Robert Coles, trailblazing Buffalo architect, dies at 90


Robert Coles, trailblazing Buffalo architect, dies at 90

Modernist architect and social justice advocate, Robert Coles. (Courtesy nycoba | NOMA)

Following a long, fruitful, and often challenging career that was marked by rampant racial discrimination but helped open doors for fellow architects of color, Robert Traynham Coles, founding member and inaugural secretary of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA), has passed away at the age of 90.

Elected in 1994 as the first African American architect to serve as chancellor of the AIA College of Fellows, Coles established his practice three decades prior in his native Buffalo, New York. Throughout his career, Coles was known as somewhat of a hometown hero: A polished designer of local landmarks (the JFK Community Center, the Alumni Arena and Natatorium at the University at Buffalo, and the Frank E. Merriweather Jr. Library are among them), a community organizer, and a tireless champion of the underserved who dedicated his career to “an architecture of social conscience” according to an announcement released by nycoba, the New York chapter of NOMA. Coles’s home and studio, a modernist hybrid prefab affair, located in Buffalo’s Hamlin Park Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.

“His house on the parkway was the sleeper. It’s a distinctively and exemplary modern house, as distinctive as Jefferson’s Monticello,” architect Clinton Brown told the Buffalo News. “He was one of the few architects to be living in the house he designed when it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places as one of America’s most significant houses.”

“One of the most important lessons from his life and work is he was a great architect,” added Brown. “He’s often pigeonholed as an African American architect. His work is some of the best architecture ever built in Buffalo.”

Outside of his beloved hometown, Coles also designed buildings in New York City, Washington, D.C., Providence, Rhode Island, and Rochester, New York.

Coles also served as an educator and mentor, holding teaching positions at the University of Kansas and Carnegie Mellon University. Coles himself received his undergraduate architecture degree from the University of Minnesota before attending the Massachusetts of Technology, where he received a master’s of architecture in 1955. Following his graduation, Coles studied in Europe and apprenticed in Boston before returning to Buffalo in 1961 and opening his eponymous practice two years later. It is the oldest African American-own architectural firm in both New York and in the Northeast.

Coles was the recipient of numerous local and national accolades including, most recently, the 2019 Edward C. Kemper Award from the AIA for his significant contributions to the practice of architecture. Many of these awards, as the Buffalo News points out, were in recognition of his work with minority architecture students and fledgling practitioners.

“Our cities have become more diverse and the populations are multi-racial, but we need architects who also are diverse and multiracial to build the cities of the future for those populations,” Coles told Buffalo-Toronto National Public Radio affiliate WBFO in a 2019 profile, which noted that a majority of the architects who worked with Coles at his firm over the years were minorities and women.

Coles also published a memoir, Architecture and Advocacy, in 2016. According to the WFBO profile, he was hard at work writing a second book as of last year.

“Bob Coles was a Buffalo original and a brilliant, trailblazing figure in architecture,” Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown said in a statement. “He fought for African American representation in all aspects of architecture and mentored architects of all races. His creative vision came to life throughout Western New York and in other parts of the nation.”

Coles is survived by his wife, Sylvia, and two children.