Visual Culture

How J. Max Bond Jr. Became New York’s Most Influential Black Architect

Will Speros
Feb 21, 2019 5:56PM

Portrait of J. Max Bond Jr. Image courtesy of Davis Brody Bond.

As the story goes, architect J. Max Bond Jr. became fascinated by design in his youth after encountering a staircase at the Tuskegee Institute. That single curiosity is said to have set in motion a career that embodied humanistic values, emphasizing design that could be widely accessed and appreciated. Although this anecdote from his youth shapes a legend, the work of the architect was grounded very much in reality, considering the most urgent needs of our time.

Undoubtedly the most significant black architect in New York during the 20th century, Bond’s impact was the result of decades invested in increasing the visibility of black art and history. Bond was born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1935 to a family entrenched in communities of higher learning and social activism. His father, J. Max Bond Sr., was an academic who served the president of the University of Liberia in the 1950s. His mother, Ruth Clement Bond, was a prominent civic leader, quilter, and teacher. And his cousin Julian Bond was the chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) for over a decade.


The fundamental lack of African-American representation in architecture was hardly lost on Bond, who found himself at odds with his advisors at Harvard University—where he obtained bachelor’s and master’s degrees through 1958—and faced a professional setting where African-Americans accounted for less than 1 percent of the field in the United States. The young architect traveled abroad to Tunisia and then to France, after winning a Fulbright scholarship to apprentice under the direction of architect André Wogenscky.

Departing from France in 1960, Bond returned to New York to serve with prestigious firms like Gruzen & Partners and Pedersen & Tilney. Following his marriage to writer Jean Carey Bond in 1961, Bond’s blossoming career led him to Ghana, where he worked on government initiatives from 1964 to 1967. A standout from this time is his unfussy design of the Bolgatanga Regional Library, which maximizes simplicity with natural ventilation and a broad, tabletop-like roof that crowns four volumes.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Atlanta. Image courtesy of Davis Brody Bond.

Bond again returned to New York, this time at the height of the Civil Rights movement in 1967. Uptown, Bond spearheaded the Architects Renewal Committee of Harlem—one of the first advocacy-planning organizations of its kind that helped residents have their voices heard. At the helm, Bond championed the creation of a planning review board that was representative of community groups and local institutions, which ensured that projects proposed for Harlem benefitted its residents above all.

Two years later, 1969 marked another landmark for Bond when he and his peer Donald P. Ryder founded the practice Bond Ryder & Associates. It became one of the most prominent African-American architectural firms, netting prestigious designs like the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change in Atlanta, where the Nobel Prize–winning activist and his wife were laid to rest upon a reflecting pool.

Bond went on to firmly emphasize education and civil rights in his portfolio, crafting facilities such as the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Alabama and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, which has been acknowledged as both a New York City Landmark and a National Historic Landmark since 1981 and 2017, respectively. Ushering New York’s art crowd north of the Museum Mile, Bond unveiled Harlem’s Studio Museum in 1982, a renovation of a historic commercial structure. Arguably the firm’s design that is most familiar to New Yorkers, the venue remained a fixture of black art until its recent closure to make way for an expanded facility crafted by David Adjaye, with whom Bond collaborated on the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ryder retired in 1990, and Bond went on to merge the practice with Davis, Brody & Associates, where he served as partner. The firm is today known as Davis Brody Bond.

In the 1980s, Bond served on the New York City Planning Commission, and was the chair of architecture at the Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture and Planning, followed by the dean of the Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture and Environmental Studies at City College. Bond’s historic fingerprint on the city made him and his practice a natural choice to spearhead the design of the museum portion of the city’s 9/11 memorial, which officially opened in 2014, following the architect’s death in 2009. Uptown, Bond’s name now adorns the Spitzer School’s research and design center, as well as the southeast corner of West 162nd Street and St. Nicholas Avenue, known today as J. Max Bond Jr. Way.

9/11 Memorial Museum. Photo by Amy Dreher. Courtesy of the 9/11 Memorial and Museum.

Among the highest honors bestowed by the American Institute of Architects (AIA), the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award was given to Bond in 1987 in recognition of architects or practices that embody social responsibility and address issues from affordable housing to universal access.

For J. Max Bond Jr., a single staircase took him to heights unforeseen, yet he remained grounded in his mission to change perceptions. His passions birthed a portfolio of groundbreaking built environments that support its inhabitants to lift them further than before.

Will Speros