Building on an enduring bond

Tuskegee University and MIT deepen a connection that’s existed from the start.

Department of Architecture
October 20, 2023

Robert Robinson Taylor’s impressive legacy straddles two institutions. There’s MIT, where he studied architecture and became the Institute’s first African American graduate; and then there is Tuskegee University, originally the Tuskegee Institute, where Taylor spent most of his career, heading the architecture department of the historically Black college, helping to shape its educational philosophy that drew some inspiration from MIT’s, and designing and helping to build many of the buildings on the Tuskegee campus.

While there have been ongoing links between the two campuses, just in the last year leaders and students in both places have been working to build, extend, and deepen that connection.

Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee’s founder, recruited Taylor shortly after his MIT graduation in 1892, and apart from a brief three-year interlude, Taylor remained there until his retirement, having become the nation’s first accredited Black architect. During that period, he designed 48 buildings that formed the core of the campus, and which were built by the students and faculty members themselves. Forty of those buildings, including the chapel and the science building, remain in use on the campus today, and have been designated as national historic landmarks.

“There are such essential resonances between the two institutions, beyond the shared history, in terms of where they are today,” says Nicholas de Monchaux, chair of MIT’s Department of Architecture, who has been actively pursuing a deeper engagement between the two in collaboration with Kwesi Daniels, head of Tuskegee’s architecture department.

Among other things, MIT’s environment in a major urban area shapes much of the focus of its architectural design work, while the very rural Tuskegee University “has a deep connection to its physical history, which forms a large part of the teaching in its architecture department,” de Monchaux says. “In terms of what the two campuses can provide each other, it seemed a natural fit at the architectural level” for the two to cultivate greater connections.

“Mens et manus”

Connecting back to the inspiration Taylor received from MIT’s longstanding motto “mens et manus,” referring to education both the mind and the hand, Daniels says that as the two institutions explore ways of expanding the connections between their campuses, “one of the things that really stood out for me was MIT’s model of educating the mind and the hand, and Tuskegee’s model of educating the head, the hand, and the heart.” As for that “heart” component, he says, “there’s a long lineage of work that Tuskegee is engaged in where the ‘heart’ was taking the knowledge that was on campus and pouring it out into the community surrounding the campus, to encourage new opportunities that would not normally be prevalent, by leveraging the resources that Tuskegee gets access to.”

MIT itself has also increasingly been using the phrase “mind, hand, and heart” in much of its own internal communications, emphasizing the importance of the human connections in a balanced education.

Daniels says “We’re really excited” about increasing interactions between the two institutions. “What I love about this is that it’s something that I wanted to see happen for a long time, and to see it actually taking place now, to see students benefiting, and for all of us being able to have this conversation about what education looks like.”

In November 2022, MIT held an event honoring Taylor’s legacy, and featuring Taylor’s great-granddaughter Valerie Jarrett, who was a senior advisor to President Barack Obama and now serves as CEO of the Obama Foundation. Jarrett brought Taylor’s MIT diploma, which family members had recently found, and which is now prominently displayed in the new MIT Museum, on loan from the family.

Now, a new program of exchange visits between the campuses has begun. This year, a group of students from Tuskegee came to the MIT campus for a week, to learn about digital fabrication techniques and entrepreneurship in the Department of Architecture and MITdesignX, the School of Architecture and Planning (SA+P) innovation program led by Faculty Director Svafa Grönfeldt. Then, a group of MIT architecture students, faculty, and staff spent a week on the Tuskegee campus, learning about the preservation of historic buildings, and about the strong connection between theoretical analysis and practical applications that is embodied in the Tuskegee curriculum, as Taylor envisioned it.

“Taylor brought his experience from MIT to Tuskegee, and it formed part of the DNA of that institution,” de Monchaux says. Taylor himself spoke of that inspiration: At an event honoring MIT’s 50th anniversary, he said that “some of the methods and plans of the Institute of Technology [MIT] have been transplanted to the Tuskegee Institute, and have flourished and grown there.”

A two-way exchange

Tuskegee University “focuses a lot on creating a home and a community for its students,” says Larry Sass, an MIT professor of design and computation in the architecture department who helped to organize the exchanges. The group of Tuskegee students who traveled to MIT “can bring back a lot of the digital fabrication techniques that we teach, a lot of the computing techniques that we teach.” As for the MIT students visiting Tuskegee, programs in historic preservation and conservation do not exist at MIT, so the visits allow MIT students to understand important techniques in an important historical context; as Sass relates, “most MIT students know nothing about the civil rights movement, and when we travel to Alabama, we’ve been learning a lot about the aftermath of the civil rights movement, because it’s so well documented there.”

In addition, Sass says, because much of the Tuskegee campus was built by the students themselves, and that kind of hands-on work continues, “as architecture students they learn to physically produce the things they are learning about.”

Timothy Hyde, an MIT professor of architectural history and one of the leaders of the exchange program, points out that at Tuskegee, “historically that was the case, where literally the architecture students made the campus. They dug the clay, they fired the bricks, they designed the buildings with Robert Taylor, and then they built the buildings, and then they would have classes in them … There was always this back and forth between the physical architecture of the campus and the kind of thinking and the abstract knowledge of the campus.”

Hyde says that for the MIT group that went to Tuskegee, one goal was “trying to learn about and understand both the pedagogical and curricular structure and organizational structure of Tuskegee University, which is very distinct.” The architecture program there, he says, “is really woven in with many other fields, it’s quite interdisciplinary in its thinking,” and highly involved in its community. For example, they learned about a student project that involved designing a mobile library for the local county, built from a converted school bus, that will now provide a library service that can travel from school to school.

“We hope to dive much more into learning about how an institution can carry out this kind of intensive community engagement,” Hyde says. He adds that MIT also can learn from the way Tuskegee works with a campus many of whose buildings constitute a national historic site. “That has direct relevance to me and to my department, given the fact that in two years [the architecture department] is going to move into the Metropolitan Warehouse,” which is also a designated historical building. This move “is itself an adaptive reuse project, a historic preservation project that is trying to take an existing building and rather than tear it down, transform it into something useful for the 21st century.” Tuskegee is wrestling with similar issues now, for example in renovating its science building, where George Washington Carver worked, to update its lab facilities while preserving its history.

Building and expanding

Three of the Tuskegee students, Adeleke Ambali, Jordan Houser, and Kiana Wilcher, who came on that exchange visit in January ended up applying to and participating in MIT’s Summer Research Program (MSRP), a highly competitive program for college students from around the country to come to MIT for nine weeks and work on projects with MIT faculty members. "That felt like some validation” for the exchange program, says Lauren Schuller, the diversity, equity, and belonging officer in MIT’s architecture department, who helped organize the events. It showed “that they had a positive experience, because they wanted to come back and spend the whole summer here … And they really got the whole MIT experience,” including a chance to get to know faculty members and departments that they were interested in.

De Monchaux says that “architecture in the 21st century faces essential tasks across many different contexts and communities; our partnership with Tuskegee gives our students a broader and more essential picture of what it is to build places today.” After the MIT group’s visit to Tuskegee last April, he says, many students “reported separately that it was one of the most significant experiences of their MIT degree.”

Daniels adds that while the initiative for the collaboration came from the architecture departments of both schools, the hope is that interactions will grow and expand to encompass many other disciplines as well, including public health, computation, and the two institutions’ business schools. “The only way we’ll find real solutions to the problems we have is to think in interdisciplinary ways, because none of these problems are borne out of one discipline, and definitely cannot be solved by just a myopic approach. We all have a piece of the puzzle.”

Toward that end, Schuller says, MIT is putting together a steering committee “to not only determine what the partnership and programming will look like within the department of architecture, but also to be sort of a clearinghouse for other potential collaborations across MIT.” Already, a further exchange of visits between groups of students and faculty from the two schools is planned for next January.

Reflecting on Taylor’s life and impact, and the influence that MIT had on him and that he passed along, Daniels says “I just hope that we, through this type of exchange, can duplicate that experience exponentially with students, through the pipeline that was created with MIT and Tuskegee over 140 years ago.”

Originally published October 20, 2023 by  MIT News