The Rise of the Black Architect - OZY | A Modern Media Company

The Rise of the Black Architect

The Rise of the Black Architect

By Joshua Eferighe


Because it matters who designs the spaces where we live.

By Joshua Eferighe

  • Kimberly Dowdell, the 37-year-old president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, is leading the charge to diversify the people who create urban spaces.
  • Having members of the community help physically shape their communities would have far-reaching impact.

Just 2 percent of the approximately 116,000 architects currently licensed in the United States are African American. Only 0.4 percent are Black women.

Yet somehow, at only 11 years old, Kimberly Dowdell knew this was the career she wanted.

Growing up in inner-city Detroit in the early 1990s, Dowdell was accustomed to boarded-up buildings. That included the core of downtown where she’d see really big, largely abandoned, beautiful structures that were ghosts of their former selves.

The Hudson’s department store, in particular, was special to her. It occupied a full city block and was the second-largest department store in the U.S., behind Macy’s in New York. Although it closed the year she was born, its hulking presence was always there. It wasn’t until one fateful day when her art class was assigned to create apartments out of a shoebox, however, that her eyes saw the department store in a new light. Up until that point she wanted to work in health care like her grandmother, but the homework resonated with her and made her want to practice a different kind of medicine.

To envision a new future for a place, you really have to understand that community and understand what its needs are.

Kimberly Dowdell

“I sort of saw being an architect like being a doctor, but for cities or buildings. That healing the department store would help heal that part of the city,” she says. So Dowdell wrote down Woodward Avenue — the main drag in Detroit where Hudson’s is located — in hopes of returning to do just that. Twenty-five years later, she is healing cities, just not the way she thought she would.

Dowdell, 37, is the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), the second-youngest ever to hold the post. She helps introduce children in middle school and high school to the profession through a mentorship program and a camp. She developed the 2030 Diversity Challenge as part of a task force with the 60 largest architecture firms in North America to more than double the number (from 2,300 to 5,000) of Black licensed architects in the next decade. And on top of that, she’s working on projects in various Chicago neighborhoods as principal architect at the global firm HOK.

“It shows her dedication to the organization, building bridges and forming partnerships to make it happen,” says Tiffany Brown, national executive director of NOMA and founder of an initiative called 400 Forward, which aims to seek out and support the next 400 women architects and designers. “We both come from humble beginnings and are dedicated to making the road to architecture easier for those coming behind us.”

Dowdell began her schooling in architecture early, earning a scholarship to attend Cranbrook, an elite boarding school outside of Detroit famous for its art and architecture, for high school, before a five-year bachelor of architecture program at Cornell and a full-tuition fellowship for public administration at Harvard. Although she never got to restore the department store before its demolition, Dowdell soon realized a lot of cities are challenged with similar issues and that it’s not just the architects, but city government, developers, construction and other corporations that are all involved in the process. “I later learned that’s really not how it works, but the architecture bug had already bit me,” she says.

That bite came with a new outlook on life: using design as a catalyst to improve the quality of life for people living in cities. But it’s something she says will take a lot more people that look like her to accomplish. “To envision a new future for a place, you really have to understand that community and understand what its needs are,” she says. It’s why she remains vigilant about firms relying on talent from within a particular community before they reshape its landscape. “If it doesn’t involve the community’s voice, it can be very disruptive and, frankly, traumatic for those communities that have to undergo change without their input or voice.”

Diversity in architecture also helps combat the problematic side to development, like when gentrification disrupts a neighborhood. When contractors, developers and designers have input from people in the community, they will make more well-rounded and thoughtful decisions.

So why does the field lack diversity? Brown boils it down to factors you’ll find in many professions: disenfranchisement, systemic barriers and a lack of financial support. To become a licensed architect, you need an (expensive) college education and to pass several exams that cost more than $1,000 — for which you’ll probably need to take expensive study courses to make the grade. “The best solution would be for all of us, especially firm leaders and the entities that control access to our profession, to join forces and incorporate solutions to these barriers together,” she says. Dowdell is on the case.

The Diversity 2030 Challenge was made possible by partnering with the American Institute of Architects’ Large Firm Round Table — an organization made up of 60 of the largest architectural firms in North America. They are committed to hiring more architects of color, in part by recruiting at historically Black colleges and universities. Similarly, Dowdell has grown NOMA from 900 to 2,400-plus members while traveling around the country, visiting schools and showing face. Visibility matters.

Just ask Morgan Medley. The 17-year-old high school senior launched blackgirlsDRAW — a platform aimed to spur the interest of young girls to seek architecture — in August after hearing there were only 500 Black women in architecture.

Medley invited Dowdell onto her show to share her story. “She inspires me because she is so intentional about what she believes and she never backs away from her desire to increase African Americans and women in the field,” Medley says. “By 2030, my goal is to be in that increased number of licensed African American architects.”

The only thing stopping such progress would be inaction from entrenched architecture firms — which is why Dowdell and her cohorts will keep pushing. “Without action behind the many discussions on this topic,” Brown says, “we will still be trying to address these statistics 50 years from now.”

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