The Low Memorial Library of Columbia University
Creative Commons / CyberCop The Low Memorial Library of Columbia University

The new book by Sharon E. Sutton, FAIA, When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in America’s Cities and Universities (Fordham University Press, 2017), weaves oral histories together with social history to create a unique narrative about power structures and personal determination at Columbia University. The story played out over more than a decade, from the late 1960s through the 1970s, when many U.S architecture schools were disrupted by the cultural transformations of the era. Sutton narrates one of the most significant disruptions in the country, which occurred at Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation. There, students and faculty organized to change the school’s dominant pedagogies and policies, as well as its overwhelming whiteness. She draws on her own trajectory from an affirmative action recruit at the school to a distinguished career as an activist architecture educator and scholar.

How did university imperialism prompt architecture students to cast a critical eye toward their education in the 1960s?

Columbia had been a Beaux-Arts school, and since the 1930s had been trying unsuccessfully to modernize its curriculum. The students wanted an education that was relevant to the social problems of the day. The school was in disarray by the 1960s, and had been for many years. Angst over the Vietnam War and the university’s relationship with Harlem only heightened their dissatisfactions. During the April 1968 campuswide rebellion, students at the School of Architecture became more fully aware of these political issues as well as the corporate underpinnings of the school itself. They were dissatisfied with their position within the hierarchy—the big fist—of the university, and were also incredibly upset with the university’s heavy-handed dealings with Harlem. Thousands of mostly black and Puerto Rican residents had been displaced for university expansion, and foundations for a gymnasium were being dug in Morningside Park that were obliterating its remarkable landscape. The architecture students, in particular, were not OK with that.

Your book ties the “arc of insurgency” among architecture students to a rapid increase in ethnic minority graduates between 1966 and 1974, and then an equally rapid decline through 1982. What is the legacy of affirmative action at architecture schools in the 1960s and ethnic minority recruitment in the early 1970s?

The arc of insurgency isn’t just about the School of Architecture or its students. It was happening in relation to the Black Power Movement and black student activism. There was a belief among black college students that they should help ghetto dwellers transform their communities—that “we’ll all go up together” or break through those barriers together. And that didn’t happen. Black student activists became increasingly assertive, which turned off whites who had supported nonviolent protesters. Then the violence of working-class black males intersected with Nixon’s war on black people, framed as a war on drugs—and that turnabout in social vision extinguished what could have come out as a truly high moment in history. And the economic crash in 1973 only made white backlash against educational equity worse.

At the same time, the broader civil rights movement, which had been going on for a long time before the 1960s, also fueled that arc of insurgency. For example, due to affirmative action policies and the allocation of financial resources, an unparalleled number of African-Americans matriculated in colleges throughout the country in 1969. The students who got in the door first really opened up all the professions, and Columbia was a major player in architecture. Up until 2007, Columbia had graduated more African-American architects than all but the historically black colleges and universities, largely due to those affirmative action recruits. Forty years later, when the Obama generation became the movement’s second brood, the fleeting trajectory of growth among black architects had been almost completely flattened.

You claim that your work on this book uncovered a story that proved to be “quite unlike” the one you assumed to be true. As an actor in this history, and as someone who has covered it, what were those assumptions?

Writing this book took me way beyond the affirmative action scholarship program that I thought was the entire story. In fact, I had to rewrite the book after I discovered that those scholarships were part of a university-wide community outreach effort and that the recruitment wouldn’t have worked so well without that piece of the puzzle.

This story emerged during a sabbatical in 2013, after formerly confidential files had been opened up at Columbia University’s Butler Library. These files revealed that Ford Foundation funding had paid for much of the scholarship program as well as the community outreach projects. Not only that but Charles Abrams, at the time chair of the School of Architecture’s planning division, was at the forefront of the recruitment and outreach effort. He had expected that the planning division would get its own Ford Foundation grant, but unexpectedly the university received an unsolicited $10 million grant for “urban and minority affairs” with Harlem envisioned as the locus of research and action. Though the School of Architecture, which included architecture and planning, had to compete with the entire university for a piece of the pie, the Ford monies underwrote the scholarships and the community outreach that are central to this story.

James Polshek, FAIA, the AIA’s 2018 Gold Medal recipient, spearheaded the expansion of Avery Hall, Columbia’s architecture school, which you cover in the book. How did his appointment facilitate Alexander Kouzmanoff’s design for the expansion?

The university was in an economic crisis and was in debt due to increasing faculty salaries and construction costs. Tuition increases couldn’t cover that debt, and there were rumors that the architecture and dental schools would be closed. At the same time, the school was experiencing a number of crises due to all the curricular and administrative changes, which contributed to the architecture program receiving a provisional accreditation in 1970. Without full accreditation, the university decided to halt the court proceedings that would have allowed the use of two endowments to expand the library in Avery Hall. In the wake of all this upheaval, Kenneth Smith resigned as dean, and the university threatened the school with receivership if a new dean couldn’t be found immediately. Since there had never been a viable search for a dean before then—university administrators had always just appointed someone of their choosing—this would be a test of the school’s experiment with democracy. That’s where Kouzmanoff, as a longtime faculty member at Columbia, comes in. He was appointed chair of the search committee and did a yeoman’s job of getting the university to commit to a strategic direction for the school. Ultimately, Max Bond recruited Polshek [to be dean], who negotiated a very favorable contract for himself, including that faculty could be commissioned to design university buildings. So the terms of Polshek’s contract allowed Kouzmanoff to be hired as the architect for Avery’s expansion.

Polshek’s appointment also meant that the funding for the Avery Library expansion could go forward, and I got my first job after graduation working for Kouzmanoff on the expansion. His design concept was hands-down brilliant—to create found space underground for the expansion—and it was fascinating to work on as my first project. It had so many constraints and a very active review panel of architecture faculty and historic preservationists. A lot of things never came to pass, such as skylights that were eliminated due to fear of leakages and so on. But the overall concept is still something I appreciate every time I return to Columbia.

So the project didn’t turn out the way it was designed, and my first job didn’t turn out the way I had hoped it would, either. I was doing design work in the office, but when the secretary went on vacation, I volunteered to do some of the secretarial work, too. Late one night, when I was working all alone in the office, I couldn’t resist the temptation to rummage through the books with all the financials. I was devastated to l see with my own eyes that I was being paid less than the other two recent grads who had also been hired for the Avery project—because I was a woman and I was black. Absolutely devastating to see that, right there in the books. I never confronted him on it, because I couldn’t bring myself to admit to snooping through the books. So I quit—and I was unemployed for 13 months after that. That’s the bad news. But the good part was that, during my months of unemployment, I came up with a strategy: I studied for my architecture licensing exams, I applied to doctoral programs, and I also eventually began teaching at Pratt. But I earned a living, actually, as a printmaker—which grew out of working in an interior design office. I found I could make prints, sell them to the interior designers, not carry liability insurance, and have fun.

And—I have to tell you—the day I got accepted into the doctoral program at City University is the same day I got my license from New York State—two envelopes, one fat the other slim, sitting in the same mailbox. And so out of tragedy came the definition of my career. I never looked at my early career as one straight ladder I needed to climb, or one path I needed to follow. It was important to me to create many different options for myself.