Featured Member - Renee Kemp-Rotan, Assoc. AIA
As an urban designer who has "traveled the world, served ten mayors, and lived in one thousand places," Renee Kemp-Rotan turned architecture and planning degrees from Syracuse University and Columbia University into a career devoted to urban design, cultural heritage, and the power of design to impact social change.
Renee Kemp-Rotan, Assoc. AIA, is the director of grants and special projects in the Mayor’s Office in Birmingham, Alabama, and an urban designer who has traveled the world with an eye for architecture and social change. From studying mud-based architecture in Ghana to serving as Atlanta's liaison on the construction of Phillips Arena and Olympic Park, she's been involved in nearly every type of building design imaginable: parks, schools, trails, hotels, museums, arenas, stadiums, theaters, housing, and new towns. And it's all thanks to the AIA Diversity Advancement Scholarship and an AIA television commercial that ran several decades ago.
I was at my grandmother's house in Washington, DC, during the summer before 12th grade, and noticed a television commercial that said, “The AIA is recruiting 20 African American students interested in majoring in architecture.” The commercial was clear: architecture is a blending of the arts and sciences. I wanted to be a painter, a fine arts painter, but my family of doctors, lawyers, and educators said, "No starving artists." So architecture was the perfect compromise. I cannot put into words what that scholarship did for my life. Architecture opened my eyes to the world.
I trained as an architect at Syracuse University—I was actually the first black woman to graduate from there, cum laude, with an architecture degree—but when I first arrived I was asked by students and faculty alike: "What the heck are you doing here?" The Syracuse International Studies Program saved my academic career. As an African American woman, studying at the world-renowned Architectural Association in London for two years was life-altering. European culture was much more diverse, with more design opportunities than I would have ever imagined.
After earning my master's in urban and regional planning with a minor in international development from Columbia University, I worked with the prestigious Urban Design Group in New York City. Here, I was strongly influenced by such urban design masters as Raquel Ramati; Jonathan Barnett, FAIA; and Jaquelin T. Robertson, FAIA. Five years later, I was hired by the Howard University School of Architecture to teach urban design, tropical architecture, and world history under the tutelage of Dean Harry G. Robinson, III, FAIA.
I was the only woman on faculty when I joined. My first big challenge—with a thousand dollars of AIA money—was to organize the first national conference for black women in architecture. Many said, "No one will come." But in just six weeks, I got 200 women of color to show from 20 states and three foreign nations. The conference introduced keynote speaker Norma Sklarek, FAIA, to the national public for the first time.
"I cannot put into words what that scholarship did for my life. Architecture opened my eyes to the world."
I was also one of the first student members of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), which was jumpstarted by Whitney M. Young's keynote address [at the 1968 AIA Convention]. The founding members of NOMA were like my godfathers; I can't tell you how important they've been over the course of my career. They cradled and nurtured black women in architecture. I couldn't have made it through without them.
Ending up in Birmingham, after years in Atlanta as director of economic development and then chief of urban design and urban development, has given me an opportunity give back to diversity from the center of the civil rights movement. I came here to pay my respects to the memory of those who desegregated schools and education systems and helped me earn the opportunity to go to Syracuse.
My first major project was as director of master planning for the award-winning, city-owned Railroad Park. In the 1960s, Birmingham was segregated; [then-Commissioner of Public Safety] Bull Connor shut down 61 public parks after Brown vs. Board of Education so he would not have to desegregate them. Fast forward 50 years: now I direct the design of a $20-million public park: the $50-million Crossplex compound that was planned as a mini-Olympic sports village for Birmingham’s children; and the Birmingham Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which has changed the face of this city. We now have 3,000 loft dwellers, a new baseball park, a Negro League Baseball Museum, and a rotary trail: all here as a result of this park, in this city where—once upon a time—playing sports in a segregated park was a life-threatening proposition.
And I'm here because of one AIA television commercial, one AIA scholarship, and one profession, architecture: the beloved mother of all sciences. This profession has sent me to 33 countries around the world to fully appreciate the built environment and further grasp the relationship between physical, environmental, political, and economic systems.
I'm in love with this profession. Design has social impact. And today, as a member of the AIA Diversity and Inclusion Council, I am encouraged to share many cultural and intellectual insights. I remain forever loyal to this profession, as I continue to explore the globe as a world citizen. Design matters!—As told to Steve Cimino