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Q&A With Kimberly Dowdell, AIA’s 100th President — And First Black Female One

Kimberly Dowdell has made history. In June, she was elected the first Black female president of the American Institute of Architects at a virtual meeting. Her election makes her the 100th president in AIA’s 165-year history.

She told Bisnow what impact her role can have on others and said she is energized by her ability to represent the underrepresented, echoing actress Viola Davis' comments about her own mentor that “it is very important to see a physical manifestation of your dreams.”

In a series of virtual conversations, Dowdell reflected on the journey that led her here, the power of representation in architecture and her plans for the future as AIA president.

The following has been edited for style, grammar and brevity.

The second Black AIA president, William Bates; newly appointed AIA President Kimberly Dowdell; and Marshall Purnell, the first Black AIA president.

Bisnow: You're the first Black female president of the American Institute of Architects and its 100th president. What does that mean to you and how will it inform your leadership at AIA?

Dowdell: It means a lot to be elected as the first Black female president of an organization that was founded over 165 years ago. Borrowing from the words of my sorority sister, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, “I may be the first, but I will not be the last.” It’s very special to be AIA President No. 100 as well. It’s a nice round number, but it also makes talking about percentages easier. For example, since I will be the seventh woman elected since the first woman (Susan Maxman) in 1992, I can say that 7% of all AIA presidents have been women. Similarly, as the third African American to serve as president since the first (Marshall Purnell) in 2008, we know that 3% of all AIA presidents have been Black. We need to attract and retain more women and people of color in the field of architecture, so if my election helps to inspire heightened participation from a wider diversity of architects, then I am pleased with that as an outcome. I’m also the first millennial to be elected AIA president, which signals to younger professionals that it’s time to step up. I’m energized by the notion of representing a variety of groups that are currently underrepresented in my field. My specific leadership style involves building consensus and being thoughtful about who is not in the room to offer their perspective, then finding ways to bring them in. I believe that not only diversity of background, but diversity of thought and experience is crucial to the success of any team, company or organization. As 2024 AIA president, I will seek to include as many perspectives as possible, and as my campaign slogan states, encourage our members and the public to “Envision New Possibilities” for the profession of architecture.

Bisnow: How did you become interested in architecture? Tell me a bit about your origin story.

Dowdell: I decided when I was 11 years old that I wanted to become an architect because I wanted to help heal my hometown of Detroit. I learned about architecture in a middle school art class, where my teacher gave us an assignment to create an apartment out of a shoebox, using carpet samples, blocks and other materials. That simple exercise exposed me to the power of design as a tool to shape the way people live.

Around that same time frame, I took notice of a building in downtown Detroit called Hudson’s Department Store. It occupied an entire city block for many decades during Detroit’s strongest era in the early-to-mid 20th century. As a result of suburban flight, Hudson’s closed its flagship Detroit store the year that I was born. I never got to experience Hudson’s as a place of commerce, but I know it meant a lot to the community while it was thriving. I remember looking at this beautiful old building that was a ghost of its former self, noticing the windows had been broken and that there was graffiti abound, all of which was fairly commonplace in downtown Detroit in the early ‘90s. At that moment, I sort of put two and two together and thought, “Well, if architects make space and improve buildings, then I’ll become an architect so I can fix this building and all of the other problematic things that I saw around it.” I felt there was a correlation between the blight and the homelessness that I was seeing along with the other issues on display in downtown at that point. I believe that moment was a calling for me to get involved with helping my city recover. I later learned that architects don’t necessarily solve all of these complicated urban challenges, but we are a vital partner on the larger team. I initially wanted to become a doctor, but I ultimately concluded at age 11 that becoming an architect and working on urban issues would empower me to help heal larger groups of people than I would be able to impact at the individual patient scale. And that’s how all of this got started — from a shoebox.

Kimberly Dowdell speaking at NOMA’s 2019 Project Pipeline Camp in Chicago.

Bisnow: You've worn many hats over the years. What are you most proud of/what do you look back on fondly?

Dowdell: You’re right, when I think about it, I have worn a lot of different hats since I graduated from college. From architecture to real estate entrepreneurship and government to teaching, my experiences in seven different cities have been all over the map. Of my experiences thus far, I’ve been most proud of the progress that I was able to make as National Organization of Minority Architects president in 2019 and 2020. I have to give credit to the leadership at HOK in Chicago for providing me with the flexibility to lead NOMA while still working full time. Without that kind of support, I would not have had the bandwidth to accomplish quite as much over that two-year window. There were many highlights from my time as NOMA president, but if I had to identify something that really stood out as a proud moment, it would have to be a collection of moments that I got to spend with NOMA students who are so enthusiastic about the profession. Being around them motivates me to do the work that I do to improve the field of architecture. Another career highlight of mine was teaching architecture and urban planning at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor from 2016-2019. Being able to help prepare the next generation of architects, designers, planners and urban leaders is one of the greatest privileges that I have had as a professional.

Bisnow: The scope of the role is broad. Looking ahead, what are some of your goals for the position and when do you start?

Dowdell: I will begin my one-year tenure as AIA president in December 2023 and it will conclude in December 2024. As I anticipate the holiday season of 2024, I would love to be able to celebrate a job well done with increasing membership. With over 94,000 members, I will not endeavor to double the membership as I did with NOMA, but I will make every effort to connect with AIA leaders around the world to ensure that AIA National is tuned into what each component values. I firmly believe that people vote with their feet, or in this case, their membership renewals. My success will be measured in part by how well AIA does with member attraction and retention. I would like to help raise the public profile of the architect and the AIA. Our profession is much more relevant than we’re often given credit for and I am interested in seeing the perception of architects improve. We can literally see and design the future. The value that architects provide is tremendous and I would like to elevate this as much as possible. During my campaign, I described my alphabet platform, which includes prioritizing advocacy for architects in practice, belonging in the profession, climate action and designing for the future.

Bisnow: What advice would you give to a young woman of color looking to get into the field of architecture? 

Dowdell: Be bold. If you want to achieve anything in life, you have to be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and ask for what you want. You must be bold. I would give this advice to anyone who I mentor, regardless of gender or background, but I think that it is especially important for young women of color to understand this. I learned this very early on from my grandmother, who taught me that anything is possible if I’m willing to put in the work. I aim to embolden others to dream big dreams and pursue those dreams with passion and intentionality. Given my race, gender and early life socioeconomic status in the sub-poverty range, the fact that I am embarking on this journey to serve as the AIA’s 100th president prior to age 40 is not only highly improbable, but somewhat surreal from my perspective. I am still letting it sink in, actually. One of the best things that I can do to support young women of color who are considering architecture is to do a good job as AIA president in 2024. Serving as that kind of example will mean a tremendous amount to people who look like me, as well as those who do not. This is why representation matters, and why I’m very proud to serve as a representative of certain groups that had previously not seen a version of themselves at the helm of AIA or other similar types of organizations. Architecture is one of the greatest professions that one can pursue, but it is also one of the most challenging. Finding mentors is crucial, but having the fortitude to overcome the many obstacles presented by this profession is vital.