Totem House: Histories of Negation
four separate small wooden structures with pitched roofs

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Crystal Bridges sits at a nexus of historic trails whose stories continue to affect the demographics of housing development in Northwest Arkansas:

  • The Trail of Tears, marking the forced relocation of Indigenous nations during which thousands of Native people died.
  • The Civil War trail where free Black refugees were drawn to the frontlines by the prospect of acquiring land in the West.
  • The contraband trails along which enslaved people traveled to flee bondage.
  • The trail of “sundown towns” where white residents openly harassed and expelled African Americans before sundown and prevented them from living there.
The stories of Black and Indigenous people’s experiences in Northwest Arkansas have often been suppressed.

To shed light on this history of negation, New York-based firm studioSUMO uses the idea of totems–structures that speak to site-specific events–to create the infrastructure for a home.

Totem House: Histories of Negation shows how architecture can express the stories of people who have been silenced. Understanding the past allows for richer, more productive conversations concerning the housing needs of the present.

small apartment with bins for storage
studioSUMO's first project exploring component-based living space.


studioSUMO founders Yolande Daniels and Sunil Bald started their research by tapping into their past work.

Their very first project, a 250-square-foot remodel of a basement living space in New York City that focused on the idea of component features, set the tone for designing minimal dwelling units. These components, areas that live within a single space but can have multiple functions, form the concepts for the structure they built for Architecture at Home.

Map of northwest Arkansas depicting the route of the Trail of Tears and Civil War trails.

As studioSUMO began to learn more about Northwest Arkansas, they became aware of an absence of certain communities within the area. Historical research places Crystal Bridges–and Northwest Arkansas–at a nexus of monumental forced movements of peoples, including the Trail of Tears, the Civil War trail, the contraband trail, and the trail of “sundown towns.”

The firm was inspired by the historical, multicultural use of henges and totems–objects that are invested with meaning and specificity of place–to shed light on this history of negation and to show how architecture can tell stories of the past to better inform our present housing conversations.

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the Architect


In Totem House: Histories of Negation, the components of the house are presented as a grouping of totems, each one citing significant events in 50-year blocks of time related to the settlement of Indigenous nations and African Americans in Arkansas and the US.

To build their structure, studioSUMO created four components, or totems, that act as individual objects and in combination, define the entry, living, kitchen, dining, bath, bed, stair, storage, and terrace areas.

From a distance, the totems appear to outline a home whose form disintegrates the closer it is viewed. This is a deliberate effect, and reveals the complexities between the land and the people who once dwelled on it.

a long rectangular building on stilts with a thatched roof
Housing models from around the world have inspired studioSUMO’s design process as shown in this longhouse located in Vietnam. Credit: Rungbachduong, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
detail of wood totem with engraved dates


Taking inspiration from the dry gardens of Japan, where stone was often the main component used to create the “essence of nature,” studioSUMO wanted the story of their structure to start from a connection to the land.

Their choice of crushed stone as a surface for their prototype, speaks to a “grounding” of the structure and reflects the influence of Japanese garden design in their approach.

To refine their aesthetic and spatial ideas, studioSUMO researched historic and international precedents from LongHouses in Vietnam to the Batak houses of Indonesia and even dog trot houses of the southern United States. In all these structures, they recognized the use of wood as the core building material which gives each structure a solid connection to the land. Using Douglas fir lumber, the components of the structure stand solidly connected to the earth, yet tower within the landscape to tell a story of their own.

Composite image of a man with longer hair on the left and a African American woman on the right
Sunil Bald and J. Yolande Daniels


A New York-based firm, studioSUMO focuses on innovative design and explores a variety of building forms and innovative use of materials, supported by extensive cultural research.

Founded in 1995 by J. Yolande Daniels and Sunil Bald, the firm responds to the physical, social, cultural, and historical conditions of site, program, and building type, while striving for solutions that are inventive and unexpected.

architectural drawing of two-story home

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3D Home


The real-world prototype of this home, called the Component House, rethinks how we make rooms and how we construct houses. It is organized by four components arranged within a 20 ft. x 30 ft. footprint with three-feet-wide exterior terraces along the long sides.

These components collectively provide a framework to fulfill the needs of domestic life and create a flowing space with different degrees of privacy without additional interior walls.

The Component House proposes an alternative, economical building process for conventional wood-frame construction.

Prefabricated off-site, the components can be quickly installed and provide structure for a roof that is pitched to maximize solar exposure and allow for a second bedroom. No longer load-bearing, the facade is freed to meet varying styles and budgets.

While the Totem House illustrates histories of displacement, the Component House highlights personalized living space and universal access to the right to dwell.

Explore this Exhibit in Virtual Reality

Explore the Architecture at Home virtual reality tour. Walk along the trail, view each structure in-depth, and read interpretation labels. Simply click the play button to get started.

In the lower left hand corner, click the second icon for "View Floor Plan" to see a map of the structures. Click the first icon to return to exploring the 3D space.