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76 | Design School as a Site of Insurrection, Then and Now

Dr. Sharon Egretta Sutton, FAIA is an activist educator and public scholar who promotes inclusivity in the cultural makeup of the city-making design professions.

76 | Design School as a Site of Insurrection, Then and Now

In a career spanning decades, Dr. Sutton has broken through barriers in both teaching and practice and led by example a quiet revolution in how we think about design and inclusivity.

Her career began as a student in heady days at Columbia University in the late 1960’s, when the school was recovering from a full takeover by students, which segued into a bold series of policies known as “The Experiment.” The Experiment was not only the most aggressive attempt theretofore to recruit African American and Latino students into the Ivy League, it was an attempt to explore democratic notions of governance within design school. Removing centuries of tradition and hierarchy that favored a controlled, top-down approach to pedagogy and curriculum, students were emboldened to start seeking out their own curriculum and develop projects which reflected the social agendas of the day. Many of the tactics and experiments then discovered would go on to become de riguer in design schools as we know them today.

Subsequently, Dr. Sutton was the twelfth African American woman to be licensed to practice architecture, the first to be promoted to full professor of architecture, the second to be elected a Fellow in the American Institute of Architects (AIA), and the first to be president of the National Architectural Accrediting Board.

In her teaching and research, Dr. Sutton examines the United States’ continuing struggles with racial justice and how they manifest in the built environment.

She recently codified many of these experiences and thoughts in a book called “When Ivory Towers Were Black: A Story about Race in Americas Cities and Universities” which collected oral histories from many of her classmates about the stunning progressive movement which took shape at Columbia University’s school of architecture after America’s “Long Hot Summer.”

We were fortunate enough to speak Dr. Sutton about her perspectives on the state of design education and how it has evolved over the last five decades on Social Design Insights. Have a listen here.

And afterwards, be sure to check out Dr. Sutton’s recommendations for further research and study:


Social Design Insights would like to thank all those who make our weekly show possible: Baruch Zeichner, our Producer and Sound Engineer, Donna Read, for producing our video content, and Leah Freidenrich, Director of the Curry Stone Foundation. Our theme music for 2018 is "Alright With Me" by Reggie Young from his album "Young Street." The break music is "Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony French Horn Solo" by Danilo Dtagni.