From Southern California to Tokyo, these incredible buildings were designed by Black architects.
Black architects have been designing architectural structures and making their mark on the international landscape since the late 1800s, despite historical barriers. Paul Revere Williams was the first Black member of the American Institute of Architects. He opened his practice in the early 1920s and built nearly 3,000 glamorous Southern California residential and commercial structures for almost 60 years. Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first licensed African American female architect, designed major projects such as the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and the Mall of America in Minneapolis.
Today, there are 2,434 licensed Black architects in the United States, less than 2% of the total number of licensed architects. Though small in number, they are responsible for myriad commercial, residential, academic, and government buildings, health care facilities, memorials, and parks large and small around the world. Black architects bring new visions and voices to the way humans perceive and interact with our built environments.
“We’re at a moment when process is almost as important or possibly more important than the product,” says Steven Lewis, principal at ZGF Architects. With today’s Black architects, “there’s an inclusionary process of gathering input and ideas; they’re seeking a sense of having been heard, seen, and acknowledged and offering an ease and comfort in occupying the spaces they create. Pre-George Floyd, these issues weren’t as urgent as they’ve become. There’s an awakening, curiosity, and interest now throughout the profession. With this new visibility of culture and issues, colleagues are excited to include that in the process of ideation.”
Here are 11 contemporary and historical projects by Black architects that are worth visiting on your travels.
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California Science Center
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
Steven Lewis and his then-firm RAW worked with ZGF Architects to design this public space that resides in a Black community on a campus that includes the Museum of Natural History and the Air and Space Museum. The science center project was part of a larger refurbishment done in the mid-1990s. The large steel and glass glazed cylindrical area visualizes technology and offers a compelling shady gathering spot. In keeping with his design philosophy, Lewis explains that “architecture is really all about metaphor. When it’s relatable to a group of people who are historically not consulted about these things it becomes powerful and empowering. We wanted to help engage with the neighbors and what they want. Nothing about us without us.”
University of the District of Columbia Student Center
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
Architect Michael Marshall, president, and CEO Michael Marshall Design, who grew up in D.C., wanted to give back to that city. The 83,000 square foot, $63 million LEED Platinum building is sensitive to its urban context and environment. It’s not just for students. Marshall says, “it’s a front porch of the university” with meeting spaces for the community. Marshall is currently on the design team for the Frederick Douglass Park on the Tuckahoe.
Tōrō Ishi Ku
WHERE: Tokyo, Japan
This Tokyo commercial district hosts global brand buildings done by famous architects. Tōrō Ishi Ku, designed by Mark Gardner of Jaklitsch Gardner, pays tribute to Japanese craft and making. The ceramic wall tiles were custom-made by Inax. Gardner, who creates everything from spoons to buildings, designed the high-ceilinged, open-plan ground floor with fritting (frosted glass) so displays are shadowy, enticing visitors inside to experience more. The building’s third level seems like a giant “lantern” made from perforated aluminum panels and LED-illuminated tensile fabric.
Texas Southern University Library Learning Center
WHERE: Houston, Texas
Architect Jonathan Moody, president and CEO of Moody Nolan, says that his design philosophy is about responsive architecture. TSU, located in Huston’s Third Ward, is a premier HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities). For that reason, the learning center “couldn’t just be for the students; it had to be for everyone.” The building, completed in 2019, boasts angled corners with balconies and patios so visitors can engage with “Tiger Walk,” the paths crisscrossing campus. Inside is a five-level atrium, a café, classrooms, book stacks, computer labs, study areas, offices, meeting rooms, and gallery space.
Hamad International Airport Passenger Terminal Complex
WHERE: Doha, Qatar
Designed by Kimberly Dowdell, marketing principal of HOK, the Doha airport was recently named airport of the year by Skytrax. The luxurious, light-filled complex settled under a super undulating roof supported by a steel-framed glass wall offers amazing desert views. Dowdell says her professional mission is to improve people’s lives by design. She is a 2020 AIA Young Architects Award recipient and was recognized for her activism efforts by Architectural Record’s 2020 Women in Architecture Awards program.
National Museum of African American History & Culture
WHERE: Washington, D.C.
Many renowned Black architects produced this $500 million cultural institution, including David Adjaye, Zena Howard, Phil Freelon, and J. Max Bond Jr. Completed in 2016, the structure reaches down 70 feet into the National Mall. Its skin is made of 3,600 bronze coated aluminum panels, about which Mabel O. Wilson, Columbia University architecture professor, writes: “shimme[r] reddish-gold, deep sepia, or copper in the changing light, a dazzling tribute to African American contributions to American craft and building.”
WHERE: New York City
This mixed-use development is located in Manhattan’s historic Sugar Hill district in Harlem, this mixed-use development incorporates community facilities, museum space, offices, and apartments. Architect David Adjaye calls this project a new typology for affordable housing and is part of Adjaye’s commitment to urban and cultural responsibility. A luminous glass facade wraps the base, and rose embossed graphite tinted pre-cast panels cover the 13-story building.
African Burial Ground National Monument
WHERE: New York City
Municipal workers rediscovered this African burial ground in 1991 while excavating land for a federal government office building in lower Manhattan. The monument commemorating this sacred space was designed by AARRIS Architects, principals Rodney Leon, Nicole Hollant-Denis, and project architect Monica Aliaga-Robles. According to the AARIS website, the “Ancestral Chamber serves to physically, spiritually, ritualistically and psychologically define the location where the historic re-interment of remains and artifacts of 419 Africans has taken place.” In 2006, the African Burial Ground Site was designated a National Monument.
WHERE: Paris, France
One of the design team members for this project, completed in 1958, was Beverly Loraine Green, the first known Black woman to become a registered architect in the United States. The modern Y-shaped structure referred to as a “three-pointed star” stands on 72 columns of concrete piling and was built by a star-studded cast of international architects, including Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer, a Bauhaus designer, with whom Greene worked.
Pacific Design Center
WHERE: Los Angeles, California
This colorful, curvy modern complex located just west of Hollywood was built over more than three decades, beginning in 1975 in what originally was a low-scale residential and commercial area. Norma Merrick Sklarek, the first licensed African American female architect, designed it with Cesar Pelli for Gruen Associates. Built in stages, the first building, Center Blue, is known as “The Blue Whale” because of its size and color. The second, built in 1988, is Center Green, and the third, completed in 2011, is Center Red.
The Beverly Hills Hotel
WHERE: Beverly Hills, California
The façade of the iconic hotel—including the font and pink and green color combo—was designed by Paul R. Williams, the first African American member of the AIA. Williams built homes for Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant, among other Hollywood A-listers. In a career spanning six decades, Williams’ designs include the LA County Courthouse, Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Building, Hillside Memorial Park, Al Jolson Shrine, and the First AME Church.