Washington has always had more black architects than other American cities. Their contribution is shown in a photographic exhibition organized by historian Harrison Mosley Ethridge and entitled "The Black Architects of Washington, 1875-1980 -- Designing for the Nation's Capital." It attracted much attention at the American Institute of Architects Building this past month and will be on display at the Martin Luther King Library during February, 1981.
Until the riots of 1968, black architects worked almost exclusively in their own community, doing mostly additions and remodeling jobs. The first important black-designed structure is the buoyant St. Luke's Church at 15th and Church street NW, built in 1877. The architect is Calvin Brent.
Another well-known, 19th-century black architect, J. A. Lankford, advertised making plans "from rough sketches and verbal descriptions" for black communities all over the country. He also designed the "Negro Building," which displayed black progress at the Jamestown Exhibition of 1907 at Norfolk, Va.
But it was not until the New Deal that the federal government gave black design professionals a real opportunity. The result is some handsome public housing projects here and elsewhere in the country. The exhibit shows Langston Terrace at Benning Road and 25th Street NE, which Lewis Mumford, the famous historian and architecture critic, singled out in The New Yorker magazine as particularly "vigorous and positive work . . . [that] sets a high standard of exterior design, and the use of sculpture against the flat walls of the building . . . looks better than the best modern work in Hamburg and Vienna that I can recall . . ." It was designed by Hilyard R. Robinson, a pioneer of public housing, who also did the assertive art deco relief sculpture.
"On his extensive travels through Europe, Robinson met Mies der Rohe and LeCorbusier before many people here had even heard of them," Ethridge recalled. "I am sure he is going to be known as one of the more important American architects of our time."
As the black slums smolkered after the assissination of Martion Luther King, Robert J. Nash, a prominent black architect, wrote in the Journal of the American Institute of Architects: "Whites have to understand that any role they play in rebuilding and planning for black ghettos has to be defined by black people! Whites can articipate, but no longer at the leadership or decision-making levels to which they are so accustomed."
Whites understood and the number of black architects and the importance of their commissions increased somewhat. There are now some 30 minority architectural firms in Washington, designing buildings all over the country and abroad, sometimes in "joint ventures" with white firms.
The exhibition shows some of these buildings. They have gotten bigger and worse, but no worse than anyone else's. Nor do any of these buildings show any ethnic characteristics. How could they? There is and should be no "black" architecture outside the culture and climate of Africa.
It has now become a truism that the melting pot is a myth. It seldom melted and is only right and important in a pluralistic society that individuals held on to their racial, ethnic and cultural identity. We don't want to be all alike.
Architecture, however, is something else again. Buildings must be designed to meet the physical and psychological requirements of their users. Their design is further determined by the climate, the topography, the available materials and the man-made surroundings in which they are built.
All of this differs in different parts of this country. It differs drastically from Africa.
There are many capable and often interesting black architects, however. This exhibition -- sponsored by the D.C. Council of Black Architects and partially funded by the D.C. Community Humanities Commission -- at last recognizes their contribution.