If you were asked to name the greatest American architects, who would you pick? Folks like Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra and Philip Johnson usually spring to mind. However, alongside those men were many Black architects that also pioneered in the design world alongside their white colleagues while simultaneously facing major social barriers — all while never attaining the same level of recognition. In fact, Black people were still barred from studying architecture and design in many states until the 1950s and ‘60s.
Due to segregation, even the most successful and well-known Black architects — such as Paul R. Williams — famously could not live in the homes they designed. Still, not only did these architects break ground on the buildings they designed, but they also broke real-world racial barriers and proverbial glass ceilings.
The art and architecture that surrounds us can influence the way we live our lives, but they also reflect the times during which they were made. Design can be used as a way to bring people together, with public works projects like affordable housing, or be used to divide, such as in the case of racially motivated urban planning. Many major cities, Los Angeles included, remain starkly racially divided due to the redlining of yesteryear.
It’s important to keep in mind that not all impactful Black architects lived in the past — many are creating today. And while schools are no longer segregated and people of color are no longer barred from pursuing professional architecture, the design world is still often criticized for its lack of diversity.
The following 10 Black architects are just a few that have left their own legendary stamp on the world.
Moses McKissack III (1879 – 1952)
In 1905, Moses McKissack founded McKissack & McKissack alongside his brother Calvin. Theirs was the first Black-owned architectural firm in the United States and is now the oldest Black-owned firm in the country. Their grandfather, for whom Moses was named, came to the U.S. in 1790 as a slave who worked under a contractor that used him as a master builder. He would later pass on the lessons he learned to his son, who then taught Moses and Calvin. The brothers designed buildings like the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Carnegie Library at Fisk University and and the Universal Life Insurance building in Memphis.
Abele was the first Black student admitted to the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Design. However, during his time at the university, he was not allowed to live in the dorms or to eat in the cafeteria with other students. After graduating from UPenn, Abele spent three years traveling Europe, visiting countries like France, Italy, England, Germany, Switzerland, and Spain — a detail he would mention in his 1942 application to the American Institute of Architects. Upon joining the AIA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art director Fiske Kimball would call him “one of the most sensitive designers in America.” During his career, Abele planned and designed the Widener Memorial Library at Harvard University, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and Duke University’s west campus.
Beverly Lorraine Greene (1915 – 1957)
When she was just 27 years old, Greene became the first Black woman licensed to practice architecture. Upon graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, Greene also became the first Black woman to earn a degree in architectural engineering. Though she began her practice in Chicago working for the first architectural firm led by a Black person, Greene felt she and her fellow Black architects were being passed over for major projects by the city and would eventually move to New York. There, she began working on the Stuyvesant Town housing project, which ironically did not allow African-Americans to live in the apartments she was designing. She would go on to work with major architects like Edward Durell Stone, with whom she designed the Arts Complex at Sarah Lawrence College, and assisted Marcel Breuer with the construction of the UNESCO United Nations Headquarters in Paris.
Chase was the first Black student to enroll in the University of Texas School of Architecture master’s program and was the first Black person to enroll in graduate school in the entire U.S. South. But upon his graduation, no firm would hire him. So, Chase moved to Houston and began teaching at Texas Southern University (a historically Black university) and started his own firm — which he would run for 50 years. In the process, he became the first licensed Black architect to practice architecture in Texas. During his career, Chase designed iconic buildings like Riverside National Bank (the first Black-owned bank in Texas), the Martin Luther King Jr. Humanities Building at Texas Southern University and the Tunisian U.S. Embassy.
Back in the day when a person belonging to Hollywood’s “It” crowd wanted a new home, they likely would have commissioned Paul Williams. Known as “the architect of Hollywood,” or the “architect to the stars,” Williams designed over 2,000 homes in 50 years and built houses for the likes of Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, Cary Grant and Barron Hilton. He was licensed to practice in 1921 and became the first African American to join the American Institute of Architects in 1923. Williams would go on to design iconic buildings like the Crescent Wing of the Beverly Hills Hotel, the Golden State Mutual Life building and partnered on the construction of the futuristic LAX Theme Building.
Despite his success, Williams still faced considerable obstacles during his career including the fact that he was legally barred from living in most of the residences he designed — a fact which pained him. “Today I sketched the preliminary plans for a large country house which will be erected in one of the most beautiful residential districts in the world,” Williams wrote in a 1937 article for American Magazine that was later reprinted in Ebony. “Sometimes I have dreamed of living there. I could afford such a home. But this evening … I returned to my own small, inexpensive home … in a comparatively undesirable section of Los Angeles. Dreams cannot alter facts; I know … I must always live in that locality, or in another like it, because … I am a Negro.”
Norma Merrick Sklarek (1926 – 2012)
If ever there was a barrier-breaking trailblazer, Sklarek was it! She was the first Black woman to become a licensed architect in both New York and California, the first Black woman to join the American Institute of Architects, the AIA’s first female Black fellow, and the first Black woman to co-own an architecture firm — the largest woman-owned firm in the U.S. at the time.
During the time she spent getting her degree in architecture from Columbia, Sklarek was shunned by her fellow students, many of whom refused to work with her. Undaunted, she instead sought out collaborative work opportunities outside the classroom, giving her a real-world advantage over her peers. She went on to design the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles, the embassy of the United States in Tokyo and Terminal One at the Los Angeles International Airport.
Born in Tanzania, Adjaye is one of the most sought after and highly-respected architects practicing today. Upon his graduation from London South Bank University in 1990, Adjaye won the RIBA Bronze Medal for the best project produced at a bachelor’s level worldwide and later received his master of arts degree from the Royal College of Art. He is perhaps best known for his ethos-minded community projects and his artistic and visionary sensitivities. His practice, Adjaye & Associates, was founded in 2000 and now has offices in London, Accra and New York.
In 2017, Adjaye was knighted by Queen Elizabeth and awarded the RIBA Royal Gold Medal in 2021 — some of the highest honors achievable in British architecture. He’s built homes for the likes of Alexander McQueen, Ewan McGregor and designed buildings like the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Sugar Hill Mixed-Use Development in Harlem and the Mole House in London. Adjaye is currently working on projects like the Studio Museum in Harlem, the National Cathedral of Ghana and the Princeton University Art Museum.
Washington is the founder of Roberta Washington Architects, one of the only architecture firms in the country led by a Black woman. After graduating from Howard University, she received a full scholarship to Columbia University where she received her master’s degree in architecture. She then went on to work in Mozambique for four years designing housing and hospital projects.
Upon her return to the U.S., she moved to New York City and joined a community board in Harlem (where she was chair of the Housing Committee and co-chair of the Land Use Committee), and currently serves on New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission. She’s worked on projects like the Barnard Environmental Magnet School, New York City’s Harmony House and the African Burial Ground Interpretive Center.
Williams is best known for her social and civic-minded architecture and her bold, modern designs. Williams worked for as a design leader for firms like SOM, Perkins+Will and AECOM and went on to found her own company, AGWms-studio in 2017. She prides herself on ability to intertwine environmental awareness, history and urban context into her constructions. She’s designed buildings such as the August Wilson Center in Pittsbugh, the Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise in Singapore and the Princess Nora Abdulrahman University for Women in Saudi Arabia.
In 1982, Curtis Moody founded Moody Nolan, the largest Black-owned architecture firm in the United States in the midst of an economic downturn in Columbus, Ohio. When he began his practice, Moody sought to bring diversity into a space where he felt people of color were overlooked. Although Moody Nolan began the company with just one other employee, the firm now employs over 230 people and has 12 offices. Moody Nolan has created works like the Student Library and Learning Center at Texas Southern University, the Columbus Metropolitan Library’s Martin Luther King Branch Library and the Nashville Music City Convention Center (in partnership with Tuck-Hinton Architects).