March 25, 2014

Black Architect (Prelude)

Architecture for me officially started with the very first day of design studio in fall of 2003. Entering college I remember having a nervous feeling and a sense of apprehension for the unknown that was yet to come. Even writing this blog post brings about emotion and a reminiscent feeling. As the saying goes: "hindsight is always 20/20,". Even with the mishaps and turmoil, my college days were joyous and difficult at the same time. I don't know that I could have chosen differently and made it more joyous and less difficult. Me and my fellow classmates did not party together much, though there were a few nights out. My fondest memories took place in that very studio- late night, drawing: by hand and on CAD, model making, joking around, sleeping, getting reviewed, plotting and just talking to name a few. You take for granted the freedom of design that occurs here. This notion seems more evident the further removed from college you venture. I think this is the chase of many architects extending into their old age. Here is how it began for me:  

I was born and raised in the south Bronx in low income housing. Parkchester had become rampant with drug use and the slumlord in Throggsneck wasn't exactly fair when it came to rent increases on the tiny ground floor apartment my parents rented. For years my parents saved toward a larger home for the four of us. They were blessed in finding a large townhouse in Westchester in the mid 90s.      

Both my parents were New York City public school teachers and continued to do so even after leaving the Bronx. Though I went absurdly left in my career path which they were unfamiliar, they supported me whole-heartedly. I can remember the biggest crutch I put on myself came from not having any type of technical, construction or design background. I did not let it fully deter me though from falling headstrong into a higher education search. My initial college search was a mix of all the tri-state architecture schools (NY, NJ, CT and some in PA ). I did little research but knew I wanted to go to a NAAB accredited school; basically one that had the degree which would allow me the most direct route to licensure. Financial restrictions limited my choosing despite the 6 schools I received acceptance to. Parameters: either close enough to commute to and remain living at home or be affordable enough to allow me to dorm on campus. My acceptance into NYIT-Manhattan with a small academic scholarship seemed to be the most sensible choice at the time while commuting. School is what you make of it. Little did I know but that first semester was going to be the greatest obstacle in my educational career. 

As the the first week of the semester was underway, troubles with the family home had elevated from a leaky roof to a major threat of our safety. I know now that it was a failure to maintain the condo’s connected roofs causing water infiltration and major wood member rotting. (Yes the irony of the knowledge to come). The severity reached the point of ceiling collapse at the upper most floor. Luckily we had vacated the entire floor just prior to this occurring. Probably saving us from serious injury. After all was cleared with the insurance company and condo, we were faced with about 3 months before the home would be restored. Until then this rendered the home unlivable. My entire family relocated for that time into a hotel in Elmsford, NY.

Elmsford is approx. 30 miles from midtown Manhattan where my school campus was located. Without a car, this distance made my commute very difficultI had two options: public transportation or catch a ride into the Bronx with my dad. The breakdown of my two options went something like this: 
Public transportation: Across from the hotel entry was a local bus stop. This was the less than reliable Beeline route 1W bus. From the hotel, I'd ride the bus to 242nd street in the Bronx. From there, I would board the #1 train and ride it all the way to 59th street; arriving on campus. This was sometimes a lengthy 2.5hr+ ordeal one way.

Riding with my dad: This was the better of the two options but had its own downside. To arrive to work by 7am he had to leave at about 5:30am from Elmsford. His school allocated a certain amount of spaces in the rear yard for teachers. They had the choice of arriving at or before 7am or be faced with finding parking on the public streets. A truly agonizing process at times. He would drop me at the B/D train at the Grand Concourse where I would ride to 59th street, a few short stops. This option allowed me to arrive at 7:15-7:30, sometimes earlier. My morning studio class didn’t start until after 9:30am. I usually spent this time studying or finishing other non-design course projects & homework. I would have much rather been home sleep though.

Transferring between trains during my commute was usually an impossible task for one reason- architecture models! The various sized handcrafted models I sculpted at home needed the utmost care in transit. That which the train did not offer sometimes revealing skewed planes once uncovered at the studio. Lucky enough my extra early arrival left time to fix these mishaps.

Yes a truly exhausting commute but I digress. 

Jamie Palazzolo was my first semester design professor. Known to be tough but fair. Unlike some of the other architecture schools, there was quite a bit of diversity within the studio. Not that I would have even flinched toward leaving if there wasn't. I felt a sense of camaraderie within our studio. It was contagious and we all fed off of each other. We all absorbed the art and theory of design & architecture. Human nature assured that there was no lack of competition. Admittedly, I did more things in that semester than I thought humanly possible. A crash course in the model making process, introduction to ink pens on mylar & vellum paper, and learning my own personal way to get the creative juices flowing. I spent countless nights up trying to perfect my designs, to the detriment of my brother whom shared the hotel room. It was the nature of the beast which was aptly called "architecture school".  

The studio started with over 40 students. By the end of the semester many had not only dropped the studio class but left the architecture major completely. We finished the semester with less than 15. Rumors were that this was the weeding out of those that just didn't have the drive, dedication, passion or all of thee above. I felt proud to have passed this first step in my education. The first step of my career. As the semester closed and the chaos calmed my family and I returned to our newly restored home. 

Strangely enough out of all ten design studios I'd go through, I would attain the highest grade in that first studio. I am still somewhat baffled today at this point. In the end: I came and I concurred- graduating with honors among the handful of African Americans in the BArch program. 

During and immediately following college, I was fortunate to have had one professor and two mentors at the firm that I interned whom were African American registered architects. Amazing if you think about it. The statistics were stacked against me heavily but I never let that affect my ultimate goal. That goal being to become a registered architect. I did what was necessary to achieve that. Many a days did I pray for help, guidance and encouragement. Sometimes they came in the strangest forms but in the end drove me forward positively. 

Side story some years later: I was working on a project where I had to constantly communicate with an engineer on a regular basis prior to construction starting. He was part of the contractor's team. We coordinated shop drawings, talked over the design and what my office expected as far as materials and installations. We had became familiar with each other's style of working. The time came where we had to meet onsite to go through a mock installation of the first unit. We had never met in person. We arrived and I was instantly greeted with a face of confusion. He says, "From our talks on the phone.... (pause).. I thought you were... (another pause).. older." I looked him in the eye, smiled and said "Well I am here, so let's get to work." His demeanor that instant and the remainder of the day spoke volumes of his opinion of me. He lost my respect that day but as necessary in business, I maintained my professionalism to get the job done. 

Reiterating my previous point: "So I did what was necessary to achieve my goal." That means not blaming NCARB for loosing my paper IDP experience submissions (yes pre-online logging), not blaming "life happening" as the culprit for sitting back and accepting where I was, not letting a failed exam deter me from finishing and certainly not allowing any person I have to interact with think I am any less of an architect because I am black


[FOOTNOTE 1: Of course there are others that have had it worst and many that have had it easy in comparison. I'm not here to to debate this but just to share my story. Everyone's journey is different. We cannot judge from the outside when inside, everyone is battling something. It is not our place.]

[FOOTNOTE 2: I never really thought about how being an African American in this non-minority dominated field would be. Honestly, it's only as of recently, the last few years, that I see more talk about it and awareness that a change is necessary. I will gladly promote diversity within the field for the future. One of the main reasons for putting this blog together was to showcase diversity, inspire & encourage and promote positivity in the profession.]

[This is a prelude to my previous two post. You can see my struggle to attain my license HERE and my tips for attaining your license HERE.]

1 comment:

  1. Great post!
    I was recently telling someone that I used to spend a ton of time figuring out how to get the work to school safely, after I spent hours working on it.
    Jamie's a wonderful instructor. I had him for design 2 and I suprised myself with the work I did.


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