Black American Architecture & Interior Design: The Past, Reality, and Moving Forward

Carlo Zepeda February 23, 2023

As a Resource Librarian at CallisonRTKL Miami this month and throughout the year, I am committed to bringing you information and life stories on the Black American experience in the U.S. I am delighted to showcase and praise the work of architects and interior designers from a few generations back. These trailblazers sacrificed much to help make this country great too. Their built surroundings tell us how we might understand ourselves, preserve our communities, and give us space to ponder who we are as a society.

It is an everyday reality that in racial diversity, it is generally known that Black American representation, or the lack thereof, in architecture and interior design is a serious issue. Historically, Black Americans have always met giant social and economic barriers. The few architects and interior designers who helped build this country were no different from those in the industry today.

With the senseless murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers and the birth of Black Lives Matter, several universities, architectural firms, professional institutions, and news-social media corporations have pledged to rectify the lack of Black American equity in their recruiting practices, staff promotions, and project involvement. Justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion policies have been authored, including CallisonRTKL; nevertheless, the fact remains that today only 2% of all licensed architects in the United States are Black Americans.

My mother used to tell me that while attending the wake of someone she knew who was killed in L.A., a local politician showed up at the deceased’s home empty-handed but full of promises that the police would catch the killer. “It is not enough to attend someone’s funeral, offer your condolences, and promise to keep them in their thoughts and prayers. That’s nice, but you must also bring tamales, café, y pan dulce para que la gente coma y no aguante hambre toda la noche.” In El Salvadoran tradition, a wake lasts all night, and those at the vigil are offered food and drinks. Her argument is 100% spot on to use in this case. Creating and circulating a diversity and inclusion statement is vital—it demands underrepresented interior designers and architects to participate in the conversation actively, but tangible actions-real outcomes are required. Like the local politician, making a promise is easy – showing REAL results demands effort, integrity, and transparency.

The issue remains. Why this vast disparity within the university discipline and the lack of representation in the workplace? How can this phenomenon of minimal representation be rectified? These are questions that remain unanswered in 2023.

According to a 2020 report released by the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) and the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), only two percent of the 116,242 licensed architects in the United States and its territories are Black American. Only 2,325 Black American architects are building the cities and extending the suburbs, designing the skylines of the future, and creating museums, housing projects, schools, universities, hospitals, and any other structures we inhabit or use daily.

Get this. White Americans have always had a head start. In 1897, licensure laws were first passed; unfortunately, Paul Revere Williams, the first Black American architect to be licensed, was not granted the license until 1921. When confronted with these divergent statistics, suddenly, it evolves into a reality that the racist systems that often bar Black Americans and other ethnic minority groups from competing on an equal socioeconomic playing field also extend to architecture and design.

White architects and interior designers make up the vast majority of industry professionals. Information from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards indicates that non-Black Americans—another unknown group make up nine percent of the nation’s licensed architects. Finding a local, national, or global design firm with fewer Black American architects than four or five is not uncommon. Black American partners are almost an endangered species, the 2020 report affirms.

The rich history of Black American architects in this country, and the legacy of racism in architecture, can be traced back to the colonial era. Historians have reported that enslaved artisans, who worked without pay or recognition, were involved in designing and building historic cities like Philadelphia and Baltimore and distinct structures, including the White House. While conditions have slowly improved, architecture today remains predominately white and thinly spread among some ethnic minority groups that can afford the cost of studying architecture. Although heavily serving the design boom during the colonial era, Post-Civil War, Reconstruction, and the years after WWII, many people feel that Black American architects still lack the recognition they deserve.

Multiple complicated factors are responsible for discouraging young persons of color from pursuing the field of architecture and participation in the profession. According to figures from the National Architectural Accrediting Board, some 24,200 students—of whom 57 percent were bachelor’s students—were enrolled in accredited architecture programs at 122 public and private colleges and universities. The NAAB data also reveals a stark and inarguable racial and ethnic discrepancy. The overwhelming majority, 44% of all students, are white, followed by Latino students at 16%, Asian students at 9%, and Black American students at 5%. Additionally, the data shows that the total number of Black American architecture students has stayed at or near 5% since 2010. What should leaders and administrators at architecture schools do to focus more attention and effort on increasing racial and ethnic diversity in their academic programs? We will see.



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Author Spotlight

Carlo Zepeda