Student Investigates Implications and Intricacies of Public Housing

Woman wearing a black poncho looks at a wall pinned with architectural plans

Hallie Black presents during the review for the fall option studio titled Berlin — City Between Immigration and Gentrification, taught by Professor Werner Goehner. William Staffeld / AAP

May 7, 2018

A Profile of Hallie Black (B.Arch. '19) from the Spring 2018 Issue of AAP News.

For the past three semesters, Hallie Black (B.Arch. '19) has tackled the concept of housing on a large urban scale, from idea to execution.

Designing on such a scale, Black says, is the biggest challenge she's encountered at Cornell. It involves not only critical problems within the urban realm, but also grappling with global migrations.

Understanding how to incorporate refugee housing and the constructs of moving people are crucial to the design process. "Integrating people into a neighborhood," she says, "would allow for healthy interactions, healthy additions to a city that would promote better living for citizens and noncitizens."

Born and raised in Boston, Black was a "lifer" at Brimmer and May School, attending the same institution from Pre-K through high school.

"You'd imagine that I'd go and do something opposite to that, but instead I ended up doing something even more specified in a tight-knit community," says Black, referring to AAP's architecture program.

She was drawn to architecture by the time she entered high school, in part because of the way it incorporated what she describes as her "logic-based thinking" with a creative method of problem-solving.

Prior to college, Black participated in peer tutoring, an opportunity that helped solidify some core skills she would later use at Cornell. Breaking down algebra for one's peers necessitates working through someone else's logic, she explained. It involves clarifying how to move through a problem in a way that others will understand through their own lens, as simply as possible but without oversimplifying.

Outside of architecture but in parallel, Black is pursuing a German minor. She enjoys both the logical element of the language itself, as well as the opportunity to take classes in German cinema — for instance, one in which she does scene analyses about expressionism.

"I've been taking books out from the library and trying to translate them, and it has been really rewarding, really frustrating, taking it word by word," Black says.

When she first started studying German, Black couldn't imagine checking out library books in the new language she was learning. In fact, at the beginning of her studies, she had no intention of pursuing a German minor at all. But in the summer of 2016, Black was able to live with her cousin in Berlin and take a German intensive class for beginners at Freie Universität.

"I really wanted to experience a new place and language, and learn something new that was not offered in my rigid degree process," Black says. "More importantly than learning a new skill and living on my own in a new environment, I began to investigate, perhaps subconsciously, the interactions of neighbors and people within the variations of housing typologies of Berlin."

She became interested in studying the architecture of a city of contradictions that she would later revisit: the quintessential Berliner/perimeter block, the Hansaviertel neighborhood of Bauhaus exceptionalism, and the IBA Neubau housing of the 1970s.

The decision to pursue a foreign language has been creatively rewarding and eminently practical for Black. She returned to Germany in the fall of 2017 on a 10-day field trip that combined her choice of option studio and her Mellon Fellowship, both exploring migrant and refugee settlements in Berlin. Each class focused on issues of immigration: the studio, led by Professor Werner Goehner, explored immigration and gentrification, while the Mellon seminar, led by associate professors Esra Akcan and Iftikhar Dadi, homed in on migration and discrimination.

The experience, Black says, opened her eyes to intersectional work among artists, architects, urban planning, and policy.

"I'm really interested in refugee housing," Black says, noting a passion for housing in general. "A home is so important, and to create homes on a megastructure scale, which we've had to do for the past few semesters, I think is one of the trickiest problems in architecture."

The Berlin trip taken with her option studio and Mellon seminar led Black to further investigate the human aspects of influence that make a city what it is.

"You have a group of gentrifiers moving into the same neighborhoods in which immigrants have been living for a few generations, or just moved into. It becomes these two competing factors, not to say in opposition, not to say that one is above the other. I think they both deserve equal attention because they affect the city in such a monumental way," Black says.

Prior to the Mellon Fellowship, Black was awarded a Hunter R. Rawlings III Cornell Presidential Research Scholarship (RCPRS) based on an essay about arrival cities and arrival architecture, which have the potential to aid assimilation by offering a supportive enclave, she says. "I gained a lot more focus since the Mellon seminar on what I want to look at. I felt that I was too vague and giving off an 'architecture knows and cures all' kind of vibe," Black says of her original RCPRS paper. "My research is currently narrowing to focus on housing in the U.S. and Germany but will, of course, benefit from understanding border control and the idea of the noncitizen to paint a broader picture of housing migrant populations."

Black hopes to use her RCPRS research stipend for another trip to Germany for site visits, to continue researching Germany as an arrival country, and to further her research on New York City as a microcosm of global trends and political climates.

"Right now I'm trying to triangulate what I've learned in my Berlin option studio with what I've been doing in the Mellon seminar, and building on this research independently," she says of her RCPRS work, which may also lead to her B.Arch. thesis.

Outside of the classroom, Black is the treasurer for the student club Building Community at Cornell. The club encourages students to complete hands-on projects, and share their skills both on and off campus. In 2016, the club created a traveling tool library, from which members of the Cornell community and Ithaca at large can rent out tools and return them, for example, after they've refinished a bathroom or hung a picture frame. And in the fall of 2017, the club collaborated with Cornell Hillel to construct a 30' by 10' sukkah, an outdoor structure for celebrating the Jewish holiday Sukkot.

Black's role in the club over the last two years has been organizing projects in the community. Her favorite part, she says, is using skills learned through metal and wood shop in a real-world setting within Ithaca as a whole. The tools library is housed at Ithaca Generator, a makerspace near the Ithaca Commons.

"Our tools and library space now reach a greater audience," Black says. "As for our club, we also carry out smaller projects such as hosting our own workshops on slip casting or designing/building shelving for Significant Elements, a local consignment shop [and architectural salvage warehouse]. To fund-raise, we host community supper clubs to gather Cornell students under one roof to celebrate community investment."

Going forward, Black is excited to continue studying German, and conduct research independently as well as for the RCPRS program. In spring 2018, she will participate in another traveling option studio, Fly on the Wall. The studio aims to examine the U.S.–Mexico border and its spatial implications; students will travel from San Diego to Tijuana to investigate the busiest land-border crossing, and then on to Mexico City to explore how border territories affect neighbor relationships, from person to person and country to country.

Black remains driven as ever, and reluctant to narrow her options in a forecast of her future. She doesn't rule out continuing in a graduate degree program, following in the footsteps of her mother, who recently completed her Ph.D. in social policy at Brandeis University, where she did research on income inequality throughout much of Black's life.

"I'm just really proud of her; that's influenced me in terms of thinking of architecture as a social practice. It means to work in part with policy and other factors that shape a city, before it can even shape itself," Black said.

Black can also envision herself working for a small architecture firm in the long term. "Coming from Cornell, I think you want to continue the rigorous small community space," Black says. "There's always . . . dreams of starting my own firm. Maybe when I'm 45."

By Jennifer Wholey

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