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Ohio State presentation explores global history of the front porch

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houses with front porches
Architect and professor Germane Barnes' research traced the history of the front porch to Africa. (Photo: Adobe Stock)

Faculty and students from The Ohio State University’s Knowlton School explored architecture’s impact on art, history, sociology and other disciplines over two days during the “Missing Masses: Architecture of the Unseen” symposium.

In the Jan. 25 keynote presentation, Phu Hoang, head of the Knowlton School’s Architecture Section, led a conversation with Germane Barnes, the school’s 2023-24 Trott Distinguished Visiting Professor. The program brings internationally acclaimed architects, landscape architects and planners to the Knowlton School each year.

Barnes is an assistant professor at the University of Miami School of Architecture. He is also director of UM’s Community Housing & Identity Lab, which highlights how architecture affects communities beyond physical construction.

Barnes’ architectural history project, “Structuring Blackness in Rome,” received the Rome Prize in Architecture, a research grant awarded by the American Academy in Rome. Barnes, who is African American, researched the African roots of architecture in the United States and Italy.

Barnes began his research in his hometown of Chicago and also studied structures in four other cities – Atlanta, Detroit, Houston and Washington, D.C. – where African Americans settled during the Great Migration from the South to the North in the 20th century. His research found that a common feature of American homes – the front porch – originated in Africa.

“In order to understand the porch, I had to go all the way back to West Africa,” Barnes said. “The first version of the linear hut was there, and that was called the tikay. And during this search, it became an anthropological quest.”

Germane Barnes
Germane Barnes

Barnes found that a version of the tikay made its way to Haiti, where it was called a kombet. The kombet was eventually replicated in the southeast United States, where it was called a “shotgun house.” Many of these houses had front porches where inhabitants fostered a sense of community while seeking a breeze in muggy climates, Barnes said.

“You very clearly begin to see the lineage of this space. When we think about the porch, we think about how important it is for a sense of belonging,” he said. “A porch can be a hair salon. It can be a place for therapy. It can be a place that has a lot of books out front and it becomes your library. … It has so many different multiplicities.”  

Barnes’ research led him to compare African structures that preceded the front porch in the United States to a similar historic structure in Italy known as a portico – a covered walkway with a roof supported by columns.

In his application to the American Academy of Rome, Barnes said he outlined his intention “to blend the work I am doing on porches [that originated in Africa] with Roman porticos and see which came first, but also understand, what are the missing histories of the African diaspora within the larger ethos of classical architecture?”               

As part of his research, Barnes designed a column that was based on Northern African architecture and partly inspired by African American braided hairstyles. The column has been displayed in galleries in Rome and Venice and is scheduled to be displayed in exhibit spaces throughout the United States this year, Barnes said.

In addition to history, art and sociology, Barnes’ work demonstrates that architecture encompasses literature by conveying narratives with multiple chapters, Hoang said.

“This work of a scale and condition, it must continue,” Hoang said. “A project that began in … Chicago, moved to Rome, then to Venice, and now back in the U.S. – three cities, three phases.”

Barnes said his “Structuring Blackness in Rome” project emphasizes architecture’s multidisciplinary aspects.

“It’s forced me to stop calling myself an architect and start calling myself an architectural anthropologist,” he said. “It’s really about understanding the rituals of space and how people occupy space.”

The “Missing Masses” symposium also included presentations by Ohio State professors in the Knowlton School and the Department of History as well as faculty from Yale, the University of New Mexico, the Rhode Island School of Design and the University of California, Los Angeles.  

by Chris Bournea, Ohio State News, bournea.1@osu.edu

Category: Research