When Ivory Towers Were Black: Sharon Sutton on the Dual Fronts of Gender and Ethnicity

In this third episode of GSAPP Conversations, Columbia GSAPP Associate Professor Mabel O. Wilson speaks with Sharon Sutton about the publication of her new book, When Ivory Towers Were Black, which tells the story of how an unparalleled cohort of ethnic minority students earned degrees from Columbia University’s School of Architecture (GSAPP) during a time of fierce struggles to open the ivory tower to ethnic minority students.

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When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in America's Cities and Universities

GSAPP Conversations is a podcast series designed to offer a window onto the expanding field of contemporary architectural practice. Each episode pivots around discussions on current projects, research, and obsessions of a diverse group of invited guests at Columbia, from both emerging and well-established practices. Usually hosted by the Dean of the GSAPP, Amale Andraos, the conversations also feature the school’s influential faculty and alumni and give students the opportunity to engage architects on issues of concern to the next generation.

GSAPP Conversations #3: Sharron Sutton in Conversation with Mabel O. Wilson

MABEL O. WILSON: I wanted to start with what led you to write about this topic, which seems very personal, but also quite historical.

SHARON SUTTON: So that's actually the story in the prologue. I should say you have to get the book to find out. But I'll give you the short version, which is that shortly after my sixty-fifth birthday I began to reflect and think: So much of my life - which has been quite incredible in terms of the opportunities that I've had, the things I've been able to participate in and contribute to - really comes to this Ivy League education that I got serendipitously because there was a civil rights movement.

And since that time, since I've been a professor, which is 41 years, I maybe have had 12 black students. So I have this huge sense of how special that situation was when I was a student at Columbia. And I wanted to somehow give back that privilege that I got.

And so I went through a whole series of how I could do that, which is described in the prologue. But ultimately I came to the conclusion that I would write a book about it. And as it turns out, as I researched the book, the story that I had assumed to be true was not exactly the story. And as I continued working in Butler Library [at Columbia University], I began to uncover a very different story and to realize how much of my teaching approach came from that time at Columbia.

WILSON: Can you tell us a little bit more about what was unique at that moment, particularly coming out of the civil rights movement, but also you have the rise of black nationalism, there was the assassination of King, the Poor People's Campaign. It seems like there was a clear linkage that rights also had to do with access to health, to housing in particular. And so - what was it that was unique that was asking architecture and architectural education to perhaps change its methods and approaches?

SUTTON: Well, it was a unique time. In addition to all of the things that you mentioned, there was a great fear of a racial Armageddon with all of the riots. So people were very motivated to solve the problem. And the problem was an urban one, and so educating people in the city, making professions, was very important.

So it was really out of fear that the opportunity was created. And it was created by the Ford Foundation actually long before the famous student rebellion that closed the university down, which I had assumed had been the primary reason that I was here was that part of the student negotiations was that there would be recruitment of black and Puerto Rican students.

WILSON: Can you name the year of that?

SUTTON: That was 1968. It was April of '68, and the University was closed until the following fall.

And what really made the education unique was the commitment of the people who were recruited, but also the revolutionaries who were here, to address the problems in Harlem. And that was part of the Black Power movement. For earlier generations of well-to-do black students or students who got scholarships into universities, the idea was to sort of distance yourself from the working class blacks. But that group of Black Power advocates saw themselves as educating and being part of the black community.

And so there was a tremendous push to work in the Harlem community, and that's what so shaped my approach to teaching, which is a community-based approach to teaching which I had never really totally thought about. I had always attributed it to being at Michigan, at the University of Michigan, because Michigan is the place where the Peace Corps started and it has a very strong community-service learning approach. And so I thought, "Oh, that's where it came from." But as I began to learn more about the curriculum at the School of Architecture at Columbia during that time, I realized that this is where it came into my mind that what architecture is about, what planning is about, is improving the surroundings of your campus.

WILSON: And how did the numbers swell?

SUTTON: You know, you have to read the book! All of this is so beautifully told in the book.

But it was quite an ingenious snowball effort. I'm debating what I'm going to read from the book at the book launch. And one of the passages I'm considering is the passage about the snowball, about one person telling another person. It did not happen by accident. It happened with a very concerted effort, especially on the part of the black students who were here and the Puerto Rican students, but it was also the administration who were calling people, who were just out and about getting everyone to come to this one place. And the money was here to support people.

Basically I think if I continue studying this, that it will remain the boldest recruitment effort ever. And my proof of that assumption is that as of 2007, Columbia had produced more black architects than any other school except the historically black schools. They have at this point been exceeded by City College and Pratt because the effort fell off and the other schools began working on it.

WILSON: I think that's a very important milestone that you wouldn't necessarily associated with an Ivy League at all. But it sounds like there was a storming of the gates.

SUTTON: There was a storming of the gates. And the talent that was produced is remarkable. As of today, that group of students now has five Fellows in the American Institute of Architects. And there are only about 100 African-American Fellows in the whole College of Fellows. So that's an incredible accomplishment. Five out of 100 came from that class!

A Curriculum for Social Justice

WILSON: Yeah, I think that's a real milestone. I think what's amazing about the book is the emphasis on the questions of social justice, which seems really, really kind of critical. Can you just give a hint at what you think the institutional changes were by raising the question of social justice? And do you think there is a current need for institutional recalibration around issues of social justice?

SUTTON: Well, social justice in this case is occurring on two levels: the one is opening up the elite professions to historically marginalized students; the other is using institutional resources to improve historically marginalized populations. And again, that has been my life agenda that I didn't realize came from this effort.

But how it worked is that by reconsidering the admissions criteria, the School of Architecture, now known as GSAPP, was able to admit students who had other kinds of experiences. They were actually quite qualified but probably wouldn't get in today. They had gone to technical high schools. They had gone to community colleges. They had worked in offices. And it was an undergraduate degree.

And so they were able to get in, get their Ivy League credential, and then move up another ladder. So that, with the economic support, allowed people to attend who cannot attend today - the students that have been missing from my classes.

On the other level, there was this transformation of the curriculum primarily led by the Division of Planning. Another thing I didn't realize: Why Planning? Because Charles Abrams was here, and Charles Abrams was a social justice advocate. He was a housing activist. And he created the Institute of Environment to do community outreach. There was Ford Foundation money that supported that and allowed another program to develop that actually was doing development in the Harlem and East Harlem communities. They were doing projects and the students were staffing those projects. They were being a source of assignments in the studio.

So there were a number of different ways that the school was providing its resources to develop the Harlem community. So those two levels were working together.

WILSON: And how do you think Columbia responded to that change? Were there long-term initiatives that existed after the cohort left?

SUTTON: It was heartbreaking. I graduated in '73 and the commencement address was basically what it is today. “We're going to make America great again.” You know, “we're going to make Columbia what it used to be.” And so that was the message that we got going out - the president said, "Students today are looking for a calmer campus. They don't want all of this angst going on, and we're going to replant the lawns and we're going to have the way - we're going to have it again."

And the School of Architecture was actually a leader in all of the changes that were made university-wide. They had, in addition to social work, one of the most active recruitment programs. As much maligned as the current dean was, who was Dean Smith, he was seen by the people who were encouraging recruitment, the Urban Center, as being a leader on campus in the recruitment effort.

But there was always a split in the faculty. If you look at the faculty votes, there would be a certain number of people who would vote for, against, and then the people who didn't vote. And as time went on and the students graduated who led the rebellion - and actually, you know, when you experiment, if you're not really committed to making experiential learning work, community-based learning is very difficult. And so if you're not developing those skills and willing to put in the extra time, the education is going to deteriorate.

And the education deteriorated. And the accrediting board came and, you know, threatened. And the dean resigned and the new dean came in and fixed the school and did what he had to do “to make it be great again.”

WILSON: So it sounds like what you're saying is that because architecture is a very - although you could say law is very similar, there's a clear connection between the profession and the discipline and what's taught in law school, for example. And so clearly architecture as a profession, the same with medical schools, all the professional schools, journalism - they all have this very, very clear connection.

But it sounds like there was something quite resistant in a way in architecture to the question of really contending with social justice, even though both planning and architecture deal very specifically with the built environment - which is fraught with inequalities.

SUTTON: Right.

WILSON: And that this was an important opportunity to start to open up and transform how everyone in fact is being educated.

SUTTON: Right. Well, and how the urban problem is being addressed. And you know, this was also the year of Whitney Young's famous speech at the AIA. There was activism going on in the planning association. So there was a level of activism that was going on at the professional level that was in support of this local thing that happened that very much benefited what was going on in the school.

In particular there were scholarships nationally that came into the school. But there was backlash from the society. Nixon came in with a law and order campaign. And people got tired of - you know, it was not only the Columbia students - people got tired of all of the angst of trying to make society be more equitable. It wasn't pleasant.

WILSON: You mean there had to be sacrifices.

SUTTON: There had to be sacrifices. And so, you know, Nixon came in and showed all of these pictures and started talking about welfare cheats and stirred up a lot of fear about black people in the ghetto. In the meantime, there had been a lot of rioting that went on, and people were being swept up in the law and order campaign, soon to be revisited. And that's when all the people began to be swept into prison who were rioting.

And the same youth who were so inspiring in an earlier generation, who really had led the civil rights movement and the black student movement - I don't know what happened to them. I guess the more elite of the group went and got an education. And then people got left behind. Because really it was the black community that became fractured. And so you had no black community. What was left in the black community were the people who had no choice and who couldn't get out and somehow lost hope.

WILSON: I think that's an important point about the criminalization of people who were merely fighting for better lives, and that that can be detrimental. And you could see this especially across the ranks of radicals, and very few bounce back. One person I can think of is Angela Davis, for example, who through her educational interest is teaching and still engaged in social justice issues. And who gave a lecture here at GSAPP a couple years ago.

SUTTON: Oh, really?

WILSON: She sure did.

SUTTON: Great.

WILSON: But she's connecting these issues to global issues. But on that note, you know, the '60s, the so-called inner city, the ghetto, and you could say that it was Harlem and Hamilton Heights and Washington Heights, which clearly surround Columbia, are rapidly gentrifying as Columbia is the agent in Manhattanville.

Teaching Ethical Responsibility

WILSON: But as we said, issues pertaining to poverty, health, and housing persist. And as you spoke of there's the wrath of the prison industrial complex. How and what should we be teaching our students today based on your experience as a student at Columbia?

SUTTON: Right. Oh, gosh! You know, I think it's a real dilemma because we have an obligation to teach students to join their field. And their field serves capitalism, which is doing the displacement. And so how do you have this kind of almost schizophrenic education where you're teaching them the skills and ways of being that will perpetuate the problem while you're also trying to teach them to undo the problem?

I mean, I think that you have to talk very plain and open about it and have discussions such as the one that was here right after the inauguration [The First 100 Days]. And I was very comforted to hear the Master of Architecture students get up and propose a code of ethics and actually I sent them some things that they should add to their code of ethics. I think that's one way to get at it, that we have to give them the skills, but we have to make them aware of their ethical obligation. It's not about making money. It's about serving a society.

And I would say the same thing is true of the faculty, that what is the ethical code of the faculty is not to get research grants. And so this whole threat of, you know, if we become sanctuary campuses we won't get our NIH funding. We somehow have to say, "What are our values? And what won't we - what can't we give in on?"

And then there is, I think especially in architecture, is learning the skills to serve - you know, expanding the definition of design, expanding the definition of architecture so that you have the skills to serve the many, the billions of poorly housed people. What are the solutions to shelter that you can help people figure out?

So the big, flashy projects that they need to have in their portfolios to get that job, somehow we have to empower them to do the other kinds of projects as showing a different kind of skill and to be able to package that as a marketable skill.

WILSON: Yeah. I think that that's a really great way of summing up the kind of range of things that we need to think about as we educate the next generation of architects and planners and preservationists, and even real estate developers who are also part of the school.

SUTTON: Right, yes.

WILSON: And that these are all kind of linked, and many of the students are actually doing dual degrees. They'll do preservation and architecture, planning and real estate development. So it's interesting to see, for example, urban design and real estate development. They're seeing in their own work the necessity to be able to work on many different levels, but also it sounds like what you're saying is they need to kind of recalibrate to think of society on multiple levels. And that you're not just working for wealthy clients, but that you should think about the broad spectrum of who you must engage.

SUTTON: And I think the discussion of how you can make a living at this has to be really intense. It began to happen during the recession because people were pushed to the wall, so the whole public architecture and 1 percent for architecture began to be a very - the College of Fellows funded a study of how people were funding pro bono work, how people were staying afloat and doing pro bono work.

And there are models. One of my colleagues, Mike Pyatok, did a presentation in my class. His expertise is affordable housing. And he had a consultant come into his office, which was in Berkeley, about ten years ago who said, "You're going to go out of business. You're doing good work, but you're going to go out of business," and advised him to do a combined practice of market rate and affordable housing. And he said the benefit of that was that he was no longer asking people who were committed to affordable housing to work for peanuts, plus they were learning something by doing the two different kinds of housing. So I think that there are strategies that we can inform students of, and then we can create them.

WILSON: But it sounds like one of the emerging challenges that wasn't necessarily there perhaps in the '60s - and maybe it did begin with Nixon - is the kind of disinvestment of the state, and actually engaging in its own society and the care of its own society, and sort of moving that toward the private sector so that it can in some respects be partially profitable. And that seems to be kind of one of the outcomes of the last 40 or 50 years.

SUTTON: Yes, definitely the outcome. And housing cannot be for-profit. It has to be shelter.

WILSON: It should be a right.

SUTTON: It should be a right. Right. I mean, health care - it makes a lot of profit, but you don't talk about it as a … I guess it is a business. But somehow you have to give services if somebody walks in and needs it.

WILSON: Yeah. And pronounce housing as a right.


The Dual Fronts of Gender and Ethnicity

WILSON: And can you tell us a little bit more about questions around gender and how that might have impacted your own career, and also your own educational experiences, especially as an African-American woman in architecture.

SUTTON: In architecture.

WILSON: Which meant you were fighting on dual fronts. You were fighting the kind of gender front, but you were also fighting around questions of race and ethnicity.

SUTTON: The gender issue was more difficult and I did not develop my gender awareness at Columbia because it was a guy group. When the boys went off and established NOMA [National Organization of Minority Architects], it broke my heart, and I've never joined NOMA because I never got over it - that all my colleagues went and did something and didn't invite me.

So the gender awareness was a problem at Columbia. I was originally a musician, so I grew up learning to be one of the boys. And I continued that mode of behavior here at Columbia because it was necessary. So it didn't really happen.

And the women's movement happened at the end. So it was more in the '70s that the gender awareness came. And a group led by Susana Torre was my first gender awareness, and becoming part of the women's group here in New York who were organizing to promote women's work. There was an exhibition related to a book that Susana edited called Women in American Architecture that was at the Brooklyn Museum. And that was the first awakening of mine.

I recall when Susana called me on the telephone and she said, "We would like to include your work in the book." And I said, "Oh, I don't have any work." And she said, "Yes, you do."

We would get together and we called ourselves, I think, The Pinks. The reason being that we concluded about the only thing that we could do about women and the environment - and again, we were thinking on these two levels: how do you get more women, and how do you make better environments for women - that probably the most we could do would be to get $25 and paint the door pink.

But I have a list of - it's very old - it's a manifesto with a list of things we wanted to try to achieve. And most of the things on that list - that must have been from about 1977 - have been achieved, like having restrooms that men can take children into. That was on the list.

WILSON: Wow! Yeah. So there has been progress.

SUTTON: There has been progress.

WILSON: So with the new book, can you just give us a summary of why should someone read it?

SUTTON: Well, I think it's absolutely frightening the parallels between then and now, and so it's very informative. If you don't know your history, you're going to repeat it. So I think people need to know this history. And there are some real concrete things that happened that could be repeated today that you could do that. So I think it has lessons for today, and it also contextualizes the current problem.

WILSON: Thank you, Sharon.

You can listen to every episode of GSAPP Conversations, here. This particular episode is available to listen to directly on Soundcloud and through the iTunes store and iOS Podcasts app, where you can also Subscribe. GSAPP Conversations is a podcast produced by Columbia GSAPP's Office of Communications and Events in collaboration with ArchDaily.

About this author
Cite: James Taylor-Foster. "When Ivory Towers Were Black: Sharon Sutton on the Dual Fronts of Gender and Ethnicity" 23 Mar 2017. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/867555/columbia-gsapp-conversations-3-when-ivory-towers-were-black-sharon-sutton-mabel-wilson> ISSN 0719-8884

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