“If we were to look closely at architecture, it is perhaps one of the least inclusive professions. In a recent Atlantic Monthly poll on the thirty-three whitest jobs in America . . . architects were ranked as 93% white . . . In comparison to other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, architecture has done very little to address how race, racial representations and racial thinking have shaped its own practices and discourse.”
Mabel O. Wilson, Professor, Columbia GSAPP
In 2015, Ta-Nehisi Coates won the National Book Award for Non-Fiction for his memoir, Between the World and Me. The book is written as a letter from Coates to his teenage son where he describes the history of racial violence in America, along with stories from his childhood in Baltimore. Twenty-two years prior, Tori Morrison won the Nobel Prize for Literature for her novels Beloved, Jazz, Paradise, her enduring contributions to the art form. In visual art, the painters Archibald Motley, Jacob Lawrence, and Jean-Michel Basquiat have left enormous influence and are important to the history of American art. And, of course, it’s too obvious to mention African-American contributions to music because they invented our finest art form: jazz. Amongst all of these groundbreaking contributions to art, philosophy, political & social theory (is anyone smarter than bell hooks?), not to mention hip-hop, breakdancing, graffiti, urban art—the list of African-American innovation goes on and on and on—why amongst all of this, is there still a lack of a historical African-American presence in American architecture? Why are the voices and perspectives not nearly as varied in this form like in many others?
And there’s no sign that it’s improving. In the U.S., 13.3% of our population is African-American, yet in 2014, only 5% of the admitted architecture students that year were African-American. Compare this disproportion to the more represented majors in this group–health and human services, social work, nursing, and early childhood education–and we’re still left with the question: why aren’t there more African-American architects?
When the National Museum of African-American History and Culture opened on September 24, 2016, Philadelphia’s Philip Freelon became perhaps the most important African-American architect in our history. But he is very much in a minority. In fact, the amount of registered African-American architects has virtually not changed in the past thirty years. Why? Watch the thought-provoking discussion on race and architecture at Columbia GSAPP above to get involved in the discussion and work towards an answer.
All disciplines benefit from different cultural perspectives. Diversity is crucial within a field not because it is nice, or fair. Not because it is wrong to not include a group, but because inclusion broadens everyone’s horizons and deepens the competition, making sure the very best, rather than the best within a select group, rise to the top. America, and the world, need African-American architects, so why aren’t there more? And how can we assure more inclusion in years to come?
By: David Plick