During his entire career, Cecil A. Alexander Jr. FAIA, both advocated for basic civil rights and significantly contributed to the Atlanta skyline as a principal of Finch, Alexander, Barnes, Rothschild and Paschal (FABRAP). A 2001 recipient of the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for his work on social issues, Alexander has achieved a rare balance between activist designer and design activist. “As an architect,” he says, “I did well by trying to do good.”
When I heard about the horrors of the Holocaust from Jewish survivors in 1941, I temporarily lost all interest in architecture. For four years, I halted my graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and flew 60 missions as a dive-bomber pilot. The thought of possibly killing and wounding hundreds of human beings haunts me at times, but I helped our country to destroy the forces of tyranny.
At the end of the war, I enrolled in Harvard’s school of architecture, where Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer shaped my Bauhaus philosophy about architecture. One classmate, however—a former Tuskegee Airman named Conrad Johnson Jr.—influenced my transition from a “good ol’ Southern boy” to a civil-rights fighter. My friendship with Conrad lasted for decades.
Back in my hometown of Atlanta, I protested against a racist system that limited the opportunities for black Americans like Conrad, despite their skills or service to our country. As the president of AIA Atlanta, I urged architects to work for the elimination of segregated slums and the development of more humane housing. In response, the late Mayor [William B.] Hartsfield appointed me chairman of the Federal Urban Renewal Program in the 1950s, and I started my role as an adviser to mayors and legislators.
The campaign to help desegregate public housing, businesses, and schools consumed much time during my career, but also gave me contacts leading to several major commissions for FABRAP, including the Coca-Cola headquarters, the First National Bank tower, and the now-demolished Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. FABRAP became a 300-person firm that designed corporate headquarters, laboratories, and sports stadiums across the United States.
My retirement from FABRAP in 1985 didn’t temper my civil rights work. In hopes of uniting white and black Georgians, I decided on my own to draw a new state flag, removing its divisive Confederate symbols, in 1993. My redesign of this flag flew over Georgia from 2001 to 2003.
I have many interests—architecture, art, international relations, flying, drawing, and poetry—and these days I create conceptual designs for a memorial to honor the late Atlanta Mayor Ivan Allen Jr. I collect material for my unpublished biography. I recite poetry to my wife, family, and friends. Age has slowed me down, but it hasn’t stopped my passions in life. —As told to Melody L. Harclerode, AIA