November 15, 2023

Widener Library, Harvard University

Widener Library, Harvard University

Source: Bigstock

I’ve been writing about the perverse side effects of affirmative action for a third of a century, and one of my favorite examples has always been the recurrent attempts to lure more blacks into becoming architects.

Having known a lot of architects, I’ve been pointing out that architecture tends to be a lousy career for blacks (and, for that matter, for most people without trust funds). But, my reasoning has yet to penetrate the mainstream media.

Instead, the Great Awokening has determined that an even worse problem than the black lack among architects is the shortage of black women architects. For example, over the weekend The New York Times used the fact that the American Institute of Architects, like so many other cultural institutions during the “racial reckoning,” has decided to promote a black woman to its presidency, as an opportunity to lament how America doesn’t have enough black women architects:

A Black Woman’s Rise in Architecture Shows How Far Is Left to Go

They have worked for decades to make their way in a profession that remains overwhelmingly white and male, but there are signs of change.

By Jane Margolies, Nov. 11, 2023

…African Americans make up 13.6 percent of the U.S. population, but only 1.8 percent of licensed architects in the country are Black…and not even one half of 1 percent of architects are Black women.

After all, the Theory of Intersectionality states that if there aren’t many black women architects, that just proves they must be extra good at it.

“Are there harsh reasons why architecture is traditionally a rich kid’s profession?”

For reasons.

Also, according to the same New York Times article, America needs more black interior decorators:

Interior design has a reverse gender gap: There are vastly more women than men in the field partly because for decades women were not considered up to the rigors of architecture and were steered to interiors instead. Only around 1.5 percent of practitioners are Black…

Or maybe women tend to like the inside of houses and men the outsides?

Nah, that couldn’t possibly be true. Instead, it has to be due to a giant conspiracy to socially construct women and men to pretend to have somewhat different interests.

And we must have more black women landscape architects:

“Of licensed landscape architects, only 0.8 percent are Black and 0.3 percent are Black women,” said Matt Miller, chief executive of the council that administers the Landscape Architect Registration Examination.

(Wait until the NYT finds out how few black women golf course architects there are!)

But wouldn’t it be wiser for aesthetically gifted blacks to focus more on one of those fields—architecture, interior decorations, or landscape architecture—so they can build up a critical mass of connections and family expertise rather than diffuse their talents among all three?

After all, most ethnicities tend to concentrate in some fields more than others so they can build advantages for themselves by specializing, as Adam Smith suggested in 1776.

For instance, Cambodians in the United States famously tend to run donut shops. But it’s not like they have an ancient Cambodian cultural tradition of donut making. It’s just that one energetic Cambodian refugee in the 1970s, Ted Ngoy, got a job in the donut business in California and then helped a lot of friends, relatives, and countrymen get started.

Of course, the fact that many Cambodians are in the donut business means, inevitably, that fewer Cambodians are in some other businesses, such as, I don’t know, vape shops.

Fortunately for Cambodians, nobody much cares about them, so The New York Times doesn’t consider it newsworthy that they are underrepresented in vape shops or whatever. So they are left in peace to keep making dollars from donuts.

In contrast, whenever blacks try to concentrate in Career X more than in Career Y, the media treats it as a national crisis that there aren’t as many blacks in Career Y as in Career X.

For example, back in the 1990s, the book All That We Can Be by two military sociologists pointed out that for a couple of generations a segment of the black lower middle class had been quietly but successfully specializing in being noncommissioned officers in the noncombat specialties of the U.S. Army. This allows fathers to advise daughters and uncles to advise nephews on how to carry out their logistics duties successfully.

This struck me as a good thing.

But it seemed to strike everybody else who heard of it as proving that the Navy, Air Force, and Marines needed to have more black sergeants, even though the most obvious way they could do that would be to draw quality recruits away from the Army, thus diminishing the black critical mass laboriously built up in that branch.

Similarly, if you want more black architects, you probably shouldn’t go out of your way at the same time to try to have more black landscape architects and interior decorators. But in the decades I’ve been pointing out facts like this, few other journalists seem able to handle the conceptual arithmetic. I guess my assumption that black talent, like all other talent, is not infinite sounds racist to them.

But, even leaving aside issues of critical mass, is trying to induce more high-potential blacks into making their careers in architecture good for blacks? Or are there harsh reasons why architecture is traditionally a rich kid’s profession?

Even The New York Times admits that architects’ pay is lousy for the level of talent, education, and effort required:

And parents may be reluctant to incur debt to pay for a child’s architecture degree—which can require thousands of dollars in supplies on top of tuition—given that the median salary (under $83,000) lags those in adjacent fields like engineering.

Heck, if you are black and good enough at math to be an engineer, don’t be an engineer. Instead, you should try to take advantage of affirmative action and get into finance and make real money. Your kids will thank you.

Economically, a career in architecture is even worse than that median income figure suggests. Most architecture jobs are located in expensive metropolitan areas with high costs of living.

And the study of architecture inculcates expensive tastes. For example, in his dyspeptic history of modern architecture, From Bauhaus to Our House, Tom Wolfe reminisces that all the young architects he knew around 1960 lived in tenements, but they still shelled out massively for an austere Mies van der Rohe-designed chair:

The Barcelona chair…. The Platonic ideal of chair it was, pure Worker Housing leather and stainless steel, the most perfect piece of furniture design in the twentieth century…. When you saw the holy object on the sisal rug, you knew you were in a household where a fledgling architect and his young wife had sacrificed everything to bring the symbol of the godly mission into their home. Five hundred and fifty dollars! She had even given up the diaper service and was doing the diapers by hand. It got to the point where, if I saw a Barcelona chair no matter where, I immediately—in the classic stimulus response bond—smelled diapers gone high.

Today, Knoll will sell you a new Barcelona chair for $8,134.

To become a famous architect can take, roughly, forever, in part because the famous architects who came before you never retire and seldom die. For example, here in Los Angeles, the most prominent architect is Frank Gehry, who is 94, while the local enfant terrible is Thom Mayne, who is 79.

To get your career off the ground as a starchitect, it helps to have parents wealthy enough to commission their darling to design them a retirement home, like Villa le Lac, one of Le Corbusier’s first designs to actually get built.

More generally, to be an architect, it helps to grow up knowing numerous rich people.

So, why is it automatically considered a good thing to ensnare more blacks into becoming architects?

This is by no means to say that there are no talented black architects.

When I was at Rice U. in the late 1970s, my friend Larry was usually said to be the best architecture student. Each school year began with Larry turning down a scholarship offer to play offensive lineman for the Rice Owls football team—Larry was 6′ 5″, 250 pounds, masculine, and black—because he didn’t have time or interest for anything other than his architecture studies. He was born to be an architect. I see now that Larry has worked for the past 43 years for a huge international architecture firm.

Do African-Americans possess genetic or cultural advantages that would make them unique contributors to architecture, as they might well possess for innovating in popular music? As far back as the time of Scott Joplin, it was becoming evident that blacks had a gift for rhythmic music. Is there likewise some genius African-American architectural style that would be unleashed if only there were more black designers?

The New York Times takes it for granted that demographic diversity must, in unexplained ways, lead to design diversity:

The dearth of Black architects means that the buildings in which many minority Americans live, work and play are often designed by people who may not be attuned to their cultural reference points, experts say. And the design of all spaces, regardless of who uses them, can suffer when decisions do not include a variety of perspectives.

Well, the future is unwritten, but the past suggests not. I’m aware of two African-American architects who did distinguished (although not fashionably avant-garde) work before the civil rights era of the 1960s. Interestingly, neither is admired today for inventing some kind of revolutionary African-American aesthetic that only humans with their DNA could have devised. Instead, they are now appreciated for being highly competent at older styles that were then going out of fashion.

Julian Abele was the chief designer from 1909 to 1938 for the Philadelphia high-society architect Horace Trumbauer, who built mansions for robber barons. Abele is said to have contributed to the design of 400 buildings, many of them large and famous, such as Harvard’s Widener Library. He appears to be the primary designer of Duke University’s spectacular West campus, although the only building the modest Abele claimed credit for during his lifetime was the towering Duke Chapel in the Collegiate Gothic style.

The lavish designs of Trumbauer-Abele were criticized by the ascendant modernist architects and critics for not being steel and glass boxes. Today, however, ambitious high school students lust after admission to campuses featuring their buildings.

Another black architect with a remarkable career was Paul Revere Williams, who in mid-20th-century Southern California built homes for countless Hollywood celebrities, such as Lucille Ball and Cary Grant. (Apparently not an expert at self-branding, Williams called himself Paul R. Williams, but I find the name Paul Revere Williams more memorable, so that’s what I call him.)

Williams was long written out of the orthodox history of Southern California architecture, which was dominated by opinionated European modernist immigrants like Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra, because his style was so eclectic. Williams was the anti–Howard Roark of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. He believed that his clients, many of them world-famous creative entertainers, deserved what they wanted. So if they dreamt of a Spanish Colonial retro fantasy house, he’d build that. But if they wanted futuristic Googie, he’d be happy to oblige as well.

Or, if the client wasn’t visually oriented, Williams would fill in the style for him. Thus, when Frank Sinatra asked him in the mid-1950s to build him a house in which the architecture was subordinated to perfect acoustics for Frank’s hi-fi, and also that the doors would open with push buttons—the kind of request that would outrage more legendary architects—Williams came up with a Japanese Modern design that impressed Sinatra’s Rat Pack pals as appropriately cool.

So, history doesn’t much suggest that African-Americans are likely to suddenly invent brilliant new architectural styles.

But that’s not so bad. Unlike with music, in which new genres add excitement to the lives of people from about age 12 to 30 (while us oldsters don’t have to listen to them), novel building designs force innocent bystanders to look at them.

The world probably has had just about enough architectural styles already. As Philip K. Dick might have said, “Architectural fads are that which, when you stop enjoying them, don’t go away.”


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