Sharon Sutton
le studio nyc Sharon Sutton

The AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education is awarded jointly by AIA and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture to an individual who has had significant impact upon architectural education and the discipline and practice of architecture. It is the highest award the organizations confer on an educator and reflects their joint commitment to recognize service to the profession, academy, and society. In 1994, Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA, became the first African American woman to be promoted to a full professor of architecture, and, throughout nearly five decades of teaching, has helped countless students find their paths through the profession.

What is your greatest achievement?
The milestones of my career began with being hired in 1958 as a “colored girl” playing the French horn in the Dayton Symphony Orchestra and continued until being selected in 2023 as the first African American to receive the AIA/ACSA Topaz Medallion award with many others occurring in between. Each milestone along that 65-year journey stands on its own, a small breakthrough within a landscape that is still in the making.

What is the most memorable moment of your teaching career?
Early in my career when I was teaching first-year Bachelor of Architecture studios in the attic of Pratt Institute’s old Higgins Hall, I noticed a student who came to class in work clothing and sat alone in a corner of the room. Every class, I would climb over the self-imposed barricades around his desk and try striking up a conversation about his project, but he mainly wanted to know if it was “right” and what grade it merited. One day, in total exasperation, I took his calloused hand in mine, wrote “A” in his palm with a fat red marker, and said: “Now let’s get started.” From that day forward, he began venturing out from behind his barricades, ever more confidently assuming his role as a pre-ordained A student.

What is your teaching style?
I most enjoy being a coach and problem solver, especially if I have a teaching partner and can model the behaviors that I want students to adopt. I give endless rope for taking risks while at the same time expecting excellence in whatever path students chart for themselves. I pride myself in providing detailed written feedback, which some students (and mentees) perceive as invaluable and others perceive as invasive. In fact, students have generally reacted to me in quite opposite ways, some saying that I have changed their lives or prevented them from dropping out of architecture, others saying that I should not be allowed to teach.

What, if anything, has changed about your style over the years?
Everything has changed because students are different today than they were 48 years ago. For example, they have access to bottomless amounts of information but they frequently have difficulty using information to make decisions; and, though their facility with technology far outstrips mine, their use of technology is frequently inappropriate to the task at hand. Most strikingly, more and more students seem to be in crisis perhaps because of housing and other economic stresses, social injustices, domestic violence, or COVID-related losses. Just last semester, l received notices from the student services office requesting that I adjust my course requirements to accommodate the disabilities of one-third of my design studio students. Because students are simultaneously more competent and more needy, I have to be more adept in managing a constantly fluctuating learning environment, being responsive to individual circumstances awhile also maintaining high performance standards across all students.

My scholarship and my lived experience confirm that architecture’s cultural norms are extremely resistant to change.

What role does your scholarship and creative practice play in your teaching?
Ideally, my students work on projects that are part of my creative practice and, in turn, provide the content for my scholarship. For example, as the chair of a Seattle design review board, I was often able to engage my students in exploring design options for legislatively enabled initiatives such as new lite rail stations, mixed-use libraries, or fire station conversions. If the timing was right, my students were able to help spark dialogue on these new initiatives among neighborhood activists and design professionals. For an example, see [our work on the future of 23rd and Union].

What has your scholarship revealed about the issues of diversity and equity in architecture?
My scholarship and my lived experience confirm that architecture’s cultural norms are extremely resistant to change. Though enormous progress has occurred in terms of welcoming women and persons of color into the profession, its Western Eurocentric culture is continually reified by a highly regulated, market-driven education and licensure system. On the long climb up to becoming registered architects, young people learn to play by the rules so that—in the words of leadership scholar, John W. Gardner—they eventually become “servants of what is rather than shapers of what might be.” The rigidity of architecture’s education and licensure system ensures that, by the time young people enter their mid careers, they likely have become highly skilled prisoners of the status quo, including women and people of color.

What is the most unfortunate reality about architectural education today?
The power of architecture to uplift human experience is diminished by an education process that trains students in narrowly defined, carbon-copy skills, while downplaying their capacity for holistic, socially critical thinking. Its high cost and marketplace orientation indentures them to a lifetime of upward economic mobility and eliminates a whole array of opportunities that would appeal to the social imagination of a more diverse group of change agents.

What is the most promising aspect of architectural education today?
Its power is increased by the technologies that have freed young people from dependence upon faculty and other experts as their primary source of information. As independent learners, they are more confident to work collaboratively with their peers in taking on the grand challenges of the day, including economic inequality, dehumanization of labor, environmental degradation, and pervasive intolerance of difference.

Sutton delivers a speech at the 2015 University of Washington convocation ceremony in Seattle
Sutton delivers a speech at the 2015 University of Washington convocation ceremony in Seattle

What is the greatest challenge you have faced during your career?
Throughout my career, I have been challenged to regroup after some devastatingly racist experience, but serendipitously I have always been able to find a way forward. For example, when five white male French horn players at Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music ensured that I would fail my admissions audition, I serendipitously encountered three Curtis students, one of who was its only African American student. After tutoring me in the art of controlling an audition, they sent me to New York City where the Manhattan School of Music offered me a full scholarship. Later on, when my white male dean at the University of Michigan ensured that I would lose the architecture program’s election for chair, I serendipitously encountered another dean at the University of Washington who sweetened my relocation to Seattle with an increased salary and center directorship. And when another white male dean at the University of Washington told me flat out that I was unqualified to chair the architecture department, I serendipitously received an unsolicited grant from the Ford Foundation to investigate after-school programs for marginalized youth. My every challenge has turned into an unanticipated opportunity.

What jobs did your parents have?
I hated this question when I was in elementary school and I still do because it is fundamentally asking about social class . So let me answer your actual question: I was born working class. Both my parents were from the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, a state negatively associated with poverty, ignorance, and a hillbilly dialect. Before my mother married, she was a teacher in a one-room schoolhouse for colored children and rented a room from my paternal grandmother, who was a farmer and needed the income. My dad, who left school after third grade, had gone “out west” to work as a chauffeur/butler for a white family and met my mother on a trip home. During the Great Migration, they married and moved “up north” in search of the “promised land.”

My parents settled in Cincinnati where my mother became a housewife and my father became a “provider” as required by that era’s social norms. He worked an 8-hour nightshift at a Wonder Bread factory keeping the cupcake machines running, followed by an 8-hour dayshift doing whatever jobs he could invent. My favorite was as the neighborhood butcher which involved purchasing half of some animal from a local farmer, carving it up, and then selling neatly wrapped packages that my mother labeled to our neighbors, who were delighted to have inexpensive, beautifully butchered meat. Another favorite was when he found buildings that were being demolished by urban renewal and retrieved resalable items such as carved staircase banisters and stained glass windows. I still have the Tiffany lamp he brought home when I was five years old.

What would you have been if not an architecture professor?
Like many African American female architects, I have led a multidimensional creative life, which leaves little time to contemplate what might have been. I currently am not only an architecture professor but I am also a citizen architect and mixed-media fine artist. I was once a professional French horn player performing primarily in the orchestras of ballet companies and Broadway shows and I have taught in many arenas besides design and planning, from French horn to printmaking, social work, and education. Throughout all my professional endeavors, I have cared for many houseplants, birds, and demanding Pekingese. In short, I have assumed, and continue to assume, many roles besides that of an architecture professor.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
Because I do not have children or other descendants, I began conscientiously planning my legacy at 65 when I decided to document the circumstances of my recruitment to Columbia University. The book that resulted, When Ivory Towers Were Black, along with my other books, articles, lectures, artwork , and medals will make up the major portion of my legacy and I am currently in search of an institution to be its keeper. I have also established, and will continue to establish, endowments intended to help the next generation of students continue my passions.

What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
Instead of this scattering of [fifteen] questions, I would have preferred a deep dive into just one: As the Topaz Medallion laureate, what do you see as the future of architecture education and how can it be achieved? I would have started by defining the problem and then I would have offered possible remedies. Your readers can find the “answer” to this question by contacting ACSA for a copy of my keynote lecture at its 111th Annual Meeting.

Which book(s) are you currently reading?
Family Properties: Race, Real Estate, and Black Urban America by Beryl Satter (2009)

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontent by Isabel Wilkerson (2020)

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, a novel by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers (2021)

What does winning the Topaz Medallion mean to you?
When I served on the Topaz jury in 2008, I became aware that, since the award was first conferred in 1976, just one woman, Denise Scott-Brown, Hon. FAIA, and no African American had received it. From then on, I worked toward the goal of being the first and endured devastating feedback along the way; for example, being told that presenting my musical career seemed to be “showing off.” I had given up on ever receiving the award when, out of the blue, the Boston Society for Architecture emailed me last June with a nomination offer. Knowing that this particular chapter’s blessing was pure gold, I accepted the offer and began working even harder on my application after my younger brother died in July.

Being the first African American to receive the Topaz in almost half a century not only brings to fruition my elusive personal goal, but it also opens the door for the second and third, as occurred with female recipients. Accordingly, I would like to express my deepest appreciation to the BSA for nominating me, to the 25 women from three continents who signed or co-signed the required 10 letters of support, to Kathryn Prigmore, FAIA, who provided incisive editorial feedback on a draft, and to the former students who permitted me to include their bios in my application. My only disappointment (and it is a big one) is that AIA seems not to recognize the significance of this moment for its halting journey toward inclusivity. After complaining that no one had contacted me about my role at the 2023 AIA Conference on Architecture, a vice president called to inform me that I was invited to attend, with a guest, a ceremony where I and other awardees would be recognized—and to clarify that I would not have a speaking role. Too bad.

Still, I have excellent reasons for investing my modest academic salary in attending this costly event. For one, I will be toasted as a special guest at a party celebrating Mithun, a champion of inclusivity and the 2023 AIA Architecture Firm Award winner. Additionally, I will be participating in a multi-author event at the AIA Store following Friday morning’s keynote, signing copies of my just-released Pedagogy of a Beloved Community and 2017 When Ivory Towers Were Black. I may not have a speaking role, but my voice will be heard.

Editor’s Note: According to AIA, the AIA president formally presents the Topaz Medallion at the ACSA annual meeting, where the winner is invited to speak.

This article appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT. This article has been updated from the print version to reflect that Sutton is the first African American woman to be promoted to a full professor of architecture, not the first woman.