In the iconic television show Seinfeld , the character George Costanza dreams of being an architect:
“You know I always wanted to pretend I was an architect.”
George even states nothing is higher than an architect and constantly pretends to be one, enjoying the perks that such a vocation has for his social standing. Black people would be wise to follow the fictional Costanza’s lead and pretend to be architects so that they too can enjoy the societal gain and prestige that employment in such a profession grants.
Just like Costanza, Black people find themselves despondently engaging in an un-winnable game of make-believe when it comes to the field of architecture, and lasting creations of grandeur:
“Architecture is culture,” says architect and professor Melvin Mitchell, a member of the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects (FAIA). “It’s the mother art, the first art. When man builds, all of the art forms are housed in architecture.”
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there are about 100,000 architects licensed in the United States. Of those, roughly 1,500 are African-Americans, according to the University of Cincinnati-sponsored Directory of African-American Architects. Thirty years ago, the percentage of African-American architects was roughly the same, which means that architecture continues to be a profession that lacks diversity in real numbers.
That lack of diversity means that it is that much harder for Black architects to get the top commissions that lead to more top commissions, says Curtis J. Moody, FAIA, president and CEO of Moody/Nolan Inc., in Columbus, Ohio. “There are a lot of talented African-American architects out there; the problem is that we’re still scratching the surface,” says Moody, whose company also has offices in Nashville, Cincinnati, Cleveland and Indianapolis. “There are firms that have the capability; we’re just under the radar.”
On the other hand, when you buy a music CD, read a book or go to a museum, those names may be more familiar. There’s a reason for that, Mitchell says. African-American architects–every bit as talented as musicians, writers, painters and sculptors–missed an opportunity to firmly entrench themselves in the American culture.
“When we had our first big, cultural renaissance during the Harlem Renaissance, African-American architects were missing from that,” says Mitchell, president-elect of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and author of The Crisis of the African-American Architect: Conflicting Cultures of Architecture and (Black) Power. “We were the missing link … Our generation did not see themselves as privileged and having the authority to pursue culture.”
As a result, instead of entrenchment in Black culture, architecture has generally been a bit outside of Black culture–not as accessible and therefore not as desirable. Although the building booms continue to provide amazing opportunities for some designers, African-Americans aren’t pursuing the profession or gaining much of a foothold once they enter the profession.
We have reached in Black Run America (BRA) where industries that lack a sufficient amount of diversity are inherently evil for failing to employ the necessary amount of diversity that is tantamount to a prosperous society. Any profession that lacks a large Black presence is undeniably flawed and obviously has impediments – created by The Man – that keep Black people from prospering and thriving in that particular vocation.
Be it a test (MCAT, LSAT, GMAT, etc.) that requires passing to pursue an advanced degree or an inability to perform in advanced mathematics or meet the prerequisite requirements for admittance to an undergraduate school, Black people are grossly underrepresented in the field of architectur e.
Of the 1,571 Black architects, an astounding 40 percent of these came from HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities), which only further showcases the crisis that the architecture community is in with such a dearth of ebony structural designers:
At a time when there is a greater global need for designers, and when architectural firms are eager to tap into new markets, the nation can’t continue to ignore the African-American talent pool. Today, 40% of black architecture school graduates are from the half-dozen historically black college and university programs (aka HBCU), suggesting that the majority of our 116 accredited programs are doing relatively little to recruit and nurture the next generations of architects of color. Overall, maybe 40 African Americans become licensed in any given year with the largest concentrations of African American licensed architects to be found in New York City, Washington, DC, Atlanta and Los Angeles. A number of states, to date, have no resident African American architects: Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Montana, New Hampshire and South Dakota. And while women constitute half of our architecture school students, they still represent less than 20% of licensed practitioners.
Remember, in Black Run America (BRA) those industries that have an insufficient amount of Black people are chastised for obviously practicing racism and denying those perpetually disadvantaged from bestowing joyful diversity upon that vocation which still operates under a Jim Crow mandate.
The field of architecture, though it requires five vigorous years of intensive undergraduate work and the inevitable internships and creation of a portfolio to succeed in even landing a job with a firm (not to mention an accredited degree), should toss aside such a daunting requirements and just grant Black people a license to be the token Black in an industry with so precious few to choose from.
Like any industry that requires high-levels of competence and hours of rigorous training, white people are doing everything in their power to locate more Black people so that calls of racism will not create architecture firms that find qualified Black applicants as rare as a qualified Caucasian, 100 meter sprinter:
Now Wilson, who graduated from A.H. Parker High School in Birmingham, is attending architecture school at Auburn, because of a firm that for two decades has helped put blacks into a field where their numbers are scarce. Of the 50 members of Birmingham-based Giattina Fisher Aycock Architects Inc., 20 percent are black — compared to only 1 percent nationally and about 3 percent in the state.
Although Alabama has been recognized as the birthplace of modern architectural design for blacks, with Rayfield and many others beginning their careers at Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute, today only 24 of 774 architects registered in the state are black, according to the Alabama Board of Architects.
Creig Hoskins, a black who is a partner at GFA and vice president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, said the firm is a rarity in Alabama — a white-owned architectural business that has made it a part of the office culture to provide opportunities for minorities.
The state board’s executive director, Cynthia Gainey, also said she was not aware of another architectural firm in the state assisting minorities to the extent GFA has.
“I think it should be the goal of every architect to recruit minorities,” said Hoskins. “Society is more diverse, therefore, architecture should reflect that diversity. Architecture is at its best when you have diversity and infuse the best the community has to offer.”
Hoskins believes the low numbers of minorities in the field may be attributed to a lack of visibility of black architects and a failure to push architecture in K-12 schools. Wilson also says there has been little media attention to successful black architects.
Roman Gary, a black architect who has been registered with GFA for three years, agrees.
“Early in high school, I really did not know what an architect was,” Gary said. “But when I discovered that there were people out there who design buildings, houses and make space for a living, I was captivated with that concept.”
The only hope for Black people to enjoy being real-life George Costanza’s and actually becoming certified architects (again, Black people should flock to industries that have precious few Black people, such as dentistry, engineering, software design, medicine, etc.) is for colleges and universities to lower the requirements necessary for graduation.
When one looks at the skyscrapers in major United States, 95 percent or more of them were designed by firms that would make even the marketing wizards from Madison Avenue in Mad Men blush. Now, the growth of building outside the United States in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and China are utilizing architects from America.
Thankfully Black architecture does have one outstanding contribution that jolts into the sky, creating quite the striking image (thanks to North Korean company that constructed it) – the African Renaissance Monument in Senega l:
The African Renaissance Monument is a 49m tall bronze statue outside of Dakar, Senegal. Built overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in the Ouakam suburb, the statue was designed by the Senegalese architect Pierre Goudiaby after an idea presented by president Abdoulaye Wade and built by a company from North Korea.Site preparation on top of the 100-meter high hill began in 2006, and construction of the bronze statue began 3 April 2008.
The next time you look up in the sky in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta or any city with an impressive skyline, chances are nearly 100 percent that buildings you see will have one thing in common: they weren’t designed by either George Costanza nor a Black person.
Stuff Black People Don’t Like includes architecture, a field so overwhelmingly white that the small percentage of Black people employed feel compelled to create their own directory and organization to promote their unique needs.
Wait: every vocation (public and private) has an exclusively Black group that allows only Black people to join and normally has major corporations and foundations giving vast sums of money to support these fledgling organizations.
Watch George Costanza and architecture, a video retrospective.