Changing the Face of Architecture
Editor's note: Tiffany Brown is an architectural designer who grew up in Detroit. In Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design, Tiffany takes author Kat Holmes on a tour of Detroit, explaining the rich, architectural history of the city, and why advocacy is important for her. Brown founded 400 Forward, a program that introduces architecture and design to inner city girls. In this extended conversation, Kat and Tiffany pick up where they left off.
Q: We know from the book why you launched the 400 Forward initiative, but we didn’t delve into what kinds of programs you’ve created and how the community has responded. Tell me about the current status and successes of 400 Forward.
Tiffany Brown: It’s been getting a lot of traction since I announced it at Detroit Design Week last year. I’ve been doing radio interviews and magazine articles. A lot of people across the country have reached out, looking to be involved somehow. Our first focus is on support, mentors, and financial assistance. Minority students need all of those things and an extra push that they don’t really get from the university.
My main goal is to offer financial support and mentorship to inner city girls, with an underlying focus on African-American girls. We’re exploring ways to build a web page that features the photos and bios of the professionals, the region they’re based in, and what type of mentorship they can provide. We can also share scholarship resources for students who need them.
Architects tend to have a reputation for not being accessible. Part of that is because people don’t necessarily know how to find them. There isn’t just one resource for finding architects who are willing to support students. 400 Forward can be a vehicle for making that connection between professionals and students.
This summer, we’ll be officially kicking off 400 Forward with workshops and weekend summer camps for girls interested in art and architecture. Activities will include trips to makerspaces to build a Putt Putt Design competition entry for Month of Design with Design Core Detroit, a nonprofit we just partnered with.
Q: Building on that, there are just over 400 female, African American architects. How are you connected to each other?
Tiffany Brown: We are connected through a few minority organizations like Black Women in Architecture and the National Organization of Minority Architects. There’s also a directory (http://blackarch.uc.edu) where you can sort who’s licensed, who’s female, male, location. We connect through conferences and events. Most of the African-American female architects in Michigan all know each other, because there are so few of us. Lots of us also went to school together. We know we are rare in this profession and we try to connect, learn, and come up with ways to support one another.
Q: As you are thinking about the next five or 10 years, how do you imagine 400 Forward will evolve? What’s your wish?
Tiffany Brown: I’m looking to develop a style of educational outreach that forms a solid pipeline of talent and that students can use as a segue into the profession. If we could develop a more robust talent base with minorities in our profession, then we can change the built environment, we can change our cities, we can change our neighborhoods. We will have more of a voice that reflects our community. We could have leaders and students in that base. 400 Forward can become a strong pipeline and a new approach to architecture and design. Rethinking architecture education for the traditionally underserved plays a large role in my life, and I wish to re-pave the way for girls coming down the road behind me.
Q: What would be different in that style of outreach?
Tiffany Brown: We would have more nurturing neighborhoods and nurturing spaces in our schools. They would be designed by people who have lived there and will continue to live there. We would have truly inclusive design instead of so many “experts” designing spaces for people who live in the inner city without doing the proper research. With more nurturing spaces around our kids, we could create a different type of learning style and approach to education and design. We just don’t have that now in our schools in Detroit. We have a lot of failing school systems and failing urban-housing projects that put out a lot of promises, but don’t live up to them.
With more diversity in our profession, those things can change. If we want to change what our kids are learning and what they produce, we have to work together to change the built environment around them.
Q: Your work recently took you to Richmond, Virginia. Tell us about the experience you had there.
Tiffany Brown: The D.C. office of the firm where I work asked if I would I participate in a community workshop in Richmond where a lot of groups had come together to discuss a project. The project site is a former slave jail site, with an adjacent slave burial ground. This is a prime example of when a building project needs buy-in from the local community. This workshop was part of that effort to do the proper research and discuss with the community how best to determine the right concept for the site. I did my part of the workshop and then, the next day, visited the site on my own. I felt a strong pull to return; something was drawing me there, but I didn’t know why.
This visit triggered the need for self-exploration. It turns out that Richmond was the second-largest city to trade slaves in the U.S. With my family being from Mississippi, I didn’t connect it with Richmond. I decided to research my lineage and found out that the majority of my DNA is from Benin-Togo, Cameroon, and Senegal. From West Africa, we were brought to Virginia via the Atlantic Slave Trade. From Virginia, we migrated to Mississippi. I realized that’s why I felt that connection. Architecture has given me many of those kinds of full-circle experiences. I’m not sure where I’d be without that experience. Design across all fronts can uncover and create these kinds of connections for everyone. That’s why it should be inclusive, diverse, accessible and equitable.
2019 will be the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in Richmond, Virginia (again, another reference to the significance of the number 400). I will return to conduct workshops and assist in honoring the anniversary and to help create a space and experience for healing. It’s such a profound thing for me.
Q: As you think about that space of healing, what communities would be most important to include in a project like that?
Tiffany Brown: I believe the type of people who will be involved should be kids, maybe high school kids who are still contemplating what they want to do with their careers, community leaders, people from the city, people from the architecture teams, muralists, painters, media, etc.
One essential vehicle that 400 Forward uses to help students connect to architecture is art. When I say art, I mean all kinds of art like music, poetry, African dance, pottery, archaeology. That’s how I found my way to architecture.
I mentioned in the book that I hope to encourage a style of architectural design that evokes self-reliance, empowerment, and inspiration for all. As an architect, I aim to create meaningful and impactful spaces of the built environment.
Q: You gave us an insider’s view of Detroit’s architectural heritage, which was fascinating and profound. This history is why Detroit was designated a UNESCO City of Design. How has this acknowledgment changed the city and the community that designs and builds it?
Tiffany Brown: Detroit was first U.S. city to receive this designation. It celebrates the rich architectural heritage of our city. It’s something I’m very proud of and makes our downtown unique. We don’t have a thousand glass boxes. We have a lot of historically significant buildings, including the one I work in – the Guardian Building, which is known for its Art Deco architecture.
This resurgence that’s happening in Detroit is being planned by a planning department that consists of people from everywhere else. Urban design should not happen TO people. How this city is being designed should include the community’s input and buy-in. We need to educate the community and properly arm them with knowledge about what urban planning means and about what we do as designers, architects and urban planners. We have a long road ahead, but that gives us some room to build a talent pool.
I commend Design Core Detroit for partnering with approximately 50 groups, including 400 Forward. September’s Detroit Design Week has grown to become Month of Design. These types of activities are meant to help make sure we incorporate change properly in this city so we don’t see the decline in population like we did, the decline in education, or the decline in talent again. We need to live up to the UNESCO designation.
Q: It’s a time of transition. There’s a movement toward inclusion. If you were to imagine Detroit in five or 10 years, what would you hope to see in Detroit?
Tiffany Brown: I want our rich history to stay intact. We don’t want to have these huge firms coming from outside to design a completely different Detroit. We have an overseas architecture firm coming in to design the Detroit riverfront. People are looking for big firms to “save the day.”
But Detroit is one of this country’s first cities. It is where the first concrete-paved roadway in the country was paved (Woodward Avenue), the first urban freeway was built (Davison Freeway), the first phone number was assigned, the first traffic light was installed. I don’t want to drive downtown and see glass boxes replacing the rich, historic culture of Detroit.
The Brewster-Douglass site (where the first federally funded housing project in the United States was built) is now the site of an 8-acre, high-end mixed-use retail development called City Modern. It went from a forgotten, vacant site to one of the most sought-after locations downtown, because it’s close to the freeways and the stadiums. I hope they care enough to maintain our history – and that’s the people. The people who live in the urban housing project across the street are feeling anxiety. It’s only a matter of time before half-million-dollar condos are going to go up and push them out. Buyers will not want to live across from the projects. Who do you think is going to have to leave? This is a prime opportunity for the developers to work with the community and not put up barriers and fences around the people in the community. They don’t feel welcome and that shouldn’t be the case.
Soon, the people who made Detroit what it is might not be able to afford to live in Detroit. I don’t want that. What can we do as designers to prevent that from happening?
About the Author: Kat Holmes
Kat Holmes, named one of Fast Company’s “Most Creative People in Business” in 2017, is founder of mismatch.design, a firm dedicated to inclusive design resources and education. At Microsoft from 2010 to 2017, she led that company’s executive program for inclusive product innovation. Her award-winning toolkit was inducted into the Smithsonian Institution's Cooper Hewitt Design Museum. In 2018, Holmes joined Google and continues to advance inclusive development for some of the most influential technologies in the world. She is the author of Mismatch: How Inclusion Shapes Design.