5 March 2024

Hair Salon: black hair and architecture

The Hair Salon exhibition is what inspired Sheryl Tucker de Vazquez, an associate professor at the University of Houston, to contemplate the significance and potential of black hair design.

Last year, Hair Salon, an exhibition featuring architecture, design, and art inspired by Black hair, opened at the University of Houston. The exhibition showcased Black diasporic hair practices, but more importantly, investigated the material properties of Black hair. For Sheryl Tucker de Vazquez, an Associate Professor at the same University, these properties served as a springboard for new technologies in – of all things! – architecture. Estetica asked Tucker de Vazquez about her research. What inspired her? Are there sociological implications? What applications might it have in terms of dealing with climate change and sustainability?

When and how were you inspired to research Black hair design and connect it to architecture?

In July of 2020, we were in the midst of a deadly pandemic. Moreover, George Floyd’s killing had sparked collective outrage. I decided to seek solace from this bleak news cycle in a Houston MFA exhibition showcasing The Hair Styles Series by Nigerian photographer J.D. Ojeikere. The Hairstyles Series captured the architectural spaces formed with the braided and threaded hairstyles. Nigerian women had revived these styles in the 1960s and 70s as Nigeria broke free from British Colonial rule. While contemplating the row of black and white photographs, I first saw rooms. Next came visions of atriums, theaters, chapels — and then whole buildings emerging from the collection. Stepping back to view the hair styles together, they became cities with office towers and houses, cathedrals, and markets. Working at the smaller scale of the body, these hairstylists were virtually “architects”. They had conceived and shaped whole new worlds through Blackness itself.

Which peculiar characteristics of Black hair convinced you to embark on your research?

The structural/spatial capacity of natural Black hair comes from its coiled structure. This makes it possible for the hair to resists the force of gravity to grow upwards from the scalp. Afro-textured hair evolved as shelter for the body – the first space humans inhabit. In Sub-Saharan Africa, hair evolved as helix-shaped coils. This structure protects the scalp from the intense heat of the African climate. Furthermore, it lifts the hair slightly above the scalp. This allowed sweat to evaporate and cooled the scalp in the process.

The coiled strands of Negroid hair give it a unique plasticity. This allows it to be sculpted into a myriad of forms. It inspired us to conceive new kinds of building materials: this is the research of The Hair Salon.

Hair Salon exhibition in the Mashburn Gallery at the University of Houston Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design – Photo: Nicholas Nguyen

What are the sociological implications of your work?

The unique Black hair texture, more than any other genetic trait, signifies Blackness. Natural Black hair remains at the center of dialogues on power, cultural value, beauty, and social standing. The Hair Salon is a response to an insult I received about my own hair as a twelve-year-old Girl Scout decades ago. Stepping out of the lake after a swim at a summer Girl Scout camp, my college-aged (white) camp counselor disparaged my cornrowed hair. “Don’t you wish your hair was like mine, so you didn’t have to do that to it?” she asked.

White Eurocentric beauty standards affect Black women not only personally, but also professionally and economically. The Crown Act1 having banned race-based hair discrimination in 22 U.S. states. Yet 2020 University study found that Black women with natural hair were less likely to be interviewed. They also rated lower on professionalism and competence than Black women with straightened hair or white women with curly or straight hair.

What is the significance of Houston’s Third Ward Community?

The University of Houston campus in Houston’s Third Ward Community is where I teach architecture. This is where I conceived of The Hair Salon. The Third Ward birthed not only George Floyd, but also Beyonce and Solange. Even Solange’s song “Don’t touch my hair!” reminds Black women to claim their personal agency in a Eurocentric world. In these cultures, a black person wearing his or her hair to school or work naturally is still challenged in many spaces.

These complex, entrenched, and interconnected issues demand a more expansive, collaborative, and imaginative understanding of what architecture can be and do. An architecture based on indigenous Black female knowledge could be enlisted to create new kinds of spaces to meet the unique needs of communities like the Third Ward.

How can these structure help mitigate the effect of climate change?

The Hair Salon taps into Black hair’s protective and spatial capacity to mitigate extreme temperatures associated with climate change. Inspiration came from principles of how black hair protects the scalp from the heat in Sub-Saharan Africa. Climatologists predict that global temperatures will only continue to rise for the foreseeable future. The higher temperatures will impact the city’s under-resourced Black and Brown communities more severely. This calls for a more expansive, collaborative, and imaginative understanding of what architecture can be and do.  

What materials do you use and how do the ventilation chimneys work?

Woven with lightweight steel, the towers recreate traditional and contemporary Black hair styles at an architectural scale. These towers can operate as shading/ventilation chimneys in the context of a planned Zina Garrison Academy, (ZGA) also in Houston’s Third Ward. The chimneys shelter below grade open-air rooms programmed to house diverse activities. These activities range from open-air senior citizen gatherings to reading in an open-air library.  The woven chimney structure features solar-powered sensor-operated panels that open to allow sunlight in the winter and close in the summer to provide shade and activate the passive ventilation capacity of the chimneys.

There are many applications for this research, from bus and playground shelters to protective super structures for large scale multi-building complexes. The Hair Salon demonstrates how the integration of indigenous African knowledge with western systems can support resiliency in under-resourced Black communities while also affirming Black identity and culture in the public realm.

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