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Feature: Roberta Washington, FAIA, Makes A Place

Roberta Washington, FAIA, has been principal of Roberta Washington Architects, PC since 1983. Prior to starting her own firm, Ms. Washington worked as a health facility planner/designer for various New York City architectural firms and later ran a design studio for Maputo Province in Mozambique where she designed healthcare, educational and cultural projects. Beginnings – what attracted you to architecture and how did you begin your career? Was there an influential experience or mentor that helped steer you towards this field?
Roberta Washington Architects, PC

Photo Credit: BWAFArchive

As a child I was attracted to drawing and art. In school, art was my favorite subject. When I was in the eighth grade, we had an English class assignment to interview three people who had occupations that we might want to pursue. I had thought I would become an artist but I had a fast reality check with one of my teachers who convinced me that becoming an artist was difficult - but if you were black and female, it was all the more improbable. To be practical, I probably wanted to think about becoming an art teacher, I was told. I interviewed my art teacher. But I needed two more occupations to complete the assignment.  I interviewed my Mom who worked at a hospital (in which I had no interest) and my mom suggested that I interview a new neighbor who was renting a house next door to us for a year. He was an architect who was teaching at North Carolina’s historically black A & T College (which since became a university). Mr. Gray talked about how architecture expanded on art to create spaces and structures that could comfort the body, soothe the soul and stir the spirit. Architecture, he said, was problem-solving. Good architecture could improve people’s lives and their neighborhoods.  He made it all sound incredibly cooler than becoming an artist. I was hooked. From then on I had a name to describe what I really wanted to be in life. Architect. When I told my high school guidance counselor that I wanted to become an architect she tried to convince me that architecture was a highly improbable field for a black person to choose. But because I had met a black architect I was sure that it was possible.  Although I didn’t know it at the time, my chance meeting with Mr. Gray at the age of thirteen steered my life in a direction that I could not have imagined before. In the library I found a little AIA pamphlet “So You Want to Be an Architect” which I read and followed religiously. Until I entered college, I never encountered another architect. What does “architecture culture” signify to you, and how do you go about contributing to, and or changing, this culture? What are your hopes and dreams for the future of architecture and the built environment? Architecture Culture is the dynamic which expresses how people interact and relate in the world of architecture; capturing the hierarchies, approaches and principles adhered to in the community of practice. The architecture culture also highlights the inclusion and exclusions of the profession. At Howard University in the late 60s, my freshman architecture class of fifty had eight females. The architecture professors where black and white men and the visiting lecturers were mostly white men, but I was always sure that there were women out there somewhere.
1400 Fifth Avenue a 128 unit low and market rate income condominium at 116th Street and Fifth Avenue. Photo by Choi.

1400 Fifth Avenue a 128 unit at 116th Street and Fifth Avenue. Photo Credit: Choi

At Columbia University’s graduate school (where I studied Hospital and Health Facility Design) there were many more women studying. However, it was programs offered by AIA NYC that I met the first practicing women architects. In time I joined the Women’s Caucus at the AIA and the Alliance of Women in Architecture.  It was through friendships made in the AWA that I found a study partner for the ARE and got licensed. In 1983 I joined the short-lived Association of Black Women in Architecture which was started in NYC by a black woman named Garnett Covington who herself had only recently become licensed.  There I found myself in the company of 30 or so black women - all of whom were or wanted to become architects. In 1985, Howard University had a conference on black women in architecture; during which I first met Norma Sklarek, who in 1954 had become New York’s first licensed black female architect. Skarlek was like the reigning mother hen to us all.

In 1997 I learned of two black women who had been licensed as architects in Illinois in 1942 and 1949.  I immediately decided that I had to know more about these women – their lives and their work.  Thus began a search for information that would expose and explain the lives of Beverly Greene and Louise Harris Brown. Since then I have researched and written about Beverly Greene who may have been the first black architect to work for the Chicago Housing Authority, who moved to New York, received her third architectural degree in 1945 (this time from Columbia) and worked for both Edward Durrell Stone and Marcel Breuer. Louise Harris Brown who became interested in architecture in the first place because of Mies van der Rohe lectures she attended in 1939. Brown got a second degree in engineering and worked designing the structural systems for two of Mies Van der Rohe’s best known Chicago buildings before establishing her own architectural practice in Brazil.

Louise Harris Brown in the office of Frank J. Kornacker in 1949. Photo Credit: Sarah Brown

Louise Harris Brown in office of Frank J. Kornacker 1949. Photo Credit: Sarah Brown

[Editors Note: For more information on Brown's career, visit the Collection and Built By Women.] Their lives were determined and complex and deserve to be known along with those of other early women in the profession. So in addition to trying to establish a place for myself in architecture, I've wanted to ensure that the legacies of blacks and women alike are not lost.  Concurrent with my practice, which I started in 1983, I've been building my own archive of pioneering black women in the profession.  Through my research I endeavor to "make a place" for these oft unheralded trailblazers, and envision publishing the fruits of my labor of love at some point soon.  Perhaps knowledge of blacks and women in the profession can alter the prevailing architecture culture. Advice for someone interested in entering an architecture-related field?
Grimes Elementary School in Mt. Vernon New York. Photo by Mark Valentine

Grimes Elementary School in Mt. Vernon New York. Photo Credit: Mark Valentine

By the time a person expresses a desire to become an architect they often have already decided that it is something that they must do. I would advise them to look at the different ways that one can be an architect. Whether it is designing in a large or small firm, a public agency or corporate realm,  or starting their own practice,  I ask them to explore ways to pursue their interest in a particular area: educational or health care projects, preservation, the next level of Green and sustainable design, interiors or one of the many other architecture-related fields which exist. Most recently,  young people with recent degrees have asked for advice on how to get  a job in architecture. A hard question with no easy answers. Favorite site, place, building? Why does this particular location speak to you? I’d have to say my favorite location is New York City where the choices and mixes of environment are incredible. In addition to being able to easily see what other architects are up to, there are other benefits as well. Want to commune with nature, go to the Botanical Gardens or Wave Hill. Want to have lunch by the sea, go to Battery Park City. Want to be transported to the past, visit one of the City’s many historic districts. Want serenity, go to the Cloisters. Want to lie in a meadow, visit Central Park. Want to watch the world past you by, go sit on the red steps at Time Squares’ TKTS. For more information on Roberta Washington Architects, PC, visit: http://www.robertawashington.com/

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