The Legacy of Leadership

D.C. exhibit chronicles the history of diversity in American architecture

East News Professional Practice
Dr. Sharon Sutton, FAIA and Leon Bridges, FAIA taking a picture in the background (Obi Okolo, Courtesy the Architects Foundation)
Dr. Sharon Sutton, FAIA and Leon Bridges, FAIA taking a picture in the background (Obi Okolo, Courtesy the Architects Foundation)

Fifty years ago, civil rights leader Whitney M. Young Jr. stood before a crowd of mostly white and male architects as he delivered a historic speech that called out racism and other issues of diversity in the architecture and design industries. Today, the profession has arguably improved thanks to his words and subsequent leaders. A new exhibition, 50 Years After Whitney Young Jr., at the Octagon Museum in Washington, D.C., surveys the legacy of the National Urban League, which Young led for a decade, and his impact on the AIA.

Following Young’s exhortation, AIA officials undertook several actions, including launching a task force to support equal opportunities for minority groups, and developing architecture programs to improve living conditions in urban neighborhoods. In 1970, the Diversity Advancement Scholarship was created thanks to a Ford Foundation grant to recognize talented and emerging minority designers.

Left to right: Leon Bridges, FAIA, Tamara Eagle Bull, FAIA, John Spencer, FAIA, Harry Robinson, FAIA, Sharon Sutton, FAIA, Clyde Porter, FAIA, Stanford Britt, FAIA (Obi Okolo, Courtesy the Architects Foundation)

Shortly following Young’s death in 1971, the AIA founded the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award which recognizes architects and organizations who contribute in areas of affordable housing, inclusiveness, or universal access. The Octagon Museum exhibition highlights past recipients of the award, from the inaugural recipient Robert J. Nash, FAIA, who became the first African American architect elected to national AIA office, to the latest recipient, Tamara Eagle Bull, FAIA, who was the first Native American woman to become a licensed US architect.

“My dad had wanted to be an architect since he was in high school… His father, a tribal leader, once said, ‘One day, our tribe will be in a position to rebuild and change our situation, and we are going to need architects and lawyers to do it,’” Eagle Bull explained in a 2017 AIA interview. “But when my father went to his non-Native counselor at school, the counselor said, ‘The best you can hope for is to be a teacher.’ So he became a teacher, and had a wonderful career, but he always regretted not becoming an architect.” At her firm, Encompass Architects in Lincoln, Nebraska, Eagle Bull is committed to creating culturally relevant and responsible design for Native American communities.

The exhibition also showcases key figures in the fight for diversity within architecture. Alongside Young and Eagle Bull, the list includes Paul R. Williams, FAIA, who was the first black architect in the AIA College of Fellows and defined Southern California Style. Julia Morgan, FAIA, posthumously became the first woman to receive the AIA Gold Medal and used her combined talents within technology and design to further the field. Also included in the exhibit is an introduction to the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), which aims at leveling the professional playing field, as well as a profile of Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA, who was the first African American woman elected to the AIA College of Fellows in 1980 and received the Whitney Young Award in 2008.

John Spencer, FAIA (Obi Okolo, Courtesy the Architects Foundation)

50 Years After Whitney Young Jr. also features a comprehensive timeline starting in 1857 when the AIA was founded in New York City. It follows the AIA’s history up to the present era when Pittsburgh architect William J. Bates, FAIA, became the second elected African American AIA president, succeeding Marshall Purnell, FAIA, in 2007. Other highlighted key leaders include Robert R. Taylor, the first academically-trained African American architect, Denise Scott Brown, Hon. FAIA, the first woman to receive the AIA Topaz Medallion, and Gordon Chong, FAIA, the first elected Asian American AIA president.

Bill Bates, FAIA and Maggie McDermott (Obi Okolo, Courtesy the Architects Foundation)

Marci B. Reed, the executive director of the Architects Foundation, noted that both the Diversity Advancement Scholarship Program and the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award help underrepresented minority students to pursue architectural studies and recognize architects and organizations that champion causes of equity and social justice. Reed hopes that the exhibition will “demonstrate the progress we have made since 1968, and how seriously the AIA and the Architects Foundation take Young’s charge today.”

50 Years After Whitney Young Jr. is now on view through November 24 at the Octagon Museum in Washington, D.C. It was organized by the Architects Foundation, a philanthropic partner of the AIA.

50 Years After Whitney Young Jr.

On view through November 24, 2018

The Octagon Museum

1799 New York Ave NW

Washington, DC 20006

Thursday–Saturday, 1–4pm

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