The Hair Salon: Black Hair as Architecture

What is The Hair Salon?

The Hair Salon draws upon the unique Black texture to create an installation that centers Blackness as a cultural and technological force in the world Little of African material culture and practices survived the Transatlantic slave trade. The unique Black hair texture, more than any other genetic trait, signifies Blackness and its hair care practices are a vibrant, living inheritance throughout African diasporic cultures.

Like race and architecture, hair texture and its care practices are constructs that can be utilized as a means of dominance and control or as a force of resistance and liberation. During Apartheid in South Africa, the “pencil test” was one of the means to determine if one was to be labeled “Colored” or “Black.” If a pencil stayed in place when inserted into a mixed-race person’s hair, the individual was deemed to be Black and denied the rights/privileges of the higher caste – the “Colored.” Even today in the U.S., the Crown Act , which protects Black women who wear their natural hair from discrimination in the workplace, has only been passed in ten states.

The first space we inhabit is our own body and architecture, since its inception, has looked to the human body for inspiration. As an extension of the Black body, natural Black hair remains at the center of dialogues on power, cultural value, beauty, and social standing, and is a compelling tool to engender conversations on the power of Blackness as a cultural, intellectual, and aesthetic force.

The Architectural System

Although hair texture throughout the African diaspora varies based on one’s specific genetic inheritance, in general, Black hair is an aggregation of tightly coiled strands that grow straight out from the scalp. Viewed under a microscope, a strand of natural Black hair looks like a coiled spring Located on a material spectrum between structure and drape, Black hair is stiff, yet pliable enough to sculpt into infinite configurations.

Traditional Black hair care practices, as documented by Nigerian photographer, J.D. Ojeikere, often embody the fractal system that link contemporary Black hairstyles and practices to recursion and repetitive scaling that underpins the whole of African indigenous design practices from the layout of villages to textile design. Operating materially between the realms of structure and drape, the unique texture of Black hair not only provides protection from intense heat, but also allows Black hair to act as a container – captured Africans wove okra and rice seeds into their hair allowing slaves to transport native foods with them over the Atlantic.

Once these Africans were enslaved, many escaped to freedom using maps literally woven with hair onto their scalps and casually worn in plain sight. These unique properties of Black hair that arises from a shared genetic code provide potent generative source material to imagine and shape new architectures. The Hair Salon demonstrates how traditional African diasporic practices can now be a source of new materials and technologies significant to not only African diasporic futures, but to the future of the world.

The Installation

The Hair Salon imagines the Africa and its diasporic cultures as a unified and cohesive community in the form of a circular field of kinked and copper tubes that stand in for Black hair strands that stand in for Black bodies. The circular field of tubes simultaneously suggests a collective diasporic crown and the community itself.

The field of tubes stands for 1.2 billion Black people of African descent around the world. (For purposes of this project, Blackness is defined as those with recent Sub-Saharan ancestry). Various sections of the field are chemically aged to represent different inflections of Blackness depending on where one is in the world – for example, Brazilian Blacks are represented with a patina different from African Americans.

Each tube is uniquely “kinked” to represent individual identities. Three spaces at three distinct scales of intimacy are created within the field as clearings for dialogue that centers Black voices, creativity, improvisations, and ways of being in the world.

Space is created by subtracting elements from the field and codified as rooms with binding nodes developed from the rules of hair braiding, twisting, and African threading. These are rule-based practices, not unlike the rule-based language of computer algorithms. The resulting architectural system creates a “clearing” for dialogue and collaborative efforts to imagine liberatory possibilities for collective futures.

The Hair Salon centers, rather than marginalizes, Blackness as a cultural/technological force that can transform our collective futures for the better. And, because science tells us that on an anthropological level, we are all African, the Hair Salon posits itself as the originating universal creative space.

The proposed temporary installation will live on as an online platform for the discussion about Blackness as a powerful cultural, aesthetic, and intellectual force and will host live conversations about Black hair care practices and the translation of those practices into architectural material, surfaces, and physical architectural systems will happen within the construction. The project offers the opportunity to expand the conversation about Black culture, its relationship to technology, and concepts of translation and meaning making.


Critically positioned between the cultural and the technological, this proposal has two threads of inquiry that will advance the discourse, practice and theory of architecture and related design disciplines. The first thread is an exploration of the generative possibilities of Black hair care practices in the creation of new kinds of material systems that can be used to conceive and make space.

This interdisciplinary research opens up the discourse of architecture that will advance thinking about a how architecture can be not only respond to, but celebrate Blackness in the conception and design of space. This inquiry comes at a crucial juncture in American culture when the value society places on Black life is drawn into sharp focus following the killing of unarmed Black citizens by police in cities and the Black Lives Matter movement.

Across the country, architecture students are demanding that design programs rethink curricula to allow students to acknowledge, draw upon and celebrate their own cultural heritages in the design process. This project will serve as an instructive model illustrating how cultural references can be translated into architectural space using sophisticated design tools for students, academics, and practitioners.

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