Victor Jones, is founder and principal of Los Angeles–based Fièvre+Jones and editor of the book (IN)Formal L.A.: The Space of Politics.
I was in grad school at Harvard when a friend Carrie Johnson introduced me to Whitney Young. I actually discovered his AIA National Convention speech, delivered in Portland, Ore. (a place that was not always as progressive as we know it to be today), years later, in 2013, while preparing a lecture for my seminar “A Social Practice.” Young’s message remains hauntingly alive 50 years later as I, and many others, try to not lose our heads over the racial inclusion we still DO NOT SEE in architecture.
What is most infuriating are the quantities of deans and faculty of architecture schools, principals and partners of firms, not to mention the constellations of others who are OK with an entire segment of society missing in the education and practice of architecture. There are simply too few students, too few teachers, too few deans, too few prize-winning architects, and too few historians of color. If we expect architecture to maintain any cultural relevance, this shameful state of affairs must change.
When I was in architecture school there was an overwhelming belief that architecture was a man’s profession. Only a handful of architecture students were woman, even fewer taught, or were invited to lecture, or were mentioned in history books. And while the landscape is changing for women, much the same thing I observed about women in the 80s can be said of African Americans and Latinos studying or practicing architecture today.Let’s start by destroying the general anonymity that shrouds the contributions of architects and designers of color. And I am not just talking about present contributions but historical as well.
Every individual, institution, and corporation not only has a moral responsibility to assure access but also must cultivate a sustained environment of inclusion so that students of color, teachers of color, architects of color, and historians of color might participate and flourish in this wondrous profession. For the time being, the numbers are damning, and sure as hell there is NO reasonable excuse!
Architecture is so complex and multi-faceted, I’m hard pressed to suggest any one solution might right past wrongs. But, if there is such a thing as high and low concept in architecture, architecture education and practice need to turn their attention to the high. The art practices of Theaster Gates, Rick Lowe, and Mark Bradford offer valuable clues of how architecture might chip away at the long-lasting insidious forces that have perpetuated housing segregation and social inequity.
Still, optimism and initiatives are not what will alter the course of systemic racism that permeates the education and practice of architecture. So much of what we do as architects is in the service of the public. If the notion of “public” is too narrowly defined, or if we are too distracted by other preoccupations in our chase for relevance, we might actually find ourselves leading architecture to the pit of obsolescence.
I remember visiting antebellum plantation houses with my history professor back in the 80s. I remember their majestic stature, fawning over their exacting proportions, and my teacher whispering the names of the great architects that designed them. I also remember the deep discomfort I had as I thought about all the nameless slaves that built them.
Coming to terms with that experience has been at the core of my own struggles to find my place as a gay African-American teacher, practitioner, and scholar. Only very recently have I begun to find comfort and inspiration from a small but life-sustaining community of people who operate simultaneously as colleagues, friends, and mentors. They include committed individuals such as Mabel O. Wilson, Samia Henni, Charles Davis, Mario Gooden, and others.