US activist, academic and author Sharon Egretta Sutton is a trailblazer – the first African American woman to be promoted to full professor of architecture, the second to be elected a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects, and the first to be appointed president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board. In a fascinating long-form interview with Sarah Akigbogun, Sharon reflects on action and rebellion in the 1960s, the poisonous effects of income inequality, and the urgent need for disruption in architecture schools today.
Sarah Akigbogun is a London-based architect, educator and filmmaker. Sarah’s current film project is to tell the stories of Female Architects of Colour. This interview was conducted with Dr Sharon Egretta Sutton for this project.
Sarah Akigbogun: There was a lot happening when you began studying architecture – the Vietnam War, the death of Martin Luther King, the local race riots. The architecture school you attended at Columbia University sat within this context. What was it like to enter architecture at that moment?
Sharon Egretta Sutton: It wasn’t just the Vietnam War and the riots after the murder of Dr Martin Luther King; it was the entire civil rights struggle, which heated up in 1954 with the Supreme Court’s Brown versus Board of Education decision to desegregate schools and the ensuing struggle to actually achieve that.
In 1954, I would have been 13 years old, so I grew up surrounded by this struggle for liberation. The Civil Rights movement preceded the Vietnam War, but it affected the war and the war affected it. It started as non-violent resistance but became increasingly violent as young black males grew frustrated over the lack of progress. One of the indignities that added fuel to the decades-long movement was that black World War II veterans were subjected to racial terrorism at home after having fought in a segregated army to end this very problem overseas. Then during the Vietnam War, black soldiers were fodder for bullets because they were overrepresented in high-risk assignments, so of course they suffered unusually high casualties. That’s why Martin Luther King identified militarism as one of white America’s most evil habits.
So, it was a time of intense struggle for liberation and, of course, my life was very much a part of that struggle. I was a high school junior the year the nine high school juniors in Little Rock, Arkansas were trying to integrate the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. They were called “the Little Rock Nine”, stellar students who were selected to integrate the school because of their high grades. The protest against them entering the school was really violent, with the governor calling out the Arkansas National Guard to block them. But then Eisenhower federalised the soldiers and ordered them to escort the students into the building. I saw this really horrific scene on TV, with mobs of white people sneering and shouting and punching their fists at these nine students.
So, these struggles for integration were very much part of my growing up and wanting to be free, wanting to have my liberty. Meantime, I went to this wonderful public college preparatory high school in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I learned to play the French horn. I graduated and went to New York City to be a classical musician, which everyone had told me my entire life that I could not do, that a coloured girl could not be a classical musician. I had encountered many gatekeepers who provided many reasons.
Were your parents musicians?
No. That was the first thing the gatekeepers would say – if your parents are not musicians, how can you be a musician? Because there is this myth, and it’s part of the way you get excluded. You have to have a route in and the route in is something you inherit. It’s like kings have princes and musicians have children who are musicians, so nobody else can get in. But I went to New York and studied music and sure enough I got hired for jobs because I didn’t miss any notes. So, I was working as a musician when I encountered Columbia. Columbia was the end, not the total end, but certainly a big step in my personal journey toward that struggle for freedom, that struggle for liberation.
That’s interesting – you had already overcome a barrier, crossed a frontier by becoming a musician before getting to Columbia.
There are not that many female French horn players even today. I was likely the first black female French horn player in a union back in the early 1960s. In a way, becoming a professional musician was both harder and easier than becoming an architect. It was harder because of stereotypes about who had the birthright of a classical musician, and because of macho myths about needing a male anatomy to play a brass instrument. It was easier because I was fortunate to play an instrument that was rare. I played it because my parents couldn’t afford to buy me an instrument, so I had to take what was free at my high school and that happened to be a French horn, a rather unpopular instrument. Then, as it turned out, everybody always needed a French horn player and if you didn’t miss notes you could get a job. And musicians are unionised, so I didn’t experience the whole pay inequity thing that’s still so prevalent in architecture. Everybody got union scale and the French horn players actually got a little more.
So then you were looking for some sort of outlet and studying interior design in your spare time, when you got this call to go to Columbia. Was that already an aspiration of yours? Was it something you’d thought about, this idea of going to an Ivy League school? Or did it come out of the blue?
It came out of the blue. I was a musician doing interior design as a hobby. You can only play the French horn for so long, so your work day is very short. I had always had extensive hobbies and they usually had something to do with design. That was the way I got into interior design. When I wasn’t practising the French horn, I spent most of my time designing and making clothing. So, when I went for my interview at Parsons, I had a terrible portfolio – I had no idea how to draw – but I was beautifully dressed and obviously dressed in an unusual way. At an architecture school, they probably wouldn’t have even noticed, but because Parsons’ main school is a fashion school, the admissions officer was immediately attracted to the fact that I had style. So, he said, “Well, if you can dress yourself like that, we can teach you to design.”
At that point in time, what did architecture as a discipline mean to you? It sounds as though you were entering a world that was entirely new?
Well, not exactly. I had already renovated, or actually developed, a building because I needed space to practise my French horn, and I also had been all over the country performing in the best music halls in the country. At the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, at the now-destroyed old Metropolitan Opera House, at the Masonic Temple in Detroit, at wonderful halls in Canada. And you know there’s a relationship between space and music. If you go into a hall that has great acoustics, you’re a better performer, so I was very aware of the importance of space.
Even when I was a child, my dad always let me do anything I wanted to do in my room to make it be the room I wanted it to be, including cutting the legs off furniture. I had also seen my neighbourhoods and their quality of life destroyed by urban renewal. So, I wasn’t tuned out to the spatial world. In fact, I was very aware of the spatial world. Architecture wasn’t there as a named concept, but it was there as part of my everyday homemaking and performing.
I see, it facilitated your own needs as a professional, as a person. So you had an understanding of the idea of space and the idea of transforming space and you had an understanding of cities and how the shaping of cities affects people’s lives, from this direct experience. So, then what was it like to be a student at Columbia? How did you grow in your understanding of architecture and your aspirations as an architect, as you became one?
What was wonderful was that our mentor, Max Bond, called all the black students who had been recruited to the school “architects”. I loved being called “an architect” and I still do. I never call myself a psychologist, although my PhD is in psychology.
Everything was turned upside down at the school due to the student rebellion and all the changes in the curriculum that brought about. There was a lot of activity going on with all these black students imagining they could change the world. We brought in our fried chicken and made a lot of noise talking about our projects and helping one another on our assignments. We were a big happy community, working together and talking about architecture as the revolution. But what was most impressive to me was just being on that campus. I had always been aware of space due to being in these great concert halls, but I was backstage, I was in the pit, and now I was on the stage.
I was just so taken by the architecture of the campus, and especially the top floor of Avery Hall, where the design studios are. My particular studio was the North Studio, and you could have as much space as you could grab. So I would be there early, getting all sorts of materials and building my two-room apartment by the slop sink, where I would set up the studio coffee pot. I just want to read you a little paragraph from my book about the space because it was very important to me. “Every year during the first week of classes a flurry of activity would turn Avery’s vast studios into a warren of self-built cubicles. Students framed their gigantic oak drafting tables with whatever scraps of lumber or gypsum board and other discarded materials they could scavenge, to create personalised workspaces. In time they added cardboard models, coffee cups, tools, books and reams of tracing paper, lining the walls with photographs, maps and drawings. Soon the studio became a veritable shantytown within an Italian Renaissance palace.”
I had always practised the French horn alone in my bedroom or apartment, and that was my studio, that was my small solitary space. At Columbia, I was in this huge space with a lot of other people, and that was really energising. Now the school’s studios have gotten smaller and smaller, with more and more people crammed in because students only have computers and not those big oak drafting boards. But still the space of an architecture studio is communal. A studio is a kind of learning but it’s also a space of learning that I very much treasure.
There is something about an architecture studio and that kind of freedom to just create your own world. It’s magic.
But it also has a social quality. It’s a home away from home. It’s a kind of third space, but people are not just hanging out drinking coffee; they’re doing productive, creative work together, which also creates a sense of community.
I do printmaking and have participated in many different printmaking studios around the world. They have that same quality, especially because printmaking’s a subject you can’t learn by reading a book. You have to get other people to demonstrate different techniques to you. I think how architecture differs most from music is the collective nature of developing your craft. Although music becomes incredibly social in orchestral or ensemble playing, the preparatory work is solitary.
It sounds like Columbia was an incredibly empowering experience. You said that the black students were talking about “Architecture as the Revolution”. That sort of encapsulates the idea of hope, the possibility of being able to change one’s own world, the world of one’s family or community and so on. Is that the sort of hope that people carried with them at Columbia?
It wasn’t only black people who were engaged in the revolution; it was a whole time of thinking that you could change the world. There was a countercultural revolution in addition to the whole race revolution of people just looking for a different way of living. There was Paolo Soleri out in Arizona, imagining an ecological city in the air and building a community with structures formed by the sands of the desert. There was Bucky Fuller with his domes, there was Archigram in London with their plug-in architecture, there was Ant Farm with their inflatables, there were the Beatles and Aretha Franklin. People were trying to reinvent society and for architects it was through architecture.
Today we ask students, “What are your precedents? How have people done this before?” Then it was the opposite. We were trying to think of ideas that nobody had ever thought of before. It was a very liberating time to study architecture.
So, you had this incredible freedom. It’s interesting that you mention the present day, thinking about this idea of revolution and liberation. A few years ago in the US, you elected your first black president, which seemed like an incredibly symbolic moment and there was an atmosphere of hope. Now things have gone into reverse. Speaking personally, I remember distinctly the moment that Obama became president. I stayed up to watch the election with my father. I remember the feeling of hope and jubilation and I wondered what you think about the present moment and whether you might see some parallels with 1968. There have been things like the Black Lives Matter Movement in response to social injustice and I wondered where you think architecture sits within the conversation now and whether there is the same possibility of hope or revolution.
To unpack your query a little bit, you are correct that there have been recent movements toward justice. Obama in his farewell speech as president talked about there being a long trajectory toward justice. Sometimes society is moving forward and sometimes it is moving backward. I think what is very difficult about today is that the forward and backward are happening at the same time.
In the 1960s people became aware of racism in large part due to the media and seeing violence televised from different parts of the country where white people were resisting integration. They saw these news reports and had a reaction that this is not right. Many white people joined the predominantly young black youth and students who were on the frontlines of the movement to achieve justice. And then came the backlash when the reality of what it would take to make a just country came into people’s consciousness. People realised, “Oh, we have to pay for affirmative action. Oh, if that person takes the spot, I don’t get the spot.” And so progress was followed by backlash. But now the forward movement and the backlash are happening simultaneously, and the backlash is very mean-spirited.
The issues have also become much more complicated. Before, race was the primary driver, and then the Vietnam War came into it, and then women and gay rights came into it leading up to 1968. Today, if you look at all of the issues that are on the table, there are so many. The list is so long – worker rights, immigration rights, gun rights, abortion rights, the devastation of the environment, climate change and so on. And the real big number is income equality, with some people earning in an hour what their workers have to work all year to earn. So, people can’t come together and agree how to move forward.
Income inequality, I believe, is at the base of not being able to come together around shared values because people are terrified of downward mobility. People have become totally unable to communicate, to negotiate, to reach consensus. And Martin Luther King actually foresaw this situation in his last book, written in 1967, which is called Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? We are really in the midst of chaos.
Where architecture sits within this chaos begins with the cost of higher education, which has become so incredibly expensive that some students are not eating in order to pay their tuition. Some students are homeless, they are living on the streets, they’re experiencing emotional trauma, committing suicide. Students today are having to make huge sacrifices in order to earn their degrees. I probably notice the problem more in New York because housing costs are so high here, and because faculty have constant reminders to keep an eye out for what’s going on with students. We’re told “if you notice a student missing from class or if they seem stressed out, please let somebody know.” But student stress from high tuition costs is happening throughout the country.
That’s where higher education sits. And then if you look at architecture, this field takes up to eight years in school and another three years to get licensed to build – most likely for the wealthy. By the time you get through an eleven-year route to get your credentials, you’ve got to get a job that pays enough to cover your loans. So, no one can afford to take on low-end projects. And who is going to build for the average person?
So, not only are students spending a long time learning to do one kind of architecture, they are not prepared to address people’s practical everyday needs, which is actually what got me interested in architecture.
I used to say, in fact I still say, if you want more people of colour in architecture you need to change the mission. You need to focus the mission on creating the everyday fabric of the environment. And if you look at it that way, you would not need eight years to get your degree and another three to get your license. If you looked at architecture as preparing people to do a variety of different things, not just the hero buildings but the buildings that support people’s lives, that form the fabric of the city, you would have a very different field that would look more like nursing than architecture.
Nursing embraces practitioners with many different skills from emptying bed pans to performing surgery and all the many skills in between, so you have nurses functioning at many different levels. Architecture only embraces one type of practitioner; we all have the same education, take the same licensing exam and fulfil the same narrow range of continuing education requirements.
We recognise the economic disadvantage that lots of black students will experience during their time as students and then working because pay is so low, and then there is this other issue of the type of work that people end up doing, which might be purely commercial and not address the social concerns they might have. I wondered whether you think that might be more of an issue, maybe more so for black students, because it creates a kind of tension? However, I wondered about the solution; it seems a shame to suggest that maybe black students shouldn’t have the full benefit of this wonderfully rich education.
I think there’s something great about architecture education, but what’s great about it could be packaged in a less costly and time-consuming way, and there are a lot of really negative things about it.
I’m now in a design school where architecture is in a minority after 42 years of being in schools where architecture was the big elephant and other disciplines, such as interiors or planning, were underlings. Now, at Parsons, architecture is tiny and surrounded by all of these other design fields with really creative people. We aren’t able to beat our chests so much because other people are doing creative stuff and they’re doing it in much less time. So, with regard to the richness of the education, you don’t get quality through seat-time, but architecture is wedded to seat-time and a curriculum that is totally controlled. Students have very few electives because so much is required. Because of rigid accreditation requirements, an architecture education results in the same little widgets. And if you call that a rich education – I’m gonna disagree with you!
I don’t think we’d be missing anything by completely disrupting the system. Ivan Illich called for the de-professionalisation of society years ago, and that may be where we are headed. You can’t have students living on the streets and not eating in order to earn degrees that don’t prepare them to serve people’s practical everyday needs when there is so much need for problem solving.
What you say makes a lot of sense and leads nicely into the next question about the pedagogical approach at Columbia and within architecture schools in general. You say in your book that Columbia restructured its approach; its governance structure, teaching methods and curriculum were reformed in order to implement the experiment that brought you into the school. Should we revisit this sort of experiment? Would architecture schools benefit from a similar disruption today?
It has to be a bigger disruption and a disruption throughout higher education. What happened at Columbia had a profound effect in terms of redefining governance in higher education and redefining service to the community through community-based education and research. The disruption that’s needed today would literally undo higher education as we know it.
We have a higher education system of overpaid presidents and their bevies of vice presidents and provosts, and all of these people at the top. And then some place at the bottom are custodians and other low-level staff who live out of town in houses that many people share and who get up at 3am in order to take care of buildings for the overpaid presidents and students, some of whom are on the brink of suicide. That to me is a broken system. In 1968, students objected to inequities at Columbia and other universities, and some of the inequities had to do with the university’s unjust power structures. Whatever existed then is much darker and more ominous today, and the structures now call for a moral uprising.
You have contingent faculty earning less than a living wage – and because the tenured faculty lines have been eliminated, they are overworking to run the university, leaving students with only contingent faculty as teachers. You call this a quality experience that everybody should have? No, this system is unacceptable – it’s entirely broken. There are efforts to improve it from within. Contingent faculty are unionising, students are unionising, tenured faculty are trying to figure out how they don’t spend all their time publishing and raising money, but basically, these efforts are putting a Band-Aid on an amoral system, and I think students will eventually vote with their feet.
But the one thing that complicates matters, when students in this country vote with their feet and don’t enrol, is that universities bring in people of colour from other countries that don’t have a legacy of slavery and systematic segregation of a disadvantaged group for hundreds of years. So, you have people of colour coming in to the university who are very well-to-do, who are then allowing universities to say “we’re diverse”. At the same time, our primary and secondary education systems are producing students unable to read and write at an elemental level.
Switching back to the topic of backlash and whether we are moving forward in democracy or not, education is really about creating a democracy; it’s about nurturing the critical thinking skills that allow us to negotiate shared values and coexist as a society, and the education system is not doing that. The same thing happened in Hitler’s Germany. The root of the problem began in the education system. So, I would argue that our inability to decide who we are as a nation, who we are within the globe, as an international community, has to do with the inequities in the education system and the fact that you have many people who are not being educated in the highest sense of the word.
You’ve touched a little on gender, but I wondered how you see the intersection of race and gender. It sounds like you see it as a very complex thing.
And it’s getting more complicated, as we become more interconnected and people are migrating. It’s not simply class, but it’s also history. What’s your historical position in society? So, a black American middle-class person has a different history from a black Virgin Island person who has grown up in a society where they are not in the minority. And the way gender intersects with historical cultures is very different in each country. So, it is a complicated picture.
You’ve talked a bit about how we might move forward and reform education and a bit about affirmative action and the backlash to it. Given this situation, what do you think are the methods of fostering greater racial diversity? What does this disruption look like? Is it about community-led schools or programs? How might it work?
I’m struggling to figure that out, but I take a practical approach because of my own route into architecture. I think we should just start working on all of the problems that are around us and figure out how we can support the other people who are doing the same work. Let’s take Detroit as an example. When I first moved to Michigan, Detroit was just beginning its severe decline. It had had the race riots and white flight, but it was a city that had buildings on streets, and it had schools that were functioning. In the time that I worked there, which was just twelve and a half years, it became a wasteland, a war zone. In one studio that I did in Detroit we surveyed the buildings at the beginning of the semester and at the end of the semester – we erased a quarter of the buildings because they no longer existed. The decline was huge.
So, what happened? Well, some people moved and went on to someplace else, but some people said this is my home and I’m not moving, and they just started doing stuff. There was a vacant lot and they cleaned it up and got some kids and planted a garden and built some play equipment. There was a whole grassroots thing that happened in Detroit that the youth were a part of. That can be a model for changing things that aren’t as severe as Detroit.
Can we continue walking by people sleeping in the streets and not have a response as architects? And go to our jobs and pretend nothing’s going on? Somehow, we have to find a way to stop what we are doing and do something else. And I don’t know when that moment will come, but I know that in the 1960s, there got to be a point when people said, “Business as usual is unacceptable. We’re not going to do business. We’re going to shut this down.” And we have to get to that point. Shutting it down.
I did a mock exercise, just to test out this idea; I was invited to be the keynote lecturer at a STEAM conference, and to do an icebreaker before my keynote. The icebreaker I designed involved pretending that we were at a senate meeting of the university and that the president had come. According to the script, the president announced at the senate meeting (I was the president) that the university was going to shut down because there was a housing crisis (I actually used the news report of Trump’s shutting down the country to get his money for the wall as the icebreaker script). I decreed that I was taking all the money from the university’s public programs and giving it to any faculty who wanted to do something about the housing crises. It was a joke to get the audience to think, but that is literally what has to happen, something that radical. You know we can’t leave our students sleeping on the street. We have to say we are gonna stop doing what we are doing to fix this problem. Whether it’s for a week or a month or a year, we’re going to do something to make our university different. You can argue whether a shutdown should happen from the top or the bottom, but I think it has to be that extreme.
You’re obviously very passionate about these things and you’ve found a way to make your passions, your social interests, the focus of your career. I wondered whether you think that’s a result of your time at Columbia, and what you think the greater legacy of that experiment is.
Well, hats off to Columbia. I think that its effect on my career occurred retroactively because my education opened me up to looking at the world differently as my career progressed. The fact that I didn’t have a standard education – I had this disrupted education that questioned the status quo – and that instilled a commitment to certain values.
At Columbia, we would say “oh, we need to design for the people” and then I went to my first job and oh, I didn’t know how to design for the people. So I got a PhD in psychology and that took me another step toward a social justice agenda.
Actually, I wanted to ask, why did you choose to study psychology?
I realised I needed more education. At the time, there wasn’t a doctoral degree, a PhD, in architecture, so most architects did their advanced studies in planning. However, planning is 5,000 feet in the air looking at systems, and I wanted to be on the ground looking at people. So I enrolled in a new interdisciplinary program in environmental psychology at the City University of New York. And because of the work I did there, I attracted a fellowship from the Kellogg Foundation, which required a commitment to working on social problems across disciplines. So, that had a big effect and then from there different things happened.
So, Columbia opened the door and laid the foundation for all that, and now when I’m getting to the end of the road, I’m looking back and thinking, “Oh my god, that was not only an Ivy League degree, but it was a different way of looking at the world.” I had this tremendous gift and now I gotta give it back. So, it was more in retrospect that I thought about the legacy of the experiment.
And I think it’s true for that entire contingent of recruits. Many people found a way to maintain a commitment to justice and to community, and found a way to earn a living and still stick with their principles. At the same time it’s a very distinguished group of architects and planners, so that’s the legacy.
Dr Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA, is an activist educator and public scholar who promotes inclusivity in the cultural makeup of the city-making professions and in the populations they serve, and also advocates for participatory planning and design processes in disenfranchised communities. Currently a visiting distinguished professor of architecture at Parsons School of Design, Dr Sutton has also served on the faculties of Pratt Institute, Columbia University, the University of Cincinnati, the University of Michigan, and the University of Washington, where she is professor emerita. In addition to professional students in architecture, she has taught professional students in urban planning, landscape architecture, and interior design, and has supervised doctoral students in architecture, urban planning, social welfare, and education.
Dr. Sutton, who previously practised architecture in New York City, was the twelfth African American woman to be licensed to practice architecture, the first to be promoted to full professor of architecture, the second to be elected a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first to be a distinguished professor of the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture and president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board. She received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award from the American Institute of Architects, the Medal of Honor from both the New York and Seattle chapters of that organisation, and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame.
Early in her career, Dr. Sutton worked as a professional musician in New York City, most notably for Sol Hurok Attractions and in the original cast of Man of La Mancha. Her fine art is in the Library of Congress and has been exhibited in and collected by galleries and museums, business enterprises, and colleges and universities.
Sarah Akigbogun is a London-based multidisciplinary practitioner and educator. An architect and filmmaker, she is founder of Studio Aki London and theatre collective Appropri8, which seeks to work with communities to activate disused urban sites. Sarah is passionate about diversity within architecture and is Co Vice Chair of Women in Architecture UK. In 2017 she directed the film She Draws : She Builds, which collates the voices of 15 female architects. Trained as an architect and engineer, Sarah completed her Diploma at the Architectural Association, where her work focused on themes of mental illness and architecture and the use of film as a tool to explore and document the city. After graduating Sarah worked at several international practices including Alsop Architects and Foster and Partners. She also holds an MA in Acting from Central St Martins and is currently a tutor at Canterbury School of Architecture.
Sarah’s current film project is to tell the stories of Female Architects of Colour. This interview was conducted with Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton for this project.
Photos: Courtesy of Sharon Egretta Sutton.