Lynsey Weatherspoon

Desmond Johnson became the youngest architect in Georgia when he was 25 years old. Five years later, he is known as a fierce advocate for equity in the profession, recently receiving a 2021 AIA Young Architects Award for his exceptional leadership. Johnson is currently a project manager at NELSON Worldwide and serves as chair of Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission. Two of his most notable projects include the design of Morehouse School of Medicine’s first-ever on-campus housing (while employed at Rule Joy Trammell + Rubio) and the renovation of the historic Roosevelt Hall while working at Moody Nolan.

The Atlanta University Center is a consortium of historic Black colleges and universities near Atlanta’s West End. According to a lot of people, the area is one of the meccas for Black culture in the city. I spent a lot of time in the area, so I was drawn to the prospect of designing a project—Morehouse Medical School’s housing—for the AUC Consortium. It truly is a living and learning community for the school of medicine.

Roosevelt Hall is an 18,000-square-foot building from the 1930s. It was the centerpiece for the University Homes neighborhood, which was the first public housing development in the country for African Americans. Roosevelt Hall is a relic—the one remaining building that’s still standing from the development. We were tasked with renovating, reusing, and redesigning it as a commercial centerpiece for a new mixed-use development. It includes a community space, computer labs, and office space. We also incorporated historic timelines and artwork that tell the story of University Homes and celebrate the building’s iconic past.

When I became the youngest architect in Georgia, that was a very proud moment for me. But what was more significant to me was the responsibility, achievement, and accomplishment of being one of the 2% of all licensed architects who are Black. I think that number is an embarrassment, frankly. I want to use my skills, talents, and platform to give back so that other people of color, particularly Black people, can see themselves succeeding in this profession.

My role as a commissioner of Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission is to help make sure that each proposed project to be constructed or renovated is a responsible steward to the context and design of its neighborhood. Our goal is to protect and preserve the historic fabric and nature of the city.

I’m also proud that, in 2019, NOMA Atlanta established the first design award specifically tailored to people of color and women. It was the first time any design award in Atlanta specifically targeted or celebrated the contributions of minority designers. And I was the chairperson who planned, executed, and realized the vision of those awards.

What drew me to architecture was leaving a footprint on the physical environment. But if my impact can touch people and help to repair communities that have been torn apart, then that exceeds all my expectations professionally and I can die happy. — As told to Christina Sturdivant Sani