Practicing ArchitecturePracticing Architecture
Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA, Honored with 2011 Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award
By Sara Fernández Cendón
The American Institute of Architect’s Board of Directors bestowed the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award on Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA, for her efforts to increase minority participation in the design professions and her advocacy on behalf of environmental and social justice. Established in 1972, the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award has honored architects and organizations that exemplify the profession’s proactive social mandate, ranging from issues such as affordable housing, minority inclusiveness, and access for persons with disabilities. The award is named after the civil rights-era head of the Urban League who confronted the AIA’s absence of socially progressive advocacy head-on at the 1968 national convention.
The work of three lifetimes
Originally from Cincinnati, Sutton began her professional life as a classical musician. She studied music at the University of Hartford and played French Horn in the orchestras of the best ballet companies in the world – the Bolshoi, Royal, Leningrad, and Moiseyev. The idea of preserving old buildings and affordable neighborhoods began to compete with her musical career after she experienced the loss of all three of her childhood homes to urban renewal. While still working as a musician, she purchased a turn-of-the-century brownstone on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and redeveloped it as rent-controlled housing. This was just the beginning of her second career.
She enrolled at the Parsons School of Design to study interior design, and following the infamous 1968 student-led uprising at Columbia University, was recruited by its School of Architecture. Stanford Britt, FAIA, the 2005 Whitney M. Young Jr. Award recipient, was Sutton’s classmate at Columbia.
“Even back then, 1968-1972, we all knew Sharon was destined for greatness in our profession,” Britt wrote in his letter supporting Sutton’s nomination for the award. “She questioned the kind of projects we were assigned to design. She ruffled feathers insisting we have the option to choose assignments relevant to the communities in which we would be working.”
Later she apprenticed with Bond Ryder, Mitchell Giurgola, and Alex Kouzmanoff, and eventually opened her own office in New York City, focusing on renovation and adaptive reuse. Simultaneously foraying into a third career, Sutton earned advanced degrees in philosophy and psychology, and held adjunct teaching appointments at Pratt Institute and Columbia University.
With five advanced degrees, Sutton embarked on her third career as an architectural educator. After a brief stint as assistant professor at the University of Cincinnati, Sutton became associate professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1984. Since 1998 she has been a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle.
In his nomination letter, Terrence O’Neal, AIA, the New York regional director on the national AIA Board, compared Sutton’s achievements in the academic world to those of Whitney Young Award recipient Norma Merrick Sklarek, FAIA, in the practice arena.
“In 2008, Ms. Sklarek was the first woman to receive this distinguished award,” he wrote. “Dr. Sutton has established herself as a pioneer of women architects in academia. She is one of only seven black woman architects elevated to the College of Fellows, and the second, behind Ms. Sklarek, to have received that honor. The two of them, one in practice and one in academia, represent the first generation of black women licensed architects in the United States.”
A voice for the excluded
Grounded in her experience as one of very few African American women architects, Sutton has spent her career advocating inclusion in the planning and design professions. She is active as a public speaker, writer and editor, and is equally deft at addressing scholarly peers and mainstream audiences in outlets ranging from architecture magazines to academic presses.
In his recommendation letter, Theodore C. Landsmark, Assoc. AIA, president of the Boston Architectural College and the 2006 Whitney M. Young Award recipient, wrote of Sutton’s clear-eyed appraisal of the state of diversity in design: “She has brought thoughtful advocacy on behalf of women and people of color to the design professions for several decades, and I have often found myself reflecting on what she would say, and how she would say it, in considering how I might express my concerns and positions on behalf of increasing diversity in the design profession,” he wrote.
A catalyst for engagement
Sutton’s interest in inclusion extends beyond the design professions and into the built environment, where her work focuses on engaging citizens--especially minority teenager--in community-based planning and design. In an opinion piece published in 2004 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Sutton summarized the nature of her work as an academic: “I spend most days studying how youths can become activists in their communities,” she wrote. “I especially want to know how youths can better connect to the world around them through intergenerational arts activities.”
Concerned that low-income, minority teenagers were not participating in community service, the Ford Foundation provided funding for Sutton to recommend ways to get them involved. As principal investigator in a two-and-a-half-year study, Sutton turned the assignment on its head. Her research looked at after school programs, documented the ways in which minority teenagers do contribute to their communities, and identified reasons why they don’t do more. The study was conducted under Sutton’s leadership by the Center for Environment Education and Design Studies (CEEDS), where she serves as director. Based at the University of Washington, CEEDS is an interdisciplinary group of faculty and students focused on improving learning and community well-being in the greater Seattle/Puget Sound area. The program partners with K-12 schools, government agencies, and grassroots organizations to plan and execute community design initiatives.
James M. Suehiro, FAIA, met Sutton at the AIA Grassroots conference in 1997 and later spent time working with her at the AIA Diversity Conference in Seattle. In his recommendation letter, he praised Sutton’s work at CEEDS: “This research center matches graduate level students in collaboration with youth of low-income communities to evolve collective ideas into actions that physically improve their environment. Whether or not the young or mature student becomes a design professional, each has been inspired to challenge poor conditions.”
Established in 1972, the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Award has honored architects and organizations that exemplify the profession’s proactive social mandate, ranging from issues such as affordable housing, minority inclusiveness, and access for persons with disabilities. The award is named after the civil rights-era head of the Urban League who confronted the AIA’s absence of socially progressive advocacy head-on at the 1968 national convention. Past winners have included J. Max Bond, FAIA (1987), Habitat for Humanity (1988), Curtis J. Moody, FAIA (1992), the National Organization of Minority Architects (2007), and Norma Sklarek, FAIA (2008).
Visit the AIA’s Honor and Awards Web site.