Melvin L. Mitchell, FAIA, NCARB, NOMA, James Silcott Chair Professor of Architecture, Howard University & Pres./CEO Bryant Mitchell Architects
Harold Cruse’s magisterial 1967 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual continues to inform much of my worldview about the black struggle in the US. One of the questions I posed was, “How would Cruse’s analysis of the role of black architects apply to the time between 1900 and the year 2002?”
Through a Crusian prism, I argued that black architects had been in a serious state of cultural and socioeconomic estrangement from Black America since the 1920s Harlem Renaissance. I found that no such state of estrangement existed between 1893 and the 1920s. That was the period when Booker T. Washington charged a band of black architects—led by Robert Taylor—with designing and building the Tuskegee University campus in Alabama while also wanting to create a similar type of development in Harlem.
Black architects often cite the fact today only 2,000 out of 120,000 (1.7 percent) of America’s architects are black. But closing that gap, while necessary, is nowhere near sufficient. The burden of training the next generation of black “culture and power” grounded architect-entrepreneurs and community developers falls to the nation’s small band of HBCU-based architecture schools. Up until the 1970s, that cohort of schools was reputed to have produced nearly 50 percent of the nation’s licensed black architects.
I find it ironic that the only front where the “culture and power” estrangement between black architects and Black America decreased is in the African American museum building phenomena of the past twenty years. A parallel argument in my book is that the late-20th century maturation of the IT and communications revolution irrevocably transformed the basic business model for the practice of architecture. We are now on an accelerating trajectory of obsolescence over the next several decades.