L to r: Le Whit principals Liza Curtiss and Corey Kingston
Charlie Shuck L to r: Le Whit principals Liza Curtiss and Corey Kingston

In 2019, the year I opened my design studio, Le Whit, we didn’t have enough work to support a full-time salary, so I contracted as the project manager of signage at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. Signage is a complex undertaking at large institutions, both in design and politics. Installing the “Philip Johnson Galleries” sign was particularly difficult because of its location: on the wall off of the third-floor catwalk, next to artist Arthur Young’s suspended helicopter. It required a forklift from the second floor to access the site, navigated through other construction projects and art installs throughout the museum and in the Marron Atrium below.

The Philip Johnson Galleries mark the entrance to MoMA’s design exhibits. This is a fitting legacy: Philip Johnson as the gatekeeper to the great halls of institutional art, just as he was allowed to open—and close—the doors on those wishing to enter the great halls of American architecture and design.

As a father of American architecture, Johnson shaped not only architectural education, but also architectural culture. The culture is one that demands a level of commitment and sacrifice, rewards the disciples, and condemns the diverse. As a wealthy, Ivy League–educated white man, Johnson used his role as an architect for cultural attaché and nepotism. In a 2018 article on Johnson for The New Yorker, writer Nikil Saval wrote that “more than any of his contemporaries, [Johnson] was able to influence the scope and direction of the American built environment. We still live in the shadow of the architecture that Johnson brought into being.”

From our vantage point, we also still live in his cultural shadow with everything from institutional to interpersonal systems operating accordingly. However, when the father of your disciplines is a Nazi sympathizer, it is time to question your relationship to that figure and, therefore, that culture—a culture that has birthed a profession and ideals that are primarily white and primarily male.

Last summer, as people took to the streets in response to the killing of George Floyd, we waited for our field to step up and publicly recognize its own embedded racism. But the high echelons of the community were mainly inactive, if not entirely silent—and for the most part, they continue to be so. Mónica Ponce de León’s acknowledgement of licensure as a gargantuan roadblock to a racially and otherwise diverse and equitable field in a June interview with Archinect was one of the harbingers that broke this silence. (Unsurprisingly, this call-to-action was led by, and fell to the responsibility of, a Latina woman.) In that interview, she said: “I believe that we need to eliminate practical training from the process of licensure. Practical training is an exclusionary tactic that serves nothing but to maintain the power structures within the discipline. … Calls for licensing for many professions emerged during Reconstruction and there is a great deal of scholarship about how licensing was used as a tool to discredit Black skilled labor.”

The field’s silence during the Black Lives Matter protests was predictable, as the same shroud of quiet fell over it during the #MeToo movement. Many were waiting for our field to step up and publicly recognize its own embedded sexism, but that recognition never came.

My design partner and I carry the burden of experiencing two counts of sexual abuse, one count of physical abuse, and innumerable instances of harassment and misconduct at the hands of male architects and designers. For me, the bulk of that abuse occurred while gaining my mandated AXP experience. When you must seek mentorship in order to gain licensure, the power structures become that much more imbalanced. Young architects must hand over their professional—and often personal—fate to an employer that can provide access to all six categories of experience requirements—an employer that is most often male, white, and socially privileged.

When you must seek mentorship in order to gain licensure, the power structures become that much more imbalanced.

According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards, it takes 12.8 years on average to get your license. That 12.8 years primarily reflects the difficulty of achieving the technical requirements, but what about the psychosocial impact over that time? What about the potential for abuse, microaggressions, or isolation? What if the indirect messaging, throughout that 12.8-year gantlet, is “you do not belong”? And yet, there is no alternative to gaining experience besides working in a firm.

To expand our profession beyond the demographics of its current gatekeepers, students—and likewise early professionals—need more. They need to demand more, and we, the profession and academia, need to offer it. Architecture school should teach students about the different project delivery methods and how to organize specifications, incorporate MEP systems, manage consultants, and balance the needs of clients. Pushing off the professional and technical education to individual design offices is a huge liability, not only to that firm, but to their clients.

But we also need to turn to and maintain our attention on our history and its inequities, both cultural and built. When you make something as historically universal as building shelter so difficult to execute that only a very small, mostly white, mostly male demographic can do it professionally, then you hand control of the culture to those executors. Just as Johnson did, this same class of practitioners continues to control who succeeds and who fails, who gets their names on walls, and, at this juncture, whose responsibility it is to make sure those exalted names are torn down.

The Philip Johnson sign still hangs in its gallery at the MoMA. Taking it down will not dismantle the culture it represents. It will, though, start us on a long road worth traveling. Despite its indiscretions, architecture has a remarkable ability to envision new futures. Architects are problem-solvers. With our propensities for creation, we are primed to renovate the structures impairing our own field. But to do so, we need to reimagine more than which names belong on our institutional walls. We need to reimagine the word “architect,” how we become one, and what architects look like. We need to reimagine whose legacies we choose to uphold, uplift, and concretize—and whose legacies we demolish.

With editorial contributions by Le Whit principal Liza Curtiss and Emily R. Pellerin.

Editor's note: On March 1, Hyperallergic reported that MoMA will cover Philip Johnson's name on its wall sign with artwork created by the Black Reconstruction Collective, a nonprofit founded by the 10 artists and designers featured in the museum's current exhibition Reconstructions: Architecture and Blackness in America. The exhibition runs through May 31, 2021.

The views and conclusions from this author are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine or of The American Institute of Architects.

Call for Submissions. We regularly publish opinion columns that we think would be of service to our readers. Have a timely, relevant, and unexplored perspective or experience to share with the design community? Email [email protected] with a one-paragraph pitch. Due to the volume of submissions we receive, we are unable to respond individually to every pitch.