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Preserving the Legacy of America’s First Black Architect

Tuskegee University architecture Robert Taylor historic
Tuskegee students construct a campus building (circa 1902) designed by Robert R. Taylor (right). Images: Wikimedia Commons

HOK’s support of Tuskegee University students continues the practice of empowering aspiring Black architects that began in the late 1800s with Robert R. Taylor.

Few architecture programs have as powerful a story as Tuskegee University.

Robert R. Taylor, often cited as the first accredited Black architect in the U.S., designed much of the school’s eastern Alabama campus. Taylor also developed the school’s architecture program and recruited Tuskegee students to construct buildings. His students even made their own building materials—including bricks and windows—further highlighting the skill and resourcefulness of African Americans in the turn-of-the-century South.

Yet for all its proud history, Tuskegee’s architecture program is often overlooked today. The same might be said for the nation’s seven other historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with NAAB-accredited architecture schools.

“Many people don’t realize HBCUs have architecture programs,” said Amma Asamoah, an assistant professor of architecture at Tuskegee’s Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Sciences. “To me that’s an issue. Our students offer perspectives that are missing in architecture. They come from communities that haven’t had a voice in the planning and design of the built environment.”

Trenton Scott, a fifth-year architecture major at Tuskegee, is such a student. Scott developed a passion for drawing as a child in nearby Birmingham. As a teen, he turned his attention to drawing buildings and imagining how derelict properties in his industrial hometown could be transformed for community use.

“Community engagement is a big reason I wanted to do architecture,” said Scott. “I see the potential for architecture to bring people together.”

Trenton Scott (third from left) poses with other HOK interns in the summer of 2022.

Investing in HBCU Design Students

Over the past eight months, Scott has had the opportunity to further his dream of becoming an architect as an HOK Diversity x Design Scholarship recipient. Awarded to nine BIPOC and minority design students, the scholarship includes a $10,000 stipend for school expenses and a paid internship with HOK.

As an intern with HOK’s St. Louis office, Scott has worked on a variety of project types, including developing a conceptual design for a proposed Afghan community center.

“I’ve gained so much from my HOK experience,” said Scott. “It has exposed me to things about design and technical architecture I haven’t experienced in school. I have a list of people at HOK whom I consider mentors.”

For Angelo Arzano, managing principal for HOK in St. Louis, Scott exemplifies the untapped talent that can be found at schools like Tuskegee.

“These are students who might go unnoticed because they’re not from bigger architecture programs,” said Arzano. “Yet in terms of skill and ambition, they’re just as promising.”

Since 2017, HOK’s St. Louis studio has hosted four Tuskegee interns. The studio also sends delegates to Tuskegee several times a year to lead portfolio reviews, do guest lectures and attend career fairs.

“We want to expand the pipeline of minority talent in architecture,” said Arzano. “It’s something we’re passionate about in St. Louis and across HOK.”

Trenton Scott (bottom row, second from left) and his Tuskegee University teammates celebrate winning NOMA’s 2022 student design challenge. Their concept, Selah, features a public plaza, pedestrian market and cultural center designed to foster community.

Tuskegee Design Team Win

Last November, HOK’s St. Louis studio helped pay for Scott and several of his classmates to travel to Nashville to participate in the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) 2022 conference and design competition. The student portion of the competition challenged teams from 30 schools to envision a cultural center and landmark bridge for north Nashville, a historically Black section of town that has seen a surge of gentrification in the fast-growing city.

Tuskegee’s entry won first place. A team from Ivy League Cornell University placed second.

“That win proves the caliber of our students,” said Tuskegee’s Asamoah. “It shows their ability to understand historically marginalized communities and translate their empathy, awareness and experience into the built environment.”

Asamoah looks forward to Tuskegee students earning more wins in the coming years. She hopes, too, that more design firms will get involved in preserving Robert R. Taylor’s legacy by supporting Tuskegee and other HBCUs.

“HOK’s relationship has been very nourishing for our students and our department,” said Asamoah. “I invite other firms to also come down, visit the campus, learn about our rich history and take a hands-on approach to helping us grow that legacy.”

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