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Black architects: embracing and defining culture
From Ebony, 10/1/05 by Kimberly Davis

BEAUTY. Art. Culture. Architecture both defines and owes its existence to these three essentialities. To those trained, those who studied, as well as those who are devoted to the practice, it is with purpose and lasting-ness that they give form and function to our edifices from conception through design. "Architecture is culture," says architect and professor Melvin Mitchell, a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA). "It's the mother art, the first art. When man builds, all of the art forms are housed in architecture."

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are about 100,000 architects licensed in the United States. Of those, roughly 1,500 are African-Americans, according to the University of Cincinnati-sponsored Directory of African-American Architects. Thirty years ago, the percentage of African-American architects was roughly the same, which means that architecture continues to be a profession that lacks diversity in real numbers.

That lack of diversity means that it is that much harder for Black architects to get the top commissions that lead to more top commissions, says Curtis J. Moody, FAIA, president and CEO of Moody/Nolan Inc., in Columbus, Ohio. "There are a lot of talented African-American architects out there; the problem is that we're still scratching the surface," says Moody, whose company also has offices in Nashville, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Indianapolis. "There are firms that have the capability; we're just under the radar."

And for African-Americans working in the profession or those who teach architecture, the work can be rewarding and difficult. Those who have "made it," in many senses, say that it takes training, perseverance, talent and hard work particularly when it comes to getting high-profile projects. And even then, it can often be all guts, no glory.

Think about it. Chances are, right now, you're sitting in a building designed foundation to ceiling by an architect. But how often do you wonder who designed the building?

On the other hand, when you buy a music CD, read a book or go to a museum, those names may be more familiar. There's a reason for that, Mitchell says. African-American architects--every bit as talented as musicians, writers, painters and sculptors--missed an opportunity to firmly entrench themselves in the American culture.

"When we had our first big, cultural renaissance during the Harlem Renaissance, African-American architects were missing from that," says Mitchell, president-elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and author of The Crisis of the African-American Architect: Conflicting Cultures of Architecture and (Black) Power. "We were the missing link ... Our generation did not see themselves as privileged and having the authority to pursue culture."

As a result, instead of entrenchment in Black culture, architecture has generally been a bit outside of Black culture--not as accessible and therefore not as desirable. Although the building booms continue to provide amazing opportunities for some designers, African-Americans aren't pursuing the profession or gaining much of a foothold once they enter the profession. That's not to say that African-Americans haven't experienced any success. On the contrary, the pioneers of the profession have designed many of the most unique and recognized structures in the world--Paul Williams, Julian Abele, Robert Taylor, Albert Cassell and Norma Sklarek, to name but a few.

And at certain times in our history, Black architects have been in high demand. "I was fortunate," says Max Bond, FAIA, of Davis Brody Bond, L.L.P. in New York, famed designer of the Martin Luther King Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta. "I started practicing really during the height of the Civil Rights Movement" he says. "There was a demand that African-American architects be used. All of us benefited from being in practice at that moment."

For the "new school" of Black architects, it can be a bigger struggle, particularly if you're working for someone else. Philip Freelon, FAIA, president and founder of the Freelon Group, which has offices in Raleigh, N.C., and Charlotte, N.C., says he decided to start his own firm after he worked in a large majority White firm for years and saw that the founding partners make the key decisions. "The ideas I wanted to pursue were constricted in that environment," says Freelon, co-designer of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore. "I took a two-thirds cut in pay to invest in myself and what I wanted to do ... I always believed that good design work will be recognized."

For Freelon and another top designer, Allison G. Williams, FAIA, of San Francisco, good design work has been recognized and rewarded. Williams, principal and design director for Perkins + Will, says architecture just seemed to "make sense" for her, and is a profession about which she still is passionate. That's understandable when you consider her recent commissions. She is lead designer of both the $120 million International Museum of Women, to be housed on one of San Francisco's piers, and the $33 million African American Cultural Center in Pittsburgh.

"You find your passion, the things that you love to do--the way that you want to engage in the environment and in the world around you," says Williams, who's originally from Cleveland. "What's exciting to me is that I seem to still have the energy and the persistence and the curiosity about the world and the profession's role in it."

But what's next for the profession? How do the Black architects of today try to ensure that there are Black architects tomorrow? Is it something the architecture world should even be thinking about? These are all questions that professional organizations such as the AIA and NOMA, as well as individuals in the profession are trying to answer. Indeed, most of the architects interviewed for this story emphasized the importance of reaching back and banding together to make names known and to show young people--even those in elementary school--what it means and what it takes to be an architect.

Harlem-based architect Jack Travis, FAIA, says early in his architecture education, he realized that there weren't many professors or even licensed professionals who looked like him. He also saw that the design model that existed for him and other students of the late 1970s wasn't a cultural model, so he had to make his own model. "I wanted to design for us [African-Americans]," says Travis, who designed filmmaker Spike Lee's home.

Travis is more than doing his part to try to improve the situation for future Black architects. He says he is involved with 12 mentorship programs, and works with students at the Charter High School for Architecture and Design in Philadelphia. Additionally, he once famously left the AIA because he reportedly didn't feel that it was devoting enough resources to diversity. He has since returned, saying that African-American architects have to show young people that architecture is a creative alternative that they can choose for a career. That's the only way to get and keep their attention, Travis says, emphasizing that today's architects have to be committed to finding new ways to attract attention in a culture fueled by hip-hop. "In this time," Travis says, "we're pioneers, and we have to know it."

Moody of Moody/Nolan agrees with that assessment. There is power in unity--working together, networking and supporting one another. "If there's anything that I'd like to see happen it's for us to help each other more," Moody says. "If there's someone you know about, help that firm grow and expand. There's enough opportunity for all of us."

COPYRIGHT 2005 Johnson Publishing Co.
COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group

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