(Black)Architecture

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By todd cole
Architecture is one of the whitest jobs in America.

Set against this background, black architecture—from the most epistemological understanding, architecture that is conceived and put forth by someone who is black—has the ability to free the profession from its stodgy doctrines. Perhaps it is the best, and last, opportunity to save the future of the modern city.  

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Zena Howard is tall but not as tall as the man she had recently replaced. She is dressed in black, a splash of primary color came from her red-rimmed glasses.  The restaurant’s recessed lighting occasionally catches the silver pendant hanging from her neck. "I always thought I would do architecture, then go into urban design," she said. She believed she could make more of a social impact within the latter profession. "That was my thought originally, because really, inequality occurs at the planning [level]". Zena leaned forward. "I can’t solve this problem building by building—that was what I thought. But now that the work is transcending just architecture [firms like Howard’s are now designing entire neighborhoods] it has propelled me to believe, yeah, I can." 

Satisfied with this rationale, Zena said grace, and began to eat. She relayed a story about a thunderstorm turning her nearly two-hour flight from Detroit back to Durham into a seven-hour ordeal, then she honed in on how she got to this point—an architect who challenges inequity through the environmental arts; an architect who, like her designs, can stand free and dazzle the world; and who has succeeded architect Phil Freelon as managing and design director of Perkins & Will’s North Carolina practice. 

"When I was asked to take the role, I was hesitant," said Zena. She did not want her new responsibilities to take her away from ongoing projects, like a new museum of contemporary art of the African diaspora in Miami. She is in the process of rebuilding Charlotte Brooklyn Village, once Charlotte’s largest, thriving, and economically stable African-American community, now "destroyed," Zena says, by ‘urban renewal’—the Congressional-backed program that forced black folks from coveted neighborhoods in the 1950s and ‘60s to provide space for private interests and middle-class whites. "Negro removal," she adds. So to assuage her anxiety, she went to Atlanta to meet with Perkins & Will CEO Phil Harrison. "[He] said, ‘establish the vision and build the right team, and get the right people in place.’" 

 Zena was briefly silent as she appeared to contemplate not only how her new role would impact her projects, but her legacy. "Stepping into this, particularly as an African-American female—of course I’m the only one at Perkins & Will and who knows wherever else? Holding [onto] my values, and getting everyone else on board that supports those values," she said, "is key." 

 Zena is not thirsty for renown. For her, the passion is about a chance to alter the course of things; making sure lastingly beautiful design is brought to all doorsteps. This is largely the reason she joined up with Phil Freelon in the first place, 14 years ago.

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The lobby’s ceiling was not unlike that of an airplane hangar, skeletal and devoid of insulation. Pendulums hung two-thirds of the way down. From there, we progressed to a space where ideas become tangible. A row of miniature completed projects sat on a shelf to the left, illuminated by a row of windows on the right. Occasionally Samantha —a graduate of a Historically Black College making her foray into architecture as an assistant—pointed over the models and into a thicket of desks where the firm’s designers did their utmost to give people who have, by no fault of their own, resigned themselves to the absolute plainness of structures.

After moving, where the models were no longer visible, past another set of windows framing Research Triangle Park, it was back to the lobby. Black Barcelona chairs were situated next to an enclosure sheltered in red, where the tallest architect in Durham, dressed every bit the college lecturer, was fiddling with a laptop.  

"[Here’s] a really fun project we’re working on now," said Phil Freelon, who at the time of this interview was still design director and a Perkins & Will board member.  

A pitch reel played on a flat screen monitor. Renderings appeared detailing a 50,000-square-foot expansion to the Motown Museum in Detroit. A voice-over explained the impact the project would have on the community. There were iconic clips of Stevie Wonder, The Jackson 5, Diana Ross and The Supremes. "Fundraising is going very well," Phil said. His emphasis on the word "very" suggested he and his team were getting close to the project’s $50 million goal—a number worthy of attention, but 10 times less than the cost of his last big project. 

Because of its scope and the fact that the subject matter should have been recognized a long time ago, The National Museum of African American History and Culture will no doubt continue to be cited as Phil Freelon’s most memorable project. It’s the reason his name has become—for the first time—ubiquitous outside of the design world. This is recognition that he happily accepts. That is, until he’s asked about what’s next. "People say, ‘Well, what are you doing now?’ And it kinda ticks me off," he says. "Because the most important project for me is the next one." And for Phil and his team, each project is Blacker than the one that came before it. At least historically speaking. The Motown Museum expansion in Detroit is in the pipeline. Houston’s Emancipation Park is "finishing up." The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum opened December 2017 in Jackson. And of course there’s Charlotte Brooklyn Village. Phil, like his successor Zena, will not allow its history to be ignored. "A recurring story, over and over and over again," he said. "All of that development—the pride and the blood, sweat and tears put in." Here, his voice took on the cold-blooded indifference of city leaders who razed the area: "Let’s just plow right through there." This razing of communities is related to the urban redevelopment theories of titanic architects like Le Corbusier, who in his misdirected sense of innovation attempted to demolish the Marais neighborhood in Paris in the 1920s. Yet the Motown Museum seemed to befit something more significant, in some ways, Phil said, "a bigger story" than them all. "Just listen," he says. The voice-over for the pitch reel played on: 

Motown made the culture, came out of the culture, shaped the culture... the new Motown Museum will be a gigantic, highly interactive multimedia experience celebrating the music that transformed America. 

There it was—a bigger story. A much larger conversation is tucked away in that last part about Black music transforming America. The foundation of rock ‘n’ roll is pulled from Black music, from the blues, from the Black underclass and from Black churches. What if modern architecture is no whiter than rock and roll? 

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The story of modern architecture – its rationality, its glass, steel and reinforced concrete, its sensitivity to embellishment—seemed tried and true. That is, it became known in the first decades of the 20th century, chiefly in the United States with Frank Lloyd Wright and in Europe with Le Corbusier, as a movement that bucked the vibrancy of an earlier generation. And it falls under the larger rubric of modern art, an attempt in its own right to move beyond what had defined Western art beforehand. But those roots, like all roots, are profoundly entrenched in Africa.   

In 1936, Alfred Barr, the founding director of MOMA, diagramed this history to coincide with his exhibit, Cubism and Abstract Art. In Barr’s flow chart, at the nexus of the entire modern architecture movement is "Negro Sculpture." Cubism, with its fragmented shapes, helped give form to early modernism, and drew heavily from the aesthetics of traditional African sculptures. According to architect and AIA Fellow Melvin Mitchell, Cubism became, in a rather seamless way, the modern architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and Le Corbusier. 

Imagine the scene for a moment. Melvin, his beret tilted back and to the left—more Che Guevara than Huey Newton—delivering an extraordinary lesson on visual literacy, over the most quotidian lunch (a ham sandwich) Panera Bread had to offer. "All modern architects have Black roots," he explained. "Le Corbusier was a Cubist painter in the evenings, he understood the roots." Melvin shifted a bit in the booth, as if making room for what he was about to say next. "I and a few others, have reached a point [where] we’re prepared to really challenge head on, the most sacred icons of architecture, around the issue of ‘you didn’t deserve that.’" He was talking about Wright and Le Corbusier’s full-fledge status as fountainheads of modern architecture. Melvin had long seen shine in the value of this theory, meaning the nature by which modern architecture had been fabricated. In his book, The Crisis of the African-American Architect, published 15 years ago, it’s right there on the third page of the preface:  

"I am saying simply that what Black Architecture looks like is the architecture that Wright and Corbusier were making between 1905 and 1960 in Europe and America."  

Black architecture can be discussed in variant ways. Architect Jack Travis laid out his "10 Principles of Black Cultural Design Composition"—giving Black architecture a set of conditions and a paradigm for discussion that adheres to, among other things, an "intense use of color, pattern, and texture." For Melvin, this process of identification is simpler. "If there is such a thing as Black culture, therefore there’s got to be a Black architecture—meaning culturally speaking," he says, "anything that has Black groups or Black involvement in terms of the whole Black struggle." 

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Mark Gardner eats an egg salad sandwich that heaven couldn’t contain. Seated at a spacious restaurant not too far from his office in New York’s Chelsea neighborhood, he is spread out like Los Angeles, with his broad torso and shoulders. His goatee is completely gray. His choice of meal, his appearance, these are things that speak to the question of identity. Even in the vaguest sense, they’re indicative of who he is. But the critical and curatorial establishment is perhaps too often concerned with the most salient feature of Mark’s identity.

"In a lot of ways, I never want to really be known as a Black architect," he says. "I want to be known as an architect—a good architect. When you put the Black in front of it, I’m not sure what that’s supposed to signify to people."

It’s a fair point. What is "Black" supposed to signify? How is it more useful than saying that Mark Gardner is an architect who likes to eat massive egg salad sandwiches? Both designations place Mark in a different category than other architects. Except only one really seems to pigeonhole. Mark admits to struggling both as a student and as a professional with whether there’s a different framework for which Black architects structure their designs. "There are some vital needs of architecture at its most basic in terms of shelter and creating space that goes just beyond the utilitarian, that’s more like art—everybody should be allowed to have that," Mark says, addressing the social equity in access to creative design. "But what that looks like, therein lies the rub."

With style also serving as a reflection of identity, Mark knows he can easily sit down and design a project with themes that would likely identify him as African American. And he knows that by doing this, he would run the risk of limiting himself to assumptions about what a Black architect is or should be. "When it comes to issues of style, I tend to step back from that." He took a sip of iced tea and continued. "There are certain things I want to honor, but I also don’t want to get caught up in sticking [up] symbols of some African past." Does this mean Mark’s work lacks some adequate commitment to Blackness? Of course not. That would purport that Blackness is something within which to conform. Even though it can be something with which to grapple. Mark recently worked on a project in Tanzania, a beekeepers’ sanctuary of all things, where his Blackness carried no particular value. "I’m not of this place," said Mark of his time in Tanzania, "and Blackness alone doesn’t entitle me to assert a single artistic voice." 

The apiary is a stark departure from the cornucopia of high-end projects, such as the Marc Jacobs flagship building in Tokyo, that Mark Gardner is accustomed to designing. The fact that most of his work carries a whiff of elitism nibbles at his artistic conscience. "At some point," said Mark, "high-end work—it’s good for what it is, but it’s not as fulfilling to me career-wise as I would like it to be." Mark’s career is one that plenty of aspiring architects (Black or otherwise) would order up for themselves. A principal at a respected firm—Jaklitsch/Gardner—practicing in a city recognized for grand buildings. Yet he can’t escape the pull of the presumption—this is not to suggest he even wants to—that a Black architect has to be more socially committed.

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Phil Freelon is not a big believer in the much abused idea that the Black artist is bound by some impulsion to protest in the work. "My goal is to do great buildings," he said. "I don’t have a bigger motive." And that’s what he does, in terra-cotta and glass; with canopies that form gateways; through colored metal and perforated roofs that look like green houses. His designs somehow both complement and contradict their surroundings. His architecture lives not because of his position as a Black architect, but because of his much larger concern with creating structures lauded for their aesthetic value as well as their relationship to the community. Examples include a library in the Anacostia neighborhood of Washington, DC; a research building on the campus of a Historically Black University; a bus station in Durham. These concerns are not dissimilar from that of any other architect. But this is not to say that a social or political responsibility is mutually exclusive from his designs. Phil sees no dichotomy between the two. "My architecture is Black architecture because I’m Black and I bring my sensibility to it and my history to it."

Phil's history includes a grandfather who was an impressionist painter that ran with the likes of W.E.B DuBois, a childhood spent in Philadelphia when Frank Rizzo, with his overtly racist behavior and brutality, became the city’s police commissioner in 1968. "He was busting heads around that time," Phil appeared to almost chuckle at the memory. As if suddenly recognizing that Rizzo’s penance for such behavior was two subsequent terms as mayor. It’s only fitting that his sensibility is distinctly set in that history. "What I’m saying," he explains, "is our people shouldn’t have to buy a ticket [to a museum] or be the CEO of a corporation to get outstanding design." 

Phil worked for more than a decade for other firms before founding The Freelon Group in 1990. As it was only Phil at the time, the Group part was a bit of misnomer. By 2014, with a staff of 55, the firm joined the global firm Perkins & Will. Even since the merger, Phil has continued serving the public sector, with no compunction to do otherwise. But when asked whether Black architects can articulate an honest vision within the traditions of such an elite culture, Phil’s eyes briefly disappeared behind a long blink that seemed to be a substitute for sighing. "I’m an optimist," he said, "so I’m not going to sit here and talk about how terrible it is to be an architect and how hard it is. I don’t want excuses." To unite your Black self with, as Phil put it, "the elitism that is as old as the architects that built Rome," you can’t half-step. "Mediocrity is not tolerated from us," he said. But to get to that point of excellence takes work, and an opportunity for people of color, who recognize and respond to good design, to succeed.  

According to a series of reports from the National Architecture Accrediting Board (NAAB), Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are responsible for more than 40 percent of the African-American graduates in accredited programs—an astounding figure considering the most recent data from the NAAB states that out of the more than 24,000 students enrolled in 2015 at accredited programs, five percent were Black. A number that "has remained flat over the last five years." Suffice it to say, education is one resolve for the industry’s race problem, but it’s not heroic enough. 

"Let’s say you have a Dean or a department head that is bound and determined to get some [Black] folks in their program," Phil gesticulated a bit, with his long hands and fingers made for a two-seam fastball, "when you see someone that’s close, you got to make the effort to support them." Without such backing, without the encouragement to trust that their experiences can lead to good design, "they flame out," he explained. "It’s horrible for that person, and it’s horrible for the next person that comes along." Phil paused, as if running his words over in his head and his own responsibility to Black architects. "It’s tough," he said quietly. Ultimately, if we want better, Phil explained, the place to start is long before college. "Young people don’t see [Black] architects," he said. "I want them to see what a terrific career this could be, and what kind of work we can do as Black architects. Talking with you helps," he said, acknowledging that Dwell isn’t known for being at home in the modern world with Black people. "But it’s a multifaceted problem that there’s no one solution."

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Black high-achievers in music, film and even the visual arts are easy to spot. They have been for quite some time. And with an unobstructed view, Black children self-affirm. ‘I can be Outkast or Fishbone,’ they say, ‘Ava DuVernay or Jordan Peele, Kehinde Wiley or Kara Walker.’ It’s the politics of belonging – a way to build relationships with the Black community. But the Black architect is hardly seen.   

"It’s no different than when I was young," said Mark Gardner, leaning back in his chair, reflecting on how change can be anything but constant. "I could tell you who this author was or that author was, or this musician or whatever. But if an architect or an engineer who was Black who did something amazing, I'd have to go to my aunt. She has one of those calendars put out by an insurance company." Mark mimicked a voice brimming with new information. "‘Did you know that a Black man invented the stoplight?’" Laughter enveloped the table—the kind that keeps one from crying. "Somehow," Mark said, "our voices fall silent when it comes to architecture." He pushed a chunk of yellow-y egg back onto his sandwich and got at the crux of the issue. "There a lot of reasons that I could sort of place for that—but the cost, the capital involved," said Mark. "We’ve never been successful at having access." This is in large part due to historical government and private-sector discrimination. Which is a constraint, Mark said, that creates an environment in which "we’re not allowed to dream." 

Architecture’s whiteness doesn’t appear to be intentional. The sequence of events that helps exacerbate this homogeneity is largely defined as networking. "I’ve come across situations all the time, where it’s like, ‘how did you decide to hire this person.’" The inflection in Mark’s voice changes to reflect a conversation he’s heard in passing or even worse, to his face: ‘Oh, you know, John over here made a recommendation’. "Let me guess," said Mark, the mocking tone now gone, "this person has the same credentials as John, went to the same private school, went to Yale." The act of forming working relationships in this way generally creates social and institutional advantages for white architects. It’s not a pretty picture, and not an uncomplicated one. "The way that bias ends up working itself out is that people are just comfortable with what they believe they know and understand." Still, the Black architect is not a child without an inheritance. 

As slaves, Black folk were builders and artisans. Architect and professor Richard Dozier has pointed to plantation records that show some slaves were even "hired out" for their craftsmanship. The 19th-century enslaved bridge builder Horace King reportedly purchased his freedom with some of his earnings as a craftsman. He subsequently designed the Alabama State Capitol. More than two decades after the M.I.T School of Architecture—the country’s first—was founded in 1865, a man named Robert Taylor became its first Black graduate. In turn, he became the country’s first Black professionally educated and licensed architect. He went on to design and build many of the buildings on the campus of Tuskegee University. And long before African-American architect Julian Abele could enroll at Duke University, he designed much of its campus, including the famed basketball arena Cameron Indoor stadium. Then there’s Paul Revere Williams. 

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"The damn AIA [American Institute of Architects] waited 37 years after Paul Williams died to give him his award," says Phil Freelon, clearly frustrated. "I had to shame those people." In 2016 Phil presented the case for awarding Paul Williams with the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal. His presentation included reading from National Urban League Executive Director Whitney Young’s blistering address to the AIA in 1968. Young laid the responsibility of urban renewal at the feet of its white members: You share the responsibility for the mess we are in…[thereby putting] the white noose around the central city.

Talking about Williams got Phil fired up. "I told them," he said, "this is [about] the most American of architects." He was right. Paul Williams was the Black Horatio Alger. An orphan who went on to design thousands of projects, including houses for Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant, Betty Grable, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Lon Chaney, and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson; the Saks Fifth Avenue store on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. He also led a team responsible for the iconic Theme Building at LAX, the one with the extra-terrestrial disposition. It’s not a stretch to suggest that Williams’s malleable style is largely responsible for the Los Angeles aesthetic that exists today. Here was an architect, who for fifty years achieved success after success; who accepted racism in the vein of the ‘you have to be twice as good’ platitude so much so that he learned how to draw upside down so not to make his white clients uncomfortable by sitting too close to them. For all his accomplishments, his name remains for the most part buried like a truffle. "All Black architects know about him," said Phil. "The other ones don’t." Quickly, as if remembering that there are "other ones" who live in California, "I mean, the ones in Los Angeles obviously do." 

The slighting of Paul Williams is the story of the Black architect writ large. 

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A distant blues song played on the speakers near the front of the restaurant, serving as a kind of soundtrack for Zena Howard’s want for recognition in this so-called world of high-culture, while at the same time needing to do important work for Black clients, whom seldom populate the former category. "When I came out of school—you’re predisposed to this a little bit in school—you’re thinking, ‘well, the [Black] client base isn’t going to appreciate you.’ Somebody’s going to want to pay you $1,000 to design something on the back end of their church. It was that kind of perception. It was like you’re never going to be able to do the great work, and the beauty of being an architect is that for some of us, you want to be engaged, you want to work for people that appreciate what you do." Zena stared into space for a moment, before letting go of a laugh that was slightly chagrined. "Maybe I’m foolish enough to put it out there," she said. "But I don't think I'm alone in those thoughts, so that's where the struggle began for me."   

That’s how Zena used to think in her early years in the profession. Now she’s approaching 30 years as a licensed architect, and heading up an office for one of the design industry’s most prestigious firms. No longer does it seem like she’s stuck in the resin of two worlds. "I’ve made it my mission to look at the underrepresented population in our profession—women and Black people," said Zena. "If I become apologetic about advocating to hire the Black person; advocating for Black women’s issues, what value am I bringing?" 

If architecture is indeed the existence of being—from earlier generations of Black architects like Max Bond, Harvey Gantt, and Melvin Mitchell, to a collective of talent that swelled in the 1980s like Curt Moody, Phil Freelon and Jack Travis, to the likes of Mark Gardner and Zena Howard, who are just ahead of the next generation of Black designers like Germane Barnes, Sara Zewde, Michael Ford and Quintel Gwinn—then what matters is their existence.  

Comprising fewer than two percent of the country’s nearly 110,000 licensed architects, the Black architect, with all their talents, and largely without the benefit of role models, must carve out a path of acceptance within the elite white milieu. They must be heard. They must be known. Not because they are Black. Because they have a right to use whatever qualities they see fit, and to take their sensibilities wherever they lead them to design and shape the world in which they live. And ultimately create an agency of self-achievement that can set right the ills of the modern city caused by snobbery and impractical theories.  

Zena brought the cloth napkin down over her mouth, wiped her hands, then placed it back in her lap. "Our lens," she said. "Is extraordinarily important."  



Special thanks to designer Quintel Gwinn, without whom this article would have not been possible.