Sharon Sutton, FAIA Member Emeritus, is the author of When Ivory Towers Were Black, which chronicles the late 1960s activism at Columbia University that spurred changes in recruitment and curriculum, leading to greater numbers of black architecture graduate students. Sutton was the 12th registered African-American woman architect in the United States.
I don’t actually recall the first time I heard Young’s speech, or rather its oft-repeated line about thunderous silence and complete irrelevance. I might have heard it recited in real time when I was a student at Columbia University.
I do, however, recall my reaction when I sat down and actually studied the speech, which was in 2011 when I received the AIA Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. At the time, I was researching the Civil Rights Movement and its powering, at my alma mater, of the nation’s boldest recruitment of ethnic minority architecture and planning students. Due to these investigations, I was well aware of the explosive racial context that prompted the AIA to invite Young to its convention.
In studying the text, I was surprised that Young was able to characterize so many aspects of this context in his lengthy speech. Leaping from topic to topic, story to story, he covered racialized income inequality, the Kerner Commission Report on civil disorders, negative racial stereotyping, government-sanctioned housing segregation, inadequate subsidized housing quality and quantity, white middle-class pathology in promoting materialism and war-mongering, young people’s leadership in advocating social change, and on and on.
I was also surprised to learn that Young had sought out the advice of a Yale architecture student before making his speech. The student’s advice—ask architects to be more relevant, more activist, more diverse, more community-engaged—reflected all the demands the Columbia students were making, which led to this very bold recruitment effort.
So engaging with Young’s speech for the first time was re-affirming of my own investigation of the transformation that occurred at Columbia University’s School of Architecture during this same era.
In response to Young’s speech, the AIA made a considerable investment in an activist agenda, including establishing local community design centers, setting about recruiting more black members and appointing them to leadership positions, developing K-12 programs aimed at attracting ethnic minority students into the field, initiating a minority/disadvantaged scholarship program, and establishing the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award as a reminder of the challenges he articulated.
Over the years, AIA National has organized task forces, conducted diversity audits, and adopted strategic plans. Local chapters have established diversity and inclusion committees, some of them quite active. The national AIA Board of Directors awarded Julia Morgan and Paul Revere Williams its Gold Medal, for the first time recognizing (posthumously) the achievements of a woman and a black. And yet the field remains persistently pale, male, and elitist.
As I pointed out in my own keynote lecture at the 1994 AIA Convention, 26 years after Young’s, the field exhibits a continuing investment in serving a moneyed clientele and a continuing lack of attention to the needs of impoverished communities. I would posit that architecture’s elitism accounts for the persistent whiteness and maleness of its demographic makeup. The two issues are inseparable.
In 2011, I co-edited a book called The Paradox of Urban Space: Inequity and Transformation in Marginalized Communities, which presents contemporary versions of Young’s criticisms along with initiatives that remedy those criticisms. The book asserts that the material world both reflects and reinforces the kind of racialized inequities Young described. Paradoxically, it also asserts that the material world provides an extraordinary stage for poor people to organize and bring about more sustainable and just communities.
Two case studies from the book illustrate these assertions. One highlights the inequity that occurred when a public housing project was redeveloped in a way that displaced half the residents, caused the remaining half to experience negative stereotyping, and reinforced the values of white, middle-class lifestyle, while claiming to be a sustainable “green” community.
The other, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI), highlights the transformation that occurred as residents worked in solidarity to share resources and decision making, limit the profitability of real estate development, and help youth assume leadership in the community-building process.
DSNI provides a roadmap for how we architects and city-making professionals can support low-income residents in achieving their own vision of the future. In a nutshell, we can provide the tools they need to be leaders and community builders. Then we can then amplify their good works through our access to power and privilege.
In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin argued that black people are needed to disrupt white people’s investment in the status quo. Because black people don’t benefit from the status quo, they are more capable of envisioning alternatives (as are young people).
As black people—a people that has experienced segregation, cultural fragmentation, and spatial displacement over centuries—I believe we can frame the single most urgent question of our time: Namely, how can architects create narratives that help restore humanity and its lost relationship to the material world? Or as Whitney Young might have put it: How can architects create narratives that transcend materialistic values—that are less concentrated around things than around people and their relationship with place?