From LAX to LaGuardia: Black architects make their mark on airports

Feb 15, 2022

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Editor’s note: This story was originally published in June 2020. 

There are few airports in the U.S. designed by architects of color. While there is no conclusive count, there are at least five terminal buildings where a person of color was a lead designer or principal on the project — five terminals out of the 478 commercial passenger airports recognized by federal authorities in 2020.

This should not be a surprise, though. People of color make up less than 25% of the 116,000 registered architects in the U.S. Data from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB) reveals that gains are confined to Asian and Latino communities. The percentage of architects who identify as Black or African American has been static for almost a decade – around 2%.

The 2020 Black Lives Matter protests told us, forcefully, that underrepresentation of people of color in any industry is not — and should not — be a surprise. That also holds true in architecture, where most people can probably name just a few architects — maybe Frank Lloyd Wright, Eero Saarinen and Norman Foster — that are, almost certainly, all white men.

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Phil Freelon, a high-profile African American architect who had a contemporary style to his projects, summed it up this way in an interview with The Undefeated in February 2019: “If you have a talented young African American, their family will likely know a lawyer, doctor, teacher or a clergyman but not an architect … Diversity is a huge problem in our profession.”

Freelon, who passed away in 2019, was best known for his work with British architect David Adjaye on the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., but his work did not end there. He left a legacy of buildings across the country that, as Perkins&Will CEO Phil Harrison told The Undefeated, have a “real humanism” to them.

He designed just one airport terminal during his tenure: Terminal C at Raleigh-Durham International Airport (RDU). The terminal, which opened in 1987 for American Airlines’ then-new hub, is now gone.

Related: How TPG is joining the fight for equality and justice

While much of Freelon’s portfolio was outside aviation, a growing number of architects of color are working on airport projects. They are leaving their mark, helping bring things like a sense of place to terminals that act as gateways to the cities they serve.

HOK senior project manager Paul Auguste is among those Black architects designing airports today. He has worked on terminal projects at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) and D.C.’s Dulles International Airport (IAD), but his most recent project is arguably his most significant: the new Terminal B at New York’s LaGuardia Airport (LGA). The $4 billion project represents the largest public-private partnership in U.S. aviation history.

“Big picture, I’ve experienced discrimination throughout my education and career, but you have to look forward and move beyond it,” he told TPG when asked about his experience as a Black American in architecture.

Related: LaGuardia’s new Terminal B is a major upgrade

The ticketing hall in the new Terminal B designed by HOK at LaGuardia. (Image by Zach Griff/TPG)
The ticketing hall in the new Terminal B designed by HOK at LaGuardia. (Image by Zach Griff/TPG)

Auguste has focused on ways to increase diversity in architecture outside of his work on airports and other projects. He has been a mentor and served on the board of the Architecture, Construction and Engineering (ACE) Mentor Program, which aims to “engage, excite and enlighten” high school students to pursue careers in one of the three disciplines. Additionally, he works to include more than the requisite number of minority- and women-owned businesses — or those with what is known as MBE/WBE certification — in his projects at HOK.

“Part of my giving back and working with talented individuals is to try and grow those numbers, grow those people so they have experience to work on the next aviation project,” Auguste said.

What’s more, HOK has its own diversity council that aims to raise the profile of architects of color and others both at the firm and in the profession. Council members include Kimberly Dowdell, who is the marketing principal at HOK and former president (2019 to 2020) of the National Organization of Minority Architects.

Related: Formulaic or flamboyant? How architects work to make airports feel local

Norma Sklarek and Allison Williams are two architects of color Auguste points to when asked about airports. Both women worked on terminal projects at major airports: Sklarek at Welton Becket and Associates on Terminal 1 at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), which opened in 1984, and Williams at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill on the International Terminal at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), which opened in 2000.

Williams, in an interview with The New York Times in 2004, encouraged Black architects to work on a diverse array of projects and not just ones where “the subject matter is Black culture.” This included airport projects, such as her work at SFO.

”To say that these museums and monuments are opportunities for Black architects suggests that other projects are not opportunities for Black architects, and I think that’s dangerous,” she said.

Related: With COVID, a wrecked economy and George Floyd, my focus is not on traveling right now


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San Francisco International Terminal lobby (opened 2000), by Allison Williams at SOM. ???? Bruce Damonte/SOM. #airportarchitecture

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Other notable Black architects who have worked on airports include Paul Revere Williams. He worked on the team with Pereira & Luckman Associates that designed the LAX terminal area in the late 1950s and early 1960s but not, as is widely believed, the airport’s iconic Theme Building. Williams’ work included “several other sections” of the airport, according to former Los Angeles Times architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne.

Another notable contribution is from Clarence Wigington who, as the lead designer of public buildings for the city of St. Paul, Minnesota, designed the Administration Building at the city’s Holman Field in 1939.

“Regardless of who designed an airport, a traveler’s journey through a terminal and the building’s sense of place is tantamount in aviation architecture today,” Auguste said. At LaGuardia, he and his HOK colleagues worked on easing the journey with things like more pleasant restrooms while providing a sense of the airport’s New York location via local food and beverage outlets like Irving Farms Coffee.

“The greatest place to be is up in one of these bridges when a [Boeing] 737 taxis underneath you with the New York skyline background,” he said. When fully completed in early 2022, the terminal will include two bridges to the satellite concourses that, at 65 feet off the ground, will provide those panoramic views.

Related: Check out LaGuardia’s new Terminal B satellite

Featured image courtesy of former New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

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