New Map Highlights African-American Architects’ Work in Los Angeles
Celebrating more than 50 notable buildings.
“In architecture, I had absolutely no role model,” said Norma M. Sklarek, the first African-American woman to earn an architecture license in the United States. In the mid-1960s, Sklarek moved to Los Angeles from New York to join the firm of Gruen Associates, where she became 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 launched her own firm with two other women.
The challenge of visible role models is one that has plagued the field, notoriously male and white. Ted Landsmark, then president of Boston Architectural College, declared in a 2007 lecture, “If there is any kind of profession that’s gotten away with a kind of benign neglect of diversifying itself over the course of the last 30 years, it’s architecture.”
A new map produced by the Los Angeles chapter of the AIA marks over 50 buildings in the city with significant input by African-American architects. Until now, this history, which reveals an impressive breadth of projects, from colleges to hospitals, housing to civic centers, churches, temples, restaurants, and the iconic LAX Theme Building, was never collected into one visual.
There has been other scholarly work done on African-American architects in Los Angeles, such as five oral histories (including Sklarek’s) archived at the University of California, Los Angeles. But the new map offers, in a glimpse, the span of these important contributions. The sites cover the city, from the coast to downtown, Beverly Hills to Venice, and Compton to the San Fernando Valley.
The map was the idea of Debra Gerod, fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a partner at LA-based Gruen Associates. Anticipating the National Organization of Minority Architects’ annual conference, which was held in October in Los Angeles, she decided to do something tangible to celebrate the city’s lesser-known contributors. Her Gruen colleague Jason Morris enthusiastically took the reins, with assistance from high school intern Shaellen Franco.
Morris says he thought he’d find a wealth of little-known architects, but didn’t discover as many as he’d hoped. (Recent estimates suggest that African-Americans still account for just 2 percent of the nation’s licensed practitioners.) “Often times it’s an issue of exposure,” he reflects. “A lot of young people that gain notoriety don’t look like them. A part of that is making the successes visible.”
Morris and Franco combed through historic preservation databases, like the LA Conservancy’s, checked the websites of architectural firms, contacted city councils, and reached out to architects’ family members, who were grateful for the belated recognition. The National Organization of Minority Architects’ Southern California chapter also offered essential help, soliciting its members for their personal recollections.
One discovery was a fascinating network of influence and mentorship radiating 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 both locally and nationally over a five-decade career. In 1923 he was the first African-American architect to join the AIA, and in 1957 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’s way past due,” says Gerod.
Morris also notes that many of the projects on the map were built in minority communities. These areas were often underserved, lacking adequate hospitals, colleges, and civic and community centers. Examples on the map in the city of Compton include its City Hall and Civic Center (both by Harold L. Williams (no relation 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 underscores the benefit of a diverse workforce of designers, who take all parts of the city into account.
“The goal is to build a profession that’s as diverse as the community we serve,” says Morris.
The political ramifications of an diverse field was well elucidated in 1968 at the AIA’s national convention. Keynote speaker Whitney M. Young Jr. famously excoriated the AIA for its lack of diversity and silence around racial inequities, including the irresponsible construction of grim, prison-like public housing. He stated, “You share the responsibility for the mess we are in, in terms of the white noose around the central city. It didn’t just happen. We didn’t just suddenly get this situation. It was carefully planned.” In the wake of Young’s speech, 12 African-American architects formed the National Organization of Minority Architects.
AIA LA’s map coincides with other efforts underway to document and highlight the spatial history of African-American life in Los Angeles, a history linked to patterns of migration, employment and discriminatory housing covenants. SurveyLA, a database run by the city’s Office of Historic Resources, is gathering information on sites of historic significance to African-American communities for their designation as landmarks.
Concurrently, writer-photographer Candacy Taylor is documenting the remains of businesses included in the “Negro Motorist Green Book,” a Jim Crow-era guidebook of safe places for black travelers. Taylor was pleased to hear about the AIA’s new map, telling me via email that it “not only celebrates the contributions blacks have made to the Los Angeles landscape, but it is a fresh angle to examine race in America. These buildings play a critical role in honoring and revealing an untold story about black agency, innovation, inspiration and talent.”
Franco, who plans to pursue engineering and architecture in college, was greatly influenced by her work on this project. “I used to think architecture was just building buildings and designing them the way you wanted,” she says. “This research has shown me architecture’s beautiful complexities that extend past just building and designing … . Your projects are more than just buildings, they embody an era and serve a purpose.”
Gerod also points out the importance of the national ACE Mentor Program, which Franco was affiliated with. The program focuses primarily on giving youth in inner-city and public schools mentors in the architecture, construction and engineering fields. “ACE is starting to see some results,” she says. “It’s really important for professionals to give back and to replenish their ranks in a way that is more reflective of our society, and that aims for better equity.”
AIA Los Angeles intends to give tours of the sites later this year. Gerod and Morris hope their map inspires other chapters to produce similar projects, and even a national map. Gerod says, “I hope we’re the start of something.”
Lyra Kilston is a writer and 4th-generation Angeleno. Her writing has appeared in Artforum, Los Angeles Review of Books, Time, and Wired, among other publications.