Sharon Sutton got an Ivy League education at Columbia—spurred by insurgency—that helped her become a leading African-American architect today.
In April 1968, black Columbia University students took over five campus buildings during a week-long rebellion. Among those buildings was Avery Hall, where Columbia’s School of Architecture was located. This building also became the locus of black students’ demands that the architectural and urban-planning fields restructure their relationships with communities of color, and that Columbia reexamine its ownoccupancy of Harlem.
This story is captured in the new book When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story About Race in America’s Cities and Universities, written by Sharon E. Sutton, an African-American architect based in New York City. Sutton is founding director emerita of the University of Washington’s Center for Environment Education and Design Studies, and is herself a direct beneficiary of the student revolts at Columbia in 1968. She was recruited to Columbia’s architecture school as part of the fulfillment of student demands that the university increase the number of non-white students on campus.
Not only did the school recruit more students of color, but it also brought in more black and Latino faculty, while augmenting its curriculum and programming to better serve the needs of its Harlem neighbors. The students and faculty members behind the reformation were also able to capitalize on a generous $10 million grant from the Ford Foundation, which they used to build an “Urban Center” that focused on minority affairs. Such victories were short-lived, though. The university pulled the plug on the new endeavors in the early 1970s, spurred by the onset of economic malaise coupled with the rising power of President Richard Nixon.
It’s what Sutton calls the “arc of insurgency,” and that this social justice trajectory mirrors what’s happening today under Trump was not lost on her as she wrote this book. In fact, Sutton’s original book proposal was nothing like the end product. She initially sought to write a book that merely tracked the lives of her black and Latino colleagues who made it through the architecture school—which, thanks to that 1968 student revolt, ended up graduating more African-American licensed architects than any other university in America, save for HBCUs.
In your book, you discuss how Columbia graduated a significant number of black and Latino architects in the early 1970s, but then Nixon and economic depression hit and there was suddenly no work for them. It reminds me of the story of Soul City, North Carolina.
I graduated in 1973, which was the year of the oil embargo, but I had a job at an interior design firm. One of my Columbia professors hired me to work on the Avery Hall extension, but in 1974 I became unemployed. So, I had to start trying to figure out my life, and that was when I decided I would take the [architecture license] registration exams, which was not something we ever discussed in school.
Wait, getting licensed never came up in the school of architecture?
The well-to-do students had networks and were getting what I call “executive education” because they were going to work in their fathers’ firms. The black students were getting “worker bee education” because we had to go up the ranks. Getting licensed was something that was taken care of for white students in other ways. It wasn’t part of what Columbia did traditionally.
[Columbia professors] were thinking at a higher level of training executives, not training people for entry level positions in which you go in and work your three years then get your license. They were thinking beyond that. For us, it was just an impractical education because of the upper- and middle-class students who typically went to the school. Getting licensed was never mentioned.
So being licensed now and a leader in your field, along with many other African-American architects, what surprised you the most when doing your research on that early-1970s era?
The students’ chutzpah in undertaking the transformation actually reaffirmed what I have long felt—that the hope for social change lies with young people. What surprised me was the degree of racism that maintains the status quo, which is what caused me to reorient the book from individual career case studies to an analysis of institutional transformation. Even though I have experienced racism throughout my life, often I don’t have proof of why something untoward has happened. In these cases, I saw it in black and white.
What do you want young architects of color today to take away from this book?
The capacity of young people to bring about change—that’s the message, that you have the power and the imagination. Young people have not been socialized into the status quo, and so they are willing to take risks that other people don’t.
Unfortunately, we’ve had, since the last election, a lot of young people saying, “Well, it’s not the way I want it to be, so I’m just not going to participate,” rather than saying, “Here’s how I am going to participate.” That’s what was so impressive about the insurrection at the Columbia University campus, and the reaction to it. What happened in the school of architecture, how the curriculum was rewritten, ....