Laying the Foundations

Black Voices in Architecture
Written by Pauline Müller

There is tremendous power in diversity. Yet, despite many black architects, both abroad and in North America, pointing out the obvious for decades, somehow the needle on the industry’s diversity gauge has moved toward inclusion only occasionally and at a glacial pace – but this is changing. Black architects not only have an important contribution to make, but it is imperative that they do so.

Sir David Adjaye, OBE, the famous British-Ghanaian architect who acted as the lead designer alongside a large team of other design professionals on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. received England’s highest architectural honour when he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II in 2017 for his contributions to architecture. He is, however, an exception.

The meager representation of Black architects in practice in London, United Kingdom (UK) has now reached a point where it is widely considered to be unacceptable, while in North America, of the roughly 113,000 currently licensed architects, the percentage of practicing black architects is estimated at an equally low two percent. To understand the dynamics better, we went in search of some of the industry’s most notable voices.

Many discoveries come from freedom of information requests. This is exactly what Bola Abisogun discovered when he went in search of answers to make sense of why statistics on black professionals in architecture did not add up. Abisogun is a quantity surveyor and founder of UrbanIS, a construction and project management firm based in East London, UK. He has considerable, first-hand experience with the challenges professionals of colour face in the city’s construction industry.

Abisogun’s 2016 research proved that not a single black architect had, up until then, ever been employed in any of London’s thirty-two boroughs. “Public authorities have failed miserably,” he told The Guardian in June 2020 for a piece titled: ‘People say we don’t exist’: the scandal of excluded black architects. “Why is it that, in areas where councils have an overwhelming number of non-white business owners, their procurement process excludes that very same demographic?”

Another thought-provoking viewpoint was shared with The Guardian by Yẹmí Àlàdérun, a female architect in the United Kingdom. Starting solo, Àlàdérun moved into a position at a housing association. “Now I am on the client’s side, I do understand how much risk these public bodies are having to take,” she says. “You naturally want to go with the guys who have been around forever and have the massive professional indemnity insurance – the safe pair of hands who have done it twenty times before. But that means the new architects coming up are never given a chance.” Doing everything in her power to improve the situation, Àlàdérun established Paradigm, a movement working toward better representation for black and Asian people in construction.

Closer to home, the matter looks much the same. Roberta Washington of Roberta Washington Architects, PC in New York points out in Curbed magazine’s 16 architects of color speak out about the industry’s race problem that, to flourish as an architect in the industry has meant having to “look past,” sexism and racism. Washington confirmed that there is significant support to be found in groups such as the National Organization of Minority Architects.

Black architects founded the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA) in the early 1970s. NOMA describes itself as being founded to create “a strong national organization, strong chapters and strong members for the purpose of minimizing the effect of racism in our profession.”

Contrary to common belief, history shows us that black architects have made tremendous contributions to the American skyline. A Veranda magazine article titled 15 Pioneering Black Architects Who Shaped America detailed just how significant the work of these trailblazers was.

Listed among the pioneers – and America’s first Black architect to achieve accreditation in the field – is Robert Robinson Taylor, who was born in 1868 and passed away in 1942. Taylor was also the first student of colour to enrol at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where he completed his studies. From here, he was invited to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to develop engineering and architecture programs. He also designed many early buildings for the institute’s campus and for a number of other historically black colleges and universities, including Selma University.

Born in 1874, Wallace Augustus Rayfield was America’s second formally educated practicing African American architect. After graduation, Rayfield struck on a brilliant business idea, selling house plans by mail order from his home when he was not lecturing at Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute. He eventually founded his own office in Birmingham, Alabama, where he worked as a prolific architect designing scores of buildings, including many churches.

Other big names include giants such as William Sydney Pittman, Julien Abele, Clarence W. Wigington, Vertner Woodson Tandy, Paul Revere Williams, Albert Irvin Cassell, Hilyard Robinson, all born in the late nineteenth century. Then there are also Beverly Loraine Greene, John Warren Moutoussamy, Wendell Jerome Campbell, Norma Merrick Sklarek, and J. Max Bond, Jr., all of whom were born in the early twentieth century. All of these architects created iconic works during their successful careers.

The solution to addressing the diversity deficit in America’s architectural and construction industry may start with the early school years. Mabel O. Wilson, founder and principal of Studio& and professor at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation, feels that the overall story we tell ourselves and our children needs to reflect reality, especially with regard to the history kids are taught in school.

“As I became more interested in theory and questions around race and my own background and family history, I kept thinking, ‘Well, why isn’t my experience in the [architecture] narrative?’” she said in the 2017 Curbed magazine article. “I have an undergraduate education in architecture as well, and I never saw anything about work by black architects or architecture about black people unless it was traditional African architecture or the pyramids in Egypt. That’s as far as it went,” she continued.

In the same article, Germane Barnes, assistant professor of Architecture at the University of Miami, and principal at Studio Barnes Design Firm in Miami, Florida, also expressed that real change needs to begin in schools. “We need to get arts programming back into schools. A lot of schools that teach people of colour don’t have the resources to teach architectural or art courses,” he says. “But that’s how I got started: My first couple jobs were as a painter, an artist, and photographer. How can someone reach their full potential or be exposed to new things if they don’t even have it in their classrooms?”

Barnes also reminds us that, as architecture is a very demanding field of study, it is much more difficult for marginalized youngsters to pursue because, more often than not, they do not have access to the same finances and other support as traditionally privileged students. This, in turn, means that they have to work much harder, both psychologically and economically, at keeping their studies afloat.

There appears to be a consensus among Black architects that children must see people like them design their private and shared spaces, public places, and national monuments. As experience has taught Samantha Josaphat, registered architect and principal at STUDIO 397 Architecture PLLC, sometimes opportunities have to be made.

“I decided that I wouldn’t let years go by letting others who don’t want to see my worth have control over my career. My true value was never recognized until I provided myself with the opportunities when starting my own practice,” she told Cultured magazine’s 15 Architects On Being Black In Architecture.

Josaphat is now not only an incredibly well-qualified professional but also an associate professor at the Spitzer School of Architecture at City College in New York and president of the New York Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (nycoba|NOMA). “I think the biggest struggle is having only a handful of Black architects in leadership roles to look up to, work with and learn from,” she said to Cultured. Considering the caliber of professional Black architects who do work in the field today, they may just be the mentors young up-and-coming Black architects will need.

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