Few periods in modern U.S. history have proven as momentous as the year 1968. It was a time of awakening conscience, and of loss and protest. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, sparking violent reactions in cities across the country. Robert Kennedy, too, was gunned down, while campaigning for president. Cesar Chavez underwent a hunger strike on behalf of Chicano migrant workers. Two hundred Native Americans met in Minneapolis to form the American Indian Movement. Women’s liberation groups picketed the Miss America Pageant in Atlantic City.
It was a pivotal year for architecture as well. Uber-modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe completed his late-career masterpiece, the National Gallery in Berlin, while James Stirling pointed the way to a less formally rigid, postmodern idiom with his History Faculty building in Cambridge, England, and Lina Bo Bardi championed humanitarian regionalism with her São Paulo Museum of Art in Brazil. In San Francisco, Chip Lord and Doug Michels founded Ant Farm, introducing counterculture to a decidedly establishmentarian profession. Buckminster Fuller published Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, a foundational document of the green movement. Architecture students participated in protests in New York, Paris, and elsewhere, ultimately compelling the reform of university design curricula. But arguably the most significant event for the profession, at least in the United States, was the keynote that black activist and National Urban League executive director Whitney M. Young Jr. gave at the convention of the American Institute of Architects.
“You are not a profession that has distinguished itself by your social and civic contributions to the cause of civil rights, and I am sure this has not come to you as any shock,” Young told the assembled crowd. “You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence and your complete irrelevance.”
How do Young’s words apply today? How much progress has architecture made? Is the 1968 spirit of activism still alive? Fifty years later, after a succession of institutional and individual efforts toward greater inclusion, the architecture profession remains predominantly white and male. The demographic data make it plain. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of 2017, 28.6 percent of architects are women and 2.1 percent are black. Simply put, much more work must be done.
This series of stories celebrates the anniversary of Young’s speech, recalls key moments, organizations, and heroes in the ongoing struggle for equity, and profiles emerging leaders who are working hard for positive change. The making of this special section has been a group effort, its content developed in conversation with prominent practitioner-activists from across the country. The result does not, however, claim to be encyclopedic, to encompass the full breadth and scope of the issues at stake. There are far too many people and positions and experiences for that. Instead, this is a starting point for a dialogue that will continue in subsequent issues of the magazine and online, where we welcome all to share their stories.