Max Bond’s Journey
February 21, 2009
Last week the architectural profession lost one of its real heroes. J. Max Bond died following a battle with cancer at his home in New York. Bond was America’s most esteemed African-American architect, and much more. In his quiet way, he paved the way for a generation of younger black designers in a profession that has been resistant to people of color. His journey was hard, but he always seemed to prevail over hardships while maintaining a sense of dignity and grace.
Bond was active in virtually every arena of his profession. He was an educator, leading programs at both Columbia and City College of New York, and impressed students with his intelligence and commitment to social issues. His service to city and community included stints on the NY Planning Commission and leadership in Harlem’s redevelopment. His addition to the famed Avalon Ballroom saved a landmark while providing space behind the building for offices and biomedical labs. He also designed buildings at the King Center in Atlanta and in Africa. Unlike many of his more militant colleagues in the struggle for racial equality, Bond was a soft-spoken leader who proved through his professionalism that his people deserved a place at the drafting table. Moreover, he went beyond academia and practice to insist on a public role for all architects in the affairs of his city.
Born into a prominent African-American family, Max Bond used education to advance his career in the 1950s. But when a Harvard professor suggested that he not be an architect because of his color, he persisted. During the mid-century architecture was one of the whitest professions, and one of the most insular. Few blacks had made significant careers–the main exceptions being Paul Williams in Los Angeles and Julian Abele in Philadelphia–but they were always under the radar. Beginning in Europe and Africa, Bond acquired significant experience outside the avenues available in the U.S. When he returned home in the 1960s, he found himself in a cauldron of social change.
He went directly to work in the community, participating in the renewal of Harlem during the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of joining an established firm, he founded his own partnership and won significant commissions despite being an outsider. By 1990 Bond Ryder James was a major player in New York. When his partner, Donald Ryder, died Bond merged with Davis & Brody, a socially committed firm which had specialized in public housing for the Urban Development Corporation. Bond became the senior partner with the deaths of Lou Davis and Sam Brody, and continued to design major buildings until his death last week.
Max Bond began his career half a century ago, in an America that closed its doors to professional achievement for people of color. He broke down the doors in his path with steely determination and unrelenting spirit. Like Thurgood Marshall, Rosa Parks, Marian Anderson and other heroes of civil rights, he should be celebrated as a pioneer.