Embracing Multiculturalism | A session with Michael Marshall, AIA, NOMA

Gensler Design Exchange Podcast
34 min readAug 12, 2020
© Michael Marshall Designs

Hi listeners! Thanks for joining us for another week on the Gensler Design Exchange. This week, we’re excited to share with you a webinar we hosted recently with our Gensler staff focused on embracing multiculturalism in design — both in our projects and in our industry. The conversation, moderated by Gensler Principal & Global Director of Design, Jordan Goldstein, featured special guest Michael Marshall, AIA, NOMA, Design Director & Principal of Michael Marshall Design, whose highly-acclaimed work has won countless industry awards and now been featured in the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture.

Together, they discuss Michael’s incredible career, design inspirations, standout projects, and his design driver to always “use design to create greater opportunities and access in the arts, education, and for community services and resources that enhance and improve people’s lives.”


Hi everybody. Thank you for joining us today. I am here with Michael Marshall. Again, I’m Jordan Goldstein, and thank you. Whether it’s morning, evening, afternoon, night — wherever you are — glad that you could be with us. This is something that we feel is so important and powerful. You know, we started these global charrettes as a way to tap the creativity of this firm to bring our voice, our thinking, our design ideas to pain-points in society, and clearly what we’re seeing in the world right now with regards to the glaring social inequalities and civic unrest, it feels like a moment that we all can add our voices to. So this charette is really around racial equality, inclusiveness, in our societies and communities. And we felt like it would be the wrong thing to pick up a pen and start designing. That just is not the right way to kind of listen and understand from all perspectives.


So this idea of really having these conversations and putting ourselves in the shoes of others and looking at this through so many different lenses… But today, we want to focus this on my good friend, Michael Marshall — really glad that he could be with us. So, I wanted to do a little bit of a bio to introduce Michael and then jump right in. And the format for today is really a dialogue between Michael and myself, but also hopefully the questions that all of you will be able to put forward. So, Michael Marshall and his topic today embracing multiculturalism… Michael has been practicing architecture for over 30 years. Of those over 30 years, I’ve known Michael for 26 of them. He is president and CEO of Michael Marshall Design, leading each and every project that that firm does and managing every stage of the firm’s architectural projects. We actually are working with Michael on two significant projects at the moment. Michael is one of only four African American architects whose life work — it’s just amazing — has been archived in an exhibit by the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. When I was researching for today, Michael, I thought it was amazing that your work is the most extensive collection of drawings and models by a single architect currently in the museum’s permanent collection, which is pretty amazing.


Yeah, that was very exciting when they came in and carted everything up to take it away. But I told them, “I’m not done yet!” So, there’ll be more.


There’s a long runway. Yeah. And by the way, you know, for those listening today, also, I just found out about this the other day, and this is also wonderful: Michael and his firm were featured as one of the top African American firms in the country, in the new book, African American Architects: Embracing Culture and Building Urban Communities. Michael shared with me the spreads from that the other day and they’re beautiful. He’s been honored with numerous national and local design awards from AIA, from NOMA, also from IDA (International Design Awards). He was named 2016’s “Power 100” Playmaker and in 2014 Minority Business Leader of the Year by the Washington Business Journal. He holds a Master’s degree in architecture from Yale and undergraduate degrees from Catholic University and the University of the District of Columbia. And on a personal note, and this is very special for me, I promised Michael no misty eyes or tears…


I can’t guarantee it, but Michael was my professor in undergrad. And I realized back then how inspirational, influential, and how passionate he was for design. And so he was the first architect that I worked for. He’s been a close friend and a mentor of mine for the past 26 years. And I have him to thank because he is one of the main reasons I’m at Gensler. And when I was going through job offers at grad school, I shared with them this opportunity with Gensler and he said, “You need to go there. You’ll have more opportunities at Gensler.” I’ve never forgotten that. So, Michael, glad that you took the time to be with us today.


Well, this is quite a privilege to be able to speak to you about what I’ve been doing as a professional, but then also how I can maybe be a point of reference on how we can look at diversity. As an architect or firm that teams with larger corporate firms, I’ve seen both sides of the coin and how things can work out to find common ground. We are at quite an inflection point in our history, and I do want to point out the fact that George Floyd and his family have paid quite a debt to bringing us to this point of having these very honest conversations about race and about diversity and equality, and it is such a shame that it took what basically was his being arrested, judgment, and execution all under nine minutes for us all to see that, and to now have that as a point of reference for moving forward. So, it’s such a shame, but we want to honor him by making things right from this point forward. So I’m very, very excited to be part of these different talks,


In terms of how you view this moment, I think it’d be great if you could expand upon it. When we were prepping for this, you mentioned about how when you look at the long struggle that George Floyd’s murder… that moment is a moment that in your mind brought you back to these Rosa Parks experiences and how transformation happened from that. I wonder if you could just expand on that for everybody.


I think we’re going to look at our culture and that’s going to be a line: what happened before Floyd and what happened after. And again, it’s really up to us to make these corrections. When I think about civil rights, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, the March on Washington, all of those things, and the subsequent riots that happened across the nation after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and what happened to our cities… it’s really had that effect of destroying the fabric of your city and then having it last for over 30 years without major corrections. The protests that happened now are not as extreme as the results of the protests in ’68, but they are still sort of, as I said, an inflection point that we now are going to move forward from, and it will be our point of reference,


Help us get a little bit of background into you. If you want to share your experiences, your background. You shared with me that you were the first in your family to go to college. Maybe when you also recognized that you wanted to be an architect and share with us your journey to becoming an architect.


My parents, and in particular, my grandparents were sharecroppers in Southern Virginia. And so, I like to think that they were like at the tail end of the Great Migration moving north. So, my mother and father moved to the D.C. area in the late ’50s. And because of that, it really changed the trajectory of what opportunities that I could have versus being in the South and being born literally during segregated times. So, being the first to be able to go to college, it was just quite an opportunity. Most of that came about because of government policies that allowed for loans and grants and opportunities that hadn’t been forward for earlier generations of African Americans. So, my background is I finished high school. Also, I was born during a period where there was busing. So we were bused from my neighborhood that was mostly African American to white neighborhoods to go to school.


When we first moved from Washington to Prince George’s County, my fourth grade elementary school picture: half the students were Black, half the students were White. By the fifth grade, there were fewer Whites. By the sixth grade, there were no Whites in our class picture. Then the next year for seventh grade is when we were bused. And so, there’s been the white flight from urban centers. And those were really sort of trying times, just as now we have with immigration is a big issue with public schools. So in a nutshell, I finished high school, had not applied to college because our counselors back then, to be quite honest, really didn’t pay attention to the minority kids in the way that they should have. And so, I was working at a car dealership of all things, which is sort of interesting seeing my background now, the type of work I’ve done. But there was already an announcement about the school Washington Technical Institute for architectural engineering technology.


And from the age of 11, I wanted to be an architect. I knew that simply because, as a kid, I liked to draw a lot, make paper models, things like that. A friend had a set of blueprints that he had to deliver to a job site for his dad who was a carpenter. And he showed me these drawings. And I said, “Oh, who does that? Who makes the drawings?” He said, “Oh, the architect does that.” And so, “maybe I’ll be an architect.” So I just focused on that point. Now I have to say that decision was made not knowing if it was a Black person or a White person who did the drawings. It was purely the love of drawing and wanting to do something that was artistic that I decided to be an architect. I didn’t really need a particular role model at that point.


And so, going to the Washington Technical Institute, which basically became the University of the District of Columbia, allowed me to see what the profession was like. All of our instructors at that university were all licensed architects and engineers. And they were from a number of different backgrounds: African Americans, people from the Caribbean, Native American. There was one guy who taught us history named Richard Hawkshaw — what a great name. So from there, I transferred to get my Bachelor’s degree at Catholic University in D.C. And that was great because I had instructors who had graduated from Yale, but also their foreign studies program was spectacular. We spent half the summer in Italy, half the summer in England. What an eye opener for someone who — I had never even been on a plane before. So everything was very, very new.


It was quite an experience. So, from there I got accepted to Yale, or went to Yale, and studied under James Sterling. The British architect, at that time, was my very favorite architect ever. And Frank Gehry, who was not quite the Frank Gehry that we know now — this was in the early ’80s — but it was a lot of fun in those studios. From Frank Gehry, it was really sort of a free for all because we had a project that was a skyscraper. He had never done anything that size himself, and so things were very open in that studio. But I got the most from James Sterling’s studio, and I think the way he layered different periods of history onto his architecture, and then, not unlike McKim, Mead & White, he then added modernism too. So it became quite a mix, and that’s been part of my background and philosophy on trying to do the architecture that I do.


You’ve talked a lot in our many, many conversations over the years about how much James Sterling’s studio was an impact in your life. And I’m curious for how that’s informed your design philosophy, your work. You know, your work is obviously… there’s a diverse aesthetic that goes through this, but something, I think, that’s a thread that I’ve seen in all of your work is really a focus on the user, on the human experience of the different places.


The human experience, the context of where these particular buildings are going. So, for instance, looking at the DC United site: What was interesting there is that it’s still considered sort of an industrial aesthetic because that’s what was basically cleared out in order to put that building there. Then the ESA (Entertainment and Sports Arena), that project is in a historic neighborhood called the Saint Elizabeth’s Campus. And so, we were basically putting a very large building into a campus that had brick and terracotta roofs. So, we were lucky on a couple of cases: One is that we were able to use a topography to lower the bowl so that the height of the building did not extend up higher than the historic buildings. We used terracotta panels, colored panels, to sort of blend in with the historic landscape, but it’s still clearly a modern building. And the building on the screen now is a proposal for mixed-use building, not too far from Capitol Hill on Massachusetts Ave.


And the building on the screen that you see now is Bread for the City, which is a social services project in the historic Anacostia. And it has all the social services pretty much in one location: everything from food, clothing, to medical, dental, legal, job training… I see this as a really sustainable because once you have all of those services in one location, it means that the users, and in this case, it’s a historically African American community, can come to one place and not have to drive all around town or catch buses or rely on the public transportation. It’s sort of one-stop shopping for their needs in their community. And it becomes a real beacon for the community.


You know, you showed some projects here that are in parts of the city that have not seen the right level of attention and focus. But I know from our conversations, you’ve also talked about your experiences growing up. And some of these are on blocks where you personally experienced racism. And I thought it’d be great for people to understand the moments you’ve had and the opportunities you now have to go back. And in a sense, stitch together, urban fabric that has been damaged over the years.


Well, it’s interesting. As a teenager, I think I was around 16 years old, and being interested in martial arts, we would actually go to — we did have a Chinatown in D.C. at some point — and we would go there for martial arts classes on Sundays. And then afterwards being teenagers, there were movie theaters that had Bruce Lee movies, Kung Fu movies, and we would go and do that afterwards. And so on the way back for this one instance, we were basically picked up because two young African Americans — and I was with my friend — had robbed the bookstore in Chinatown. And so, we were two young African Americans. So the police came, they put us in a car, and they drove us over to the bookstore. Luckily for us, this Chinese guy who was trying to verify if it was us, was very clear that it wasn’t us, and that was great.


But then the police put us pack in the car and they decided to go and chase some other people with us in the car. And so, that had quite an effect on me. They dropped us off in an alley. We were just happy to get out. And that’s just one of a couple instances of just being picked up because you’re Black and they were looking for Black youth. That hasn’t left me. And so, the ironic thing is that the City Vista project that we designed as a public-private partnership, that was a jumpstart for and a catalyst for the redevelopment of the entire Mount Vernon Triangle — because D.C. government controlled the property, they then teamed with developers to develop that site — it was like a block away from where I had been picked up as a teenager. But here I am now, working to bring the fabric back together of the city that had been destroyed since the ’68 riots.


So, I look back on those times to the point of saying, “look, this is what I can do and contribute, but that type of racism, it has no place in our society.” And that was back in the mid-‘70s when that happened. And we’re still having things like that now. So, what I hope, again, is that we are at a point where we can truly discuss these issues and then eliminate the need to have things like this that have just occurred with the death of George Floyd in order to make progress. And again, to find the common ground and to look at how diversity is important. Everybody can contribute to our culture and bringing everybody together.


You, in article that many people in our firm, I think, have seen, published recently in Architect Magazine, “LEED for Diversity,” Aaron Betsky wrote about your concept for LEED-inspired diversity guidelines. You talked about change in society, but, you know, you and I have had a lot of discussions about change in our profession as well. It’d be great to elaborate on that concept for those that are listening today.


Well, it’s funny, I came up with that concept over a year ago. It wasn’t because of the events that happened just now. And that came from, basically, being involved with mixed-use developments and working with developers, understanding the process of competition for projects that are either public-private partnerships or just private projects, where developers look for any kind of regulatory relief or some way of winning the competition. And so, just as there’s LEED and sustainability that’s going to be important for us in the future, I think the diversity and being good corporate citizens is just as important. So, when we do these competitions, they look for ways of having a leg up to win it. And so, I thought, if there’s a way to monetize diversity — sort of a carrot and the stick is my push for this — so that as architects, we can have a rating system not unlike LEED so that you can have, as an architectural firm or an architectural team, a AAA rating because your team looks like the community that you’re going to develop and make the proposals for.


And so, if you can quantify that level of certification, then the developer then can use that to win the project or to get some relief in their regulatory process. For instance, more density. And they use that with zoning, for instance. So I’m not sure if it’s the AIA who should monitor or set up that certification, or again, if it should be someone independent…


The governing body of it. Yeah. Michael, I also think sometimes when you think about that too, it’s also how firms work together. One of the things you and I have talked a lot about is in the relationships that your firm and our firm are doing together, we treat design as a collaboration, but you’ve spoken about how outside of that, in other scenarios, it’s treated where minority firms, their voices aren’t at the table equally, and it’s many cases a check-the-box approach. How do you think there can be change in the industry so that we really start to see these as true collaborations like you have been doing with us?


Well, there’s a couple of things. Again, if it’s a government policy for a particular project that’s public-private, then that government organization needs to have follow-up on what the developer has proposed as far as equity in the project between the two architectural firms, at least, that will be involved. I’ve had instances where we’ve won projects and the intent was to then continue on on the project, and I’ve had developers say, “well, we’re through marketing for the project,” which means “bye-bye; we won it. We don’t need you anymore.” And then it becomes this sort of adversarial sort of situation where you’ve got to push, and that’s a stress that’s layered onto the smaller firm, the minority firm, that’s involved that’s just unnecessary. And then there are times that I’ve been on teams with firms, again, who just wanted you there to get past the sort of entry level of winning a project.


And then your level of design is considered inferior to their larger firm. And that’s simply not true. I have the same education, the same background, and actually sometimes even more ,so that also ends up being sort of a problem. I enjoy the things that I’ve done with you with Gensler because it is a true collaboration from start to finish. And I’ve sort of come up with a process where even as a smaller firm, I’m very comfortable with embedding staff in the larger firm that we’re teamed with for the continuity of the project, but also to sell the overall idea to the client that they are buying one team and there’s no redundancy or that sort of thing. We work it out with an MOU at the beginning of a project. Sometimes, we’ve set up joint ventures, but I see it as a way of continuing the need for independent African American-led firms in the future to tie into projects and to be a part of the conversation of how our environment is going to be built.


It does make it so much more fluid and collaborative when we do this like we’ve done in the last couple of projects where it’s an embed, you know, it’s not funneling information from one firm to the other. And I wonder if, in a sense, what we’re doing starts to maybe define the change that we want to see in the industry.


Yeah. I hope, as a point of reference, of how to continue to have independent African American firms teaming with larger firms.


So here you are, you’re at this point in your career, I just shared some of the work on the screen. It’s amazing, amazing work with just a level of detail that is through and through. Your work has been gathered and archived and rolled out on carts into the Smithsonian Museum. For someone that still has such a great runway for design and projects — and clearly you and I have talked about the backlog that you have — what does an honor like that mean to you at this point in your career? And then also, what do you hope people take away from viewing your work when they go to the museum and see your project work about race, about this profession, and about you?


I think that for me, first of all, it’s sort of a snapshot in time. This is what an architectural firm that’s led by an African American looks like; this is the type of work I’ve been able to get and to generate. I think is good for research. I mean, you know, the Smithsonian is really about the history of things in America, and I’m just glad that I could provide those documents and that my work is at that level, that they were interested in it once they came to take a look. The fact that we make drawings and models and try to be very thorough with what we do for design and for design intent. And the other thing is that a lot of the work has been built. And so, I think when researchers will come to look at that work, and it’s here in Washington, D.C., they can then go and see the actual buildings. And I think that’s really a good fit for their research and for what they’re trying to portray with collecting.


So you and I are having this chat this weekend about how you had just seen Hamilton on Disney+, and we had this conversation that I think is worth surfacing here about the unique voice of the artist and when a particular aesthetic comes to light when crafted by a minority artist, architect, and how that presents that work in a way that is unique to that voice. And I thought it’d be worth bringing that dialogue into this forum because obviously what we’re all doing is so touching of aesthetic, but at the same time, allowing voice to rise through design work.


Yeah, I think, when I saw Hamilton, it was really interesting how they use the sort of hip-hop aesthetic to tell the story of history and that they also flipped it on its head by having minorities in the parts of Jefferson, Hamilton, Burr, Washington, the women that were involved, and that they’re telling the story through an aesthetic that originated pretty much in New York City in the Bronx. And it is a New York story, even some of the lingo when they talk about “Uptown.” I’m not sure that during Hamilton’s time, there really wasn’t quite an “uptown” per se, that was all farmland. So at any rate, it was just sort of interesting to think that perhaps an architecture that with the many different voices and different cultures coming together, in particular African Americans, that maybe some of that aesthetic might come into architecture and that we will have a new way of designing and looking at how the sort of aesthetic will affect how we make our environments.


So, that was really sort of a cool point of reference. I sometimes also point out when you think of Romeo and Juliet and Shakespeare wrote that, you know, way, way back. But then in the ’50s, you have Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, and they made West Side Story. And so the idea of Romeo and Juliet, the friction between the two cultures, and then how that was updated and it was still effective, and it was still important even in the mid-20th century… I look forward to a time where those aesthetics that could come from African Americans, Latino Americans, Native Americans… could be another way and another voice in our, sort of, family of aesthetics that we look at for architecture.


Yeah. There’s a project, when you talk about aesthetics, that’s the house that you did for Debbie Lee… I think it would be great to just talk about because when I was asking you about your most significant project, this is one that — I know there can’t be just one — but this is one that came to light for you. If you could expand a little bit on the strategy that you brought to the project but also what this project means to African American culture and who Debbie Lee is and what happened at this house.


Right. You know, it’s interesting. This is one of those projects that you get in school that seems like, “well, that’s impossible to have the client like that who can afford to do these things and have those types of aspirations for architecture.” It was a competition. We won the competition to design her house. And it just so happened that the execution of his house came about during the Obama administration. And so Debbie was the CEO of Black Entertainment Television, which was, at the time, based here, Washington, D.C. So she wanted a home that was not only for her private use, but also a venue for different corporate fundraisers that she would have, political fundraisers, different things for arts. She would have after parties for the BET Awards that would happen here, or the Kennedy Center Awards, but in particular, really happy with having a place like this, because it was a venue for fundraisers for Barack Obama, for different congressmen…


And she was very gracious in doing that and providing this home for those kinds of meetings and events. And so because of that, it’s really an important part of African American history. And because of the time during the Obama administration. While designing this, I knew to a certain extent — we started this before Obama became president — but once it was done, it became very important evidence that she was really going to embrace the idea of this home as a salon for different activities that related to our time and our history. It was a great opportunity, it’s a beautiful site adjacent to Rock Creek Park — a very hilly site that we had to pretty much embed the house into the hillside that was a 40-foot change of grade from the upper-most level down to the street. So, as architectural strategy, we basically built them sort of a piano nobile, where you then can look out and through to Rock Creek Park from the main floor and then you overlook the streets.


So it really extended the vista into Rock Creek Park, almost as if you own the park in a sense. So, that was great. She was quite an art collector also, and knowing the art from her previous home, we were able to design certain places and spaces for particular pieces of artwork. So, in one sense, it was almost like being a curator for a very extensive collection of art that includes glass, art, and very contemporary. The only direction she gave me when we got the assignment was just to make sure it was modern. I couldn’t believe it; it was so excellent. And that was it. We just went at it with my team, designed every square inch, every detail. And she was, in that case, I’m going to say the perfect client that she totally trusted us. You know, it’s almost a 20,000-square-foot home.


There are a number of things that were kind of funny in the conversations of designing this with her. In her previous home, again, because of her involvement with BET, Michael Jackson came for a visit. And during that visit, he had quite an entourage and the cars blocked the street and the neighbors were a little crazy about that. So, in this home, we were able to build in underneath the home an eight-car parking garage. So I said, “No problem. When you have visits from Michael Jackson, he can pull all his entourage in the house and there won’t be any problems with the neighbors.” It was interesting too when there were fundraisers for the Obamas, Secret Service would come, they would check it out and they would set up a certain positions for their security. Again, it was quite a venue for all of the events that were happening during the Obama administration and also for Congress and for Senate and for the arts. Again, a dream job and a dream project.


It is an amazing house and the spatial experiences here are just so stunning, where you go from spaces where it’s a large-volume experience — it’s perfect for entertaining and large gatherings — but yet, woven throughout the house, there are these intimate spaces. There are these moments where it can be a retreat space. There’s a moment that can be a space for one person. So, I think it really is a masterful job. And I guess… a full confession, right? That when you toured me through it when it was just finished, I brought my daughter, who was very young, but really excited to see your work. And so, when we walked through, I just never anticipated when she said, “dad, I need to go to the bathroom.” So, she was the first person to use the fixtures in Debbie Lee’s multimillion-dollar home… chance to laugh at that one; she remembers it for sure.

So, there are some good questions coming in, Michael. I’m going to pull some of those. And one of the questions is: thinking about the pipeline to design education for people of color, you and I have certainly talked about how challenging it is — both of us are active in teaching and trying to encourage diversity in the classrooms — but we know that that pipeline is lacking. So how do we encourage greater interest in this profession? And how do you see a firm like Gensler being able to support that going forward?


First of all, AIA DC has great mentorship programs within the public schools. Even within our firm, we would have high school students, junior high school students, come and spend time with us, shadow us, understand what architects do. I think, you know, representation or role models of minorities — it’s good for some people. For the minority students — totally necessary to see themselves reflected, but somehow we’ve got to get them to understand what it means, aesthetically, what it means for the community to contribute, and how they can help their communities as designers and architects and planners. So, I think Gensler being able to have those shadow days where you can go to certain schools and, in particular in D.C., there are technical schools that specialize in drafting and technology and things like that, that you can bring those students into the office, so it can take the mystery out of being an architect.


So, that’s one thing. Then at the college level, the same thing: being able to have summer internships so that students can start to identify with being an architect and to understand really and truly what it means. It’s not always, always design. Some people might be interested in going out to job sites, interested directly into construction. So, again, internships, but then also supporting and providing financial means to help students get through. Right now it is so incredibly expensive to go to college. And I think the economics of that is what also can hold back minorities from considering being an architect as a career. When we look at, you know, the sort of return-on-investment of being a doctor or a lawyer versus being an architect, there’s a big difference. So, it would be helpful for those of us that can afford to help. Ever since I finished that Yale, I’ve given money every year; it was sort of small at first, but then it sort of ramped up.


And at one point about two years ago, the dean at Yale made the trip to D.C. and she came to our office and they pointed out how much I had given over since 1984. And I was astounded. I had no idea I had given that much money because I just gave what I could over time. And so, that’s another thing: As alumni, we can contribute to the next generation because we’re going to need the next generation. I sort of tell that to the young architect. They’re the ones that have to be there when the population grows in cities and we need diverse voices to be the mediators to everything happening when 75 percent of the population is going to be located in urban centers. It’s super important. And it’s what we can do now as mentors in our profession.


Well, we talked about that flight to urban. I think it would be worth expanding on this for a minute because you and I have talked about that urban centers are going to take the hit for the world’s population living in the cities and the growth. Cities are really where civilization is going to thrive. How has this driven your work? How do you try to avoid gentrification through the mixed-use projects that you’ve been involved in?


Right. Well, I’m very happy that a number of the projects, by policy from our mayor and the previous mayors, are really attuned to affordable housing. And so, there are certain percentages of the units that we design that are set aside or workforce housing. So the policemen, the bus drivers, the nurses, teachers can have opportunities to live in a city where they work, because right now, if they’re living further out in the suburbs and have to commute in — and that’s any city, I’m not talking about DC alone — that’s a strain on their income and the time that it takes. So, it’s not sustainable. So the fact that in the next 50 years or so, we’ll have more people living in urban centers — there’s projections of 75 percent of the world’s population will be in urban centers — we need to have the designers in place that can sort of mediate between these different groups to make it harmonious, to have common ground, so that we don’t have the sort of friction that comes, or the gentrification where, you know, people who can’t afford to live in the cities and have to leave.


I sort of look at, in particular, personally, in my family’s background, my aunts and uncles that moved to the D.C. area in the ’50s have now decided to move back to the South. And I sort of call it the reverse Great Migration in a sense… and that’s not really sustainable. As you said, great ideas, great interaction comes from the density. And I think that’s important. Now, granted, we have COVID right now, and we have to deal with this on a temporary basis — density and people all together. But I do have faith that in capitalism somebody is going to figure out the cure for this COVID virus, and we’re going to go back to the need for living and being in denser cities. And that’s going to be the norm. So, we need to prepare young people right now that are in high school that are going to be the ones that are going to have to tackle all those cultures coming together. So that’s why as important; it’s just as important as sustainability and LEED. And so that’s why I thought if there’s a way to, again, see diversity as an investment — and it’s an investment for the future, it’s an investment for right now — but definitely for the future.


On that note, here’s another question from the participants: Can you speak to how we can design our projects to be more inclusive when clients are developing in markets that are not inclusive, looking at that through a mixed-use lens?


Yeah. Again, it’s looking at the sort of nuances of cultures. And when I say that, in particular, let’s look at African American culture: When there’s not the proper transportation to get to those churches like in the city now on Sundays, all of a sudden there’s this influx of cars in neighborhoods. Or in one instance, [with] gentrification around Howard University, there was an instance where a young lady — I’m not sure I read if she was a young White lady or not — but she walked her dog on Howard’s lawn and took the dog there, you know, for the obvious reasons of walking your dog. And that was an insult to the students at Howard University because their lawn is sacred. You know, it’s just the same as Harvard Yard, for instance. And I’m not sure that you’re allowed to do that. And probably, it’s all gated off.


So planners need to look at the fact that they’re bringing these different groups together and what are the things that their cultures would need? Dog parks could be one of those things. If you’re going to look at density and that there’s going to be more people, then you also need to look at the recreation and other things that support the services that need to go there instead of just the housing that would go there. So that’s one way of looking at it. Another way is… not too far from the Howard Theater, there was a retail shop that sold music historically, but they would also play Go-Go music out loud on their speakers. So that’s been part of the culture of that part of U Street. And so there were people that lived in a new condos and apartments complaining about the music, but the music was there before they moved in. So the architects can specify, for instance, insulation, the type of glazing that will help to cut down that sound transmission, but they got to get the developers to buy into that because there’s an upcharge for that. But if you want the harmony in that community, that’s why we’re here to then make those points very clear and to understand the value. You know, those are just two little instances of how we really need to look at diversity and why it’s important to sort of stabilize communities that are growing.


The Howard Theater — because you mentioned it was instrumental project for you and stitched its way back into the community in ways that it certainly hadn’t in recent decades — how hass that project contributed to the enhancement of community? And then also for you, what did that project mean? Share the history with the group today because I don’t think people are aware of the significance of that historic theater.


Yeah. It’s interesting. Howard Theater was built in 1911, I think it was. Originally built as a purpose-built venue for African American performers and African American audiences and patrons. And that’s simply because at that time, Black people could not go to theaters. They weren’t integrated at that time. So either you were told to sit in the back of the theater or in a balcony or something like that. So, it was purpose-built. It’s actually older than the Apollo. Most people know the Apollo. And the Howard Theater is part of what was nicknamed The Chitlin’ Circuit, which means that jazz groups, Motown groups, stacks, other historic music performers would basically travel by bus from theater to theater to theater to perform. And so, the Howard was very important as a pearl on that string. So during the ’40s, they took all the Rococo detail out of it to make it streamlined, as if it were built during the Art Deco period.


And so, that was the first, sort of, blow against it. But then after the riots here in D.C., it was sort of left somewhat abandoned and derelict, but at some point the D.C. government became owner of it. And it is part of what was called D.C.’s Black Broadway. So there’s the Lincoln Theater on U Street and there were some other venues and other African American-based institutions. And so, the Howard theater is at the far eastern end of that chain, along Florida Avenue and U Street. It was called the Duke Plan, named after Duke Ellington, from the Office of Planning and Economic Development here in the city. So it was very important to develop to be part of the entertainment institutions along there. And then it was also just for me, a point of pride because my parents had gone there as young adults.


And so, for African Americans, it was important. Most of the interior was literally gone when we did the renovation. So we tried to bring it back to 21st century uses. We actually excavated the entire footprint of the building and put in a banquet-size kitchen in the lower level so that it becomes sort of like a supper club, but then it was also flexible enough for other types of events. So for instance, when Barack Obama was running for a second term, Joe Biden had a fundraiser at the Howard Theater. He was the first official fundraiser that was held when it first opened. So, it has that history and importance in particular for our African American community. We had to rebuild the interior, but not with the Rococo detailed cause, simply, we couldn’t afford it. So, it’s a landmark building. The National Park Service actually owns the building, and so they had to review everything. That’s why it was really, really important to D.C., but it was also important nationally, because it was part of that string of theaters for African Americans during the time before integration. The exterior was totally back to closely as possible to the 1911 facade.


Yeah, it’s a real gem. For those that haven’t been to D.C., it really stands out. And then, the restoration that Michael and his team brought to this project, exterior and interior, is phenomenal. We actually did Gensler principals’ meeting event there, so several people did get a chance to experience the interior, but obviously a rich tradition that you were able to bring back to life. I’m curious, in our waning minutes here — I think this has been an excellent dialogue — thinking about how we look at the world through different lenses, definitely recognizing the challenging context that we are all experiencing now, and then also the glaring inequalities that are certainly front of mind… you know, when we start to think about turning our eyes to design strategies, I’m curious what advice you have for us thinking about how you translate what we are listening to, hearing, experiencing, and even people’s personal experiences that may be very different from their other colleagues’, how do you think about using that as a springboard into design?


Yeah, it’s interesting because a lot of our projects also involve community engagement. And for instance, if it is an African American community, you know, they have an idea of how they want to live or at least, again, their aspirations of how they want to live. And their sense of ownership is super important. And I think the facilitators should reflect those communities so that there’s a comfort level of communicating what they want to see. There’ve been times I’ve been on public meetings for developments in Anacostia, for instance, in Southeast. And there are times literally when we are promoting projects as different teams that either someone from the advisory neighborhood commission or just someone in a community will ask, “Where are the Black designers? Where are the Black architects?” Because again, there’s a comfort level they have, or even a shorthand in explaining something that would have resonance with them to get the nuances and also to feel comfortable that they’re being respected. And I think that’s really the big, big thing here. Their needs are not being downplayed, and they’re not just there to get it done and be over it. So, I think that’s why it’s important to have diverse teams, sometimes not just in race, but also from socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s also very important. We’re at a place where we’re trying to, as they say, raise all boats, and we need to do that on a big spectrum, and it’s racial, social economic, and now’s the time. Open this dialogue, honest dialogue, and let’s take advantage of it.


You know, one of the things that I think you taught me so well many years ago when we first got to know each other, and I always appreciated this as someone that was a junior architect, junior designer, working in your firm, you know, you treated me as if I had been practicing for 20 years. And the way I saw you leading your firm, that is certainly something that I’ve tried to emulate over the years, which is every voice matters. Every voice can bring something to the table. And I’m curious, for you now so far into your career, your work is in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection, you continue to bring amazing projects to life: What thoughts do you have about the profession? Maybe think about how we can affect paradigm shift in the industry. What thoughts do you have for us thinking about the profession about change?


I think the way to bring a change about quickly at this time is to engage third-party reviewers of your current situation and making for, I think, the younger minorities in the firm feel that there is a safe space where they can go and discuss what their concerns might be — positive and negative, what things work, what things aren’t working. So that they can feel that there’s no — not that there would be any repercussions, but they might feel that there could be by speaking out. And I think that being able to have a consultant who can help to facilitate that would help speed up this process right now where we are and knowing that younger people are really open to expressing themselves and their expectations.


Yeah. I just wanted to thank you again. For all those listening, you’ve heard it today from Michael. He is someone who has such a passion for design, such a passion for what all of us do every day. And Michael, I wanted to thank you again for taking the time to do this. You know, as I mentioned at the beginning, you’ve been instrumental for me personally, and I know for so many others in this community that have learned from you, worked side by side with you, and now I feel fortunate that I have the good fortune that we can collaborate on projects between our two firms on a regular basis.


Again, it’s such a privilege to be able to do that. And in particular with you personally. I’ve done work with Gensler — I sort of joke with you guys — back in 1986 as a consultant doing renderings when things were analog back then. So, I have a long history with Gensler, and it’s a great history, so I’m very happy.


Thanks again, and look forward to the continued collaboration and for all those that have tuned in, thank you for being a part of this dialogue. Everyone be well. And thank you.

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Gensler Design Exchange Podcast

The Gensler Design Exchange creates a dialogue between design experts, creative trendsetters & thought leaders to discuss how we can shape the future of cities.