Processing the Robert Kennard Papers By CFPRT Scholar, amy zhou

I’ve had the great privilege of working with the Robert Kennard Papers (Collection 2351) since April 2019.

Born in Los Angeles (Monrovia) in 1920, Robert (“Bob,” as he was known to his friends), was the founder of Kennard Design Group (KDG), which worked on a variety of large projects, like the City of Carson City Hall, the Van Nuys State Office, and the Normandie Metro Red Line Station. He graduated from USC’s School of Architecture, and was an impassioned advocate for women and people of color in the field of architecture, investing time and money into fostering the growth of potential students of color.

UCLA Library acquired the papers from KDG earlier this year after Genie Guerard, Curator at UCLA Library Special Collections, met Robert Kennard’s daughter, Gail Kennard, at an event. As a result, we received 27 boxes of firm records, housing everything from the legal dissolution documents from the firm that was a precursor to KDG, happy company photos of smiling faces, to boxes and boxes of small Kodak photos slides completely alien to this non-Information Studies millennial.

(image right) Photo slide of a site plan for Temple Solael (located in Woodland Hills), constructed in the 1980s-- one of the many institutional projects that KDG worked on.

While KDG worked on some residential projects, the company also worked on a variety of public-facing projects.

The firm worked on the First Unitarian Church in Los Angeles. Before architects had the technological tools to be able to draw renderings digitally, they had to do them all by hand (though “their drawings,” notes Emily Torem from Moss Design, “had to be absolutely perfect or else a roof might fall on someone”).

Below are some photographs of plans and renderings that Kennard did for the project, and we can see evidence of his careful linework-- and even some glimmers of his visual personality, as per the splindly trees and people in the rendering at the bottom, paired with the figure in the rendering directly above, standing in the hole of the sculpture.

The ground floor plan of the First Unitarian Church.
Renderings of the Additions and Alterations to the First Unitarian Church.

Another interesting project that KDG worked on was the Central City Community Mental Health Center (4211 S. Avalon Blvd), which was originally a part of the Gilbert W. Lindsay Recreation Center (located at 429 E 42nd Place). In 1985, the City awarded the contract for mental health services to Kedren Health, and the building is now branded with its name.

Included in the files donated to UCLA are a plethora of site plan and rendering negatives, photographs taken during construction, and a surprisingly large amount of photos taken of the exteriors and interiors that offer a snapshot of life in the 1980s.

A negative of a floor plan for the Central City Community Mental Health Facility.
A negative of the Central City Community Mental Health Facility exterior.
Photograph taken during the construction process for the Central City Community Mental Health Facility.
Another photograph taken during the construction process for the Central City Community Mental Health Facility.
Photographs taken by Joshua Freiwald, an architectural photographer based in San Francisco (who, incidentally, just passed away last year-- rest in peace).
Also by Joshua Freiwald.
One more photograph by Joshua Freiwald,

When Robert Kennard was named a Fellow of the American Institute of Architects in 1986 (a title that honors the recipient’s contributions to the profession), a piece in the L.A. Times stated that Kennard was also active in the founding of the Central City Community Mental Health Facility, and that he believed that the facility “performs an important preventive function.”

In receiving this honor, Kennard noted that he was born in Watts. “I have always been interested in helping promote student enrichment programs in that area, such as we initiated at Washington High School, and in supporting positive action groups within the black community.”

In my mind, this is one of Robert Kennard’s most important legacies: he put an enormous amount of work into fostering more people of color and minorities in the field. Amidst all of his firm’s documents and files is clear evidence of a man who was passionate about lifting his community. He frequently communicated with NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects), with whom he held a membership early in the organization’s formation, and poured financial resources and time into making students of color feel at home in the field.

Correspondence from then-President of NOMA, Leon Bridges to Robert Kennard.
Letter outlining the sponsorship of a minority student for Cal Poly’s Summer Intensive Orientation Program in 1987.
Student response on what they’ve learned from Cal Poly’s Summer Intensive Orientation Program in 1984 (which Kennard provided some resources for).
A copy of a letter from Robert Kennard to Everett, a student who he was mentoring.

Architecture and urban design influence so much of our daily lives: they subtly nudge our moods and emotions, but also provide us with shelter, one of our most basic needs. To have a just city, it’s critical that the design of urban spaces, buildings, residences, neighborhoods, and cities remain inclusive. One of the best ways to ensure this is to ensure that the people we design for (which includes minorities and women) are also the people designing the space. Presently, this is not reflected in the field: in the last census, 13% of the total American population is black but just 2% of licensed architects in the US are black, and only 0.2% are black women.

Robert Kennard fought against these statistics in two distinct but intertwined ways: 1) he explicitly encouraged more young diverse people of color into the field, and 2) he was a deeply human role model, evidenced by how he led his firm and completed a diverse range of projects --- presenting those young people he was looking to inspire with a figure whom they could look up to.

Having that additional presence is critical: I spoke to my personal friend and Masters of Urban and Regional Planning classmate, Prince Osemwengie (currently a Design Intern at Mass Design Group, a co-founders of the Black Planners Network, and who holds a BS in Architecture). He and some of our other classmates founded the Black Planners Network earlier in the school year and I asked what it meant to him.

“The importance of having something like BPN at UCLA [is that] we get to see other black people engaged in our field,” he said. “I know for me, in this field itself, where people are highly interested in doing what’s best for their community, it’s highly refreshing to be able to see them and know that I’m not the only one out here. It’s kind of relieving. You know that you’re not alone.”

In many of the documents that Robert Kennard left behind, I read about the awards that he had won, the projects that his firm had worked on, but I also read about the struggles that he faced as the owner of a small business (lawsuits from clients, buyouts of a partner’s shares etc.)-- all documents that were humanizing and painted a fuller, more vibrant picture of him. He was not perfect, as none of us are. What he achieved for himself was only reached after setbacks and hard work; his story makes our own journeys to our goals less isolating because we know that others have traveled the same path and made it.

Robert Kennard died in 1995 but his legacy lives on in the Robert Kennard, FAIA Award for Equity, Diversity, and Inclusivity, offered by the American Institute of Architects, in all of the buildings he designed, the people he inspired, and the people he will newly inspire through the documents and files that he left behind.


Photo of Robert Kennard from http://kdgarchitects.com/new-page-3. All other photographs are from the Robert A. Kennard Papers (Collection 2351), UCLA Library Special Collections. All rights reserved.

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