by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
Julian F. Abele. Paul Revere Williams. Beverly Loraine Greene. And the one who started it all, Dr. Robert Robinson Taylor.
The aforementioned are some of the more notable trailblazers that “laid the foundation” for African Americans to explore architecture as a profession. And today, you can find a Black architect in pretty much every state in America. The problem is, overall, there are very few licensed Black architects in this country (1.5 percent), when compared to Whites and even Asians.
Here in the Pittsburgh area, 28-year-old Christian Hughes is not only on a path to becoming a licensed architect, but he’s opening the eyes of little ones to see that, they, too, can one day be an architect.
Through his company, Drafting Dreams, Hughes teaches local students from Kindergarten to twelfth grade the principles of architecture and urban design via creative design exercises and a design-oriented curriculum. And this past Sunday, March 8, he held a brunch at Arnold’s Tea on the North Side to celebrate the launch of his new book, “28 Black Architects in 28 Days.”
In an exclusive interview with the New Pittsburgh Courier, Hughes said the original idea behind the book came from a bet bestowed upon him by a former roommate, Samuel Sanders, whom he met while the two were in an architecture fellowship program at Carnegie Mellon University in 2014.
Months prior, Hughes had just graduated from Hampton University in Virginia, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in architecture. Sanders, who did not attend a Historically Black College, told Hughes that Black architects were in such short supply—so much so that Hughes wouldn’t be able to mention five Black architects off the top of his head. But to Sanders’ surprise, Hughes rattled off close to 20 names of Black architects he knew throughout the country, attributed much to his association with Hampton, a prominent HBCU, and NOMA, the National Association of Minority Architects.
In February 2015, Hughes, firmly entrenched in Pittsburgh by then, decided to post on his social media a different Black architect for each day during Black History Month. He did the same in 2016, 2017 and 2018, before deciding to publish a book, in which people could have in their home collection the names and profiles of Black architects, a profession that has such high earning potential, but a field in which many Blacks do not enter.
March 8 was the culmination of the hard work— “28 Black Architects in 28 Days” is now available. It’s a book that parents could gift for their aspiring children. Or, it could be for the adult who is looking to be inspired to head into a profession that doesn’t have the greatest diversity statistics.
And even though NOMA (which has a branch in Pittsburgh) aims to provide African American architects with a space to gather, fellowship and uplift, data on the architecture profession are hard to swallow.
In a 2015 report entitled, “Diversity in the Profession of Architecture” by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the reasons fellow architects gave for the lack of minority representation in the field were: people of color, especially those from inner cities, may have difficulty affording the costs associated with a degree in architecture; There are few role models for people of color in architecture; To help support their families, first- or second-generation college students and their parents may be predisposed towards other careers with greater earning potential, and; Minority students have little knowledge of architecture as a career option.
The same report revealed that people of color leave the field because they are dissatisfied with their professional growth. Additionally, the report said, “men of color, compared to White men…leave because of a lack of recognition for the work they do and compensation as compared to others.”
However, one can make good money in the architecture profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics from 2017, architects made $88,860 on average across the country. The average salary varies by state. In New York state, an architect earns $109,520, tops in the country, followed by Massachusetts, Texas, Arizona and California. Bringing up the rear are Utah ($67,540) and Arkansas ($69,470). In Pennsylvania, an architect earns $79,440 on average.
The publication All About Architecture defines architecture as “the profession of designing buildings, open areas, communities, and other artificial constructions and environments, usually with some regard to aesthetic effect. Architecture often includes design or selection of furnishings and decorations, supervision of construction work, and the examination, restoration, or remodeling of existing buildings.”
Pittsburgh has unique architecture, so much so that the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation in 2011 compiled a list of the top five buildings for architecture in Pittsburgh. They include: the Victorian-style homes in Allegheny West on the North Side, which includes Calvary United Methodist Church; The Carnegie Library and Institute in Oakland along Forbes Avenue; The University of Pittsburgh’s Cathedral of Learning; the homes lining Woodland Avenue in Shadyside, and; Duquesne University’s Richard King Mellon Hall. Other masterpieces include the PPG Place Building, Downtown, and the old Allegheny County Courthouse.
When asked to name the current notable African American architects in the Pittsburgh area, Hughes named: “Gerrod Winston, Milton Ogot, Marvin Miller, and Howard Graves.” They are all licensed architects, which is different from Hughes’ current designation: graduate architect.
A former design associate with Moon Township-based Michael Baker International, LLC, Hughes, a Detroit native, told the Courier he’s taken and passed the first (construction) of six parts of the Architect Registration Exam. If all goes as planned, he hopes to take and pass the remaining parts of the independent study exam by the end of this year.
Right now, he contracts with licensed architects to collaborate on projects that he’s currently working on, including: The renovation of an old warehouse in Polish Hill into a commercial space; Creating a residential garage on the North Side, and; Constructing townhomes in Morningside.
But overall, is there enough work for Black architects to prosper in Pittsburgh? Hughes, with a smile, told the Courier: “There’s work everywhere.”
And Hughes’ plan is to make sure that he gets that work, while inspiring the next generation of Black architects.
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: HAMPTON UNIVERSITY GRADUATE CHRISTIAN HUGHES has launched a book profiling 28 Black architects across the country, to educate and inspire future generations of African Americans in architecture. – Photo by Rob Taylor Jr.)