Blueprint of a Life
Architect J. Max Bond Jr. Has Had to Build Bridges to Reach Ground Zero
By Lynne Duke
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 1, 2004; Page C01
He's 68, white-haired and exudes a comfortable-in-my-own-skin kind of dignity. J. Max Bond Jr. is kind of courtly, too, especially wearing an elegant suit and tie as he stands in the cavernous marble and glass lobby of One Liberty Plaza across the street from the World Trade Center site.
Bond is meeting Michael Arad there. The men, both architects, are to be photographed. But when Arad, 34, arrives, he takes one look at Bond and fears a faux pas.
Arad isn't wearing a tie. It seems a small thing. But to Arad, it is wrong. He had spoken respectfully of Bond some days earlier, had called him "accomplished" and a "gentleman." So Arad is quite serious about appearing appropriately attired with his architectural elder. He halts the photo shoot.
"You don't need a tie," Bond tells him reassuringly.
Bond wants to get moving. They've got a whole room filled with architecture and planning officials waiting for them upstairs. But Arad insists.
Pulling a tie from his suit pocket and slinging it around his neck, Arad protests that it's "a sign of respect."
"But we're supposed to reflect the difference: You're young and I'm old," Bond says with a laugh, as Arad turns his back to the camera and struggles with the tie.
Then he turns to Bond for inspection.
"Looks great," Bond says jovially, checking Arad's handiwork. "Very good, very good."
The two men face the camera, offering a portrait that is unprecedented. For the first time in the redevelopment of the trade center site, an African American is a major player.
While Arad is the lead architect on the World Trade Center memorial project, it is Bond's firm that will make Arad's design, "Reflecting Absence," a reality. Davis Brody Bond has been selected by the Lower Manhattan Development Corp. as the associate architects who will flesh out and complete the Arad design. And Bond is leading that team.
The contrasts between the two men begin with experience. In a turn of fate similar to the youthful Maya Lin's emergence in the 1980s as the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Israeli-born Arad was a virtual unknown in his field, toiling away within a New York City agency. He designed police stations.
Bond's résumé is far more epic. A fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), he's been an architecture educator as well as practitioner.
He's designed a memorial (the Martin Luther King Jr. crypt and memorial in Atlanta, for instance) and office buildings and libraries and university research facilities. He's designed in Ghana and Zimbabwe, too. He and his firm did designs for the old World Trade Center's plazas and concourses. In his early years, while in Paris just after finishing graduate school at Harvard, he worked on buildings designed by the famed Swiss-born French designer Le Corbusier, who conceived the buildings of the United Nations.
And the fact that Bond is black makes him a contrast not only with Arad but with the whole crowd of architects and planners and developers who've been steering the trade center redevelopment process. With the inclusion of Bond (and Richard Franklin, another African American colleague from his firm), the white male club at Ground Zero has been integrated.
It is the story of Bond's life.
A Lecture Ignored
At Harvard, those many years ago (not long after a cross-burning incident outside Bond's dorm), a friendly white professor took him aside to offer some advice: Forget it.
"There have never been any famous, prominent black architects," Bond recalls the professor saying. "You'd be wise to choose another profession."
Even in retelling it for the umpteenth time, Bond looks stunned at the patronizing gall.
"He thought he was being helpful," he says.
It did not matter to the professor, or perhaps he did not know, that a classical architect named Julian Abele, who was black, had designed the main Harvard library. And Bond knew Hilyard Robinson, the low-key modernist whose Langston Terrace Dwellings, built in 1937 on Benning Road in Northeast Washington, would ultimately be put on the National Register of Historic Places.
And had the professor been paying attention to the doings out west, he might have heard of Paul Williams, the flashy Los Angeles architect whose clients included Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra. (Bond spent a summer working for Williams, even handled the tiling project inside Sinatra's house.)
So Bond knew it was possible to practice architecture. He persevered. He earned both his bachelor's and master's degrees in the field, becoming one of the scant few such men (or women) of color in his profession.
That is why, say observers, his new role in the trade center project is noteworthy, considering that architecture, even today, remains highly exclusive.
Dreck Wilson, a building official for the D.C. government and author of "African American Architects: A Biographical Dictionary, 1865-1945," describes Bond's new role as representative of "the mainstream acceptance of black architects, black designers."
If that is true, the numbers don't reflect it. Only 1 1/2 percent of the nation's licensed architects are black, says Dennis Mann, architecture professor at the University of Cincinnati and co-editor of the online Directory of African American Architects (blackarch.uc.edu). The National Organization of Minority Architects agrees with Mann. The AIA says it does not keep racial statistics.
Of Davis Brody Bond's 59 architects, about half are minority, says Bond, which makes the firm quite an anomaly in the field.
Mann calls Bond "one of the finest designers in the country."
That hasn't kept him from his share of controversy. Bond's design for an expansion of the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan caused a firestorm among some Harvard alumni. Traditionalists wanted the expansion to repeat the neo-Georgian style of the main building. Even though a club selection committee had approved the modernist glass building that would bring new meeting rooms, hotel accommodations and a gymnasium, opponents of the Bond design went to court to try to stop it.
Bond says the opposition was so intense that he wondered if there were unspoken undercurrents of race involved. Gender dynamics may also have been at play, he suggests, since part of the project included adding women's restrooms where once there had been none.
The dispute reached a head during a general Harvard Club membership meeting where the design was discussed and debated. It was "the ugliest [meeting] I've ever been to," he says now.
Lonnie Soury, a spokesman for the club, acknowledges the acrimony.
"There was a lot of nastiness out there," Soury says, referring to the dispute. The design became a battleground over the Harvard image.
But the court challenge failed. The new Harvard Club opened last fall.
Looking for a New York industry voice to sum up Bond's reputation, we find Frederic Bell. He's executive director of the AIA's New York chapter. But he's not quite objective, as it turns out. Bond was Bell's professor at Columbia University. Bell considers him a mentor.
"Max has been a hero not just for African American students -- and I'm not one -- but to many others," Bell says. "He's opened people's eyes not only to other people's worlds but also to the interconnection of the real world with the design world."
While teaching at Columbia, Bond sat on the city planning commission and designed in his private practice -- a heavy load for anyone. That is why Bell calls him "a renaissance man. He has excelled at everything he's ever done."
A genial man who is both genteel and informal in his manner, Bond has thrived as an architect, he says, because of "a lot of luck." But it is clear that mediocrity of any kind was unacceptable in the Bond family, where his father, an educator and university president, pushed him hard to achieve.
"We had a funny relationship," Bond says of his late father. "It was a good relationship particularly in terms of these high expectations. . . . But the difficult side is you're always expected to do better."
The Bonds, it seems, had made a tradition of plowing right through obstacles. At a time of deep segregation and racism, J. Max Bond Sr., for instance, earned his doctorate in sociology and economics in 1934 from the University of Southern California. And Bond's mother, Ruth Clement Bond (who turned 100 in May), majored in literature during undergraduate work at Northwestern University in Illinois.
The elder Bonds wanted their son to be a doctor. They even arranged for him to work as a hospital emergency room orderly in Louisville, the family's home town.
"The first time I saw an operation, I virtually fainted," Bond says.
He had found his own passion years earlier, when his parents lived in Tuskegee, Ala., where the elder Bond taught at Tuskegee Institute after a stint as a dean at Dillard University in New Orleans.
Something about campus buildings fascinated the young Bond, who lived in Tuskegee between the ages of 5 and 9. He watched a dormitory being built and wondered how it happened. The architectural bug had caught him.
He became especially enamored of the huge airplane hangars at a military complex next to the institute. That was the training base for the storied black pilots, the Tuskegee airmen.
A Site of Sorrow
Toward the east, a still life of gargantuan rooftop water towers stretches across Manhattan. That's one of the views from the 10th-floor offices of Davis Brody Bond.
To the west, one sees the Hudson River and the skyscrapers of New Jersey. North is the tangle of buildings low and high, old and new, that form an ever-changing, ever-evolving cityscape so thick that at night Bond says his office seems to float in a "bowl of lights."
Looking south is to remember what once stood there, a mile away, and what now is gone. Bond and all the others at his firm can see the absence.
Firm staffers stood at this south-facing window on Sept. 11, 2001, and watched the World Trade Center burn and collapse after the terror attacks.
Bond was up in Harlem that day, attending a meeting about the renovation of the Apollo Theater. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was in the same meeting. Bond learned that planes had struck the twin towers when he heard one of Rangel's aides come in and say something like, "Mr. Rangel, you have to get out of here."
One of the architects in Bond's firm lost his wife during the attack. And for months thereafter, Bond says, the firm kept that south-facing window covered so staffers would not have to see the haunting landscape of Lower Manhattan.
Remembering was difficult. What was gone seemed so ever present.
And that, really, is the essence of the memorial design. "Reflecting Absence" includes a vast, austere yet tree-studded plaza (to be designed by landscape architect Peter Walker) that will surround the architectural footprints of the old twin towers. Those footprints are to be preserved 30 feet below ground, where pedestrian visitors will reach them via ramps. In each void, a memorial fountain will flow down the walls and into pools surrounded by stone etched with the names of the dead from the 1993 and 2001 terror attacks.
Bond has worked with water. He has used it to evoke life and continuity. At the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, King's crypt is surrounded by a pool of water.
Bond also has grappled with ways to give space and respect to the site of an iconic tragedy. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute stands adjacent to the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four little black girls were killed in a 1963 bombing.
He has embraced Arad's design. Its power, he says, is in the serenity it evokes. And he is pleased that a young architect received the commission. With Bond's guidance, Arad says, his design will be "further clarified, as we take it from the broad strokes and work on the details."
Those details are daunting, considering that the memorial fountains are to run year round, meaning freezing has to be avoided; and considering that the treed plaza will dump tons of leaves on the site; and considering that the place will likely be jammed with tourists. The list of challenges goes on.
"There are lots of issues to be resolved," Bond says. "Our role is to take the design and develop it and carry it through. . . . Not to change the design, but to really implement it and make it work."
The ruins seemed to command the earth. They were Roman and grandiose.
The temples and theaters were stunning to see. Though decayed, they still towered over the Tunisian terrain near the town of Dougga. Some 20 centuries had passed since the Romans conquered the Numidians there, but Bond, visiting in 1960, still could feel ancient Rome's power.
It was, Bond says, the "architecture of conquest," of one culture asserting itself over another. And suddenly Bond was struck by something: Beyond pure aesthetics, architecture is about power, the power to transmit a culture's symbols, its politics.
That is why, he realized, "when one culture dominates another it brings its literature, its language, its religion and its architecture."
He didn't learn this in school. There had been no philosophical talk about power and conquest and architecture's role. In fact, Tunisia made him realize the limits of his formal studies. But what two Harvard degrees had not given him he would pick up on his own during that summer he calls "a great moment in my architectural development."
En route to study in France on a Fulbright scholarship, Bond, then 23, had stopped in Tunisia to visit his parents. After a foreign aid stint in Haiti, and three years as president of the University of Liberia, Bond Sr. by this time was administering overseas education programs for the State Department. The elder Bonds lived near Sidi bou Said, a quaint seaside village whose buildings were a stark contrast to the grand ruins of ancient times.
As he strolled the town's winding cobblestone lanes, Bond marveled at the gentle artistry of the whitewashed and blue-shuttered Arab homes, with their lush courtyards, that climbed the cliffs over the Mediterranean as if hugging the land.
He'd been taught that buildings such as those were only "vernacular" architecture. It was a term he often felt was used to marginalize the architecture of the Third World, which often was more functional than artistic, compared with the architecture of Europe and the United States.
He'd been taught that real architecture had its roots in the structures of the European classical era and that ancient ruins like those at Dougga were the source from which this architectural-cultural dogma grew.
"The European architecture was the only architecture that was 'high art,' and that was just accepted," Bond says of his formal training.
"So in Tunisia, one really begins to see, well, wait a minute: This really is not true."
On his strolls through Sidi bou Said, Bond came to see the lovely white stone houses as a form of high art in their own right. It was there, he says, that his aesthetic sensibility and his architectural philosophy were born.
Help Not Wanted
You can see Tunisia in the King Center -- in the columns and the barrel-vaulted roofs. You can also see the influence of Thomas Jefferson, Bond says, if you know about the curved walls that Jefferson used in his designs.
It is the kind of eclecticism that is Bond's trademark, though he acknowledges that the influence of Jefferson is perhaps odd, considering Jefferson's history on race.
The Africanist aesthetic that infuses Bond's modernism also can be seen in the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Its octagonal design evokes the influence of Africa in the earliest buildings built by slaves here in the United States, churches.
After Tunisia, Bond spent time studying Le Corbusier, Auguste Perret and other designers of religious buildings. Then, Le Corbusier's former studio chief, Andre Wogenscky, hired Bond to work on a couple of Le Corbusier's projects. He spoke to the great architect by phone, though he never actually met him.
"You don't get introduced to the big man," he says with a laugh of the year he worked in the famed architect's shadow.
As his time in Paris wound down, Bond sent letters to five architecture firms in the United States, seeking interviews. With his credentials and early experience, he received enthusiastic responses from all five. He made appointments.
At each firm, his arrival -- the black face behind the impressive qualifications -- stirred "this moment of confusion."
"Then somebody would come out and say, 'There must be some mistake. We don't have work.' "
Eventually, he did get work. But he was wiser, even hardened by the rejections, "another one of those rude awakenings."
Three years later, he and his wife, Jean Carey Bond, decided to move to the newly independent West African nation of Ghana, which at that time was filled with promise under President Kwame Nkrumah. Many young professional black Americans saw wide-open opportunities there that they would not find in the United States. And they were swept up in the belief that "we were going to help build a new African state," Bond says.
The Bonds lived there for four years, during which he worked for the national construction company. In effect, he says with a laugh, he became the "palace architect."
"I'd design it, and they'd build it."
The push was primarily for libraries, as part of Nkrumah's campaign to spread literacy throughout Ghana. Bond designed the Bolgatanga Library -- his first major project. And it remains, to this day, his favorite design. It is one story tall, with four separate buildings under an "umbrella"-style roof, with ventilation occurring naturally through the open spaces between roof and walls.
The Bolgatanga, he says, is "the firstborn."
"As an architect, I sort of grew up in Ghana."
Returning to the United States, Bond established the Architect's Renewal Committee of Harlem. He taught at Columbia University and served as dean for a time for the school of architecture at the City University of New York. He also co-founded the firm of Ryder Bond and Associates, which merged in 1990 with the firm of Davis Brody & Associates.
The Best Revenge
His father died in 1991. There was the grief, and there was the taking stock. Bond began to consider his state of mind. He began to ponder bitterness.
His father wasn't the worst example, he says, but many of the African American men he knew in his father's generation were gripped by bitterness because of the limitations that racism had placed on their lives. He saw men being squeezed by their bitterness, almost debilitated by it.
Obviously, racism had impacted his life. And the battle against it was part of the Bond family's daily life. (One of Bond's cousins, by the way, is Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP.)
But the younger Bond did not want to fall into a private hell of "If I were white" and fill in the blanks: The jobs would have opened up; his work would have been published more, causing more work to come. All that may be true, he says, but it gets nowhere to wallow in the hypothetical.
"I would argue that, yes, maybe if I'd been white I'd have done this and that," he says. "But on the other hand, I never wanted to be white. I always felt I was fortunate to be black" and thus have a broader frame of reference on the world.
He has tried to work through his own bitterness, with his wife's help. (He calls her "my best friend." She is a publicist for the Black Radical Congress, a national group of activists and academics.) But a spark of it is there.
He is asked if he holds a grudge against those five unnamed firms that refused even to interview him once they saw he was black. He smiles slyly and dramatically hisses, "Yessss." The sting of those rejections is still there.
Yet he is careful not to name the firms now. He doesn't want to pick a fight or cause a stir. Some of those big names are still prominent. So is Bond. And that, for him, is the victory.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company