I once had the honor of meeting John Lewis, the late Georgia Congressman and civil rights leader, at the time he published his memoir of the movement, Walking with the Wind (1998). He was neither a tall nor fiery figure, but he was unforgettable, with a quiet focus and an aura that was almost holy—yet without a shred of the self-regard not uncommon in both heroes and politicians.
How he kept up his spirits—and ours—with a seemingly steadfast belief in a more equitable and just future was part of his power. In an interview shortly before his death in July, he said of the widespread demonstrations after the police murder of George Floyd, “This feels and looks different. It is so much more massive and all-inclusive. There will be no turning back.”
Let’s hope he is right. Like almost every institution and profession in America, architecture, in practice and in education, is grappling with systemic racism, jolted into self-examination by the vast support for Black Lives Matter and in response to the concerns and demands raised by minority designers and students. RECORD has been focusing our reporting on African Americans in architecture these past months, and giving voice to insights and experiences. In this issue, we profile a number of Black architects working at various scales.
We also look at what some leading offices are trying to do to change their culture and modes of practice to bring equity and opportunity to architects of color. Gensler—once again the top U.S. firm in revenue—has 6,000 people in 50 offices worldwide; the firm recently announced a five-point strategy to fight racism throughout the company and the industry, an especially important initiative for co-CEO Diane Hoskins, FAIA, who is African American. Other prominent firms, such as SOM and KPF, have also released action plans for confronting racism.
But changing how architects are educated, practice, and build is not quick or easy. A hundred years ago, when women first got the vote, it was almost entirely a profession of white gentlemen, and the vestiges of that clearly remain: if you look at the leadership of most of the top firms, you will see only a minority of women architects and even more rarely African Americans. As almost everyone now knows, registered Black architects make up barely 2 percent of the profession—a figure that has remained stubbornly at that level for decades. The hurdles to licensure may be one issue deterring potential minority practitioners—NCARB reports African Americans taking fewer tests last year than the year before. But Kimberly Dowdell, a stellar leader as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, has made moving the needle a priority, pushing for Black architects to make up 4 percent of the field by 2030.
Some experts believe real change in dismantling racism cannot occur until we all comprehend the extent of white supremacy in the built environment. Says Mabel O. Wilson, a scholar of architecture and race, “In my 30 years as an academic, and also having worked in practice, I have come to really understand how much whiteness permeates what we do—from how we are educated in architecture to, really, what architecture is—the European art of building that Alberti described, a European way of understanding building.” Wilson helped convene a panel of her peers for RECORD to discuss race, whiteness, and architecture.
While scholars delve into the past, and architects look to the future, activists must step up and speak out. Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, principal and director of global diversity at Perkins and Will, calls this imperative “get into good trouble,” borrowing a favorite phrase of John Lewis. Architecture is a polite profession, so looking to Lewis as a model is an exemplary idea—a perfect gentleman, he hewed to the Gandhian principles of nonviolent protest, as exemplified by Martin Luther King, but he didn’t stay still and he didn’t stay silent. In a final essay, published posthumously in The New York Times, he reminded us what King said: “We are all complicit when we tolerate injustice.”