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Architecture

6 Famous Buildings Designed by Trailblazing Black Architects

By Jersey Griggs
Read time: 5 minutes

In 1923, Paul R. Williams broke new ground by becoming the first member of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). In the time since, many notable Black architects have designed famous buildings across America and around the world. Despite this, as of 2022, only 2,535 of the 119,906 licensed architects in the U.S. identify as Black. In honor of Black History Month and to celebrate the trailblazing works of this rarefied group, check out these six cultural landmarks and the Black architects who designed them.

The Beverly Hills Hotel – Beverly Hills, California

Palm trees and sign on facade of Beverly Hills Hotel in California
Photo credit: Gerald Zaffuts/ iStock

Trailblazing Black architect Paul R. Williams designed many historic buildings throughout Los Angeles, perhaps none more famous than the iconic Beverly Hills Hotel. The building’s attention-grabbing cursive sign is based on Williams’ own handwriting, while the hotel’s signature colors — pink and green — were also hand-picked by the architect. Today, guests can book a stay at the Paul Williams Suite, which features the architect’s original design from the 1940s.

In addition to the Beverly Hills Hotel, Williams designed roughly 2,500 buildings, a number that includes the private homes of celebrity clients such as Lucille Ball, Frank Sinatra, and Cary Grant. Today, the elegant homes designed by Williams are considered architectural wonders and remain highly coveted in the L.A. real estate industry.

UNESCO Headquarters – Paris, France

Gardens and exterior of UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France
Photo credit: UlyssePixel/ iStock

Opened in 1958, the UNESCO Headquarters in Paris was led by architects Bernard Zehrfuss, Marcel Breuer, and Pier Luigi Nervi. The project’s illustrious team also included Beverly Lorraine Green — the first Black woman to become a licensed architect in the U.S. Born in 1912 in Chicago, Illinois, Green was the first Black woman to graduate from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with a bachelor’s in architectural engineering. She later earned a double master’s degree at her alma mater and Columbia University.

With so many achievements, Green was chosen to be on the UNESCO Headquarters team, alongside the likes of world-renowned architects such as Eero Saarinen. Located in the 7th arrondissement of Paris, the building is considered a mid-century marvel, famous for its distinctive Y-shape, concrete columns, and reflective glass exterior.

Hamad International Airport Passenger Terminal Complex – Doha, Qatar

Garden and water feature inside Hamad International Airport in Doha, Qatar
Photo credit: hasan zaidi/ iStock

Named the World’s Best Airport by Skytrax in 2021, Doha’s Hamad International Airport is an impressive piece of modern airport architecture. The HOK firm led the massive, $16-billion project in 2014, with award-winning architect Kimberly Dowdell as one of the principals responsible for its design. The modern, light-filled interior of the terminal features luxurious touches such as wood-paneled ceilings and specialty glass meant to regulate solar heat. The building’s most dramatic design feature — its striking, curved roofline — mimics the undulating waves of Qatar’s sand dunes and seacoast.

Highly esteemed in the field of architecture, Dowdell has garnered several awards and accolades over the years. Most recently, she became the 2024 National President of the AIA, making her the first Black woman to hold the position.

California Science Center – Los Angeles, California

Sculptures and steps at entrance of the California Science Center in Los Angeles
Photo credit: Chon Kit Leong/ Alamy Stock Photo

Although the original California Science Center dates back to 1912, the current iteration was designed in the late 1990s by ZGF Architects and RAW architectural firm, led by Steven Lewis. The 245,000-square-foot complex was a massive project, with three separate galleries, a conference center, and an IMAX theater. The design’s showpiece is the building’s famous cylindrical entrance made of geometrical steel and glass — a visual acknowledgment of the modern technological wonders that await within.

As a founding partner of RAW, Lewis has garnered many accolades throughout his career, including his selection as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, where he focused on the issue of race within architecture. In his work as an architect and a civic leader, Lewis is dedicated to using his platform to establish the next generation of Black architects in the field.

National Museum of African American History and Culture – Washington, D.C.

Gold-covered exterior of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Photo credit: Michael Ventura/ Alamy Stock Photo

It’s only fitting that the National Museum of African American History and Culture was designed by a team of superstar Black architects. Led by industry luminaries David Adjaye and Phil Freelon, the Freelon Adjaye Bond/SmithGroup earned the contract after winning an international competition for the museum’s design in 2009. During the collaboration, Zena Howard served as project manager, while Max Bond Jr. sadly passed away before the museum broke ground. 

Adjaye, the son of a Ghanaian diplomat, paid particular homage to the connection between Africa and the United States throughout the design. The museum’s three-tiered crown can be found in Yorugan West African Art, while the welcoming front porch is reminiscent of the American South and the Caribbean. The intricate metal lattice found on the exterior is a nod to the ironwork often performed by enslaved African Americans in the South.

Pacific Design Center – Los Angeles, California

Exterior of Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles with bright geometric shapes
Photo credit: Mark A. Johnson/ Alamy Stock Photo

Known for its bright colors and striking geometric shapes, the Pacific Design Center was designed by Cesar Pelli and Norma Merrick Sklarek — the first Black woman to become a licensed architect in New York and California. The complex’s interconnected blue, green, and red buildings are lauded as major architectural achievements. Constructed in stages, the project took decades to complete, with the final building completed in 2011.

Nicknamed the “Rosa Parks of Architecture,” Sklarek broke several barriers within the field. Despite impressive technical skills and a disciplined work ethic, she faced discrimination throughout her career, including often being overlooked as a design architect. In collaboration with Pelli, however, Sklarek is credited for not only the Pacific Design Center but also other iconic institutions such as the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo, Japan, and San Bernardino City Hall in California.

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