Eliesa Johnson

Damaris Hollingsworth, AIA, is an architectural thought leader dedicated to creating inclusive, equitable spaces. Originally from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and now Minneapolis-based, Hollingsworth is a principal architect and owner of Design by Melo, the firm she founded in 2018. She is also the co-founder of DesignSHOP, which connects students of color with mentors in the design field, and the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. Hollingsworth won a Young Architect Award from AIA in 2020.

When I was 7 years old, my dad hired an architect to design and handle city approvals for our house. That alone was something out of the ordinary—in the inner cities of Brazil, houses are built without city approvals, and there is no such a thing as the enforcement of master plans, city zoning, or code regulations. When I saw [the architect] meeting with my parents at our dinner table, I thought she looked powerful, intelligent, and beautiful, and decided right there that I wanted to be like her when I grew up—an architect.

I studied architecture and urban design at the Faculdade de Arquitetura e Urbanismo at the Universidade de São Paulo, but it wasn’t without its roadblocks. I’d always been told that, to be an architect, I would need to attend college—and colleges were not for people like “us.” Given my inner-city, public-school background and the admission processes that benefitted students from only the best private schools, it ended up taking me three failures before I succeeded in attending university.

These early challenges led to my approach to design and development, which is grounded in my lived experience. Inclusion and connection are important in all spaces. Public spaces must feel welcoming and safe to everyone and reflect the needs and aspirations of traditionally excluded groups. When public spaces are not welcoming, it results in alienation and a feeling of social fatigue—even despair.

I see myself not just as an architect, but also, by necessity, as a “translator” between design professionals and user groups who often have differing cultural and educational backgrounds.

My experiences also showed that students of color have few role models or introductions to the profession. That is why I co-created DesignSHOP for underserved high school students. This program creates opportunities to introduce students to architecture, but more importantly, to introduce them to architects of color.

While no single profession or sector can solve social problems alone, architects should lead the way to the development of new skills in cross-cultural facilitation. My hope for the profession is that architects embrace its essential purpose of protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the people—all people. — As told to Audrey Taylor Ward