2021 Associates Award Recipient
The AIA Associates Award is given to individual Associate AIA members to recognize outstanding leaders and creative thinkers for significant contributions to their communities and the architecture profession.
Fearless in the face of powerful individuals and difficult issues facing Black architects and the community at large, Tiara Hughes, Assoc. AIA, is a vital connector whose unmatched activism is shaping a more equitable profession. Equal parts activist and educator, Hughes is also a keenly talented designer with a body of work that focuses on building socioeconomic equity and cultural awareness.
Hughes’ introduction to resiliency came early in life, and her dreams of becoming an architect were nurtured by her grandfather. After attending underfunded city schools for many years, Hughes and her mother opted to apply to more affluent high schools. Based on her academic merit, she was accepted to every school she applied to through the St. Louis School Desegregation Program. When conditions in her family’s housing complex prompted a move, she opted to remain in her school, waking up at 4am to take two buses and a train to arrive at school on time. After graduation, she became the first person in her family to attend college.
“Hearing these very personal stories, I realized that Tiara had, at a young age, already overcome life challenges that many of us will never face. She’s incredibly brave, fearless, and persevering,” wrote Adam Semel, AIA, managing partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM), where Hughes is senior urban designer. “I have absolutely no doubt that we have only seen the beginning of what she will accomplish in her career and in her life.”
When COVID-19 emerged last year, Hughes was quick to respond and led SOM’s diversity, equity, and inclusion response to the pandemic. Following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, the firm trusted her thought leadership in guiding it toward a more equitable practice, resulting in its immediate statements and action plan. The resulting plan highlights 34 action items that will hold both the firm and its staff accountable. Her efforts last year marked the start of the firm’s work in that critical area, and Hughes will be key in evolving and refining it. Previously, Hughes founded SOM NOMA (National Organization of Minority Architects) in an effort to support her BIPOC colleagues, and her deep connections to the NOMA national board help guide the group’s critical decisions.
Outside of SOM, Hughes is a real estate broker in Chicago, where she brings much-needed perspective to the table. She is also the founder of FIRST 500, which is dedicated to raising awareness of Black women in architecture and inspiring the next generation of Black architects. In 2019, Hughes was appointed by Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot to the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks. She has used that platform to advocate for underrepresented communities and preserve the city’s important places.
“Tiara is one of the youngest members to ever grace this commission, and her perspective has proven to be invaluable and a breath of fresh air,” wrote Maurice D. Cox, a colleague on the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, in support of Hughes’ nomination. “She brings a unique viewpoint that is so important for reflecting the lived experiences of underrepresented communities of color, their concerns, and environments we deem worthy of preservation.”
Hughes’ affinity for mentorship is evident in her longstanding involvement with NOMA’s Project Pipeline summer projects and the NAACP’s Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO), a yearlong achievement program that supports academic and cultural achievement among Black high school students. Last year, Hughes joined two colleagues from SOM to lead a course at the Illinois Institute of Technology focused on climate change, community engagement, and social justice.