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2021 Catherine W. Bishir Prize Recipient

The 2021 winner of the Catherine W. Bishir Prize is Marta Gutman for her essay, “Intermediate School 201: Race, Space, and Modern Architecture in Harlem,” which appears in Educating Harlem: A Century of Schooling and Resistance in a Black Community, edited by Ansley T. Erickson and Ernest Morrell (Columbia University Press, 2019).  Gutman’s contribution to this multi-disciplinary history of the neighborhood’s 20th century educational struggles is a close reading of the 1960s controversy over I.S. 201, the infamous, windowless school that served as a flashpoint in the battle over community educational control. Drawing on Henri Lefebvre's concept of the production of space and bell hooks's notion that marginal places can challenge dominant social orders, Gutman’s essay makes masterful use of oral history, architecture, ephemera, and other primary sources to reveal both the polarization that I.S. 201 caused and the opportunities that it offered. Reflecting the City’s deep resistance to school desegregation, I. S. 201 descended directly from the “equalization” school model of the mid-20th century south, in which modern buildings with quality finishes were presented as compensation to Black students for the maintenance of systemic racial separation. In its problematic siting, and in the abstract monumentality of its experimental, modernist design, the school articulated a fortress-like containment and exclusion completely at odds with Harlemites’ aspirations for community-based educational reform. Yet once the public protests at its opening in 1966 led to a short-lived experiment in local educational self-governance, parents, teachers, administrators and activists quickly appropriated the well-built and well-equipped school, adapting its flexible classroom design to support innovative curricula and student collaboration, and using its state-of-the-art auditorium as a venue for Black community empowerment.  Through its careful attention not only to the physical reality of the building, but the ways in which it was experienced, imagined and re-invented, Gutman’s work provides a model of how to interpret the role of architecture in the fraught racial politics of the United States.   

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