Oriana Fenwick

Gabrielle Bullock, FAIA, the first African American managing director at Perkins and Will, and a leader in the National Organization of Minority Architects, has won the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award for her commitment to social issues. Here she responds to our architect’s version of the Proust questionnaire.

What is your greatest achievement?
My greatest achievement has been work-life integration. My career and family have both been priorities for me, and though difficult and not without compromise, I’ve been able accomplish integration. Personally, raising my daughter has been the most rewarding.

What project that you worked on best illustrates your approach to architecture?
Destination Crenshaw in Los Angeles illustrates my approach to architecture in its community participation as design partner, research, cultural competency, diversity of team, and interdisciplinary collaboration between architecture, urban design, landscape design, and art. Not one of these aspects overshadowed the other. They were all critical in designing a successful solution and innovative experience.

What progress have you seen during your career with the issue of diversity in architecture?
What has been historically an overwhelmingly male-dominated, racially non-diverse profession, one largely silent on the issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion, is now more gender balanced (overall). The issue of diversity is more amplified and is a point of discussion and action among many organizations and academic institutions. Firms like Perkins and Will have made advancing equity, diversity, and inclusion a core value as well as a priority of the profession at large. What is measured is improved, what is openly and bravely addressed moves the needle. We have a long way to go but I’m encouraged by the current activity and attention.

What work remains in that area?
While the conversation is amplified, with many more voices weighing in, there still remains a huge gender gap within leadership roles and of African Americans overall within our profession. The number of African Americans has remained relatively stagnant (2% overall and 0.3% of African American women) for many years. More effort to increase access and awareness to underrepresented groups is crucial to building a diverse pipeline to eventually achieve a profession that mirrors society.

What makes diversity such an important issue in architecture?
As society moves from “me” to “we” and the political culture continues to evolve, now more than ever, cultural and ethnically diverse communities want to tell their story. Understanding that cultural competency is critical in telling these stories correctly. The profession must reflect the diverse makeup of local communities. The focus on socially responsible projects brings culture, equity, and inclusion into the design conversation, and demonstrates that great design is rooted in cultural competency and deep community engagement. It is the opportunity to marry architecture and social justice.

What do you hope your legacy will be?
My main motivation to enter the profession was a desire to positively impact the lives of African Americans and people of color in my community. As Perkins and Will’s director of global diversity since 2013, my main focus has been to elevate and broaden the culture of diversity and inclusion; lead the design profession toward more equitable practices; expand the pipeline for underrepresented groups within the profession; and influence the broader society by tackling issues of equity and inclusion.

What is the greatest challenge facing architects today?
In this day of global public health crisis during the COVID-19 pandemic our economy, communities, and health have been negatively impacted and perhaps revealed significant biases and inequities. As design professionals our new challenge will be how to design for resiliency not only in infrastructure but also in the human condition. Public health will likely be at the forefront of how we work, live, play.

What was the greatest challenge you faced in your career?
Frequently being the “only one in the room” has been a particular challenge. In school I sometimes felt invisible. In my professional settings I learned to take advantage of the situation by shining and taking that “stage” since all eyes were on me anyway.

Gabrielle Bullock
Noah Pylvainen, Perkins and Will Gabrielle Bullock

When did you first realize you wanted to be an architect?
I was 12 years old and was keenly aware of the disparity of living conditions between races and socioeconomic classes.

What jobs did your parents have?
My mother worked in the airline industry, mostly at TWA, and my father was a truck driver.

What would you have been if not an architect?
If I weren’t an architect I would have liked to be a forensic detective or pathologist. Problem and puzzle solving is what excites me.

What’s the best description of your leadership style?
Firm, honest, and direct.

What lessons have you learned over the years about leadership?
I’ve learned the difference between management and leadership. Management is largely tactical and leadership is visionary and strategic. The transition from one to the other is not immediately apparent so I learned from missteps and role models. For both, communication style has a significant impact on how one is perceived.

What is your favorite building?
The Sydney Opera House and the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

What is your most treasured possession?
An inspirational poem from my grandmother: Follow Your Dreams, by Bruce B, Wilmer. An excerpt reads:

Find confidence within your heart and let it be your guide. Strive ever harder toward your dreams
And they won’t be denied.

What is your greatest extravagance?
A pair of Jimmy Choo platform shoes. They hurt my feet so badly I’ve only worn them twice.

Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
Paul R, Williams, Phillip Freelon, Norma Sklarek , Allison Williams, and Julia Morgan.

Which living person do you most admire?
Barack Obama.

What does winning the Whitney M. Young Jr. mean to you?
This journey that I embarked on was driven by my personal experiences as a black female architect, and my professional drive to improve the complexion and cultural makeup of our design profession to better mirror the society we serve.

I hope that this recognition/award and others like it empower and encourage others to become change agents and make their own mark to advance diversity in our profession. In 1968, Whitney M. Young Jr. challenged AIA and its members to take action to address the lack of diversity in our profession. I’m proud to be recognized for my efforts and commitment to doing just that.