National exhibition on activist history in architecture makes stop in Buffalo

Developing students through community engagement

Visitors to "Now What?!" are invited to add local stories to the 50-year timeline that's documented in the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 7 in Hayes Hall. Photo: Yifan He.

Visitors to "Now What?!" are invited to add local stories to the 50-year timeline that's documented in the exhibit, which runs through Aug. 7 in Hayes Hall. Photo: Yifan He

by Rachel Teaman

Published June 12, 2019

“This exhibition encourages students, faculty and the larger community to take note of the past and be inspired through knowledge building and advocacy in the field.”
Julia Jamrozik, assistant professor
Department of Architecture

An exhibition that will travel across the country over the next two years to reveal the little-known history of architects as activists for social justice has landed in Buffalo.

“Now What?! Advocacy, Activism & Alliances in American Architecture since 1968” documents the often-overlooked history of the architecture and design community as part of larger social and political movements over the last 50 years.

Free and open to the public, the exhibit is on view from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday in the Hayes Hall Atrium Gallery, UB South Campus, through Aug. 7.

The exhibition is sponsored by ArchiteXX, a nonprofit advocacy organization for gender equity in architecture, and curated by Lori Brown of the Syracuse University School of Architecture; Andrea Merrett of Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Sarah Rafson of Point Line Projects; and Roberta Washington, head of one of the only U.S. architecture firms led by an African-American woman.

Through a detailed historical timeline, video documentation, books and publications, “Now What?!” considers design as a tool for civic advocacy while chronicling shifts in the profession and education toward more equitable representation of women, people of color and diverse genders.

Interactive timeline notes milestones

Photo by Yifan He.

Photo by Yifan He

Among the events and milestones highlighted on the interactive timeline:

  • 1968: The convention of the American Institute of Architects, when National Urban League director Whitney Young called out the profession for its complacent and “thunderous silence” on issues of social responsibility, and its glaring lack of diversity.
  • 1969: The Architects Resistance was organized by students from universities across the Northeast to push for social responsibility in the profession.
  • 1971: The National Organization of Minority Architects was formed by 12 black architects who were motivated by the 1968 convention.
  • 1973: One of the first organizations of women architects – the National Organization for Women Architects and Designers – formed in San Francisco.
  • 1982: A group of black women architects organized the Association of Black Women in Architecture. At the time there were an estimated 16 licensed black women architects in the U.S. (There are 400 today.)
  • 1991: The now nationally active Organization of Lesbian and Gay Architects + Designers (OLGAD) formed in New York City as a political activist network, employment harassment support service and advocate for design contributions from LGBTQ architects and designers.
  • 2004: U.S. architects organized a Prison Design Boycott, in response to the incarceration and torture of alleged terrorists during the Iraq War.
  • 2015: Architect and design groups in the U.S., Australia and Germany organized #wikiD: Women, Wikipedia, Design, an international education and advocacy program working to increase the number of Wikipedia articles and writers about women in architecture and the built environment.

Buffalo, UB play a role

Photo by Yifan He.

Photo by Yifan He

Several stories presented in the exhibit celebrate people and programs developed in Buffalo.

They include: Robert T. Coles, FAIA, a groundbreaking architect and founder of the oldest African-American-owned firm in the Northeast; UB’s participation in the Architecture + Education program, organized by architecture professor Beth Tauke with the Buffalo Architecture Foundation, to integrate design education into Buffalo Public Schools; and “Beyond Patronage,” a project co-organized by UB architecture professors Joyce Hwang and Martha Bohm to consider models of advocacy-based practice.

Exhibition organizers say “Now What?!” speaks as much to today’s social and political climate – and its implications for the future – as it does to the past 50 years. Community members are encouraged to find their own place in the exhibition content.

Tables and chairs in the installation invite participants to discuss what they’ve learned, while Post-it notes are available to add local stories or overlooked information directly to the exhibit.

“The goal is to radically expand and diversify the historical record as the exhibition travels from community to community,” says Lori Brown, curator and leader of ArchiteXX. “The content fosters conversations and examples that will inspire a new generation of design professionals as agents of change.”

The Buffalo run of the exhibition, which opened earlier this spring with a lecture and reception with curators, was organized by UB’s School of Architecture and Planning.

Seeking inspiration through advocacy

Photo by Yifan He.

Robert T. Coles (pictured, with hat), a distinguished local architect who has played activist roles throughout his career, explores the exhibition earlier this spring. Photo by Yifan He

According to UB’s Julia Jamrozik, an assistant professor in the Department of Architecture who helped organize the exhibition in Hayes Hall: “Institutions, including our own, have an obligation to present not just the dominant version of architecture already celebrated and sanctioned but to contribute to a writing of broader, more inclusive and more critical histories of the discipline.”

“This exhibition encourages students, faculty and the larger community to take note of the past and be inspired through knowledge building and advocacy in the field,” Jamrozik added.

Courtney Vona, a UB Master of Architecture student who attended the exhibition opening, was moved by what she heard and read – particularly an account by Robert Coles (who gave a presentation on opening night with the curators), of the 1968 AIA convention.

“Hearing him say that there were only maybe eight black men in the room really put into perspective the complacency of the AIA. Then, walking through the timeline, I saw how things have changed since 1968,” said Vona, who was particularly interested in how the exhibit could be used to shift architectural curricula. “This exhibit is truly an amazing resource.”

“Now What?!” kicked off in May 2018 in New York City and has since traveled through San Francisco, Los Angeles, Montreal, and Geneva, New York. It will continue its national tour through at least 2020.

The exhibition’s digital archive is available at https://www.nowwhat-architexx.org/articlesall​.