2021 Young Architects Award Recipient
Emerging talent deserves recognition. The AIA Young Architects Award honors individuals who have demonstrated exceptional leadership and made significant contributions to the architecture profession early in their careers.
Once the youngest architect in Georgia, and among the youngest Black architects in the country, Desmond Johnson’s, AIA, NOMA, barrier-breaking career has led him to seats at some of the profession’s most transformative tables. An advocate for much-needed diversity in the profession, Johnson works to disassemble systemic barriers while leveraging his platform to help reshape both the built environment and the profession to reflect the experiences and perspectives of Black and brown people.
In just a few short years of practice, Johnson has been recognized with a number of honors, including AIA Georgia’s Emerging Professional of the Year in 2017, the Stanley Love-Stanley Architecture Award, and being featured in Beyond the Built Environment’s Say it Loud exhibition. Despite the accolades, Johnson finds fulfillment in using his stature to create lasting, positive change. His commitment to bettering the communities he serves led to an appointment by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and the city council to the city’s Urban Design Commission in 2018. Just a year later, he assumed the role of chair and continues to guide the shifting landscape of America’s fourth largest city.
“As a shining star, Desmond has always shown an ambition to excel, and I look forward to the years ahead to see this young man's professional journey.”
Johnson is also a project manager in NELSON Worldwide’s Atlanta office, having joined the firm last year. Previously, he worked with Moody Nolan and Rule Joy Trammell + Rubio, where he led the design of projects such as the Morehouse School of Medicine mixed-use building and the adaptive reuse of Roosevelt Hall. The former provided the first-ever on-campus housing for Morehouse School of Medicine students and nearly 36,000 square feet of retail space in Atlanta’s historic West End, the epicenter of Black culture and economy in the city. At Roosevelt Hall, a historic building dating to the 1930s that was the first public housing project in the country for people of color, Johnson worked closely with Atlanta’s housing authority, neighbors, and preservationists to ensure the project will celebrate the community’s heritage and culture.
“As a grey-haired architect, encountering young people like Desmond maintains my faith in young architects, young people, and the future,” wrote Ron Gill, office and industrial studio director for NELSON Worldwide, in a letter supporting Johnson’s nomination for the Young Architect Award. “Desmond continues to give back to the community, as he currently chairs the Atlanta Urban Design Commission and is treasurer of AIA Atlanta. As a shining star, Desmond has always shown an ambition to excel, and I look forward to the years ahead to see this young man's professional journey.”
Prior to joining Atlanta’s Urban Design Commission, Johnson was selected as one of 60 participants in AIA’s inaugural Practice Innovation Lab, where he collaborated with colleagues to envision future business models for the profession. Johnson and his teammates further developed their award-winning model into JAMB Collective. The collective continues to operate today and has a collaborative design network for those interested in exploring social impact initiatives. Its membership model allows small firms to compete with larger firms across the country through resource-sharing tools, while a portion of the collective’s annual revenue is funneled into impactful projects and initiatives.
“His impact on the profession has been substantial. He started early by becoming the youngest licensed architect in the state of Georgia. But it may be the esteem that his emerging professional cohorts have for him that is most instructive,” wrote David Southerland, executive director of AIA Georgia and AIA Atlanta, in support of Johnson’s nomination. “I have been present at more than a dozen occasions where other very impressive EPs speak of Desmond with respect and awe—for his accomplishments, his effectiveness and efficiency, and the obvious leadership traits that he possesses.”