A 1906 photograph of Robert R. Taylor by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Courtesy the Library of Congress.
Son of a North Carolina slave, African-American architect Robert R. Taylor graduated from MIT in Boston with a degree in architecture in 1892. He then worked for Booker T. Washington at the Tuskegee Institute in Tuskegee, Ala. for almost four decades. At Tuskegee, Taylor directed the largest department, Boys Industries, which boasted 25 trade divisions and a work-study program that enabled students to supplement their education by building their own school. He also developed the campus infrastructure, designing 45 buildings and managing the facilities and grounds. Today, Tuskegee is home to the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science, a testament to the school’s chief designer.
Robert R. Taylor and Tuskegee: An African American Architect Designs for Booker T. Washington ($45; NewSouth Books, December 2011), a monograph by Ellen Weiss, chronicles Taylor’s life, his work at Tuskegee, and the unique challenges that black architects faced during the Jim Crow era. ARCHITECT contributing editor Margot Carmichael Lester interviewed Weiss to find out more about Taylor and his work.
How did Taylor’s architectural style influence the public image of Tuskegee?
He created a special place that mesmerized visitors from across the nation and around the world. Washington had a profound understanding of architecture’s ability to mold community by providing identity. He used Taylor’s buildings to assert the race’s capability, its progress since slavery, and to nurture its pride so the race could find a place in the nation.
What was Taylor’s most important or influential building?
Taylor considered the [Tuskegee] Chapel his masterpiece. At its dedication, a New Yorker said it was a “cathedral in the Black Belt,” where blacks and whites could stand equal before God. The chapel burned down in 1957.
The Carnegie Library exterior remains, even though its interior has been gutted. Its iconic portico asks us to consider the meaning of such Classicizing assertiveness, an emblem of authority for centuries, when it appears in a black school in the Deep South just as Jim Crow was locking in. In 1901, the year the library was built, the Alabama constitution denied the vote to most African-Americans. Meanwhile, Southern whites were threatening Washington’s life and the school’s existence for all sorts of effrontery, even as some Northern blacks thought the principal was knuckling under to the racists and selling out his people. Perhaps Taylor and Washington were asserting racial parity in the safer medium of design.
In a response to "Why Do So Few Blacks Study the Civil War?"—an essay by Tanehisi Coates in the Atlantic Monthly by Tanehisi Coates—ARCHITECT contributing editor Aaron Betsky wrote a blog post on the black tradition in architecture. “Today, both black people and any understanding of non-European traditions are largely absent in American architecture. Until we figure out how to make architecture, from its roots to its practitioners to its built forms, more diverse and open, it will continue to bury black memories.” What do you think?
This implies that the paucity of African-American architects today relates to the "European" (or lets call it "Western") tradition. I don’t see the connection. I would think that the problem stems more from the poverty that a century of discrimination and segregation imposed on a vulnerable people, even on its rising middle class. This society did not have the same need for architects that it had for physicians, dentists, teachers, ministers, funeral directors, and attorneys. In rural areas, carpenters could build simple churches, schools, and cabins without an architect’s aid. One of Taylor’s many tasks was to design better versions of such modest wooden structures so that country carpenters—or even Tuskegee-educated teachers and ministers—could “uplift” the building stock of the poor remote hamlets where they worked.
How can we improve the study of African-Americans such as Mr. Taylor at schools and departments of architecture?
Incorporate Taylor and other segregation-era African-Americans such as Hilyard R. Robinson, Paul R. Williams, Julian Abele, and Cap Wigington into the textbooks. And then add integration-era successes and contemporary stars.