A walking tour of Compton architecture

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This weekend, architecture buffs are flocking to Palm Springs for Modernism Week, the annual celebration of Mid-Century Modern architecture in the desert.

There's another tour of buildings this Sunday happening closer to home: Compton.

The tour is in honor of Black History Month, and organized by the Los Angeles chapter of the American Institute of Architects. The walking tour highlights the work of black architects and the barriers they had to overcome.

There'll be six stops, including schools, hospitals, community centers, and Compton City Hall, a very striking late Modernist building from the mid-1970s by African American architect Harold Williams. The tour will also visit the Charles R. Drew University of Medicine and Science, designed by Drake Dillard, who will lead the tour with architect Jason Morris.

Morris told DnA that part of what is significant about the Compton City Hall, for example, is that Williams even got the project at all.

"At the time in 1968, you know, black architects weren't getting commissions like that. And as a result of the Civil Rights Act, you had a lot more black architects getting commissions like that. And he was even quoted in an LA Times article saying that he was determined to bring the community of Compton quality architecture."

Compton is not unique in the region for having buildings designed by African-American architects. However, the entire region does not have a high number of buildings by African American designers and architects, because for many decades they were not well-represented in the profession.

The tour is an offshoot of a map published by AIA|LA and the National Organization of Minority Architects documenting the contributions of African American designers and architects in Los Angeles.

It includes projects designed by the notable architect Paul Revere Williams, such as the LAX Theme Building, the LA Superior Court Stanley Mosk Courthouse, and the First AME Church of Los Angeles. And there are hotels, hospitals, churches, restaurants and even a synagogue listed on the map, all across the region.

But one goal of the tour, and of the map, is to draw attention to the contributions of African American architects, while also pointing out the disparities. Morris said that African Americans make up 10 percent of LA County's population, but only 1.4 percent of practicing architects in LA.

Why so few? It goes back a long way. Architecture was until recently a white boy's club. In recent years it has vastly expanded its numbers of women, but minorities are still under-represented. Morris and Dillard have a number of reasons why: lack of exposure in schools to architecture, and middle class African American parents encouraging their children to go into other professions, like law and medicine. Then, as for any architect, there is the difficulty of securing clients affluent enough to commission buildings.

Generally when we think about Compton we think of the music that's come out of that city, and the troubles it's had with crime and gangs over the past 25 years or so. But now it seems to be going through a renaissance. The young major Aja Brown has a background in urban planning and talks of wanting Compton to be the “new Brooklyn.” You're seeing a reinvestment in the city, and there's an effort to dedicate funding to fix Compton's streets, city lighting and public safety.

While this tour focuses on African-American contributions to the built environment of Compton, the demographics have shifted. It's now about two-thirds Latino and one-third African-American.

For more details about the tour and how to get tickets, check out DnA's 5 Things to Do This Week post.

Photo: The Martin Luther King Monument in the City of Compton (Eric Polk)