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Building Inspiration: Architecture and Black Liberation

A more honest narrative of the Black experience in the US should recall and hold high Black pioneers in the field of architecture.

“The innate love of harmony and beauty that set the ruder souls of his people a-dancing and a-singing raised but confusion and doubt in the soul of the black artist; for the beauty revealed to him was the soul-beauty of a race which his larger audience despised.”

– W.E.B Du Bois, from The Souls of Black Folks

“Architecture concerns everybody. It’s the art form that really influences the quality of our daily lives most directly.”

– Barry Bergdoll, former chief curator of architecture, Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)

Who tells the story determines what gets told, and in the case of architecture, it is the designers and builders who decide and ultimately shape how neighborhoods, cities and nations look and feel, and who they best serve.

In 1923, architectural pioneer Paul Williams became the first Black person granted membership to the American Institute of Architects. And in 2006, the Paul Williams Project was founded by American Institute of Architects Memphis and the Art Museum of the University of Memphis to honor his monumental life’s work.

Deborah Brackstone, the organization’s chief librarian and archivist, said in an interview that Williams grew up in a middle-class family in Memphis: “His dad was an entrepreneur and was also a waiter at The Peabody.” Seeking greater opportunity, the Williams family moved to Los Angeles, at which time, a teenaged Williams enrolled in a polytechnic high school.

Williams “could draw; he could sketch … and he decided that that’s what he wanted to do,” Brackstone said. “He just never thought, ‘that’s something I can’t be.'” Williams confronted racial discrimination at every turn, and though he received no college degree, in time he became known as an “architect to the stars.”

Yet – illustrating W.E.B Du Bois’ point of an artist being “despised” by his larger audience – Williams was forced to come to grips with the fact that no amount of money or acclaim would ever buy him entry into elite white society. He was neither welcome to live in the elegant enclaves where he built his stately homes, nor welcomed as a guest in the homes of white clientele.

In his essay, “I am a Negro,” Williams wrote of wishing he could live in the neighborhood of a white client:

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. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know … I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because … I am a Negro.

The relationship between dreams and facts plays a key role in the field of architecture itself. In 2010, I spoke with Barry Bergdoll about the nature of architecture and its preservation. A professor of architecture at Columbia University, at the time, Bergdoll also held the title of chief curator of architecture at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. When I asked Bergdoll what he sees as the role of architecture in the everyday experience, he replied: “Firmness, commodity and delight. It’s delight and beauty, and it’s a sense of civic spirit – an ethos about things that matter in society.”

How often does one hear, if ever, local and national leaders speak with such profundity of architecture in this way?

I also asked Bergdoll how the public might be better informed about architecture. “I think one of the things that’s mystifying is why children are not taught in school about architecture,” he said. “Architecture concerns everybody. It’s the art form that really influences the quality of our daily lives most directly.”

However true that may be, what is the relevance of architecture in Black life at a moment in history when it seems the everyday reality of Black people is overwhelmingly defined by poverty, mass incarceration, police brutality and other socioeconomic injustices? According to African-American architect and historian Roberta Washington, architecture is a primary artifact of anthropology; it is an aspect enduring in history that evidences and documents the intelligence and spirituality of a people – like a voice calling beyond the grave that keeps ancestry alive.

“I think we have to remember that we are a people with ancestors who left us something. And we need to look at the [African-American] legacy – the strong examples of what they did leave.” Part of this legacy, Washington says, can be seen in the lives of the first three Black women – Beverly Greene, Louise Harris Brown and Norma Merrick Sklarek – to become licensed architects in the United States. Sharing select highlights, Washington recalls:

Beverly Greene received her architecture license in 1942. Greene had a degree in architecture and a degree in city planning, which she used toward becoming one of the first Black employees for the City of Chicago, Housing Authority. Greene is also credited with working on the UNESCO United Nations building in Paris, France.

Louise Harris Brown received her architecture license in 1948. Urged by her brother, Brown took an evening class taught by Mies van der Rohe at the University of Illinois, and some years later became the structural engineer for two of Mies van der Rohe’s high-rise buildings on Lake Shore Drive in Chicago. Because of racial discrimination, Brown moved to Brazil for greater opportunity, married a German architect and practiced there for the remainder of her career.

Norma Merrick Sklarek received her architecture license in 1964. Sklarek was a member of the Council for the Advancement for the Negro in Architecture. She worked for SOM Architects for a number of years, and started an architecture firm with two other women.

With less than 2 percent of all architects in the United States being African American, Washington is herself a pioneer of rarified pedigree. Washington is the founder of Roberta Washington Architects, and among the many transformative projects that she’s credited with is the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center, which is located in Lower Manhattan next to the African Burial Ground Memorial Site.

In closing, Washington offered her thoughts about architecture as a liberating voice for Black people. “When I do architecture, I think back of what came before,” she said. “I think of our culture – that promoted what we’re doing – and I take what I can see and incorporate that in what I do so that others can also see the beauty of all that is, especially in architecture.”

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