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AIA Members Help Mentor the Next Generation of Architects

AIA’s Shadow an Architect program at Grassroots 2010 shows elementary and high school students how design can be their future

by Zach Mortice, Associate Editor

Clark Manus, FAIA (l), and John Padilla, AIA, address the students before their tour of Howard University’s architecture school.

Phelps student Danielle Bryan shows visitors terraced vases made of paper and cardboard.

A Phelps student uses Google SketchUp to design a building.


Growing up, Mary Shearill-Thompson, Assoc. AIA, had never met an architect like herself: female, or African-American, to say nothing of someone who might be both. When she went to architecture school at Howard University there were 10 women in her class—the largest group of women the school had ever had.

Now an architect with the General Services Administration, Shearill-Thompson wants to make sure that kids growing up today won’t be able to say the same thing. “I want to show them that this opportunity exists regardless of gender or race,” she said.

She was one of nearly a dozen architects, associate, and intern architect mentors that volunteered to spend a day with ninth-grade students from Washington, DC’s Phelps Architecture, Engineering, and Construction High School and sixth-grade students from Groveton Elementary School in Alexandria, Va. The program, part of the AIA’s 2010 Grassroots Leadership and Advocacy Conference, represented the second consecutive year the AIA had hosted Phelps students. Since then, Phelps teacher Olatundun Teyibo says that architecture has become one of the previous class’s preferred AEC career study choices.

‘Always question what the existing reality is’

The day-long program this year began with introductions to the profession of architecture by AIA President-Elect Clark Manus, FAIA, and AIA board member John Padilla, AIA. They talked students through myths to be dispelled, the process of becoming an architect, and the basics of practice. The event was also an important way to develop diversity within architecture, as Padilla and Manus offered up minority role models as architect mentors to the group of mostly African-American students.

“Demographically, a lot of people just don’t know the profession exists,” said mentor Bernard Suber, Assoc. AIA, president of the District of Columbia Chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects. “As far as African-Americans go, being two percent of the profession, you’re that much less likely to run into an architect. You might run into a contractor or maybe an engineer.”

Architect mentor George Siekkinen, AIA, told the students to embrace their youthful suspicion of the status quo. Seeing the world as it could be is a fundamental skill architects need, he said. “Always question what the existing reality is. How would you change it? How would you make it better?”

On display, in the studio

The next stop on the day’s agenda was the Howard University School of Architecture and Design. Architecture professor Bradford Grant, AIA, told the students that he was led to architecture as a child by the same critical questioning of how his community could be a better place to live. “I wanted to have an input on how my community lived,” he said. “I lived in a neighborhood that was predominantly Latino and African-American, and there were some things about the dynamics of my community that I thought could be made better by how my community was designed. At the time I didn’t know it, but I could just sense it. ‘If there were more parks in our community maybe the community would be better and my friends could get together. . . Maybe I could become an architect and have some effect on how communities are designed.’”

Grant also spoke to the students about the need for architects to become engaged civic leaders to make sure that their ideas for improving neighborhoods and cites are executed. Such participation will also raise the public profile of architects, he said, attracting a new and more diverse group of practitioners. Grant said architects should take their expertise “to the board rooms, and council chambers, and the House of Representatives. Those rooms shouldn’t always be filled by business people or lawyers.”

The students then got a tour of the architecture school’s exhibition gallery, filled with crisp renderings of AIA DC’s headquarters building and other projects. Building models made of wood and cardboard were placed on top of podiums and set on the floor. One Groveton Elementary student called a multi-storied building frame model the “the coolest tree house ever.”

Portia Strahan, a mentor and intern architect, pointed out structural frames made of toothpicks that were built around eggs, presumably to protect them in the event of a proto-engineering class test fall. She showed two Phelps students cube-shaped matrixes, structures with wide, raft-like bases, and complex, star-like geometries. “See what’s inside it?” she asked Phelps students Demond Bannister and Teisha Bradley. “They’re trying to see which structure will actually support it.”

From the clean, wood-floored design gallery, the students toured the school’s architecture studios, weaving through mazes of desks and models—compressed and cluttered with unfinished design ideas, on their way to polished galleries and portfolios. The elementary and high school students saw simple graphic designs, massing studies, and a scale model of downtown Baltimore. Grant explained the time honored tradition of architecture student all-night studio grinds, but, he conceded, “Hopefully, they have a lot of fun, too.”

Shearill-Thompson praised Howard for giving her the opportunity to meet and be mentored by other minority architects, but she didn’t stop seeking out role models after she left school. After she graduated from Howard, she went to work for Devrouax + Purnell, a prominent Washington, DC-based, African-American-owned firm. She remembers Paul Devrouax, FAIA, telling her how his interest in architecture was piqued by working construction in the summers with his dad. He noticed that there was always a man—the architect—in a suit and white hat that got to enjoy the din of construction from the air conditioning of the onsite trailer. It seemed like a worthwhile ambition to have.

Shearill-Thompson said that mentors like Devrouax helped her to see herself in the profession— “knowing if they could do it, I could do it,” she said.

When the need disappears

The final stop of the day had Phelps students showing their younger peers and mentors around their own school—a peerless facility opened in 2008 and designed by Fanning Howey that features design and construction labs that rival most community colleges. The Phelps students led their guests through metal work, plumbing, and robotics labs. One lab was outfitted with photovoltaic panels. They showed off vases they’d designed out of cardboard and paper—thick, sturdy, and terraced, with flared tops. The school’s architecture lab had back issues of Metropolis strewn across desks, next to computers where students rendered buildings with BIM software and Google SketchUp. Already, the students’ workspaces were showing some of the cluttered, creative detritus of the Howard studios.

During the students Grassroots visit, Padilla was direct and earnest about the need to show kids from minority communities that there is a place for them in architecture, but he hopes one day in the not too distant future, it won’t even be a conversation worth having. “It would be great to not have to focus specific attention on the need to increase diversity and inclusion,” he said. “[It should] just be a part of the way we do business.”

Recent Related:

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Minority Architecture Students Shadow AIA Architects at Convention


Visit the AIA’s Diversity and Inclusion Web site.

See what the Committee on Architecture for Education Knowledge Community is up to.

AIA members interested in participating in the 2010 Convention Shadow an Architect program can e-mail for details.

Do you know the Architect’s Knowledge Resource?

The AIA’s resource knowledge base can connect you to “20 on 20/20 Vision: Perspectives on Diversity and Design.”


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