June Jordan, The Poetry Of Design

A new exhibition explores the collaboration between poet June Jordan and architet R. Buckminster Fuller to understand Jordan’s contributions to environmental design by foregrounding the impact of urban space on lived experience.

by GRIOT - Published on 17/04/2023
The back cover of June Jordan’s 1969 book Who Look at Me (left); and a ca. 1970–71 photograph of Jordan in a catalogue for the Annual Exhibition of Work by the Fellows and Residents, from AAR’s Institutional Archive

In 1964, the poet June Jordan collaborated with the architect R. Buckminster Fuller on an urban plan for Harlem, which led her to win a Rome Prize in environmental design in 1970.
“A collaborative architectural redesign of Harlem,” Jordan and Fuller called their collaboration “Skyrise for Harlem”: a plan for public housing that was attuned to the well-being of two hundred and fifty thousand of the neighborhood’s residents, most of them Black. The project may have seemed a left turn for Jordan, who came to prominence through her essays and poetry. But she had always conceived of her work as falling under the umbrella of environmental design—“that is,” she explained, “in general, an effort to contribute to the positive changing of the world.”

Skyrise for Harlem. Image via The New Yorker

The exhibition (American Academy in Rome, April 20-June 11) takes their partnership as a springboard to explore Jordan’s contributions to environmental design during a period of great architectural foment. It highlights for the first time how Jordan foregrounded the impact of urban space on lived experience in her work to advocate improved affordable housing, gender equality, and racial justice.

Rarely seen drawings for urban interventions in Harlem and central Italy by Fuller show how their collaboration strove to improve the living standards of the poor and powerless. Paintings by acclaimed American artists Charles Alston, Colleen Browning, and Alice Neel, which Jordan wrote about in her 1969 poem on Black America, Who Look at Me, illustrate the dignity of the community—and their need, in her words, for “vastly improved dwellings”—that fueled Jordan’s activism through design.

The exhibition also marks the premier presentation of photographs she took and audio recordings she made, today in the June Jordan Papers at Harvard University. Together, the works on view show how Jordan drew on the power of literature, architecture, urbanism, and visual art to catalyze change in society.

June Jordan. COURTESY American Academy in Rome

June Jordan, The Poetry of Design is curated by Lindsay Harris (2014 Fellow), the Academy’s interim Andrew Heiskell Arts Director, with Lexi Eberspacher, Programs Associate for the Arts. A fully illustrated catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

A Conversations/Conversazioni between Sean Anderson (2005 Fellow), associate professor of architecture at Cornell University and former Museum of Modern Art curator, and the architect J. Yolande Daniels (2004 Fellow, 2023 Resident), associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, will be held in conjunction with the opening. The discussion, titled “June Jordan and Building Justice in Design” and taking place in the Lecture Room from 6:00 to 7:00pm, will be introduced by AAR President Mark Robbins (1997 Fellow), with remarks from Whitfield Lovell (2019 Resident), whose portrait of Jordan, a gift to the Academy, inspired the exhibition and is a centerpiece of its installation.

June Jordan, The Poetry of Design is supported by the Terra Foundation for American Art, the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller, and the June M. Jordan Literary Trust.


One of the most widely-published and highly-acclaimed Jamaican American writers of her generation, poet, playwright and essayist June Millicent Jordan (July 9, 1936 – June 14, 2002) was known for her fierce commitment to human rights and political activism. She was born in Harlem, New York, as the only child of Granville Ivanhoe Jordan and Mildred Maude Fisher, immigrants from Jamaica and Panama. Over a career that produced twenty-seven volumes of poems, essays, libretti, and work for children, Jordan engaged the fundamental struggles of her era: for civil rights, women’s rights, and sexual freedom.

A prolific writer across genres, Jordan’s poetry is known for its immediacy and accessibility as well as its interest in identity and the representation of personal, lived experience—her poetry is often deeply autobiographical. Jordan’s work also frequently imagines a radical, globalized notion of solidarity amongst the world’s marginalized and oppressed. In volumes like Some Changes (1971), Living Room (1985) and Kissing God Goodbye: Poems 1991-1997 (1997), Jordan uses conversational, often vernacular English to address topics ranging from family, bisexuality, political oppression, racial identity and racial inequality, and memory.

Jordan also taught at many of the country’s most prestigious universities including Yale, State University of New York-Stony Brook, and the University of California-Berkeley, where she founded Poetry for the People. Her honors and awards included fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Massachusetts Council on the Arts, and the New York Foundation for the Arts, a Rockefeller Foundation grant, and the National Association of Black Journalists Award

June Jordan was inducted on the National LGBTQ Wall of Honor within the Stonewall National Monument in 2019.

Thursday, April 20–Sunday, June 11
Frdiay, Saturday, Sunday,
From 4Pm to 7pm
AAR Gallery
McKim, Mead & White Building
Via Angelo Masina, 5
Rome, Italy

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