I had a rare opportunity to photograph architect Robert Traynham Coles this year. Now in his late 80s, Coles had a 50+ year career in the world of architecture, and his innovative and eponymous modernist home and studio in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Robert T. Coles, for lack of a better word, is a legend in Buffalo. An African-American architect who battled racial discrimination through his career and who left an indelible mark on a city already heralded for its historic and preservation-worthy architecture. His visions for the JFK Recreation Center, the Merriweather Library, and myriad other private homes and public buildings that he designed are indicative of his commitment to an “An architecture of social conscience” a goal to create and advocate for public spaces that were more humane, civilized, and inspiring to those that occupied them while still being aspirational examples of mid-century modern architecture that emphasized light and openness. His designs for private home often blur the boundaries between residences and the outdoors.
Coles is also noted for his passion for social advocacy and efforts in the civil rights movement as he fought against housing discrimination, segregation, and the poor state of schools throughout his career. He also put great efforts into attracting more minority students to the study of architecture.
Coles studied under and worked with luminaries of the architecture world like R. Buckminster Fuller, Eero Saarinen, Minoru Yamasaki, and Carl Koch of Techbuilt. And when he did eventually close Robert Traynham Coles, Architect P.C. in 2012 it was the oldest African-American owned architectural firm in New York.
“I believe that because architects have the ability to see things as they can be, they have a special task, which goes beyond simply designing the physical environment. They must be activists involved in the social and political life of the community. They must address their efforts to change in these areas as well so that people can make the needed adjustments to an increasingly challenging and rich urban world. They must, in their works, build the demonstrative alternative to the way we live today. They must be initiators as well as implementors – leaders, more than followers. They must truly be revolutionaries who see their architecture as a broad movement to enhance the quality of life of urban people.”
Robert T Coles – 2004