Featured Member - Donald King, FAIA

It took attending nine schools in 11 years and working part-time throughout, but Donald King never gave up on his dream of becoming an architect. Nearly 50 years after he set foot in his first firm, he's never wavered in his commitment to designing for underserved communities.

Though Donald King, FAIA, took a long and winding path into architecture, he has always sought out ways for his design background to benefit others. The president and CEO of Donald King Architecture in Seattle for 30 years and a contributor to the profession for almost 50 years, he's devoted his career to serving communities in need: both the buildings and the people themselves. But his road to licensed architect, let alone firm principal and Fellow of the AIA, took an incredible amount of dedication to his dreams.

I've wanted to be an architect since I was 12. I had an art teacher in high school that encouraged me greatly; I was always drawing buildings and designing cities, and he gave me the freedom in class to work on my own. I started with my own city, named Kingston, which was really just an excuse to design all its buildings. After that, I redesigned the downtown of my hometown: Port Huron, Michigan. I made a model with renderings of all the buildings; that got the notice of a newspaper writer, and then the city planning director saw the story and brought his friend the architect. That’s how I got my first job.

I started work when I was 17, in a small town 60 miles north of Detroit. When I left that first firm to attend school in Detroit, I started working at a planning and architecture firm. The principal there was starting something I'd never heard of called a "community design center." After hours, we'd leave the office and go to another space in a somewhat rundown area and established a community design studio at night. We'd bring in young adults from the neighborhood, teach them about planning, and get them involved in architectural drafting. That was my introduction to the community design center (CDC) movement.

"Diversity and inclusion and opening up opportunities to more than the limited number of racial and gender groups became part of my quest."

When I moved to Los Angeles, that same principal told me to look up Eugene Brooks. He was leading the CDC in Watts called the Urban Workshop, and ultimately they offered me a job. At that time, a lot of the executive directors of the CDCs were being funded by the AIA, primarily to look at how architecture could benefit underserved communities. This was after the Whitney M. Young speech [at the 1968 AIA Convention], and two things happened next. First, the National Organization of Minority Architects was formed. And second, the CDC leaders suggested that the AIA come up with a scholarship for minority students. So as I came into work one day, in late 1969, Brooks took out a document, put it on my drawing board, said "Fill this out." It was an application for the AIA/Ford Foundation Minority-Disadvantaged Student scholarship.

My story is a crazy one: nine schools in 11 years, really trying to pull the pieces together to get an architectural degree. I had a goal in mind; it was just a haphazard way of doing it. That's one of the things I say now when talking to students: I try to give them a more efficient path than I took. Because I didn't have a lot of people saying, "No don't do this; do that." Mostly, what I would get is, "Well, you can't work and go to school." And I would say, "I do not have that choice." If I was forced to make a choice, I'd have to work and I wouldn't go to school at all. But I was bound and determined to get that degree.

It's difficult for me to have a lot of compassion for students who say, "It's too hard to go to school and work." If you want to do it, you can do it. There are ways. I would take classes every quarter, even if only one in the summer. I would just continue to add up my credits and move forward. I knew if I stopped, my momentum would stop.

What I tell young people is, it's good to take a break sometimes but don’t lose your momentum. If you lose that, you just won't get back into it. The longer you're out of school, the less likely you are to be able to fit back in. I always thought of myself as a student working on the side, not someone working and also going to school.

For me, diversity is personal. Diversity and inclusion and opening up opportunities to more than the limited number of racial and gender groups became part of my quest; service to underserved populations is part of my agenda.—As told to Steve Cimino

Image credits

Donald King, FAIA

Donald King

Imani Village Apartments

Keith Brodsky, Brodsky Photography

Denny Terrace

Keith Brodsky, Brodsky Photography

Washington State University Elson S. Floyd Cultural Center

Mimar Studio