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From Harlem to Howard: Stephen Wilder, A Black Architect On the Rise

In preparation for an upcoming aesthetics and design-based project, I’ve begun interviewing folks whose line of work is centered on the Black aesthetic. This includes architects, designers, artists, curators – basically anyone whose sweat equity contributes to making our world a more sustainable, functional, and visually beautiful place.

One of the first people I thought to interview was my friend of 20+ years, fellow Howardite, and husband to my linesister – Stephen Wilder of Think Wilder Architecture. Look forward to similar conversations on SHOPPE BLACK.

Shantrelle P. Lewis, Retired Curator + Co-Founder, SHOPPE BLACK


When we met freshman year at Howard, you were already an architecture major. At what point in your childhood did you know you want to become an architect? 

First, I want to say thanks for the opportunity.  It’s an honor to be featured on such an important site.

I wanted to be an architect long after architecture chose me but I first knew in the 9th grade. Architecture is not something you just decide to do.  It’s a lifestyle. My interests, talents, and personality traits fit that lifestyle.  So it was a match made in heaven. Life events would often test the decision to become an architect, but no matter how many times I’ve strayed, I never got too far away from architecture’s grip on me.     

La Familia – Spring Semester, Freshman Year, Howard University circa 1997.

What was it like studying architecture at an HBCU, especially the MECCA? 

Studying architecture at HU was interesting.  It was like living in two worlds.  As an architecture student, you’re kind of like an outcast.  Our school is the first building on the corner when you arrive on campus, but people only came to our building to wait for the shuttle bus. No one really knew who we were, for obvious reasons. 

But who comes to the MECCA to be put in a corner?  So I lived two lives.  The demand and commitment the School of Architecture requires, makes you think you need to spend your life in the Mackey Building. We were told that “we would not have lives.”  

The rest of the student body treats you that way.  But I had other plans. Don’t get it confused, I can’t count the number of nights I slept in that building.  Architecture required it.  The material was tough and seemed never ending. I loved architecture, loved the challenge from the professors as well as my peers.  I learned so much.  Howard University’s School of Architecture did a great job preparing me to be a professional.

Although I excelled academically, I also didn’t deny my other interests.  I took classes outside of Architecture like Blacks in the Arts and Social Psychology.  I was a Resident Assistant, 3-time Intramural Basketball champion, leader of the NY Club, Fashion Show participant and the list goes on.  I enjoyed Howard so much, I took it for granted my last two years.  Wish I could have those days back.

Who would you credit as your architectural influences? Is there an individual architect or schools of thought that have primarily influenced your design? 

Early on, I gravitated to the Modernism.  This often-polarizing style fit who I was as a person.  Modern design is not here to fight for attention.  It wins by being consistent, clean and orderly – intelligent.  It’s going to make sense. 

I liked Mies Van Der Rohe but I also appreciated other architects.  Architects that you could tell from looking at their work, that they paid attention to detail and they had well developed designs.  People like Jack Travis, Paul Williams, Phil Freelon, IM Pei, Antoni Gaudi, and Santiago Calatrava.

The late Phil Freelon who passed away in 2019, standing before perhaps his best known design achievement.

What’s your design philosophy? 

“Less is a bore when the situation requires more.  But when more is a mess, stick with less.”  Design for me is like any great business: it responds to a demand, to a person or person’s needs.  It’s functional with form closely following and often interjecting.  Pushing and pulling until it checks all of the boxes of the program and the problem it’s solving.  It’s implied, revealing itself only when necessary. 

Who are a few Black architectural icons? 

I don’t know the exact number, but roughly 2% of the licensed architecture community is Black.  That 2%, as well as everyone that came before them, are my heroes.  The challenges we face and crush every day is nothing less than iconic.  We carry the task of making sure the built environment of people who look like us, represents us.  We are in meetings all the time fighting to create spaces that fit our cultural needs while also fighting to get rid of spaces that negatively impact our path to success.  There is NO ONE else that does this.  The majority of our own people can’t quantify our importance. We are the unsung Black professionals. And that’s perfectly fine.

As a Black architect, are there any other regions in the Diaspora that inspire you architecturally? 

I’m always amazed at the indigenous architecture of many of our African and Caribbean countries.  The buzz word today is sustainable architecture.  But sustainable architecture has long been the architecture of the places our ancestors come from.  Designing buildings and homes out of local materials that responded to social, cultural, economical and environmental demands was second nature. Builders and designers had to be responsible with the limited resources that were present.

The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, West Africa.

If you had to design a model city for a utopian society, how would it look and function?   

Great question. Throughout our history, quilts played major roles.  But I won’t get into slavery or even the quilt my mother sewed for me when I first went to college (that I still have).  But visually, traditional quilts are individual patterns and representations laid out and arranged in an underlined system.  They are like a body full of tattooed experiences. My model city will have these elements.  Individuality.  Balance.  Connectivity.  Cooperative. 

Gee’s Bend Quilt.

It will be self-sustaining.  I believe that when people have the opportunity to be who they truly are, they are more likely to work with others on a larger common goal. My model city would encourage that. There will be places for farming and technology. 

Dope skylines serving as the backdrop to black sand beaches. Buildings of various heights with open green spaces throughout.  It’s irresponsible to think you can please everyone in one place, but maybe this city is transient.  A person will stay if they can vibe with the city’s ethos and they’ll visit when they need a dose of it.

The perfect building has what elements, in terms of design? 

It has a defining entrance.  It tells a story.  There are some elements of denial and reward sprinkled throughout.  There’s separation of private and public spaces.  Every inch has been thought about.  Every element has multiple design justifications.  There also must be order and balance.  There must be explicit and implicit sustainable elements.    

What elements are necessary for amazing design?

Genius loci….There has to be a sense of place!  Amazing design is memorable, and can emotionally take over someone’s mind, body, and soul. It solves a problem. This is often achieved by having a parti.  The building is based on a concept or an overall theme that guides the design and structures the building’s many elements.  It’s like the hook of a well-executed rap song.  Are we sticking with the script? 

Who are some other Black architects and designers that you rock with?

There are so many great, creative minds out there that I can’t begin to mention them all.  Everyone helps keep my sword sharp.  There are so many I admire from a distance, but I’ll start with my NINES ARCHTX crew: Najeeb Hameen, Ibrahim Greenidge, Nico Zapata, and Erasmus Ikpemgbe.  Be on the lookout for us as a group, and as individuals. 

Steven Lewis, who is a legend. He’s in LA now, but he spent a lot of time in Harlem.  There haven’t been many, but I cherish every moment I get to converse with him. Melita Issa, of MISO Studios.  She’s an Interior designer killing it on two continents. My HU brother Jason Pugh, out in Chicago who’s been killing it at Gensler for years.

Michael Adumua who was out in Vegas designing casinos then went home to Ghana and started creating beautiful buildings for his people. Adaeze Cadet out in LA.  I don’t know her know her, but she’s a superstar.  I’ve been secretly recruiting her.  Two of my favorite professors that are no longer with us, that continue to push and inspire me – Barbara Laurie and Oswald Glean Chase.

What is the greatest architectural achievement in your opinion in world history? 

Even if I believe that there is nothing new under the sun.  I still believe we had to start somewhere.  The Pyramids of Egypt.  For their longevity.  For their symbolism.  For their originality.  Literally, nothing else compares.

The Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, East Africa.

What obstacles do Black architects face? 

I try to say challenges instead of obstacles.  The challenges we face more than anything are lack of opportunities.   But there are so many levels to this.  Obstacles, as an architect, are one thing, but when you add Black in there, the magnitude of these obstacles increase exponentially. From being a student to navigating a career path, to becoming licensed, to having access to a certain client type as a business owner.  The obstacles are endless.

I won’t go too deep, but let me paint a picture for you.  Let’s understand that only 2% of the world can really afford an architect.  So who’s funding these opportunities? What entities? Do they look like us? Do they represent us and have our best interests in mind? Whether it’s an institution or a municipality, are they making sure Black architects have a seat at the table?

The architecture in Urban areas, predominantly the base of black communities, is changing drastically.  Who is behind these developments? Our neighborhoods are being changed right under our noses and we have very little influence.  Ultimately, we don’t even get to design the communities where our people live, work and play.

We all know that the Black community has resources.  If some of these resources are used on Black Architects, we don’t have to go anywhere else for work.  Our challenge is making sure we are known, accessible, and available to the people with these resources. We have to work very hard to get projects from people who don’t look like us.  Respectfully, we shouldn’t have to work as hard with those who do look like us.    

black architect

How has COVID impacted your work, if at all?

COVID has impacted everyone’s work.  Some more than others.  There is this unknown aspect of it that makes it difficult to forecast future business.  Everyone has an opinion about how the economy will be affected and how that will affect the construction industry. 

But the thing that stands out most to me is the personal side of the business that has been impacted.  As a business owner, especially as an architect, I need to be known, trusted, and liked. I have yet to figure out how to make that happen via video conference calls.  I literally can’t build without building relationships.  It’s vital to our survival and it’s been compromised due to COVID. 

It’s not all bad though, COVID has forced me to slow down and take a step back.  Figuring out ways to pivot and adapt.  Remembering the ideal clients to target.  I’ve been able to reassess my business model. Since March, I’ve been doing a little bit of destroying and rebuilding.  It’s allowed me to get excited about the future.

What are you currently reading?

The Color of Money, Black Banks, and the Racial Wealth Gap. (I’ve been reading this for a minute now, don’t judge me).  The Soul of Black Folks.

You’re currently hiring, what kind of creatives would be a perfect fit for your team?

Technically, we are always looking to hire.  When there is a fit or a dynamic person that impresses me, the hiring process has started.  They may not know it, but I’m immediately in recruit mode.

I like people that are stars in their roles.  I prefer problem solvers and not problem starters.  Those that dream big and don’t kill dreams.  We are trying to accomplish something here.  They should know what that means. 

It’s important to be qualified.  Whether that is through education, experience, or certifications.    Be a leader.  Be forward-thinking, sustainable design-driven, and passionate. 

Even though we are vital to our community, they must know that our role as an architecture firm is privileged. 

They have a sense a culture, a sense of urgency, understand the importance of a Black business and the role it plays.

The positions we need filled immediately are Project Architect / Project Manager, Junior Architect, Interior Designer, and MEP Engineer.  Email info@thinkwilderarchitecture.com for job descriptions and any other information.

black architect

Who is your ideal client?

Think Wilder Architecture’s ideal clients are developers and municipalities that understand the value an architect brings and has projects that positively impact large groups of people.

Who do you want to work with? 

We like strategic partnerships however they come.  No one should feel like we can’t do business together.  Let’s think outside the box. 

What type of opportunities are you seeking?

We’ve done a lot of residential work.  We enjoy this, but we also want to do more schools, community facilities, and commercial projects.

What is your dream project? 

My next project of course.  These things aren’t guaranteed you know. 

Nah, but to answer the question, because of my love of sports, I used to say a sports arena was my dream project.  That was long before I had an actual business and thoughts of legacy.  These days, I’m not sure I have one. My life’s work will be my dream project. 

I’m living a dream. In the past, I used to hesitate and look around before I said this, but now I kind of say it with my chest.  I know it’s true every time someone puts trust in me to design their space.  I get excited about any and every project that requires some level of the design process.

Check out Stephen’s design work at Think Wilder Architecture and follow him on IG.

 

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15 Black Architects Who Helped Build America

In the 1930’s, there were about 60 Black Americans were listed as registered architects. Many of their buildings have since been lost or radically changed. Although conditions have improved, many people feel that Black architects today still lack the recognition they deserve.

Here are some of America’s most notable Black architects who paved the way for today’s minority builders. Notice how the university first called Tuskegee Institute, whose School of Architecture is today named after one of these historic figures, played an important role in the careers of many Black American architects.

Black Architects

Robert Robinson Taylor (1868–1942)
black architects
Architect Robert Robinson Taylor on 2015 Black Heritage Stamp Series. U.S. Postal Service
 

Robert Robinson Taylor (born June 8, 1868, Wilmington, North Carolina) is widely considered the first academically trained and credentialed Black architect in America. Growing up in North Carolina, Taylor worked as a carpenter and foreman for his prosperous father, Henry Taylor, the son of a white slaveholder and a Black mother.

Wallace A. Rayfield (1873–1941)

Black architects
16th St. Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama. Carol M. Highsmith/Getty Images (cropped)
 

While Wallace Augustus Rayfield was a student at Columbia University, Booker T. Washington recruited him to head the Architectural and Mechanical Drawing Department at Tuskegee Institute. Rayfield worked alongside Robert Robinson Taylor in establishing Tuskegee as a training ground for future Black architects.

After a few years, Rayfield opened his own practice in Birmingham, Alabama, where he designed many homes and churches — most famously, the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1911. Rayfield was the second professionally-educated Black architect in the United States, right behind Taylor.

William Sidney Pittman (1875–1958)

William Sidney Pittman is thought to be the first Black architect to receive a federal contract — the Negro Building at the Jamestown Tercentennial Exposition in Virginia, 1907 — and the first Black architect to practice in the state of Texas.

Like other Black architects, Pittman was educated at Tuskegee University and then went on to study architecture at Drexel Institute in Philadelphia.

 

Moses McKissack III (1879–1952)

black architects
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C. George Rose/Getty Images (cropped)
 

Moses McKissack III was the grandson of an African-born slave who became a master builder. Moses III joined his brother Calvin to form one of the earliest Black architectural firms in the United States — McKissack & McKissack in Nashville, Tennessee, 1905. Building on the family legacy, today’s McKissack and McKissack has worked on thousands of facilities, including managing the design and construction of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and being the architect of record for the MLK Memorial, both in Washington, D.C.

The McKissack family reminds us that architecture is not exclusively about design, but that all design architects depend on an architectural team. The Smithsonian’s Black history museum was designed in part by African-born Architect David Adjaye and was one of the last projects by American architect J. Max Bond. The McKissacks worked with everyone involved to get the project done.

 

Julian Abele (1881–1950)

Duke University Chapel, Durham, Norrh Carolina. Lance King/Getty Images (cropped)
 

Julian F. Abele was one of America’s most important architects, but he never signed his work and he was not publicly acknowledged in his lifetime. As the first Black graduate of architecture (1902) at the University of Pennsylvania, Abele spent his entire career at the Philadelphia firm of the Gilded Age architect Horace Trumbauer.

Abele worked for Trumbauer when they received a commission to expand the campus of a whites-only university in Durham, North Carolina. Although Abele’s original architectural drawings for Duke University have been described as works of art, it has been only since the 1980s that Abele’s efforts have been acknowledged at Duke. Today Abele is celebrated on campus.

Clarence W. (“Cap”) Wigington (1883–1967)

Cap Westley Wigington was the first registered Black architect in Minnesota and the first Black municipal architect in the United States. Born in Kansas, Wigington was raised in Omaha, where he also interned to develop his architecture skills.

At about age 30, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, took a civil service test, and was hired to be that city’s staff architect. He designed schools, fire stations, park structures, municipal buildings, and other important landmarks that still stand in St. Paul. The pavilion he designed for Harriet Island is now called the Wigington Pavilion.

 

Vertner Woodson Tandy (1885–1949)

black architects
Villa Lewaro, the Madam C. J. Walker Estate, Irvington, New York. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
 

Born in Kentucky, Vertner Woodson Tandy was the first registered Black architect in New York State, the first Black architect to belong to the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first Black man to pass the military commissioning examination. Tandy designed landmark homes for some of the wealthiest residents of Harlem, including the 1918 Villa Lewaro for the self-made millionaire and cosmetics entrepreneur Madam C. J. Walker.

 

John E. Brent (1889–1962)

The first Black professional architect in Buffalo, New York was John Edmonston Brent. His father, Calvin Brent, was the son of a slave and became the first Black architect in Washington, D.C. where John was born. John Brent was educated at Tuskegee Institute and received his architecture degree from Drexel Institute in Philadelphia. Brent is well-known for designing Buffalo’s Michigan Avenue YMCA, a building that became a cultural center for the Black community in Buffalo.

 

Louis A. S. Bellinger (1891–1946)

 Born in South Carolina, Louis Arnett Stuart Bellinger earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 1914 from the historically Black Howard University in Washington, D.C. For more than a quarter of a century, Bellinger designed key buildings in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Unfortunately, only a handful of his buildings have survived, and all have been altered. His most important work was the Grand Lodge for the Knights of Pythias (1928), which became financially unsustainable after the Great Depression. In 1937 it was remodeled to become the New Granada Theatre.

Paul R. Williams (1894–1980)

California Residence c. 1927 by Architect Paul Williams. Karol Franks/Getty Images (cropped)
 

Paul Revere Williams became renowned for designing major buildings in Southern California, including the space-aged LAX Theme Building at the Los Angeles International Airport and over 2000 homes in the hills throughout Los Angeles. Many of the most beautiful residences in Hollywood were created by Paul Williams.

 

Albert Irvin Cassell (1895–1969)

Albert I. Cassell shaped many academic communities in the United States. He designed buildings for Howard University in Washington D.C., Morgan State University in Baltimore, and Virginia Union University in Richmond. Cassell also designed and built civic structures for the State of Maryland and the District of Columbia.

 

Norma Merrick Sklarek (1928–2012)

The Pacific Design Center, West Hollywood, California. Steve Proehl/Getty Images (cropped)
 

Norma Merrick Sklarek was the first Black woman to become a licensed architect in New York (1954) and California (1962). She was also the first Black woman honored by a Fellowship in AIA (1966 FAIA). Her many projects included working with and overseeing a design team headed by the Argentine-born César Pelli.

 

Robert T. Coles (1929– )

Robert Traynham Coles is noted for designing on a grand scale. His works include the Frank Reeves Municipal Center in Washington, D.C., the Ambulatory Care Project for Harlem Hospital, the Frank E. Merriweather Library, the Johnnie B. Wiley Sports Pavilion in Buffalo, and the Alumni Arena at the University of Buffalo. Founded in 1963, Coles’ firm ranks as one of the oldest in the Northeast owned by a Black American.

 

J. Max Bond, Jr. (1935–2009)

American Architect J. Max Bond. Anthony Barboza/Getty Images (cropped)
 

J. Max Bond, Jr. was born July 17, 1935 in Louisville, Kentucky and educated at Harvard, with a Bachelor’s degree in 1955 and a Master’s degree in 1958.

He studied in Paris at Le Corbusier studio on a 1958 Fulbright scholarship, and then for four years, Bond lived in Ghana, a country newly independent from Britain. The African nation was welcoming to young, Black talent — much more gracious than the cold-shoulders of American architectural firms in the early 1960s. Today, Bond may be best known for actualizing a public part of American history — the National September 11 Memorial Museum in New York City. Bond remains an inspiration to generations of minority architects.

Harvey Gantt (1943– )
Mayor of Charlotte Harvey Gantt, Democratic Candidate for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, 1990. Cheryl Chenet/Getty Images

Harvey Bernard Gantt’s political future may have been metaphorically cemented in place on January 16, 1963, when a Federal Court sided with the young student architect and future Mayor of Charlotte. By court order, Gantt integrated Clemson University by becoming its first Black student. Since then, Gantt has inspired generations of minority students and politicians, including a young law student named Barack Obama.

 

Source: Thought Catalog


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8 Seattle Works Designed by Black Architects

On the surface, Seattle’s architectural heritage can seem very, very white. But black architects have been contributing to Seattle’s urban fabric for decades.

Black Architects

A bit of history: Benjamin McAdoo founded Seattle’s first black-owned architecture firm in the middle of the last century, and gained renown for everything from churches to educational facilities to private homes. Leon Bridges founded the second in the early 1960s before moving to Baltimore and becoming the first registered black architect in Maryland.

Ben McAdoo

Of course, many would follow. Mel Streeter had an extremely prestigious career dating back to the 1950s which included having a hand in both Quest and Safeco Field as well as Seatac Airport.

Mel Streeter

Roderick Butler touched homes all across the region with N3 Architects. Many practicing Seattle architects are shaping our area—and the world, depending on the specialty—right this second, including Donald King, Weber Thompson’s Susan Frieson, and DLR Group’s Rico Quirindongo.

Susan Frieson

 

Samuel E. Kelly Ethnic Cultural Center

 black architects

 

Originally designed by Benjamin McAdoo in the early 1970s, the building was renovated in 2013 by two architects of color, including Mel Streeter protegee Sam Cameron.

3931 Brooklyn Ave NE Seattle, WA 98105

Mathews East Madison YMCA

This Central Area facility was the first area building designed by Leon Bridges.

King Street Station Sound Transit platforms

 

While the original structure was built in 1906, it was Donald King and DKA Architects (in conjunction with Otak) who created the side platforms for Sound Transit Sounder service—what the Daily Journal of Commercecalled “glass and steel wafers.”

Asian Counseling & Referral Service

Donald King was principal-in-charge of design for this LEED-certified community staple, which was, according to King, “inspired by a sense of Asian-Pacific Island culture in a contemporary northwest architecture.”

Northwest African American Museum

 

The original Colman School building went up in the early 1900s, its present use as the Northwest African American Museum has been shaped by Seattle’s black community, from the eight-year occupation by activistst hat eventually led to the museum’s founding to the adaptive reuse architecture that’s in play today.

Donald King and Rico Quirindongo designed the affordable housing above—Urban League Village—and the museum itself.

John Muir Elementary School

After buildings built in 1924 and 1910 were demolished, a 1971 addition designed by Mel Streeter became the focal building of this elementary school.

Van Asselt Elementary School

Mel Streeter designed this distinctive school building for the African American Academy in 2000; the program was shuttered by the district nine years later. It eventually became Van Asselt Elementary School.

Kenneth Ota residence

This midcentury modern home by Benjamin McAdoo is a Seattle historical site—not just for the McAdoo name and its exemplary example of the era’s design, but for the cultural heritage it represents.

“The commissioning of this house by the Otas is… consistent with the historic return of Japanese Americans to South Seattle after World War II, as well as the influx of residents who were employed by Boeing around this time period,” reads its designation.

“The house’s association with the Otas and [McAdoo] also reflects Seattle’s gradual move towards racial integration and the present-day ethnic diversity in Rainier Valley.”

Source: Seattle Curbed