “oh hell, This really is like my personal story. This is my autobiography, using architecture as the medium.” I always find myself going back to that project because it’s me and everything that I do. It stems from my own personal stories. Some of the projects I’m working on now, which deal with the porch and the occupation of space, and this collision of white hegemony and black occupation are literally born out of that thesis. It’s funny to see how all this still finds its way back into my work, regardless of how much I try to hide it.

I find it interesting that you did the project as a middle finger, as an opposite of what people were telling you. Why do you think there was this tension? Is it because in the past there’s been more focus around form and theory, instead of an interest around race and identity in architecture?

I think it’s because we are in a field that’s not dominated by people who look like me. When you have an architecture, or you have a pedagogy that centers on a white perspective, and that white perspective is always privileged, and they don’t have to worry about the same marginalization as an indigenous person, as a woman, as a queer person, or as a black person, they’re less likely to accept your alternative version of the built environment, because they’ve never experienced it. It’s like: “this isn’t racist, because it hasn’t happened to me, or this isn’t sexist, because it hasn’t happened to me”. It doesn’t have to happen to you for it to be legitimate. My project was born out of the pre-thesis of me just trying to find instances where rap artists talked about the built environment. That’s literally all I was trying to do. I thought, “Jay Z talks about the project, Kanye talks about his house, blah, blah, blah, these things exist.” And so I literally just put these on the wall, without thinking; Here are some examples, because I have to make this architectural. And when I put them on the wall, I got so many critiques like: “that’s not architecture, these things don’t have anything to do with each other. We have no responsibility to the social aspect of the world, we just create buildings and space.” When I heard that, I thought “you’re all idiots, all of you are idiots, do you all not realize that everything we do has an impact? Just because that doesn’t affect you doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect other people.” At that point, I switched my entire thing. I’m going to prove to you all, that this really does have a connection. And, unfortunately, it wasn’t until the murder of George Floyd and riots for architecture that they realized, “oh, what these students were telling us what’s actually true. And we just were ignoring them because we have massive amounts of biases, whether explicit or implicit.” We’re finally starting to see the reconciliation of all the stories that we’ve been telling them for decades that nobody thought were legitimate.
Symbiotic Territories
Wedge Gallery

©2021 Woodbury School of Architecture
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©2021 Woodbury School of Architecture
Website and show identity by Robyn Baker