Breaking Molds, and Then Designing New Ones
By ROBIN FINN
Published: April 21, 2004
NOT long before he graduated from Harvard with a master's degree in architecture, J. Max Bond Jr., whose firm Davis Brody Bond was named associate architect for the ground zero memorial last week, recalls being chummily taken aside by one of the gurus of Harvard's architecture program and receiving an unfriendly shock. The professor advised him to exit the architect business before he'd even dipped his toe in it. Talent and intelligence weren't his liability; toe color was.
African-American architects of note, the professor casually informed him, were virtually nonexistent. A bright young man like him-he had a diploma from Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta at 13 and entered Harvard at 16-would do himself a favor by picking another profession and chasing a different dream. Just another case of life not being all that fair in the late 50's, not even for the trilingual (English, French and Spanish) son of a pair of progressive Southern educators who raised him to believe that there were no limits. It was in Tuskegee, Ala., that he first became intrigued by large-scale architecture: the objects of his attention were warehouses for World War II fighter planes.
Mr. Bond, now 68 and a bit of a graying guru himself, elected not to take the professor's advice and segregate himself from the unfair side of life. Just as he elected not to take the hint when a cross was burned on the lawn in front of his dormitory in the spring of his freshman year at Harvard. Beneath that crisply pressed lavender shirt lurks a steel spine: 50 years removed from the insults, he does not excuse them, but he comes close to laughing them off. Certainly he has outgrown them. Besides, how could his Harvard professor not have known that the institution's own library was built by a black architect, Julian Abele? That still stumps him.
"Welcome to Harvard," says Mr. Bond, contemplatively, which is how he says most things. Hilarity and irony aren't his style. His manner is professorial; no wonder, as he had spent six years as dean of the School of Architecture and Environmental Studies at City College and has also been chairman of Columbia University's Graduate School of Architecture and Planning.
But he evidently bears his alma mater no great grudge: his college became his client when he was hired to renovate the Harvard Club in Manhattan, an official New York City landmark. He says it came as no surprise that the old diversity bugaboo cropped up at blueprint time: the club's facilities for women were woefully inadequate because, of course, women were not on the original membership list. These "subliminal slights conveyed by the architecture," as Mr. Bond refers to them, have been noted and corrected. He took pleasure in the process.
At least he felt welcome when he became Davis Brody Bond's first and only black partner (he admits he'd love to see that second thing change) in 1990 after his partner, Don Ryder, retired from their own firm, Bond Ryder & Associates, after two decades. "Architecture was and remains one of the more segregated professions," he says, "and too much of architecture is sort of dictatorial. Certain architectural decisions have a larger economic and social impact than people realize."
Cases in point: At the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, he used sapele, a wood from Africa, for the interior paneling. At the Martin Luther King Jr. Center in Atlanta, he used wood indigenous to the South and, in deference to the wishes of Dr. King's parents and widow that the memorial not be intimidating, the only "fancy" material is the marble of the crypt. For his first widely recognized project, the Bolgatanga Library in Ghana, he experimented with a parasol-shaped roof that made it possible for the library to protect its collection even if its air-conditioning faltered. He spent four years in Ghana and both his children were born there.
HE is perched on a red chair in his office at 315 Hudson Street, where the river provides a protean backdrop and his favorite photograph of Miles Davis, a haunting candid by Frank Stewart, hangs at eye level across from his desk. His bookcase and files take up an entire wall, and he anticipates that the World Trade Center memorial will generate another wall's worth of paperwork. Mr. Bond is partner-in-charge of a pool of 20 Davis Brody Bond professionals who will work with the memorial's creators, the architect Michael Arad and the landscape architect Peter Walker.
Mr. Bond stresses this is a collaboration, not a takeover. "We're not coming in as critics," he says. "And we're not particularly diva-ish. Our objective is to take their concept and figure out how to realize it, to keep the design's integrity intact but also figure out all these problems, everything from infrastructure to security to lighting to fountains to the hardware on the doors. It's a wonderful opportunity to implement something that is going to carry great historical and emotional meaning."
He was delighted when Mr. Arad won the competition with "Reflecting Absence." Mr. Bond said, "So many young people died in the twin towers that day, that it seemed wonderful to me that the memorial competition was won by a young designer."
Mr. Bond, who is on the quiet side, - no flashy hobbies - lives in Washington Heights with his wife, Jean Carey Bond. He does not go by his first name, which happens to be James, and that's just as well. "The last time I had a martini was 25 years ago," he says. "I drank two, and when I went to stand up, I couldn't get out of my chair."