How did you come to be an architect?
My dad is an architect. I grew up in a household that featured yellow tracing paper and Prismacolor and markers rather than the usual set of toys. My siblings and I evolved as young artists by association.
What's your professional experience?
Credit: William Anthony
R. Steven Lewis
Title: 2009–2010 president, National Organization of Minority Architects
FYI: A co-founder, along with Roland Wiley and Steven Lott, of Los Angeles–based RAW Architecture (now RAW International) in 1984, Lewis
moved to the U.S. General Services Administration’s Offi ce of the Chief Architect in 2004, where he spent four years working on the Design Excellence Program. Earlier this year, he joined the Pasadena, Calif., offi ce of engineering and construction company Parsons Corp. In 2006, Lewis was named a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University, where his topic of study was race and the profession of architecture. He became NOMA’s president in October.
In 1984, we started a Los Angeles firm called RAW Architecture. Three African-Americans decided that we wanted to carve out a different niche. Our mission was to avoid public set-aside work for the first five years and try to build a clientele that allowed us to express our design point of view. Pretty bold for 1984. My dad struck out on his own in the late '60s, early '70s at a time when black architectural firms were starting to emerge in urban places like New York City. The housing market, funded largely by HUD, was a safe vehicle to empower black architects with commissions, albeit not the high-profile new construction that many of our white colleagues were able to land with similar or less experience.
In four decades since civil rights leader Whitney Young Jr. harshly rebuked AIA architects for their "thunderous silence" and "irrelevance" regarding civil rights, black architects have risen from 1 percent to 1.5 percent of licensed professionals, a statistically insignificant improvement. What are we doing wrong?
It is a loaded, very complex, and interesting question. Those percentages translate to approximately 1,650 licensed black architects in America today. We were trending in a more positive direction in the post–Whitney Young era, when affirmative action was in full effect and institutions like Columbia were pressed from the bottom up. Student action led to a complete revamping of their admission policies. Many of my friends and colleagues benefited, but then there was a relaxation, to let the market take care of itself. That has been absolutely devastating. About a year or so ago, we hit rock bottom. Institutions, whether pressured by their constituents or through their own good conscience, are taking measures to correct this problem. My alma mater, Syracuse University, under the leadership of dean Mark Robbins, made available 10 full scholarships a year targeting black high school students. They have had a zero attrition rate over three years since the first crop got there.
Professional success often comes down to role models and connections. How do we get 1,650 black architects to become role models in the same way that your father was to you?
On the heels of Whitney Young Jr.'s speech at the AIA, 12 black architects decided they could not sit by idly. They became NOMA, the National Organization of Minority Architects. My dad was a member of the New York chapter during those formative years, and we are today dealing with some of the same issues—structural inequality that will still take some years to knock down. I'm happy to say we are looked to by the design community for leadership in evolving the profession. Architects of color have inherited as part of their DNA to always have work that ties back to the community, whether it is pro bono or for profit.
What do you hope to accomplish in the coming year?
NOMA's board operates on a volunteer basis. We will never be strong based on our numbers, but we can be influential based on our leadership. We are looking for people to lead us toward mentoring. How do we create a pipeline for future generations to enjoy the benefits of this profession and make their contribution? Project Pipeline is the national initiative aimed at cultivating interest among middle school and high school kids. We focus on people of color: black, Latino, anyone who is young that we can grab and get interested. We have a number of structured programs. The biggest and the most fruitful is a summer camp in a number of cities and in partnership with the ACE mentoring program or the AIA summer programs. These are strategic partnerships, leveraging NOMA with the resources of our sister organizations to broaden the impact.