Historically speaking, marginalized people face obstacle after obstacle within life and in their path towards a career. Many arts-based jobs are held by white people, and often, history over-represents non-marginalized people. In an effort to highlight the work currently happening by Black movers and shakers, ArtsHelp.net contributing writer Benjamin Krudwig, spoke with architect Tom Reynolds about the state of Black architects in America.
Tom, the son of Jamaican immigrants, has been in the architecture industry since 2002 when he began at NJIT. He currently runs his own practice, Green Stories LLC, in New Jersey. In 2021, Tom began a series on TikTok to help educate others on Black Architects.
What did your journey within the architecture industry look like?
Tom Reynolds: My journey started when I was attempting to figure out what I wanted to study in college. I knew I liked things around engineering, computer science, music and recently was introduced formally to architecture. I knew it was a difficult profession but was not sure what to expect of it. I chose a few colleges that had engineering, computer science and architecture with the understanding that if architecture didn't work, I could switch to one of the others.
After my first semester, I was in love. That summer, I reached out to a number of local firms looking for an internship opportunity, and I heard back with an email that simply said "Tom Reynolds, Troop 12 Montclair? Come in, I'll find a spot for you." It happened to be the father of my old patrol leader in Boy Scouts, and we worked together for 9 years.
You have used your TikTok platform to educate others on architecture in general, but also to elevate the voices of other Black architects around the United States. What inspired you to start this series?
I started the Black Architect Series as a way to showcase other black architects. It has become way too common to hear that someone couldn't find black architects. I know the numbers are low statistically, but I also know that I spend a fair amount of time with black architects, so how do I get the word out about them. I reached out to a number of black architects in NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) and was excited so many were willing to participate.
Black Americans face a disproportionate amount of discrimination in most fields, in your experience, how does this inequity translate in architecture?
I think to understand the inequity in architecture, you have to understand first how disconnected architecture is from the black community. Generally speaking, most people choose a career based on the access to it through either people they know, or the media. There are less than 3000 black architects, of which 500 are black women. Most black architects do not meet another black architect until they are in the practice.
Architecture as a profession is usually one reserved for people with the means to hire an architect, design and build an addition to their house or more. And that often is not our community. Yet the direct impact on our community is very real. Even if you love watching HGTV house flipping shows, very often, the architect is not included or mentioned. Very rarely you'll hear about the engineer when it comes to sizing a load-bearing beam, but that is about it.
Black people have been kept out of the profession for a while. Cap Wigington is one of the first registered black architects in the county and that was in the time of my grandfather. At the same time, places like NJ, where I live, were making it difficult for architects like Edward Bowser to receive their license.
My experience has been slightly different because the schools I have gone to, NJIT sits in the heart of Newark, NJ. Though the number of black faculty was not much, there was a connection I had and built with the city. And the Academy of Arts University is actively working on changing the curriculum from a Euro-centric curriculum to an inclusive architecture curriculum. But the journey is not easy, 5 years (minimum) of schooling, a minimum of 3 years of an internship, and then 6 separate tests (minimum) before you can apply to the state you're seeking licensure from.
That process is a long time to wait before you can call yourself an Architect. Additionally, the pay is not great for drafters and designers working on the process. On top of that, current studies are showing that even though the role of architect is rather protected from outsourcing and digitalization, the jobs that train an architect are not. Changing the inequity will require a significant shift in the profession.
Can you recall a time in which you faced discrimination in your industry?
The experience I have had way too often is dealing with subcode officials asking "I need to speak with the architect." followed by a very condescending "you are the architect?" I try not to take comments like that personally, but that is enough to throw one's day off. I think one of the other experiences I have had too often is the police being called as I enter a vacant property my client owns, having to explain to the police that I am the architect hired to do work on a property.
In your opinion, what do you think needs to be done in order to achieve more equality within the architectural community?
I think there are 3 steps that need to be taken.
1 - Access to the profession. The professional organizations need to actively incorporate their outreach programs in underserved communities.
2 - Access to education. There needs to be more effort made to reduce the cost for the extended education process.
3 - Easier route to licensure. I will admit, for years I was generally against easing the licensure process, but then I look at engineers, lawyers, and others given the public trust. Almost all have a single or 2 part test. The bulk of the learning and understanding in architecture is through doing. I often look at my first project (which I will never admit was mine) and think, that was terrible. But I constantly work to do more, learn more, and provide a higher quality of product.
I believe that programs like IPAL (Integrated Path to Architecture Licensure) are good first steps to making the profession more accessible. I think states like New York and California recognize that school is not the only way to learn how to be an architect, and provide alternative paths to licensure, but the shorter we can make the gap from graduation to licensure, the better. Every state has a continuing education requirement, and every architect I know is looking for more ways to provide a better product.
History has a tendency to be whitewashed, and the voices of marginalized people diminished and often erased. Do you have any favorite black architects that people may or may not have heard about?
Van Bruner is one of my favorite black architects. His commitment to mentorship and education was inspiring. I have watched him excite a group of teenagers about architecture in a way I don't think I have seen other people do.
Do you have any advice for young black architecture students just getting their start?
If you have a passion for the profession, don't give up. And find a mentor. The more the merrier, that community you build will be invaluable throughout the licensure and professional practice.
Also, get some sleep. There's nothing glorious about an all-nighter. It's not a badge of honor.
Is there anything cool happening within the Black architectural world right now?
If enough people can get vaccinated, this year Detroit will host the 50th anniversary conference of the National Organization of Minority Architects. I think that is awesome. It is inspiring to be in a room of so many black architects.
Is there anything else you want to add?
I'd like to add that there is space for all sorts of designers in architecture. If you find yourself unable to create the quality of design you aspire to, work on the technical skills like code research and programming. If you are a strong designer, focus on that. There are so many avenues to take in the profession that you don't need to beat yourself up because your renderings are not as good as someone else's. I made the most money in my career with the least effort in space planning, which is basically figuring out how to fit the most amount of program in the smallest amount of space.
Lastly, you only need a C. If you hate a course, do what you need to get that C and move on. There is nothing more wasteful than taking a class twice when all you needed to do was the bare minimum. No one is looking at your transcripts after you graduate. They only want to know if you're licensed or not.