On June 25, 1968, black activist Whitney M Young Jr made a speech at the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Convention, where, to a large audience of mainly white professionals, he exhorted: “You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights… you are distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.” The year witnessed political tumult in the US. Martin Luther King Jr was assassinated, there were protests all across the country against the Vietnam War, and architecture students all the way from New York to Paris were calling for a change in the design curricula. On the strength of all this was born the National Organisation of Minority Architects (NOMA), headquartered in Washington DC. Twelve African-American architects from across the US met during the AIA National Convention in Detroit in 1971, and saw the need for an organisation that would develop and advance the needs of minority architects.
An exhibition titled “Remember Slavery: Say It Loud” that was recently held in the Capital marked the annual International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Slavery and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, which is observed on March 25. Nearly 21 architects of African descent, based in the US, presented their ideas of inclusivity, equitable spaces and memories of a prejudiced past, through panels.
Architect Rodney Leon of Haitian ancestry, who designed The Ark of Return memorial at the Visitors Plaza at the United Nations headquarters in New York in 2015, says his inspiration came from the Goree Island of Senegal, West Africa. At a slave castle on the island was the door of no return. Leon establishes a counterpoint with his memorial as a way to present a spiritual space of return. Through the exhibition panels, he says, “It is extremely important for people of African descent and other diverse cultures to connect with one another professionally, especially since we are significantly under-represented in the profession. The profession should do all it can to reflect the society it represents.”
The exhibition in collaboration with the United Nations’ Remember Slavery Programme, was curated by architect Pascale Sablan and produced by the NOMA-New York Chapter. “Architects and designers have a responsibility in creating a more humanistic society,” says Sablan.
Architect Richard Franklin shares how he discovered architecture at 14, as a Boy Scout, back in 1955. It is also a reminder that minority professionals never had mentors. “I saw a pamphlet for an architecture merit badge with a picture of a man… It was Frank Lloyd Wright. I remember there were no practicing African American architects that could mentor me for a Boy Scout merit badge in architecture. No white architect would mentor me. I never got the badge. That should never happen again,” he says.
While architect-scholar Sharon Egretta Sutton, whose 2016 book When Ivory Towers Were Black presented the student insurgency of 1968, shows her collages exhibited at the Ethnic Heritage Art gallery, Seattle, architect Mark Barksdale remembers there were no full-time black faculty members when he studied architecture at The City College in New York. With a group of African-American students they led a protest, which resulted in a new hire and a design studio, especially for black and Latino students. “We could design projects that were more relevant to the communities we came from, instead of the boat house the other students were designing at the time,” he says. The exhibition was a worthy reminder of the need for inclusive spaces and ideas in city building, often neglected the world over.