Jack Travis
Jack Travis Jack Travis

When Jack Travis, FAIA, reflects upon his time as an architecture student, he points to a “Dear Architecture” letter written by Craig Wilkins, AIA—a prize-winning essay published by Blank Space.

"Dear Architecture, I’ve been wondering why you don’t speak to me,” writes Wilkins, a professor at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning. “Is it because you don’t see me? Are you ignoring me? Maybe it’s because you really don’t care for me; but whatever it is, you sure don’t speak, that is, at least not to me.”

For Travis, Wilkins's encapsulation of the feelings of a disenfranchised child embodied his own early perspective on architecture. As a Black student pursuing a B.Arch degree at the University of Illinois in the 1970s, Travis frequently felt like an outsider. His experience then, and in the following decades, has been characterized by what he calls “Negro moments.” As he wrote in the Journal of Interior Design in 2018: “Negro moments occur when Black participants become keenly aware that we still find ourselves either the only one, the first one, or one of a precious few in the room.”

A model of the John Saunders residence
Jack Travis A model of the John Saunders residence

In a field marked by such a significant underrepresentation of African Americans (who comprise only 2% of all licensed architects but constitute 13% of the U.S. population) such moments are unavoidable. Given the scarcity of role models, it is easy to understand how inaccessible the profession seems to Black students and young professionals. “When you’re expecting the average Black person to come into architecture, that’s still a tall order,” Travis told me during a recent phone interview.

What is remarkable about Jack Travis’s story is how he transformed his early impression of disenfranchisement into opportunities for himself and other Black architects and designers. After receiving his M.Arch degree, Travis went to work for SOM and then for Lou Switzer, the founder of one of the first and largest minority-owned design practices in the U.S. Travis decided to launch his own architecture and interior design practice in 1985, and found early success designing Giorgio Armani’s flagship store in New York. He gained further notoriety with s series of high-profile projects, including director Spike Lee’s first residence in Brooklyn, actor Wesley Snipes’s house in Los Angeles, and sports journalist John Saunders’s residence in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.

Jack Travis
Jack Travis Jack Travis

After an early taste of success, Travis’s impulse—perhaps a counterintuitive one—was to celebrate the works of others. He recognized a gap in our historical knowledge of the contributions made by Black architects, even though these architects had contributed so much to the built environment. “I said there is no book, and someone needs to do it,” he told me. Travis contacted Howard University architecture professor and dean emeritus, Harry G. Robinson, FAIA, who had long been collecting research for just such a book. Robinson generously gave Travis his files and encouraged him to take over the project. With the use of Robinson’s research, Travis interviewed 35 firms and solicited a collection of essays. The result was African American Architects in Current Practice, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 1991.

Travis’s book had a significant influence on the Black architectural community. “I got a lot of notoriety and respect. When we went to NOMA conferences, people knew one another, and that had never happened before,” he says. “For people to open up, they need a catalyst. People were now part of something bigger and greater.” In his 2020 book African American Architects: Embracing Culture and Building Urban Communities, architect and professor Melvin Mitchell, FAIA, wrote of Travis: “His work and his teaching, writing, advocacy, and organizing across the global Black diaspora during the past 40 years have been essential and clarifying."

The Kalahari Condos in Harlem
Jack Travis The Kalahari Condos in Harlem

A fundamental aspect of Travis’ influence has been his search for a distinctly Black architecture based on the various motifs, forms, colors, and materials found in works of Black heritage. “What is it that binds us as black people worldwide?” asked Travis in an interview for the “The Global Africa Project” at New York’s Museum of Arts and Design. “It is our African-ness. So, for me, I go back to the continent.” Tracing architecture’s origins and development in Africa is not only a means of cultural reconnection but also a source of fresh ideas for American architects. “We’re so disconnected that we have to go back,” Travis says. “When we do, we find a richness.”

Travis has devised a list of 10 guiding principles for design exploration based on his study of this heritage, including “strong indoor/outdoor relationships,” “earth-centered” design, and the “intense use of color, pattern, and texture.” These principles directly inform the designs of his architecture and interiors projects. For example, Travis advised Wesley Snipes to incorporate his bed into the floor of his house. Following the “earth-centered” principle, Travis “built up the floor and sunk his bed into [it]”—creating a ceremonial platform to frame a kind of sanctuary for relaxation. (According to Travis, Snipes liked this design so much that during parties “he would run and jump in the bed.”)

The sunken bed of Wesley Snipes
Jack Travis The sunken bed of Wesley Snipes

The principle of “Intense use of color, pattern, and texture” is evident in Travis’s work on the Kalahari Condo Complex façade in Harlem. Working as a cultural design consultant with architect Fred Schwartz, Travis suggested scarification as a visual strategy. The architects devised a zig-zag pattern based on triangular African motifs, and Schwartz's staff architect Doug Romines, AIA, translated the strategy into different colors of brick. “In my opinion, all of Harlem should look like this,” said a smiling Travis during a recent lecture at the UNCC School of Architecture.“If all of Harlem looked like this, everyone would come to Harlem, not only to experience the culture, but to see the place as well.”

Travis also added visual interest and symbolic meaning to the Harlem Hospital New Patient Pavilion, a 192,000-square-foot building he designed with HOK. A six-story tall glass curtain wall features digital enlargements of three murals located inside the hospital—artworks created by the first Black artists commissioned by the Works Progress Administration in 1936. The murals—the originals were salvaged and restored inside the building—depict visual stories from the African diaspora of “people up from slavery.” The hospital interior also incorporates a visual language of patterns, colors, and textures that, as Travis says, collectively tell a “story of Black people from the three major areas of slavery … from Africa to the New World.”

The Harlem Hospital Center project, which Travis designed with HOK
Jack Travis The Harlem Hospital Center project, which Travis designed with HOK

Today, Travis feels more of a sense of belonging in the architectural profession. As for the future of Black architecture, he believes “we need more.” “I would like to see more people of color express environmental design aesthetics, to give richer content possibility on this planet,” he says. Travis references a 2007 Philippe Starck lecture titled “Design and Destiny” as a point of inspiration for how he views his role—and that of other Black architects—in the field. In the talk, Starck used a physical analogy of optical perspective to explore the conceptual notion of vision. “People who focus only on the ground immediately in front of them have a limited view of the world. But people who can raise their heads up can see they’re part of something larger,” Travis explains.

With his forward-looking gaze, Travis envisions significant progress ahead for Black architecture. “We’re laying the groundwork,” he says, associating the creative output of today’s Black architects with the birth of jazz. "Jazz music didn’t start in a conservatory or in a forum. The early Black musicians started doing it, going out, and then they got better, and then they got great!”