Name: Arthur Symes

Architecture Educator


How did you first learn about Architecture?

From eighth through twelfth grades (1948-1953), I attended the Manual Training and Industrial School (MTIS), in Bordentown, NJ.  MTIS was an All-Black academic and trade boarding school. Because of the “official” ending of racial segregation in secondary schools in New Jersey (Brown v. Board of Education), MTIS closed its doors in June 1955.  The trade that I studied for four years (ninth through twelfth grades) was carpentry. It was through my study of carpentry and the inclusion of one, three-hour class (per week) of Mechanical Drawing that I gained some knowledge of and interest in Architecture. Upon graduation, I began my bona fide study of Architecture at Howard University (Bachelor of Architecture degree).


Explain the rewards of teaching architecture and why you have chosen this path.

Having lived all of my pre-college years, i.e., pre-architecture study years, in minority communities, I was innately familiar with the physical and social conditions.  Therefore, studying Architecture and working in the profession, I learned directly how Architects could affect physical and social change; and, how such positive actions could improve living conditions. Having opportunities to impress upon Architecture students the importance of engaging efforts that can, in profound ways, make positive differences, has been incredibly rewarding.


Can you tell us about the importance of Architecture educators in the minority community?

Architecture educators can in more than general ways, engage the community, inform and educate residents of ways in which they can potentially work toward positive change: physical and; therefore, social. There is history of such success as recorded in the work of ARCH, the Architects Renewal Committee in Harlem. This is just one example.


What is your proudest professional accomplishment?

My primary function in the profession of Architecture has been that of Educator. Knowing that many of my former students have attained professional success in private careers and governmental positions, has given me much to be proud about.


Tell us about one of the rewarding experiences you’ve had as an educator.

In 1968, I was hired by ARCH to design and develop an entity/program that would prepare Black and Puerto Rican males and females for entry into the profession of Architecture. I named the program Architecture in the Neighborhoods (AIN). The students (that the staff and I recruited) had, based upon our assessments, sufficient academic capabilities, sufficient desire to make positive advancement in life, and serious interest in the program we were offering. Having an opportunity to prepare for and attain entry into the profession of Architecture was seen, by most of them, as an exciting opportunity. They engaged the components of the Program with sufficient enthusiasm to complete all segments: academic and employment in architectural offices. AIN ran for two years with a recruitment group of 15 students each year.


Probably the most successful of the AIN students was Kenneth Knuckles. Ken came into the Program having an equivalency high school diploma that he earned while being an employee at Con Edison. After completing the one year AIN program, he was admitted to the Bachelor of Architecture program at the University of Michigan. After that accomplishment, he was accepted to and completed a Law Degree at Howard University. With his degrees in Architecture and Law, Ken returned to New York City and over the next several years was outstanding in several high level governmental positions; plus, that of Vice President, Chief Procurement Officer at Columbia University in 1995.  In response to this question, I have focused on Kenneth Knuckles especially for the following reasons:


In 1990, NYC Mayor David Dinkins appointed Ken to the position of Commissioner of the Department of General Services. At the start of his four-year tenure as commissioner, he offered me (the person who in 1968 brought him into the Architectural training program, AIN), the position of Assistant Commissioner, Administrator of the eighty-five-member Bureau of Program Management (comprised primarily of Architects). The “student” hires the head (Executive Director) of the Program that gave him his start to an outstanding professional career.


What do you consider the current state of architectural education in the minority community?

While I am not currently involved in professional activities in the minority community especially relating to Architecture, I am cognizant of the poor physical and social conditions that engulf much of those communities. Architectural education in minority communities flourished in the late 1960’s and the 1970’s, that is, during the times of AIN and ARCH. I have no knowledge that architectural education as a pedagogy currently plays any significant roles. I am aware that there still exists student and faculty interests and applications of professional skills toward problem solutions, specifically directed toward minority communities. Such communities flourish as fertile ground for academic learning and professional involvement.