Dowdell Op-ed in Architect Magazine Explores the Complexion of Legacy in Architecture

In 1947, my grandparents purchased a modest Victorian-style home near Belle Isle on Detroit’s East Side, becoming the first black family to integrate the neighborhood. That house, in which I lived until the age of 9, became part of the fabric of a disinvested neighborhood and, like many buildings in the area, was eventually demolished. One reason I decided to become an architect, at age 11, was to help improve my hometown as a whole and thus prevent more families’ memories from being bulldozed over.

Today, my work is focused on creating strong neighborhoods in which people feel safe and empowered to build a good life. As an African-American woman, I am acutely aware that the affected neighborhoods throughout the United States are disproportionately black, while the profession tasked with envisioning their rebirth is disproportionately white. As the newly inaugurated 2019–2020 president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), I hope to help ensure the success of minority-owned architecture firms so that they will be at the forefront of this important work.

As such, I was struck by the absence of African-American-led firms on the recently released ARCHITECT 50—a blemish that has existed on this otherwise inspiring and prestigious list since its inception in 2009. But their lack of representation extends beyond this one list: African-Americans are outright missing from the profession. Of the more than 113,000 architects in the United States, approximately 2,250 are African-American—less than 2 percent of the profession in a country that is 13 percent African-American.

Consider the impact of this underrepresentation in the communities in which many minority architects grew up—and may still reside. Are cities better off with design authorship from architects intimately familiar with the environment? Should communities of color be designed and built by a diverse team? Should every neighborhood benefit from diversity of thought and experience in design? I think the answer to all of these inquiries is yes.

According to the United Nations, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in cities or other urban centers by 2050; the number of people living in U.S. cities will grow from approximately 300 million to 400 million. Meanwhile, by 2045, this country’s population will become mostly non-white, according to a recent study conducted by the Brookings Institute.

As cities redevelop to accommodate this influx, architects will no doubt have a hand in building the future. But who will be these architects and for whom will they build?

As in politics, representation matters in city building. I am encouraged by the current support in the profession to heighten diversity in architecture—such as scholarships, grants, and mentorship programs—but much remains left to do, particularly as it relates to helping our minority firm owners create sustained legacies that will positively influence their communities.

My presidential platform is “ALL in for NOMA 2020.” By the end of my two-year term, I would like to see greater Access, Leadership, and Legacy building in the profession, particularly among the African-American community, which is the most underrepresented minority. As NCARB reports unprecedented numbers of minority students entering the profession and getting licensed, we also need more opportunities for minorities to grow into leadership positions, start their own firms, and build a sustainable legacy for the future. NOMA, for one, offers year-round programming and an annual conference to recruit talent, develop best practices, and educate designers on how to gain recognition for quality work and prepare for succession planning and legacy building.

When architects are empowered to design for the health, safety, and welfare of their own communities, they have a personal stake in the work—and in the results. If we don’t support the future of our communities with sensitive design, who else will?


This piece originally appeared on on January 8, 2019.