Architecture and Advocacy: An Interview with Robert T. Coles, FAIA
When Robert T. Coles (B.A. ’51, Architecture; B.Arch ’53) was in high school, a teacher discouraged him from pursuing a career in architecture, telling him that “there are no black architects.” But Coles was undeterred. Instead, the young design student resolved to not only become an architect but one of the best.
In this interview, Coles discusses his journey to becoming a decorated architect, the importance of advocating for social justice, and his new memoir, Architecture + Advocacy.
You’ve had a very successful and long career. How has the architecture industry changed over the course of your career? What has stayed the same?
“The architecture field has changed radically since I became a registered architect in 1960. The computer has led to that radical change. We no longer draw our designs by hand but use the computer to input our designs, producing an electronic output. These electronic designs have widespread uses and can be sent everywhere. Renderings are now developed using computers as well. What has stayed the same is that an architect must still secure a client, who will challenge you to produce a design that satisfies his or her needs.”
How can architects become agents for social justice?
“Architects can become agents for social justice by becoming involved in their communities and encouraging their colleagues to also become involved. A vehicle to facilitate this is a community design center, where architects assist community groups with developing projects that they lack the resources and technical expertise to develop themselves. A number of community design centers have had successful records, including the Architects Renewal Committee in Harlem, the Architects Assistance Committee in Philadelphia, the New Mexico Design Center, and the Community Planning Assistance Center of Western New York in my hometown of Buffalo.”
What advice do you have for increasing diversity within the architecture community?
“I once spoke to an elementary school class and when the teacher introduced me the students couldn’t believe I could be an architect. My second-year high school teacher had tried to discourage me from entering architecture by telling me that “… there are no black architects.” Diversity in architecture can be increased by encouraging students to pursue whatever interests they have. Professors also need to nurture young people as they pursue their careers in architecture.”
Tell us about a favorite project that you’ve worked on.
“I have two favorite projects: the first project is the John F. Kennedy Recreation Center, completed in 1963. The second project is the Frank Merriweather Library, completed in 1995. Both projects were commissioned by the city of Buffalo. The JFK Center was my first advocacy project, resulting from conversations with the director of the community center I attended, which was being urban-renewed out of existence. Designing a recreation center had been the subject of my master’s thesis at MIT, and I was subsequently selected to design the JFK Center. Designed using concrete and precast concrete to withstand use in an urban setting, it was selected by local architects as one of the best-designed buildings in Buffalo of all time.
The Merriweather library’s board of directors wanted a building that reflected the African-American community in which the library was located. I designed the library like an African village, where houses are connected to each other; in the library, each function is housed in a separate, interconnecting room.”
What do you hope readers will learn from your story?
“Mine is an example of a person finding an interest and pursuing it with a passion, regardless of the obstacles put in the way. Although my high school teacher had tried to discourage me, I did not let that deter me. As the only African-American out of 250 students at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture, I did not let the faculty discourage me from pursuing my goal. A few years later, in 1955, I was the first African-American to win the prestigious Rotch Travelling Scholarship awarded by the Boston Society of Architects. That convinced me that I had the talent and the education necessary to succeed as an architect. Despite all the obstacles I encountered during my career, I stayed resolute and never gave up.”
What advice do you have for minority students interested in pursuing a career in architecture?
“The education of an architect is a long journey, requiring at least six years of college, followed by an internship of at least three years, perhaps lasting as long as nine or 10 years in total. Early in that journey, consider interfacing with the profession, perhaps between getting your bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Another approach would be to attend a school that offers a work-study program. This will allow you to have alternate experiences, both in academia and the profession. There are a number of programs available at colleges that can be investigated. As an example, I taught at the Boston Architectural Center for two years. Stay flexible and keep your options open.”
Learn more about Coles’ fascinating story in his recent release Architecture + Advocacy.
Photo of Robert T. Coles by David R. Gordon.