What is the Max Bond approach to design?
A new biography charts the life of an influential architect and mentor as an alternative history of architecture.
When the architect J. Max Bond, Jr., FAIA, died in 2009, he had only recently submitted competition concepts for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture along with Phil Freelon and David Adjaye. The commission wasn’t the pinnacle of Bond’s 50-year career as an architect, racial justice advocate, and mentor, but just one of several high points for a giant of the profession. In academia, he held leadership positions at some of the most influential schools of architecture. In practice, he designed projects in a dozen American cities and another several countries including France, Ghana, and Zimbabwe. In influence, the design-advocacy center he led, the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem, redefined laconic terms like “community” as real spheres of action for architectural practice.
It’s a lot of ground to cover for Bond’s biographer, Brian D. Goldstein, whose forthcoming book If Architecture Were for People will chronicle Bond’s accomplishments and reveal what Goldstein calls an alternative history of architecture. “I think of Bond at the center of the profession in terms of his accomplishments, but on the periphery of that center, as the profession remained an exclusive club, so to speak,” he says. “His career is long and he does a lot of work, and he had to make difficult choices about what to accept and what to challenge. This is a tension that the book will explore.”
Why should we remember Max Bond, and why now?
The main reason is that he represented a model of practice that, while not his alone, was not the dominant approach in the profession. That model was engaged in the social world that architecture supports and creates. Architecture is a profession that shapes people’s lives, but it’s a profession that has a history of marginalization. It has been quite exclusive, and if you look at Bond, you can see an alternate history of architecture informed by the civil rights struggle that asks, “How do we make all people’s lives better?”
Bond’s grandfather was born into slavery, his parents were brilliant educators, he lived in a series of Deep South towns growing up, he went to Harvard College in what was the largest class yet of Black students, and he was the first African American to go to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design after completing an undergraduate degree there. Ghana, France, and America—he lived in these places in the first ten years of his professional life. He was definitely a figure who seemed to always be present for major historical moments in architecture and in the Civil Rights Movement in his lifetime.
When Bond gets pulled aside as a student at Harvard, he recalls being told by an instructor, "You seem like a bright young man, but there have never been any great [Black] architects. So why don't you pick another profession?” How does that moment galvanize his resolve to use architecture as a means of making lives better?
He had a complicated relationship with Harvard and, in fact, there were a few moments at Harvard that galvanized him. This was certainly one of them, and in the same year he heard this from the instructor, he sent a letter to the man who was then the most successful Black architect, Paul Williams in Los Angeles, and asked if he could work with him in the summer of 1955. For a number of reasons it didn’t work out that summer, but the following year he goes to work for Williams. He meets others who had a similar trajectory while he’s in LA, and I think that galvanizes him, too, because he realized that there were others in his position and that what he hoped to do was possible.
Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology in Kumasi in Ghana, Columbia University, and City College in New York, Harvard in Cambridge—all places Bond taught or was appointed chair or dean. How did teaching inform his practice, and vice versa?
Bond is from a family steeped in university life and the notion that teaching at the university level was attainable. His father and mother wanted him to have a profession, though, rather than a series of posts like his father, who served in various appointed academic, government, and diplomatic positions for short terms. What I mean is that his father was very successful, but always at the mercy of others, and Bond’s parents wanted their children to have stability and self-reliance. His career as a firm leader and tenured professor spoke to that.
The people I’ve talked to, the oral histories I’ve conducted, reveal that he was always interested in inclusion and collaboration, in response to those early experiences at Harvard, as a continuation of his experiences abroad, and also as a result of his arrival at Columbia University in the late 1960s, as it underwent a major reckoning around race, civil rights, and urban development. Bond found opportunities to experiment with these ideas of inclusion and collaboration in both his teaching and design practices.
Building off of that moment, as he’s directing the Architects’ Renewal Committee in Harlem in 1967-68, what did design advocacy mean to Bond, as an architect and as a mentor?
I’ve found three big themes in his work. One is a commitment to architecture as an inclusive field, but that isn’t just at the client stage, but broadly as a long process that starts with social context and ends with habitation and use. Who is at the drafting board? Whose voice was present during the design phase? Who actually built the building? What agency do residents have to shape their homes?
The second thread is internationalism in his work. Architecture in the postwar era is centered on a white supremacist narrative of European influence, and yet Bond, in his own life, demonstrated a world that was transcontinental in multiple directions. As far as I can tell, he liked Le Corbusier’s work a lot, but he was also interested in what he could learn from designers in Brazil and India and Ghana.
A third thread is his commitment to the city, especially since his early career came at a time when a lot of the discourse about cities was so negative. He argues for the validity of the city and the residents of the city, especially African Americans. He argues for the validity of places like Harlem, which have a lot of wonderful attributes and don’t need to be redeveloped.
People go to see buildings by Walter Gropius, or Frank Lloyd Wright, or Zaha Hadid. Why should they go see a Davis Brody Bond building? Is there a Max Bond approach to design?
In the 1990s and 1980s, he’s critical of object-building and architecture as a formal pursuit to the exclusion of other interests. One thing he does that’s interesting is he demands a more capacious understanding of what constitutes good design. It’s form-making, but it’s also all the other inputs and outputs of design. I think you can see that across his career.
Some highlights I’m thinking of are the brick work on the King Center in Atlanta, for instance, a project he designed with Bond Ryder and Associates, or, earlier in his career, the Bolgatanga Regional Library, which is a creative, clever design and an interpretation of early concrete Brutalism while also thinking about the local vernacular. At the end you can see that in the Smithsonian museum, certainly, but also in the neighborhood libraries he designed in DC, which are ambitious architecturally but also community oriented. So, there’s a Max Bond approach to design, but not necessarily a Max Bond style of architecture.
If Architecture Were for People: The Life and Work of J. Max Bond., Jr, by Brian D. Goldstein, will be published by Princeton University Press in 2026. Goldstein, an assistant professor of architectural history at Swarthmore College, is the author of The Roots of Urban Renaissance: Gentrification and the Struggle over Harlem (Harvard University Press, 2017).
William Richards is a writer and architectural historian based in Washington, DC, and the author of Revolt and Reform in Architecture’s Academy: Urban Renewal, Race, and the Rise of Design in the Public Interest (Routledge, 2017).
Davis Brody Bond