Changing the Face of Architecture

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When I was in school at Columbia I was the only African American student in the MARCH program for much of the time. That number only ever increased to maybe 2 or 3 and none of them were women. While at school there was no black student group and no push towards creating more diversity in the school or the lack thereof in the profession.  Unlike recent efforts being made at  Harvard’s Graduate School of Design there were no strategies to bring in women and design critics of color to the school. I remember the shock on my face when I went to a midterm review in my second year and architect Mabel Wilson was on it. I had never seen a black person on a jury in all my 6 years of architecture education never mind a black woman. I was nearly in tears because I realized in the moment  just how isolated I had felt. I also thought “Thank god I am not the only one!” Mabel was brilliant of course and inspired me to keep going as I saw my future self physically mirrored in the profession for the first time.  I believe that an extension of this lack of diversity also meant that there was little or no discussion of the role that architects play in addressing the social and environmental inequities around us despite being located near Harlem and viewing the city as a laboratory for learning.

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Fast forward 15 years and I find myself amidst a welcome sea of change in all these areas.  While at Harvard I was able to be present at the birth of the African American Student Union at the Graduate School of Design being led by another Loeb colleague Jean Lauer Brown. Through her leadership and those of the students in the group I felt supported by them and the Loeb Fellowship in a way I had not previously in my education.   I was so  proud of these 20 students when  they reached out to Kanye West in response to a series of interviews he delivered referencing his growing interest in design and his experiences with race as an artist in the United States. African American students in architecture have long had to lie low and try to tough out an education that did little to embrace their unique cultural view point  or address their concerns and interests.  As more students of color are coming into the  GSD  (  20 out of 700- not enough but better than 1) they are able to organize themselves and  the power of their unique contribution can emerge.  As I read through the rounds of e-mails they generated to get the letter to Kanye just right I hoped that this could be a catalyst for an understanding of these issues. I was thrilled when I heard that Kanye West and his team responded to say that he would be in town for a concert on Sunday evening and  wanted to meet with the group’s leaders. They met on Monday and Kanye led a very thoughtful conversation regarding the trajectory of design discourse and practice as well as the under-representation of minorities in design disciplines. Following that, he was inspired by all of the amazing things the students shared about the work and  invited the Graduate School of Design students to be a part of his concert.

I have always hoped that our successful African-American  citizens with privilege and capital would raise the awareness of the lack of minority representation in the creation of our built environments.  As a professional African American designer for the last 20 years I cannot express how emotional and exciting it is for me to see momentum in this direction. It is time to for architecture and design to be both diversified and democratized so that our built environments reflect the wealth of perspectives that we all have to contribute. Everyone benefits when all of us are at the table and I personally just  look forward to seeing myself reflected back to me a little more often.

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4 thoughts on “Changing the Face of Architecture

  1. This was a great read! Man my story is similar being the only back student at Kent State University Architecture program. Only of 5 in the whole program and only one of 2 in the senior studio. Never had a black juror! I also felt like an outcast and isolated at times. Currently I’m blessed to be working in the field working for diverse firm BUT in my office I’m still the only African American here. We have such a long way to go.

  2. Yeah, the plight is even worse in landscape architecture. I was (1 of 2) in my class at the University of Georgia (’91) in undergrad, an things haven’t changed much. Additionally, there are presently NO Blacks in the undergrad landscape architecture program at Texas A&M, one of the nation’s largest programs, and I am the only Black PhD student here, the largest planning program in the western hemisphere!

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