Robert L. Easter, FAIA, has championed diversity within architecture throughout his decades of practice. In addition to founding KEi Architects in Richmond, Va., and serving as the 15th president of the National Organization of Minority Architects, Easter has chaired the architecture department at Hampton University in Hampton, Va., since 2008, supporting emerging architects and designers as they find their voices.
What is your approach to architecture?
I believe that good architecture solves people problems; our mission is to design structures that provide spaces and create environments that enrich communities. That requires a collaborative effort that engages multiple parties, including community leaders and users and owners of the buildings we design.
Which of your projects best illustrates that approach?
My firm has done a lot of community centers where engagement of the public through design charrettes and community presentations forms the basis for community engagement for most. Among some of those that have received some critical success are the Charles & Wanda Gill Center, Pine Camp Community and Cultural Arts Center, Southwood Community Center, the Calhoun Center and Hickory Hill Community Center. It also includes schools, including the Martin L. King Middle School that was designed in collaboration with BCWH Architects.
What makes the issue of diversity so important in architecture?
Diversity expands excellence by increasing the perspectives by which excellence is achieved and measured.
What is the greatest challenge right now in the field?
Our challenge is remaining relevant in a society that is increasingly digital, remote, disengaged, and polarized. While design thinking is a critical strength of our profession, compassionate thought is critical to our success in responding to community needs.
What is the most promising recent development in the field?
The effort to increase racial, ethnic, and gender diversity in our profession; increasing the number of licensed BIPOC and women practitioners.
What jobs did your parents have?
My father was a musician and college administrator (at Hampton University); my mother was a public school guidance counselor (after serving as secretary for the school of Architecture at Hampton University when I was in elementary school).
What compels you to teach in addition to running your practice?
Staying relevant and in touch with the ever-changing dimensions of practice. I still love to draw, and I love working with clients, but I also love teaching and seeing the success of our students when they complete their academic journey and enter the practice.
What would you have been if not an architect?
A teacher or pastor (I’ve been and am still both). Any one of them is still a fulfilling career.
Which five architects, living or dead, would you most like to have dinner with?
In my lifetime, I have broken bread with some phenomenal heroes (male and female) of architecture. But I’d love to have a chance to sit with Paul Revere Williams, Minoru Yamasaki, Eero Saarinen, Renzo Piano and Beverly Greene.
What does architectural misery mean?
No work to pay the bills or provide paychecks for the families dependent on payroll.
What does architectural happiness mean?
Lots of work and happy clients (and ribbon-cutting ceremonies).
What’s the greatest ambition you have yet to achieve?
Going to Heaven (I’m not in a hurry). Otherwise, to retire wealthy (although the question asked for an ambition and not a dream).
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope that people will remember that I raised two amazing, wonderful, intelligent, articulate, and magnificent children who have become compassionate, empathetic, and engaged adults making significant contributions to humanity. Secondly, that I used those same skills to inspire hundreds of young people to enter our profession with those same attributes. And finally, that I helped form a practice that had a significant and positive impact on the communities that are served by the architecture we developed.
What’s the one question you wish we had asked (and the answer to that question)?
Who were my role models that led me to a life of service in our profession?
My professors, like John Spencer and James Hall at Hampton University and Charles Steger and Milka Bliznakov at VA Tech; to my first professional boss, Paul J. Ford, an architect in Baltimore, MD; my business partner and brother, John Kelso; my NOMA colleagues, Wendell Campbell, Harry Overstreet, Mort Marshall, Bill and Ivenue Stanley, Mike Rogers, Cheryl McAfee, Roberta Washington. Marshall Purnell and Paul Devereaux, and so many more who have touched my life and helped chart my course. The thing is… that list gets added to every day, because there are a lot of our colleagues who I admire, look up to and try to emulate.
What does winning the Whitney M. Young Jr. award mean to you?
As I stated to the AIA Board, it is nice to have your life’s work acknowledged by those who you sought to make beneficiaries of that work. The purpose of that work was not to get the recognition, and the work has not yet been finished.
This article appeared in the May/June 2023 issue of ARCHITECT.