Breakthroughs and Obstacles: Architecture's Evolving Complexion
May 19, 2009
Architecture still suffers from a paucity of African-American practitioners. The statistic that civil rights activist Whitney Young famously cited at the 1968 American Institute of Architects convention — that only 1 percent of registered architects were African-American — has ticked upward only slightly in the four decades since. Today’s percentage is fewer than half the number of blacks in medicine (3.7 percent) and law (3.9 percent).
Black architects who have prospered in the field don’t attribute this enduring gap to any single factor. “There are many reasons,” says Phil Freelon, FAIA, principal of Durham, North Carolina—based The Freelon Group. “They have to do with visibility, access to quality primary- and secondary-school education, the rigor of architecture school curricula, the attrition that occurs as a result of this, and other barriers related to internship and licensure that make it difficult for anyone to advance in our profession.”
For architects such as Keith Marrero, AIA, who owns a small, successful , minority firm in downtown Greenville, South Carolina, but doesn’t enjoy the same wide renown as Freelon, dialogue about the scarcity of blacks in the profession takes on a more dire tone. “In architecture, there’s not enough opportunity for job growth, responsibility, or promotion in white firms,” he says.
Yet even while the number of black architects remains largely unchanged, other aspects of the profession have evolved to the benefit of many black practitioners, especially increasing opportunities in the private sector.
For Moody Nolan, the largest black-owned architecture firm in the U.S., with 162 employees, winning the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency headquarters, completed in 1990, marked its transition to private-sector work. When the state opted to use a private developer for the project, Moody was selected to team with the developer because of his firm’s experience with public facilities and his status as a minority owner. The fortuitous teaming led to a 20-year working relationship with the private developer. And principal Curtis Moody, FAIA, credits the partnership to the developer’s recognizing that the capabilities of Moody Nolan were comparable or superior to nonminority firms. From there, Moody says, “We could start making a case in the private sector that we were trusted by this group. You get work not because you meet a certain diversity percentage, but because you’re qualified.”
Donald Stull, FAIA, who founded Boston-based Stull and Lee in 1966, says he has noticed the shift more recently — only in the past 10 years or so. And even then, “It came through a slow adjustment of mind-sets in corporate America.” As with Moody Nolan, Stull says success depends on “champions.” Among these patrons, he cites the late Edward Logue as the advocate behind significant public projects, as well as Robert Weinberg, as a private-sector supporter. Weinberg reintroduced Stull to The Beacon Companies, which then hired Stull and Lee for the interior fit-out of Boston’s historic South Station Headhouse in 1986, and Weinberg continued engaging the firm in airport retail master planning after he founded his own company, MarketPlace Development, in 1992.
The word-of-mouth marketing and networking that characterize architecture in general still present a barrier to minority firms operating in the private arena. “It’s who you know,” Moody says, “and the majority of people building are not minority.” Stull concurs: “It’s related to the social circles one moves in, and if that’s limited, then capability is limited.”
Even so, progress has been great enough that some younger African-American architects may take a postracial view of patronage. “After going to graduate school and being in those circles, it seemed natural to submit to competitions and to get jobs with private clients,” says Yolande Daniels, AIA, cofounder of Studio SUMO, a record 2006 Design Vanguard firm. Two Studio SUMO projects, the museum interior of Mocada, in Brooklyn, New York, and an affordable housing development in Miami, Florida, both involved public funding and actively sought out African-American architects. Yet Daniels and partner Sunil Bald’s recent commissions, such as a renovation of a duplex apartment in New York City completed in 2008, have come from the publications and referrals that fuel all young design firms.
As adept design problem-solvers, architects must dedicate the same intellectual and creative energy to solving the profession’s enduring diversity problem. Indeed, individuals and institutional bodies are trying to do so at every stage in the career cycle. Earlier this year, Gensler established its African-American Internship & Scholarship. Columbia University supports professor Mabel Wilson’s HBCU Design Leadership Program, which was launched in fall 2008 by sending Mario Gooden, AIA, then on Yale’s faculty, to teach Tuskegee University architecture students. Firms such as Detroit-based Hamilton Andersen, participate in any number of career fairs and fellowship endowments to expose black youths to architecture. And then there’s the AIA itself, which has adopted a multiyear action plan for diversifying the profession.
Even so, the challenge remains for the profession to move toward broader inclusion of black practitioners in its ranks. And to fully appreciate why such a move is imperative, it’s worth understanding that without a confluence of diverse points of view, both architects and clients suffer from a lack of valuable insight.