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Celebrating Black American Architects who Shaped the United States

February - and Black History Month with it - is all too short. There is far more legacy and history than a single month can contain. Black builders, architects, voices, and design are intrinsically woven into the foundation of America, and to discount them is to miss an enormous piece of this country’s heritage. From the often-unheard voices of the Black Designer community to organizations dedicated to dismantling injustice and empowering minority leaders in the building and design field, the effort to shine a light on the legacy of these architects is a year-round endeavor.

Further Reading - 15 Architects on Being Black in Architecture 

Tuskegee University played a central role in the careers of many of these prominent trailblazers, both as a place of education, and as teachers, role models, and architects who shaped the face of the growing university. Booker T. Washington, founder of what was then the Tuskegee Institute, recruited leading Black architects to not only design buildings that would grace the expanding campus in Alabama, but to continue teaching the skilled trade to new generations. In seeking to pass on the balance of art, mathematics, building, and design that forms the backbone of architecture, Washington helped ensure that the historic buildings that form America’s cities bear the stamp of the Black visionaries seeking to find their own place in the Post-Reconstruction era.

The Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science at Tuskegee University

Their program continues to inspire talented young students through the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science - with the fundamentals envisioned as BRICKS - Build. Research. Innovate. Know. Serve.

The University and Washington’s legacy have left an indelible mark on the face of our nation, from federal buildings designed by the descendants of slaves to organizations dedicated to building healthy diverse communities that uplift all citizens.

 

Robert Robinson Taylor is a pioneer twice over in the advancement of Black Americans following the end of slavery. As the first academically trained and credentialed black architect in America and the first Black graduate of MIT, the son of a former slave became a force to be reckoned with in the post Reconstruction-era. During his studies, he became acquainted with founder of Tuskegee University, Booker T. Washington, who frequently traveled to Boston to meet with philanthropists and recruit talented educators to expand on his vision.

Robert Robinson Taylor would eventually join Washington in Alabama to lead the industrial program and oversee portions of the campus expansion, including the design and build of the Science Hall. He designed more than 25 buildings on the campus, which is a designated National Historic Site. His primary goal was to consider the usefulness of the project for its intended purpose, starting with his Final project at MIT. "Design for a Soldiers' Home," was created with the goal to increase mobility and comfort for Civil War veterans encountering complications from war injuries and aging. He saw the connection between beauty and utility, and how those could both contribute to the end user's experience.

Taylor was also instrumental in using the MIT methodology and approach to learning to help guide the curriculum of Tuskegee University, speaking frequently on the ways they had been successfully employed in the context of a black educational institution.

Robert Robinson Taylor designed the Tuskegee University Chapel

Robert Robinson Taylor designed the Tuskegee University Chapel

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Norma Merrick Sklarek

Norma Merrick Sklarek holds a special place in the history of Black architects as the child of immigrants from Trinidad, making her way in a predominantly white field, but also as a Black woman fighting against the sexism and racism of the 50’s and 60’s. She earned her Bachelor of Architecture from Columbia University and became the first licensed Black woman architect in the state of New York in 1954, and later, the first Black woman licensed as an architect in California. She persevered in her work, rising from a Junior Draftsperson in the City of New York’s Department of Public Works where she was often given smaller jobs like bathroom layouts, to Director of Architecture at Gruen Associates, a Los Angeles legacy firm. 

She served as a designer on numerous high-profile projects like San Bernardino City Hall, and the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, and the $50 million Terminal One at LAX as a centerpiece of the 1984 Olympics. 

In addition to becoming the first Black woman to coo-own an architectural practice ( the woman-owned firm Siegel Sklarek Diamond), she held a string of prestigious roles that helped shape the next generation of architects, including serving on the architecture faculty at University of California, Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California, becoming the first Black woman elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, and receiving an appointment to the California Architects Board (CAB).

Even during some of the most influential designs of her career - where white male colleagues credited her work and praised her ability to design large projects, she found herself serving as a project manager rather than billed as the design architect. Marshall Purnell, a former president of the American Institute of Architects, was quoted in her obituary saying, “it was unheard of to have an African American female who was registered as an architect. You didn’t trot that person out in front of your clients and say, ‘This is the person designing your project.’”

Norma was determined not to let that mindset continue in her field. She cultivated a practice of mentoring others who wanted to follow in her footsteps - according to a profile in Pioneering Women - ‘While she herself had had no mentor, she felt an obligation to mentor to others. “In architecture, I had absolutely no role model. I’m happy today to be a role model for others that follow.”’

Norma Merrick Sklarek Designed the Pacific Design Center while at Gruen Associates
Norma Merrick Sklarek Designed the Pacific Design Center while at Gruen Associates

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The McKissack & McKissack Family legacy
McKissack & McKissack is the first Black-owned architectural firm in the United States. Founded by brothers Moses McKissack III and Calvin Lunsford McKissack, in 1905 in Nashville, it is also the oldest Black-owned architecture and engineering firm in the US, with an ongoing legacy of urban building and community leadership. The company has undergone a long evolution since the brothers’ grandfather learned building and architecture as a slave. As free men, they built their firm and earned a prestigious and unprecedented $5.7 million dollar federal contract in 1942. 

 

The 20th century saw the family continue to grow the firm, with subsequent generations building on Moses III and Calvin’s building company. Twin sisters Cheryl and Deryl McKissack have each developed outgrowths of the original TN firm and continue to grow their family legacy.

They continued to take on large-scale federal projects in both iterations, with Deryl’s firm opening offices in Washington, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, and beyond. She continued the family heritage of federal projects with a renovation of the US Treasury building, serving as the lead architect on the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in D.C. and managing the design and construction of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture.

Cheryl’s firm focuses primarily on New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, earning her firm the title of ‘oldest African-American-owned and female-run construction company in the nation’ as profiled by CBS and Black Enterprise. Her work has included high-profile jobs including the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, home to the Brooklyn Nets and New York Islanders. Her team prioritizes local community hires, establishing the Office of Community Employment in Harlem. 

Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture by McKissack & McKissack

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture by McKissack & McKissack

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Max Bond, Jr

Max Bond, Jr.’s portfolio speaks for itself - a Harvard graduate with a Masters of Architecture, a Fulbright scholarship recipient, chairman of the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, a member of the New York City Planning Commission, and designer of the the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. His bright plans could have easily taken a different turn during his years of study at Harvard, when he was one of ten Black students targeted by a racist group who burned a cross in front of his dormitory. A concerned professor advised him "There have never been any famous, prominent Black architects...You'd be wise to choose another profession” per ThoughtCo. Refusing to give in to hate groups, he launched his career in France and Ghana, where he encountered more gracious attitudes towards a young, talented Black man than in a traditionally white-dominated field in America. 

After his return to the states, he founded Bond Ryder & Associates, which designed the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and Harlem's Schomburn Center for Research in Black Culture.

His most celebrated achievement? Designing the 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City. 

The 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City designed by J. Max Bond Jr.

The 9/11 Memorial Museum in New York City designed by J. Max Bond Jr.

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Pascale Sablan, Architect Advocate

The legacy of these trailblazers helped paved the way for Pascale Sablan, who has taken up the torch of using architecture to continue driving social change. In her role as an architect advocate, she considers advocacy to be her driving force - using her voice to influence policy changes, board positions, and actions that will drive long-term growth and change. As only the 315th licensed Black female architect in the US, she views the challenge to have only just begun. In addition to her roles as senior associate at S9 Architecture, northeast regional vice president and historian of the National Organization of Minority Architects, director on the AIA New York Board of Directors, board of trustees member for the Mary Louis Academy, and former president of the New York Coalition of Black Architects, she founded Beyond the Built Environment. The goal is to ‘dismantle injustice in the design world’, according to her three action item pledge. The organization’s key tenet is to educate and empower minority architects, who in turn utilize their knowledge to build ‘strong and healthy communities, rich in diversity’ and serve as a backbone of a strong nation that seeks to serve its citizens in all their diversity.

Pascale Sablan's architect advocate portfolio focuses on community impact and driving social change 

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While we celebrate Black History Month for only a short time, it is clear that the Black American experience has been a driving force in the formation and foundation of America. Our goal at Tile Club is to help develop and enrich the building, design, and interior community by continuing to listen to Black voices and support minority organizations for Black History Month and beyond.

Judy Gamache
Judy Gamache 10/05/2021

Thank you for writing an educational article about Black architects and their legacies. I am inspired. I hope I have the privilege of seeing their beautiful design work in person.

Wilma Gerald
Wilma Gerald 10/05/2021

Thank you for sharing this valuable information.

BEM
BEM 10/05/2021

Great article. Much appreciated. Thanks for posting.

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