Healing Through Truth Telling: Society’s Cage

Read Time: 12 minutes
Listen:60 minutes

Conceptualized in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor slayings, temporary installation “Society’s Cage,” serves to educate the public about systemic racial violence, fostering healing in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and the March on Washington in Support of Black Lives. 

Society’s Cage is a walk-through interpretive structure, conceived with the intention to foster empathy and healing through symbolism, and data. The SmithGroup design team chose the form of an imperfect cube as a metaphor for America’s history of racial state violence, visually signaling a clear interruption the ideals of fairness and equity. “There’s an opportunity in un-packaging hard truths and buried histories that I think in some ways are relevant when we are having these contemporary discussions about race,” says Dayton Schroeter, co-lead designer on the project and principal at SmithGroup. “This phenomenon isn’t happening in a vacuum—it’s part of a systemic pattern. By connecting the dots and holding up a mirror, essentially, it allows us to take inventory of where we are, where we have been, and forces us to be honest.”

The cube-like pavilion was formed with a series of bars, hung to create a cavernous void, that together symbolize the imperfection of society and the justice system. The shape of the interior void space—informed by historical data—addresses the main institutional forces of racism that are an undeniable part of the Black American experience. 

Inside, visitors are encouraged to participate in holding their breath, an exercise accompanied by a bespoke soundtrack and inspired by the 8 minutes and 46 seconds George Floyd suffered under the deadly weight of a knee upon his neck. Outside, wrapping the edifice of Society’s Cage are interpretive panels that speak to lynchings, police terrorism, mass incarceration and capital punishment as the primary structures of racist violence perpetrated by the state. Visitors are also directed to find additional educational resources through QR codes, and share their experiences using the hashtag #societyscage.

“It forces us to reckon with our history and who we are and not pretend. I think that’s what this is; it’s taking something very ugly, and rendering it in a beautiful way,” Schroeter states. “It isn’t based on our opinions; it’s based on facts. So, in many ways, if you’re uneasy with the cage, it might mean that you’re uneasy with the truth.”

SEGD’s CEO Cybelle Jones interviews SmithGroup Principal, Dayton Schroeter, and Architectural Designer, Julian Arrington—Lead Designers of Society’s Cage. Listen,or read excerpts, below.


CJ: How did [the project] start?

JA: It was really a grassroots thing. It was a small group, maybe 10 or 12 of us, and once we selected a concept, individuals within the group began to branch outward and share with the firm. The firm quickly supported us and became our key sponsor both financially and in terms of providing additional labor. 


CJ: [Can you] talk about what the facts are, and how you represented them in the physical installation?

DS: Starting with the parti, the form and shape of the pavilion is a representation of systemic, institutionalized racism. Not only institutionalized racism, but the forces of state violence that have impacted life for African Americans, historically. That imperfect cube that you see is a representation of an imperfect society, a symbol of undue justice and harm against African Americans. The cavernous void is a representation of systemic forces that devalue black life and compromise true equality. That was the big overarching theme. The facades of the pavilion are statistical bar graphs of how African Americans have been impacted by the institutions of lynching—and I call them institutions as they are ingrained phenomena in our society—mass incarcerations, capital punishment, and civilian killings by police. By inscribing that data on the four facades, it creates these profiles, or shapes. The bars that are suspended begin to articulate those profiles. In the ceiling, is the convergence of those four bar graphs, those themes coming together in a representation of holding the weight of institutionalized racism. When you occupy the space, and these rods are hanging above you in this undulating shape, it embodies [this theme].

CJ: How much is interpretive and how much is evocative—how did you guys wrestle with the balance of that?

DS: In our two approaches, we were both experimenting with this cube that had a disruptive force. In Julian’s scheme, it was a very emotive gesture. He was trying to evoke a powerful spatial environment with beautiful moments that would almost be difficult to move through because of the [emotional] tension happening, whereas I took the hyper-rational approach. My scheme was completely driven by data. In the scheme that I did, it was a spatial timeline where you’re literally walking through the 400-year history of America. On one path was the trajectory and topography of lynching, on the right was another topography that related to mass incarceration, so you could see that as [the former] tapered off, [the latter] starts to rise. There were statistics dropping from the ceiling that had to do with capital punishment, and another set that deal with how Black people and disadvantaged groups have been [disproportionally] impacted by Covid.  And it even embodied discrepancies in how blacks and whites have been impacted by some of these institutions; on the floor, was a graphic about wealth disparities. It was a lot! 

CJ: It sounds like it could be a whole museum.

DS: It was like, let’s take Julian’s scheme and let’s see how much data we can take from Dayton’s scheme, to plug into that. So Julian and I got together and found a way to combine the two. 

JA: It’s almost four-dimensional in a sense. We always talk about the 3D, but it talks about time and convergence; when you add the site into it and the sanctum aspect of it, it’s almost a cosmos-type thing—a threshold of contemplation. The metaphors are empowered by facts.

CJ: At what point did you realize you were really going to build this?

DS: Last Tuesday.

All: (laugh)

JA: Three or four weeks ago we had a fabricator on board, and even with that underway, we were still working out structural kinks as he was building it. 

DS: When we were meeting amongst ourselves, the idea was we would go to Home Depot, source the material on our own—PVC pipe and raw lumber…given the time and budget constraints that we had. Essentially what ended up happening was that word spread and our [company’s] board came in and supported us financially, which allowed us to entertain the idea of having a professional fabricator involved. The fabricator didn’t come on board officially until three weeks ago. This thing went from zero to 100 miles-per-hour in a day after the board got on board to support it. 


DS: This was never designed with a specific site in mind; it was meant to be mobile, and go anywhere. We worked closely with the Mayor’s office in DC to locate a site near BLM Plaza, the AFL-CIO site, perhaps. Those spaces are in the “public right of way,” which means you have to get a DC permit to build out. And, because [of government shutdowns due to Covid] they weren’t issuing permits, so we were very limited in where this could go. But, the Mayor’s office did say ‘You should reach out to the National Parks Service, because they don’t have those restrictions and might be able to find you a site.”

So, we did that and even proactively identified a few sites that could be powerful. The NPS came back and indicated that there were a few sites available, and that site on the National Mall was ultimately the site we chose.


CJ: What [was done] about Covid? 

DS: The overall intent was to convey the statistical data, that was a big driver of the aesthetic for this. We had entertained the idea of doing it with cubes, or planar masses that could form a topography; in the end, we realized that type of articulation created walls, and we wanted a more open-air environment. That was part of the rationale for going with the hanging pipe aesthetic.

We also had a clear and direct linear circulation pattern…We encouraged one user at a time. We asked that people separate and keep their distance, as well as wear a mask when entering, and not to touch the bars. It’s a touch-free experience. We were able to crowdsource staffing, so we keep docents on site 24 hours a day. Docents are there and are helping to guide visitors and remind them of some of those protocols for Covid resiliency.


CJ: How is this going to change the way you think about architecture?

All: (Laugh)

DS: I’ve had more people refer to me as an artist than an architect. I’ve always resisted that, I’ve never thought of myself as an artist. It’s something I have to ponder. I’m in that gray zone between the two definitions, I have to figure out where I stand. I honestly thought of this as a piece of architecture, as a mini-museum, while most people would see it as a piece of art.

JA: I [studied] architecture in college, but prior to that, a lot of my schooling was in the arts. In some ways, I ended up doing architecture because it offered a rigidity and you had to think at a technical level. Something like this is perfectly in the ‘gray zone’ Dayton referenced. My tendency is to want to do something similar to this in terms of representation and identity, that allows people to interface with architecture or art in a way that they can engage with and experience it. 


DS: This process entailed about 20 different miracles.


One by one, the miracles started happening: the site, being able to fabricate and source material in time, to get the support of so many different entities, to settle on a concept that really resonated with us (was a feat in and of itself). Usually, there are disagreements; we’re architects, we’re all creatives, so there’s never total agreeance on things.

CJ: Well, you definitely had a deadline.

DS: Yeah, we definitely had a deadline, and I’d be lying to you if I told you I wasn’t skeptical the whole time. I was definitely nervous and lost a lot of sleep in the process worrying about things.

CJ: So, then it goes up. What do people say? What do people do?

JA: For me, it was heavy in a lot of ways we’ve described already. The visitors have been great, they’ve been really receptive. People have gotten very emotional; we’ve seen a lot of people break down. We’ve seen people be resistant to go inside because of what it entails to them. One guy mentioned to be that when he looks at the cage/the cube/the pavilion he see the legacy of his father, he sees his brother, and he doesn’t want to go [inside]. His friend was trying to tell him that he has to, that part of surviving for him is making it through. I thought that was pretty powerful.

CJ: Wow.

JA: There was one gentleman that was in tears and said that this and the Vietnam Memorial were two of the most impactful visits he’s ever had in his life. He said he was trying to reform his racist upbringing.

DS: For me, this is a testament to the power of truth telling. It was a reckoning for some, and a moment of pause and reflection for others. But I think it was an opportunity for a moment of healing for everyone. Our message resonated with a wide audience: I saw blacks, whites, latinos, asians, young, old, progressive, conservative. We were installing on the heels of the RNC nomination ceremonies, so there was an interesting mix on the mall [that were pulled in].

Some people cried, as Julian said. Some people thanked us—even recognized us from the website and personally thanked us. There were some people that didn’t want to leave and were there all day, people who came back, people who were thankful for the information and wanted to know where to have copies, or find more…

Again, it goes back to truth telling, and  I think it’s impossible to have meaningful emotional impact unless you’re willing to dig deep and tell the truth. And, that’s something I learned from you, Cybelle, on the Lumpkin’s* project. (*Richmond National Slavery Museum at the Lumpkin’s Slave Jail Site)

I had an older white gentleman approach me almost in a confessional tone, crying, and asked if I was one of the artists. I said yes, and he said he was complicit in encouraging and enabling racism in his lifetime. He said he was ashamed and really wanted to do better; that this had opened his eyes to a lot of things. I did not think that this installation would have this level of impact and encourage people to be that honest, to be frank. That was very powerful to me. 

There were a number of people who came up to me crying, or go off to have a moment to themselves to ponder the weight of the installation. It was very fulfilling in that regard. You can’t change the past, but you can take personal responsibility and ownership of your past. If someone is saying that this installation has inspired them to commit themselves to change, to me that’s the best outcome that you could ask for. 


Listen to the entire 60 minute conversation.

The initial installation will be The initial installation, located on the National Mall at 12th Street and Madison Drive NW, will be up through Friday September 5, 2020.

Financial donations are needed to fund the pavilion and scholarship. Help uplift the voices of Black designers and advocate for racial justice with SmithGroup and the Architects Foundation; find out moreand donate, here.