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The lives of unsung black architects highlight the profession’s shameful lack of diversity

Catherine Slessor
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Few people will have heard of Henry Wilcots. Yet Wilcots, a distinguished African-American architect, was one of Louis Kahn’s closest collaborators, writes Catherine Slessor

Wilcots worked on the National Assembly in Dhaka for 20 years. After Kahn’s death in 1974, he was responsible for completing the project. He is still regarded as the pre-eminent authority on its architecture, and is regularly consulted on it by the Bangladeshi Government. 

Wilcots first encountered Kahn in Dhaka in 1963, when designing military buildings for an American contractor. As a young black architect, he calculated it would be easier to get a job overseas than in the USA, and found himself living in a hotel frequented by American expats. In a recent interview with Inga Saffron, architecture critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Wilcots recalls Kahn knocking on his door to ask whether he had any gin so he could brush his teeth.

Wilcots 2

Wilcots 2

He ended up working for Kahn in Philadelphia, enduring 27-hour journeys between the USA and Pakistan to supervise construction of the National Assembly. Naturally, the office revolved around the centrifugal force of Kahn but, as an implicitly trusted lieutenant, Wilcots became something of a ‘Kahn whisperer’. His calm, stoical demeanour – he had served in the Marines during the Korean War – acted as a foil to the notoriously mercurial Kahn.

The narrative of unsung collaborators is a familiar one and, to be sure, there is an alternative history of architecture that could be written by those doughty helpmates under the radar, just out of shot, who patiently facilitate the whims of ‘genius’, then melt into the shadows.

But, more profoundly, the arc of Wilcots’ life and work also spans the era of segregation and America’s emerging civil rights movement, which underscored his struggle to succeed in a profession imperiously dominated by white men. When Wilcots moved to Philadelphia in the mid-’60s, the city was still viscerally segregated along racial lines.

The posthumous award of this year’s AIA Gold Medal to Paul Williams throws the historic experience of African-American architects into even more stark relief. Williams, who died in 1980, aged 85, was the first black architect to be admitted to the AIA in 1923. Best known for his LAX Theme Building, a flying saucer poised on concrete parabolas at Los Angeles airport, Williams bestrode five decades of practice with aplomb.

He was equally at home with social projects as he was designing houses for California’s beau monde. His stellar clientele included Frank Sinatra, Barbara Stanwyck and Lucille Ball. Yet he routinely experienced institutional and casual racism. He perfected the skill of drawing upside down, so that his white clients, who might be discomfited sitting next to a black architect, could see the drawings rendered the right way up when sat across the table from him.

At this point, it’s usually time to exhale and reflect on the distance travelled, on how things have changed and continue to do so. And, of course, they have and they do, but the ascension of an American president on the back of a vile, white suprematist agenda has dire echoes of the Jim Crow era.

The profession is still undermined in its responsibility to reflect the society it serves by its chronic and shameful lack of diversity

Within the specific milieu of architecture, both in the USA and the UK, the profession is still undermined in its responsibility to reflect the society it serves by its chronic and shameful lack of diversity. According to the AIA, African-American architects account for only 2 per cent of the national total.

In Kahn’s Philadelphia there are only a handful of black architects currently working in the city. While it’s easy to say that genuine structural change takes time, clearly more needs to be done. Shorter, cheaper architecture courses, more visible role models and a reconnection with social purpose to reframe the discipline would be a start. 

And it should not need saying that the past, now being terrifyingly reprised in Trump’s toxic America, has no place in the present.

This article appeared in the Brits abroad issue

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