New Map Highlights African-American Architects’ Work in Los Angeles – Subsequent Metropolis
“I had absolutely no role model in architecture,” said Norma M. Sklarek, the first African American woman to receive an architecture license in the United States. In the mid-1960s, Sklarek moved from New York to Los Angeles to join Gruen Associates, where she became a director. In 1980 she was the first African American woman to be named a Fellow by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and five years later she and two other women started their own company.
The challenge of visible role models is one that has plagued the field, notoriously masculine and white. Ted Landsmark, then president of Boston Architectural College, stated in a 2007 talk: “If there’s one profession that has gotten away with some kind of benevolent neglect of diversification for the past 30 years, it’s architecture.”
A new map created by the Los Angeles Chapter of the AIA marks over 50 buildings in the city that were heavily influenced by African American architects. Until now, this story, which reveals an impressive range of projects from colleges to hospitals, apartments to civic centers, churches, temples, restaurants and the iconic LAX-themed building, has never been summed up in a single picture.
In Los Angeles, other scientific work was carried out on African-American architects, including five oral records (including that of Sklarek) that were archived at the University of California at Los Angeles. However, the new map offers the range of these important contributions at a glance. The locations stretch across the city, from the coast to downtown, from Beverly Hills to Venice, and from Compton to the San Fernando Valley.
The card was the brainchild of Debra Gerod, Fellow of the American Institute of Architects and partner at Gruen Associates in LA. In anticipation of the National Organization of Minority Architects’ annual conference held in Los Angeles in October, she decided to do something tangible to celebrate the city’s lesser-known contributors. Her colleague from Gruen, Jason Morris, enthusiastically took over the management with the support of high school intern Shaellen Franco.
Morris says he thought he would find a plethora of little-known architects, but didn’t discover as many as he had hoped. (Recent estimates suggest that African Americans are still only 2 percent of the country’s approved practitioners.) “Often it’s an exposure problem,” he says. “A lot of young people who gain prominence don’t look like them. Part of it is making the successes visible. “
Morris and Franco searched historical heritage databases like the LA Conservancy’s, checked architectural websites, contacted city councils, and reached out to architects’ family members for the belated recognition. The Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects in Southern California also provided vital assistance and asked its members for their personal memories.
One discovery was a fascinating network of influence and mentoring emanating from Paul Revere Williams, the most famous and successful African American architect in Los Angeles (as well as in the United States). Williams designed thousands of buildings locally and nationally in a five-decade career. In 1923 he was the first African American architect to join the AIA, and in 1957 he was honored as an AIA fellow. Just last month, he was posthumously awarded the AIA’s 2017 Gold Medal – the first African American to receive the organization’s highest honor. “That is long overdue,” says Gerod.
Morris also notes that many of the projects on the map were built in minority communities. These areas were often underserved and lacked adequate hospitals, universities, and civic and community centers. Examples on the map in the city of Compton are the City Hall and Civic Center (both by Harold L. Williams (unrelated to Paul); the Douglas F. Dollarhide Community Center – named after the city’s first black mayor (by Michael H.) Anderson), the MLK Transit Center (by Elliot S. Barker), and the Community College Learning Resource Center (by Roland A. Wiley). This group of important projects highlights the benefits of having a diverse workforce of designers who take on all parts of the city.
“The goal is to build a profession that is as diverse as the community we serve,” says Morris.
The political implications of an undiverse field were well clarified at the AIA national congress in 1968. Keynote speaker Whitney M. Young Jr. has made the AIA known for its lack of diversity and silence about racial inequalities, including the irresponsible construction of gritty, prison-like public housing. He stated, “You share responsibility for the chaos we are in regarding the white noose downtown. It didn’t just happen. We didn’t get this situation suddenly. It was carefully planned. “After Young’s speech, 12 African-American architects founded the National Organization of Minority Architects.
The AIA LA map coincides with other efforts to document and highlight the spatial history of African American life in Los Angeles, a story linked to patterns of migration, employment, and discriminatory housing ties. SurveyLA, a database owned by the city’s Office of Historic Resources, gathers information on places of historical importance for African American communities to identify them as landmarks.
At the same time, writer and photographer Candacy Taylor documents the remains of companies that are included in the Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide from the Jim Crow era with safe places for black travelers. Taylor was delighted with the AIA’s new card and emailed me that it “not only celebrates black contributions to the Los Angeles landscape, but also offers a new perspective on the race in America. These buildings play a vital role in honoring and revealing an untold story of black agency, innovation, inspiration and talent. “
Franco, who wants to study engineering and architecture in college, was heavily influenced by her work on this project. “I used to think architecture was just building buildings and designing them the way you wanted them,” she says. “This research showed me the beautiful complexities of architecture that go beyond just building and designing. Your projects are more than just buildings, they embody an era and serve a purpose. “
Gerod also points to the importance of the ACE national mentoring program that Franco was associated with. The program mainly focuses on mentoring youth in urban and public schools in the fields of architecture, construction and engineering. “ACE is starting to see some results,” she says. “It is really important for professionals to give back and replenish their ranks in ways that better reflect our society and aim for better justice.”
AIA Los Angeles plans to give tours of the locations later this year. Gerod and Morris hope their map will inspire other chapters to create similar projects and even a national map. Gerod says: “I hope we are the beginning of something.”
Lyra Kilston is a 4th generation writer and Angeleno. Her writing has been published in Artforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, Time, and Wired, among others.