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When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story About Race in America's Cities and Universities
Brian D. Goldstein

Sharon Egretta Sutton
Empire State Editions, 2017

In any other era, Sutton would have had few colleagues with which to contemplate the complicated path that she navigated as a person of color in the design professions. However, as Sutton explains in her book When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story About Race in America’s Cities and Universities, in the late 1960s Avery Hall found itself the epicenter of an experiment that remains essentially unequaled in the history of architectural education. “[E]thnic minority recruits . . . walked through a door of opportunity in between the coming and going of insurgency” (1–2), Sutton writes. In total, at least 59 black and Latino/a students attended Columbia’s School of Architecture between 1965 and 1976, as part of an effort that came at the crossroads of dynamic social movements and foundation funding that enabled creative institutional experiments. A school that had just 2 percent minority enrollment in 1968 reached 16 percent by 1971, dramatic numbers against a backdrop of professions whose minority representation has long remained mired in the low single digits.

Those students are at the center of the book, but so is Sutton’s own personal history as one of those students. Part history, part celebration of the rise of this moment, part autopsy of its fall, but, especially, part memoir, When Ivory Towers Were Black takes a unique approach to the era of remarkable activism that fundamentally transformed architecture and planning in the late 1960s. Sutton calls this an “untold story” (2), and in the context of the specific affirmative action experiment that turned Columbia into an incubator of minority architecture and planning talent, that is true. Yet Sutton’s book comes amidst other studies by scholars like Stefan Bradley, Michael Carriere, and this author, who discuss the role of universities—and specifically Columbia—in the shift from top-down, autocratic modernism to a more participatory and at least theoretically inclusive development approach that promised greater attention to the needs of communities.

Nevertheless, several aspects distinguish Sutton’s study among others. First is its focus on how this moment, if relatively short lived, enabled the dreams of dozens of figures who would then change their professions—architecture, planning, and beyond—for decades thereafter. Second is its source base: a series of vivid oral histories that Sutton conducted with her peers. And third is the book’s distinctive advocacy role, as it calls for a return to initiatives like these in still unrepresentative fields. All reflect this history’s deeply personal nature for Sutton, whose own distinguished career—she was the first black woman to become a full professor of architecture, among many other accomplishments—is a testament to these events’ enduring power. What they meant to Sutton is clear in the vivid language she deploys: “ethnic minority recruits as superstars” (125), she titles one section, calling them “fearless revolutionaries” (99) in another. Likewise, as she describes the decline of the ambitious recruiting, financial support, and creative pedagogy that enabled this experiment as all faced the broader backlash of the 1970s, her frustration is clear: this was “the dismantling of a dream” (170).

Sutton conveys this history in eight chapters that follow a chronological arc. The first two bracket the year 1965. In Chapter 1, Sutton assesses threads that led eventually to the moment at the book’s center. In particular, she considers the intersection of growing, predominantly African American neighborhoods, disruptive redevelopment practices, and ascendant postwar movements for civil rights. These collided notably in Harlem and, nearby, at Columbia, where the School of Architecture mirrored a university that was often self-interested in dealing with the community down the hill. “[U]niversity administrators managed the school with the same heavy-handed tactics they exhibited in their dealings with the Harlem/Morningside residents” (32), Sutton writes. That condition provoked a groundswell of protest thereafter. In Chapter 2, Sutton follows the series of efforts that reflected growing activism among designers, especially in the Columbia orbit. Reform efforts within professional organizations, more sensitive redevelopment approaches, and new community organizations focused on advocacy and empowerment all were “nudging the School of Architecture ever closer to its experiment” (44). It moved closer still with two catalyzing factors: a large donation from the Ford Foundation that fostered community engagement, especially in Harlem, and the School of Architecture’s open-minded Division of Planning, which proved more willing to lower the walls of the institution than had the architecture program.

As this suggests, the pivotal year of 1968, which saw perhaps the most visible student movement in the United States unfold on Columbia’s campus, was not a sudden surprise but a disruption long in the making. The book’s next three chapters consider its ramifications, culminating ultimately in the arrival of a newly diverse student body in Avery Hall. But first, as Sutton describes in Chapter 3, Avery became one of the epicenters of a campus-wide occupation that, as she shows, was not merely local but global in its dimensions. About thirty architecture and planning students occupied the building in April, motivated by events ranging from the Vietnam War to Columbia’s plans to build a gymnasium in Morningside Park, a symbol of hostility to Harlem. Police would violently clear occupants by the month’s end, but, Sutton explains, it “radicalized them” (71).

The effects of this are the subject of Chapter 4. One could be seen in new governance structures that swept the school, providing greater equality in decision-making among students, faculty, and staff. Another arose in a restructured curriculum that gave architecture students greater autonomy in deciding studio subjects and expanded community-engaged courses among the planners. And a third was the explicit effort to attract minority students. This was easier said than done, but a high point in the book is Sutton’s account of the clever grassroots effort by which the few enrolled black students, likeminded faculty like J. Max Bond Jr., and supportive administrators drew students of color to Columbia with visits, word of mouth, and suasion. Sutton was, of course, among them, and remembers 1968 to 1971 as “a magical, intoxicating time” (127). Indeed, the arrival of African-American and Latino recruits—the subject of Chapter 5—found students traveling to new countries, like Ghana; excitedly tapping faculty resources and the volumes of Avery Library; sleeplessly pursuing new kinds of design projects drawn from contexts like Harlem; and, especially in planning, engaging in storefront studios that “emphasi[zed] . . . using school learning to advance community change” (120). This was a process that just as frequently changed the students, who realized new possibilities.

Yet Chapters 6 and 7 explain how an effort that was both stirring and extremely effective at its stated goals would nevertheless come undone by the mid-1970s. Both internal and external forces undermined it; the sixth chapter emphasizes the former. Among other factors, planning faced a realignment forced by university administrators who saw risk in its community engagement, a story that Sutton might have contextualized amidst similar battles at Yale and Harvard. Architecture students faced isolation and discrimination, and flexible studios often took theoretical directions, a liability for minority recruits who typically could not rely on social connections to secure jobs and so desired practical training (a reminder of the many ways that race stratifies the architecture profession). The seventh chapter emphasizes further changes that followed the appointment of James Stewart Polshek as the school’s dean. Sutton effectively shows how the elimination of the undergraduate architecture program and replacement of community-engaged faculty closed doors to minority recruits. So did university efforts to stymie Polshek’s support for faculty with a more radical viewpoint. Perhaps most disruptive, however, the broad fiscal crisis of the mid-1970s undermined recruits’ future opportunities. No matter the hope that remained in Avery Hall, “they were leaving Columbia’s ivory towers to enter a vastly different reality” (171), Sutton writes.

That reality had undeniably harsh implications for graduates, but in Chapter 8 Sutton finds that the ingenuity that enabled their success inside the school likewise enabled it outside its walls. “[S]ocietal limitations . . . helped them shape distinctive career trajectories” (176), she explains, as graduates became licensed architects and planners but also faculty members and administrators, foundation executives, and artists, among other professions. Notably, at each stage cohort members had to do more, better than their white peers, and they did. Sutton notes that among minority alumni who took architectural licensing exams, the pass rate was twice the national average. In a series of profiles, she details the successful careers of figures like Roberta Washington, Carl Anthony, and herself, who, like their peers, continue to shape architecture and urbanism into the present. Yet Sutton pulls no punches in reflecting on the meaning of this story here and in a brief epilogue. Still unrepresentative professions speak to the work to be done, but so too do economic inequality and mass incarceration, she argues (200).

As Sutton frequently suggests, the students are the real stars here. So one regret is that at times the balance shifts too far into detail about administrative decisions and away from those students’ voices. Excerpts of their oral histories are highlights of the book, and even more of such excerpts would provide a perspective that other histories could not offer. A related issue, out of Sutton’s hands, is that the University of Washington required her to use pseudonyms for the oral history subjects where they appear in the text. This makes it harder to trace the interviewees as historical actors, though profiles in the back of the book make it sometimes possible to line up real names and pseudonyms. Federal guidance has recently codified that oral history is not subject to institutional review board approval, but that of course came too late for this book. Lastly, the framework of this as a “story,” as the subtitle suggests, likely shaped Sutton’s decision to frequently use “you” as an address, which was jarring at times: “You need to know more about what went on in Avery Hall . . . ” (71). Rather than embedding us in a very personal story, this felt distancing, perhaps suggesting that the first person would have better achieved the author’s goal of immediacy.

These points do not detract from the book’s power as both chronicle and prescription, however, nor from the uncompromising point of view it adopts. The most inspiring of its positions is an unwavering faith in the power of affirmative action as a means of changing the design professions and, consequently, the spaces they shape. Amidst decades of attacks on affirmative action programs, which began even before the end of the experiment at Columbia, the book provides unambiguous evidence of their profound value. But this alone is not enough, Sutton explains. New entrants into institutions must find “fundamental structural change” (201) when they get there. Ivy League institutions cannot be the only ground for such experiments; they must range up and down “the entire ladder of educational equity” (201).Change requires a long-term commitment to its actors and must happen “both within and outside the frameworks of power” (206), she insists. Lastly, a profession that reflects the diversity of the world it shapes requires something more ineffable: an open acknowledgement of persistent oppression combined with “an amazing, almost breathless sense of possibility” (201). It is that breathless sense that distinguishes When Ivory Towers Were Black. It is clear that it enabled Sutton’s participation in this experiment, her success that followed, and her retelling of that story in the book, which can hopefully pass some of that optimism to its readers.

How to Cite this Article: Goldstein, Brian D. Review of When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story About Race in America’s Cities and Universities, by Sharon Egretta Sutton. JAE Online. March 9, 2018. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/when-ivory-towers-were-black-story-about-race-americas-cities-and-universities/.