Architecture and advocacy is the legacy of 90-year-old Robert Traynham Coles

Aug 28, 2019

In Buffalo, a local architect has received a national recognition for over a half century of contributions to the profession of architecture. His story has roots in the civil rights movement.

It’s 1968. Two months after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In Portland, OR at the American Institute of Architects Convention.

Whitney Young Jr., president of the National Urban League, took to the stage and reprimanded some 6,000 surprised architects in the auditorium. Here’s a re-enactment:

“You are most distinguished by your thunderous silence!” said Young.

Robert Coles
Credit Sandy White

Architect Robert Traynham Coles was in the audience that afternoon with several other African American architects.

“I sat there with the audience as he began to speak and he challenged the members present to be more involved in solving 'the urban crisis,'” Coles said.

Coles worked with Young at the University of Kansas later that year. He returned to Buffalo, even more dedicated to devoting his practice to urban architecture, revitalization and preservation programs.

These steps he took with trusted friend, colleague and activist Dr. Jessie Nash Jr.

“We saw that there were problems in the community, and in 1964 we created ESCO (Eastside Community Organization)," Coles said, "and ESCO was involved in bringing Saul Alinsky to Buffalo and we raised $150,000 to create the action organization BUILD.”

His advocacy also led to the formation of the Community Planning Assistance Center in 1972 with Presbyterian Minister Rev. Richard Prosser and colleague Charles Rush Jr.

On the national stage, Coles was a founder of the National Association of Minority Architects.

Robert and Sylvia Coles
Credit Robert Coles

“Early on, he was committed to the goal of challenging racism,” said Sylvia Coles, his wife of 65 years, "and fighting to advocate for minorities.”

Their testimony as an interracial couple led to the passing of a model anti-discrimatory housing law in the state of Massachusetts.

“During my architecture, I was an architect by day and am advocate by night (laughter),” said Coles.

A fierce advocate for urban living, Coles was out front calling for the location of the University of Buffalo on the waterfront.

Today at age 90, he is writing a 2nd book and living out his Golden Years in a nursing home room filled with memories.

“We’re looking at a photograph of my staff in Buffalo in 1973," said Coles. "I just wanted to have the photograph to remember the people who were there.”

The faces of architects in his office, a melting pot. More than 15 were African American and women.

“Our cities have become more diverse and the populations are multi-racial, but we need architects who also are diverse and multi- racial to build the cities of the future for those populations,” he said.

Coles' book is entitled Architecture and Advocacy.
Credit Sandy White

Though wheelchair-bound, Coles' spirit is not. Earlier this year, he was awarded the prestigious Edward C. Kemper Award for his contributions to the profession.

“Well it makes me proud of the fact that I made the right choice, eventhough the teacher I had in high school said there were no black architects," he said. "I just gritted my teeth and said, 'I’m going to be a black architect.'”

And he did. After graduating from the University of Minnesota, he later advanced through the American Institute of Architects to be elected Chancellor of the College of Fellows, the highest position an architect can achieve at the college.

“I think he has made a major contribution to the profession of architecture and to his community and to society,” said architect and Kemper Award winner Randy Vosbeck.

Coles' successful practice boasts projects in Washington, New York and Buffalo, like the JFK Community Center, the Frank E. Merriweather Library and UB Alumni Arena.

Architect Edward Watts, who was encouraged by Coles to go into architecture, today is a successful owner of his own firm in downtown Buffalo.

"It was inspirational for sure, knowing that an African American had that kind of success and influence," said Watts.

“Please raise a glass!” said architect Clinton Brown at a local celebration at the Towne Restaurant in January.

You sense this Kemper Award winner and expert sailor is not sailing into the sunset just yet. As celebrations continue, Coles remains resolute in his call for more inclusiveness in society and social justice for all.

Robert Traynham Coles was also an AIA recipient of the Whitney Young Jr. Award in 1981. Plans are underway to celebrate the Kemper Award recognition in October in the City of Buffalo.