An interview with Roberta Washington, FAIA, NOMAC
Roberta Washington on Architecture and the Black Experience
By Max Eternity
Located in Harlem, New York, Roberta Washington is the owner of Roberta Washington Architects—founded in 1983. She is also a historian, and a former director of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA).
Less than 2% of all registered architects are Black, with 1.7% being male and .3% female. So while the amount of African-American women architects has quadrupled in the last 15 years, Black women architects continue to make up a just fraction of a percent of all architects.
For Washington her pathway to architecture began when she was a child living in North Carolina. While working on homework for a middle school project, Washington had a chance encounter with a neighbor who unbeknownst to her was an architect. And the rest, as they say, is history.
What follows is an in-depth phone interview conducted with Washington on May 29, 2015. In the 1-hour conversation, Washington talked about her beginnings and her educational process. She also shares extensively about her research into the historical unfolding of a few notable African American architects, and about some of the work she has done.
Eternity: Thanks for agreeing to speak with me, and let’s just jump right in. When did you realize you wanted to be an architect, and how was that process set in motion?
Washington: I think I was in the 8th grade and I had to do a report, and the report was about 3 professions you thought you were interested in. Until that time, I was really only interested in art. I thought I could be an artist, and I thought I could be an art teacher. And so, I was running out of people to interview, because I didn’t have 3 [professional] people, I just had 1 art teacher.
Eternity: I see.
Washington: I lived in Greensboro, North Carolina—the home of A & T College—and there happen to be a teacher from that college who was renting a house next door to us. And my mom suggested that I go interview that person, who turned out to be an architect.
I don’t know if my mother knew what he did, or what an architect did, or if it just sounded like “art.”? I don’t know, but she suggested that I interview this professor and I did. I asked him about architecture and what he did, and he told me this wonderful story about how if you’re interested in art, you can draw and paint beautiful pictures and some people would seem them and like them. But, if you did architecture you could change peoples’ lives!
And that was it—once he said that, I knew what I wanted. Once I left that interview, I knew what I wanted to do.