An architect makes a plea for fixing her field’s stubborn diversity gap.
I consider myself the ambitious type. I attended one of the best architectural institutions in America; many “starchitects” were bred there. For five years, I wrote essays on Palladio and Le Corbusier; I can talk for hours about the importance of the Bauhaus. I landed a job at a respectable firm in New York before graduation. I’m on my way to becoming the person I have dreamed of being since the seventh grade.
And yet, I live every day with an uneasy feeling in my gut.
It’s the little things. Like being pulled aside in university and told that my selected career track was not a “good fit.” Or being asked to fetch water during a design meeting by older men not aware that I was a project manager. Or that time a co-worker asked how I felt being a token designer, and that I should continue to “keep up the good fight.” But who was I fighting?
I knew the realities early on. When I pulled all-nighters at the studio, I watched lectures on YouTube by the attorney and architect Ted Landsmark, former president of Boston Architectural College; he warned me about the dire attrition rates of black men and women in academia and practice. “It’s a cold world,” I’d think to myself as I cut chipboard into the wee hours of the night. “Just work hard; you’ll be fine.”
Landsmark kept me grounded, but Paul Williams told me I could soar. I’ve known him my whole life; the pioneering black architect was responsible for igniting my love affair with architecture. Williams, who died in 1980, designed nearly 3,000 buildings over a 50-year career, including several landmark structures in Los Angeles, from celebrity mansions to housing projects to the Beverly Hills Hotel. His Theme Building at LAX Airport—the one that looks like something from “The Jetsons”—serves as the city’s gateway for new arrivals. With its parabolic arches and glass-encased center, it is truly a work of art.
But I remember my father gushing about another Williams project, the Angelus Funeral Home; with the marble and the sun glistening against the golden paint throughout the façade, this gilded funeral home has been called the “Rolls-Royce of mortuaries.”
“What’s so great about it?” I would ask my father as we passed it on the way to school. To me, it was just another building on Crenshaw Boulevard. He’d proudly say, “a black man made that.”
Yet Williams’ money and talent could not buy him acceptance. Clients refused to sit next to him during meetings, so he taught himself to start drawing upside down. In a 1937 essay for American Magazine called "I Am a Negro," he wrote:
Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world. Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening, I returned to my own small, inexpensive home . . . in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because … I am a Negro.
I have Williams’ quote pasted on every Moleskine I own—not because I’m negative or an angry black woman. It is a reminder of the realities black people have endured throughout the history of the profession. It’s also encouraging; even with this overt racism, Williams still pushed and was a master in his craft.
Back in December, I was ecstatic to read that Paul Revere Williams was awarded the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects, the most prestigious award in our field. But that happiness lasted only for a moment. Why couldn’t he be recognized when he was alive and practicing?
A lot of black architects felt angry. Being publicly abandoned by our professional organization was too much to bear, especially given that, at the firm level, we are nearly always alone. Scroll down through any architectural firms’ website, go under the “Leadership” tab, and count the number of minorities you see. Most of the “diversity” you’ll see is in the administration and/or information technology departments.
At networking events in New York, I’ll usually spot two or three black people. Being the friendly sort, I’ll approach them and spark a conversation. When I ask what they do, I usually hear the same things. Contractor. Consultant. Freelancer. All these career paths are respectable, but where are the licensed black architects? Remember when Flipper Purify was refused a promotion in Jungle Fever, and was put in an awkward position to resign? I can’t help but think about that scene when I hear other people of color’s stories about why the field really wasn’t for them.
Maybe you think I’m being dramatic. But every year, the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) issues a report called “NCARB By The Numbers.” Here, it breaks down all of the “important” statistics of the licensure process.
See that yellow sliver of a bar that denotes “Black or African-American”? It hasn’t changed in the last eight years. That’s not drama; that’s hard numbers.
The AIA has a section on “Equity, Diversity, Inclusion” on its website, full of safe phrases about fair treatment and celebrating differences. That’s not enough. Just as conservatism in our art protects the interests of those who are already established in the field and does not push us forward, such milquetoast words don’t change anything.
Similar criticisms about diversity have been leveled against the technology industry, but it now has great programs, such as Black Girls Code and Code 2040, that promote engineering and tech career pathways in school-age kids. Most adults, let alone children, don’t know what we architects do as a profession. I urge the AIA to use its platform to be more involved with the education, employment, mentorship, licensure, and advancement of underrepresented people—in particular, black people. I would like to not be the token designer at every firm I work for.
The future isn’t totally bleak. In October 2016, I attended the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) conference. Throughout that weekend, tears kept streaming down my face. Tears of joy. Tears of relief. Tears of hope. I was an emotional wreck when I saw a row of dignified black men decorated with medals of excellence. Most of them have been practicing for over thirty years. Seeing them collectively discuss their ideas and visions to improve the built environment was nothing short of inspiring.
I intend to have a long relationship with architecture and will happily pay my dues—but I have concerns, and expectations. People know the works of Frank Gehry and Richard Meier; I want to see more black architects get large commissions and give lectures at prestigious universities. I don’t want to go to networking events and hear why someone had to drop their career because “things just weren’t working out.” I worry about the black students getting held back and being told they are not good enough. I am asking for more (living) people of color to be heroes in the profession. That's all.
Paul Revere Williams is the reason why I study and practice architecture today; I thank the AIA for publicly recognizing the legacy of my hero, even though it’s 30 years overdue. Maybe I’ll start to see more people taking selfies with his buildings on Crenshaw. Perhaps his face will show up on university lecture screens now and officially be included in the architectural canon. And soon, I hope, I’ll begin to see more people who look like me walking around in the office.