Kimberly Dowdell, architect and frequent speaker on the topic of the future of architecture
Kimberly Dowdell, architect and frequent speaker on the topic of the future of architecture. Photo courtesy of K. Dowdell.

Kimberly Dowdell is a licensed architect and frequent speaker on the topic of the future of architecture. She is currently a Principal in the Chicago studio of HOK, as well as the 2019-2020 national president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), working closely with her board of directors and staff to increase opportunities for women and people of color to gain more equitable access to the profession. Kimberly’s professional aspirations are rooted in her upbringing in Detroit where she was initially driven to use architecture as a tool to revitalize cities.

She earned her Bachelor of Architecture at Cornell University and her Master of Public Administration from Harvard University. Her professional experience has spanned from architecture to government and teaching to real estate development. In her interview, Kimberly describes the issues facing all of the cities she has worked in, and how her various roles in the built environment support her larger mission, advising young architects to find a mentor and to be a mentor themselves.

This article was originally published on Madame Architect.


Julia Gamolina: How did your interest in architecture first develop?

Kimberly Dowdell: I learned about architecture in a middle school art class – my teacher gave us a shoebox and invited our class to make an apartment in it. I thought it was an interesting introduction into the power that is design. “The bed should go here! No, here! This is what carpet I want!” Those kinds of things.

Shortly thereafter, I remember I was in downtown Detroit, which, in the early 90’s, was a ghost of its former self – a lot of beautiful buildings that were built in Detroit’s heyday were boarded up and not activated, and there wasn’t a lot of street activity. I remember thinking, “If architects work on space, then maybe I should become an architect and help to reactivate the buildings.” I later realized, that’s not how any of this works [laughs].

How does it work?

I learned that architects certainly play a role in city activation, but we’re part of a larger team, which involves the government, real estate developers, contractors, engineers, etc. After I got licensed, I got a Master of Public Administration degree. People will sometimes ask, “Why would you study government when you are an architect?”

Because you know something they don’t [laughs].

Buildings are a part of the public realm. I felt like there are a lot of policies that inform how we interact with the built environment – what can be developed where, how high, what incentives people get to do certain things – but that aren’t set by architects.

“I was in downtown Detroit, which, in the early 90’s, was a ghost of its former self… .I remember thinking, ‘If architects work on space, then maybe I should become an architect and help to reactivate the buildings.’”

Let’s backtrack for a second. You got your B.Arch from Cornell, got licensed, and then went to the Harvard Kennedy School. What did you do while getting your license?

I first worked at Ayers Saint Gross in DC, on a residence hall for the deaf at the Gallaudet University, exactly because I wanted to get licensed. Then at a NOMA conference, I got recruited to work for HOK in New York.

However, I wanted to get back into addressing the issues that I saw as a kid in Detroit and to get closer to the real estate side. Shortly after I was recruited by Ken Levien at Levien & Company to do business development and manage projects, I learned about an opportunity to go to the Kennedy School.

What was it?

I had a mentor who told me about the fellowship program that was coming called the Sheila C. Johnson Leadership Fellowship. Johnson is the fourth wealthiest African American woman in the world and the Kennedy School had been having conversations with her about creating a program geared towards students of color who are interested in impacting communities of color. I was like, “This is my dream for Detroit!” I ended up getting the fellowship.

I finished that program in 2015, and was recruited to work for the City of Detroit in the Housing and Revitalization Department. My role was to help developers navigate city departments for high-priority projects. In getting to meet lots of developers, I ended up meeting with a team that I thought was doing things in the way that I would want to do them. That’s how I joined Century Partners.

Tell me about that time.

I joined as a partner, doing smaller-scale real estate development focused on building off of the strength of stronger neighborhoods, but maybe on a block that’s not quite as strong. We kept as much money in the community as possible, and then rented or sold the home based on market conditions. It was interesting to understand things from a development perspective, but I didn’t love working at that scale.

I kept looking at these downtown buildings; what I really love are the big urban interventions. Eventually, I started to have conversations with my former colleagues at HOK and they expressed that there was a need within the Chicago office to actually look at our entire business within the Midwest. When I started the conversation, it was about beginning a Detroit office with HOK, but we decided to focus on strengthening Chicago for the moment. HOK has been supportive of my role with NOMA, so I get to cover a lot of ground. I have really loved my return to architecture.

Kimberly Dowdell speaking at TEDxDetroit
Kimberly Dowdell speaking at TEDx Detroit. Photo courtesy of TEDx Detroit.

Having worked in New York, DC, Chicago, Detroit, what would you say are the main issues in each city right now?

D.C. is a very different place than when I lived there in 2008. It’s undergoing a lot of “progress” which is great, but then there are also issues of gentrification and displacement. The median net worth of a white family in America is about $117,000. For an Asian-American family, it’s about $80,000, for a Hispanic American family, about $8,000. For an African-American family though, it’s about $1,700. There are the Sheila C. Johnsons of the world, but there are also lots of people who are barely making ends meet in the Black community.

A lot of issues contribute to that, namely slavery and Jim Crow; terrible policies that make it difficult for this group of people to catch up with others. D.C. is becoming less accessible to a wider range of people, which is sub-optimal.

“Density in building is important, but we have to think about how to responsibly bring all these people together … what role can architects play in making places that facilitate more peace and harmony, versus the opposite?”

What about Detroit?

It will be a long time before we start to see major displacement like we’re seeing in D.C. The Downtown and Midtown areas of Detroit are coming along quite nicely relative to investment, however, places tend to physically reflect the amount of investment they receive. Detroit is about 139 square miles, and the part that’s being rediscovered and reinvested in is only about 10 square miles. The miles that are grossly underinvested in are primarily where people of color live. That’s an issue that’s not so dissimilar from D.C., but it’s going to take longer for people to start to feel displaced in Detroit.

New York?

I haven’t lived here in a few years, but I’ve noticed that the MTA is charging more, it’s more congested, and the service is getting worse. That signals that more and more people are living here. Right now, roughly there 300 million people living in U.S. cities. By 2050 that number is going to be 400 million people. That’s a lot of growth.

I was coming in from the airport the other day and Queens has brand new towers. The other boroughs have become remarkably vertical. Density in building is important, but we have to think about how to responsibly bring all these people together, especially as we look at other statistics, like that by 2045 the majority of people in the US will be people of color. As we look at bringing together a lot more people, what role can architects play in making places that facilitate more peace and harmony, versus the opposite? Especially given what’s been happening in the country recently with shootings.

Finally, what do you see in Chicago?

Chicago is unique. It’s younger than New York – founded 200 years later – and markedly more sanitary in a lot of ways, mainly because we utilize alleys. It’s a fairly diverse city, which is good for the Midwest, but it’s still very segregated. I think Detroit and Chicago are tied for the most segregated cities in America. I’m interested in seeing how that impacts its growth. It’s still pretty new for me, only having lived in Chicago for a few months.

“There is work to be done with the institutions and organizations that produce the people who shape the built environment.”

In terms of your larger mission of improving how people live in cities, how have your development and government roles supported it?

The major difference between being a developer and being an architect is, the developer is responsible for all of it. As a developer, you pay an architect to provide a service and they provide that service and finish, but you’re still the developer. You have all the decision-making, but also all of the risk. There’s the term “greater risk, greater reward,” Developers do tend to be compensated greater than architects, but that’s because there’s a lot of worry that goes in that process.

In government, the incentives were different. It’s not about profitability. You are responsible for ensuring that the public is getting fair treatment. The City of Detroit has a lot of public land to be managed. What they’re doing well right now is being careful about who they sell to, ensuring the new owners will be responsible.

When I was working with Maurice Cox in Detroit, he would sit down with the developer and say “You can’t build this here, because this doesn’t respond to the context.” He used to be an architecture professor, so he would roll out trace paper, sit with the developer’s architect, and say “This is a better way to resolve this.” There’s so much happening within City Hall that shapes how we all interact with the built environment. Decisions are made with that sensitivity, which counterbalances the desire for profit on the developer side.

You’ve really had an amazing and holistic view of the profession. In that, what have been some of the biggest challenges?

Figuring out how I want to spend my time is somewhat of a challenge – finding the time to both deal with diversity issues, and also be a professional and advance that aspect of my career. I’m passionate about urban revitalization, particularly rust belt cities, and places that have a rich history but have been disinvested. How do we reactivate these buildings with people and vibrant businesses? Ultimately, my professional mission is to improve the quality of life for people living in cities.

There is work to be done with the institutions and organizations that produce the people who shape the built environment. My two-year NOMA presidency is an opportunity to focus on that. The programs that I’m looking to put in place now, if done well, can have a major impact on diversifying the profession.

Tell me about NOMA.

My platform for the two years is “ALL in for NOMA” signaling that all people are invited to join. There’s a misconception that you have to be a minority, or African-American, or Hispanic. Sure it was founded by twelve African-Americans in 1971, in response to the fact there was no organization to help facilitate community for that group, but since then, we’ve become a much larger organization.

All are invited to join, but “ALL” is also an acronym for ‘access’, ‘leadership’, and ‘legacy’. How do we make sure that we support everyone through that pipeline? How can you become a leader in the profession, whether in public service, or design, or development? What if you want to lead a small, a medium, or a large-sized firm, or be a professor, a dean? We want to make sure people have exposure to those opportunities.

Last out is ‘legacy’. That’s making sure that our minority-owned businesses, in particular, are leaving a legacy, creating succession plans, thinking about retirement plans, so they’re best positioned to give back. There’s a quote by Marian Wright Edelman – “You can’t be what you can’t see.” It’s important that minorities are in leadership positions so younger people can see that there is actually a path for them.

Who are you admiring right now that is doing this sort of work?

The first person who comes to mind is Phil Freelon. He was just an incredible role model and a longtime NOMA member. I remember the 2010 Boston NOMA conference. This only happened a few years but, NOMA hosted a professionals-versus-students basketball game. Phil played in the game, and so did I. Having the opportunity not only to go up to say “hello”, but to have this leisure time with him – that was cool. You look at his portfolio of work and the impact that he’s had – having his own firm, selling it to Perkins + Will, seeing that entire trajectory of his career. He was a shining light in the profession in general, but also within the NOMA community. He was someone who I looked up to and still do.

I also really appreciate the work that Gabrielle Bullock is doing.

“Find a mentor and be a mentor. It’s really the secret to success.”

Stay tuned for her interview!

Gabrielle has been a guiding light in terms of advancing diversity in the profession. She’s been with Perkins and Will for a long time leading these efforts. I also really appreciate the work that Rosa Sheng is doing out in San Francisco – I think she’s fantastic. I’ve enjoyed working with Bill Bates as the AIA president this year. I’m looking forward to working with Jane Frederick next year because I think that NOMA and AIA have a really strong relationship now and I want to build on that.

One other person that I’d mention, in terms of appreciating their work, is Tony Griffin. She’s done things within her career that are similar to the things that I’m interested in. She’s got the Just City Lab at Harvard. She convened a group of maybe 30 or so people a few months ago, just to talk about these issues of equity and justice and cities, and that’s powerful.

I now have an even longer list of people to talk to. Finally, what advice would you give to those about to start their careers in the built environment?

Find a mentor and be a mentor. It’s really the secret to success. Not just mentorship, but relationship building in general. Even peer-to-peer, being a sounding board to people is important. No one has all the answers, but if you have a problem and you source solutions from a wider variety of people, you’ll be able to make a stronger decision because of the diversity of thought that’s gone into counseling you. Mentorship in both directions is really critical. NOMA is a great place to start!