“The Ingenuity of an Architect”

Kimberly Dowdell influences her profession—and the built environment.

Portrait of Kimberly Dowdell sitting on steps

Kimberly Dowdell | Photograph courtesy of Kimberly Dowdell

At 11 years old, growing up in Detroit, Kimberly Dowdell had an epiphany. She remembers walking downtown one day in the early 1990s amid abandoned buildings, graffiti, and broken windows. “People were living on the streets, people suffering in one way or another, who appeared to be in a vulnerable position,” she says. “The place felt unhealthy in a way.”

She stopped in front of the massive Hudson’s department store, a ghost of what it had been. Completed in 1911, the 32-floor building was once the tallest department store in the world, and at its peak was home to 200 retail departments, 51 passenger elevators, and 705 fitting rooms. The store had been a destination, an intergenerational touchstone: “Everyone had their Hudson’s stories,” Dowdell says wistfully. Although the landmark had been shuttered for more than a decade, she felt hopeful that day. She thought that if she became an architect, a profession she’d just learned about in art class, “then maybe I could fix this building and heal the community,” she says now. “Somehow, I had made the connection that the extent to which we can improve our built environments, we can actually improve our health outcomes.”

Today, having studied architecture at Cornell and earned her license in 2013, Dowdell, M.P.A. ’15, maintains a focus on adaptive reuse as part of her personal mission “to improve the quality of people’s lives, by design.” But instead of working on individual projects during the last decade, she has chosen to approach urban revitalization in support of public health through “systemic change.” “I am working to address issues within the profession of architecture,” she says, “so that our architectural workforce of the future will be primed for making the type of progress that we really need in the world.”

To that end, she served as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) in 2019 and 2020. There, she helped establish a fellowship to support new architecture school graduates and nearly tripled membership to more than 2,500 people. That show of leadership led to her current role as president (a volunteer role with a small stipend) of the American Institute of Architects (AIA)—the first black woman and millennial to hold that post.

AIA, a network of nearly 100,000 architects and design professionals spread across some 200 chapters in the United States and abroad, defines its mission as empowering and inspiring “architects to improve society and transform the world.” That goal dovetails with Dowdell’s own and underscores her work to expand and elevate the profession. She wants to develop more diversity within the ranks while also championing the job of “chief architect” in municipalities. In all, she wants to see a broader chorus of design voices influencing what gets built—especially in the public realm.

“Whether we want to admit it or not, the United States is still racially segregated. There is growing diversity…but neighborhoods (perhaps excluding our largest cities) are still fairly homogeneous,” Dowdell says. Diversity within the design field is particularly important, she adds, because the objective is “not only to protect the health, safety, and welfare of the public, but ideally to elevate the human experience. It’s harder to get that right if only some aspects of the human experience are reflected in the design team.”

The number of women, Asian, Hispanic, and Latino architects is rising slowly, at least in the early stages of a career, according to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), but “the proportion of new architects who identify as black or African American has remained relatively stable over the past five years.” Of the 121,603 licensed architects in the United States in 2022, about two percent are black, Dowdell says—a proportion unchanged since the late 1960s “despite how hard people have worked to change that.” Only 566 are black women; they are so rare that Dowdell knows that, in 2013, she became the 295th (living) black woman licensed in the United States.

As in the legal and medical professions, access to architectural careers is constrained by expensive graduate training and lengthy licensing. On average, it takes 13 years to become a registered architect, Dowdell says (it took her 12), and the average annual salary for architect graduates is about $58,000—ultimately rising to less than $90,000. “In fact, my older brother told me when I was a teenager not to pursue architecture because I wouldn’t make any money—and I didn’t listen to him,” she says, laughing. “I mean, I make enough to meet my needs, but I think what’s really important is to focus on young people…who are often being poached into other lines of work because they cannot afford to be an architect.”

As a guardian of the profession through AIA, she advocates for “critical conversations about how our business processes can improve” to increase compensation overall. Moreover, she wants to see architects influencing and advising leaders more directly on the design of and infrastructure for municipal projects. “Part of my laying the groundwork for future progress is establishing a nationwide or even global network of ‘Chief Architects’ who are extremely collaborative in helping one another tackle major issues related to the built environment,” she explains, specifying five priorities for elevating such expertise: projects involving climate action, health equity, affordable housing, historic preservation, adaptive reuse, and transportation.

To learn more about this kind of leadership and policy decisions inherent in urban development, Dowdell earned a master’s degree at the Harvard Kennedy School, where she was among the inaugural Sheila Johnson fellows at the Center for Public Leadership. “Ultimately, policies shape what’s possible from a built environment standpoint,” she says, “so I wanted to be able to speak both languages (building and policy design) to help influence things like historic preservation, blight elimination, and neighborhood revitalization to foster healthier and more sustainable communities.”

The master’s program also bolstered her growing sense of identity and confidence as a leader. She still employs lessons learned from King Hussein Bin Talal senior lecturer of public leadership Ronald Heifetz, and while serving as cochair of an alumni council several years ago. “Throughout my entire existence, I’ve sort of always been the person that my peers (or elders, earlier on) designated to be the leader. Through more leadership roles than I can fully keep track of at this point, I now have a very strong sense of my voice and style.”

Alongside her AIA duties, Dowdell, who is based in Chicago, is director of strategic relationships at the design firm HOK, an architectural colossus with about 1,700 employees and 26 offices on three continents, and best known for large civic projects such as hospitals, stadiums, and airports. Dowdell’s business-development and communications responsibilities support recruitment, competition for design assignments, and progress generally. She joined HOK in 2008, after completing her bachelor’s degree in architecture, helping to design an international airport in Doha, Qatar, among other projects, before becoming a real estate project manager in New York City, where she worked on the Middle Collegiate Church renovation in the East Village as well as the Military Park revitalization project in Newark, N.J. After graduating from Harvard, she returned to Detroit and served as an executive manager of public/private partnerships in the city’s housing and revitalization department, then on small-scale real estate developments while teaching architecture and urban planning courses at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. In 2019 she returned to HOK “because I believe in what the firm is trying to do and because of the people who are leading the charge to have a positive impact on our communities.” Part of her role also entails cochairing the firm’s Diversity Advisory Council (DAC). Apart from her work at HOK and AIA, Dowdell helps to care for her mother, splitting her time between Chicago and Detroit as needed. She is also a Cornell trustee and serves on the governing boards of several arts-centered nonprofits, including Ingenuity Chicago, which helps ensure that every public school student has access to high-quality arts education. Dowdell often spends free time in museums and comes from a family of artists—her sister, Sabrina Nelson, is a multimedia artist and her nephew is the rising portraitist Mario Moore.

Although not directly involved in adaptive reuse projects or those that improve health outcomes, Dowdell coauthored “Reimagining Urban Spaces: Green Spaces, Obesity, and Health Resilience in an Era of Extreme Heat,” in the March issue of Journal of Urban Health (bulletin of the New York Academy of Medicine). Given the impact of infrastructure on public health and the pandemic-related problem of vacant office buildings amid acute housing shortages, she says “it’s vital that we think creatively about converting existing commercial buildings...to close gaps quickly will be crucial to preserving human life, particularly for our most vulnerable Americans.” Conversions are complicated, she acknowledges, “but that is where the ingenuity of an architect becomes most valuable.” Moreover, reuse and preservation support sustainability goals and inherent historical and cultural aspects of a neighborhood. Vacant structures contribute “to blight and other health and safety concerns as well, which further erodes the quality of life in our cities,” she adds. “Conversions offer a great way to address multiple civic challenges at once.”

That reminds her of something she heard from Monroe, Louisiana, mayor Friday Ellis during the 2022 Mayors Institute on City Design: “See beautiful, feel beautiful.” The purpose of architecture, she says, “is to create places where people feel good. Where people have a sense of pride, can have their basic needs met. And that’s beautiful.” As a child in Detroit, Dowdell and her family lived in two houses, both since demolished, so she knows “firsthand how devastating it is for your neighborhood or your home to crumble due to lack of investment or resources. It takes an emotional toll for sure, and I do believe it takes a physical toll.” She points to health disparities in Chicago, where there’s a 30-year life expectancy gap between residents on the North and South Sides.

Despite Dowdell’s dream of readapting Hudson’s, the department store was razed in 1998—a loss that still saddens her. But she takes heart in the fact that another iconic building closed in 1988, Michigan Central Station, was renovated by Ford Motor Company and reopened in June. Along with public and event spaces, there’s a new hotel on the top floors and incubation labs. “It signals that Detroit isn’t done. There were some difficult times, and still are, but this major revitalization project indicates investment,” she says. “People want to be cared for at the individual level…and at the community level. That’s what buildings do for us beyond their primary function. They are symbols of care.”

Read more articles by Nell Porter-Brown

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