When I was seven, my dad hired someone to design our house in Brazil. She was young, and she seemed powerful to me. That was my first contact with a woman professional. I did not know what she did, but when she left, I told my parents that I wanted to be whatever she was.
My dad said, “She is an architect. To be an architect, you have to go to college, and people like us don’t go to college.” I told my dad I was going to go to college.
I started working full time when I was 13. I decided to go to secondary high school for drafting. I found an internship, and my boss taught me how to draft by hand.
In college, I began taking classes about society’s relationship to the built environment. I realized that architecture is a powerful tool; it has been used for centuries to make people feel powerful, or powerless. For example, cathedrals are specifically designed to make one feel powerless — like a little dot.
Even if an architect thinks they are not designing with social impact in mind, there will be an impact. I decided that I would be an architect who has an agenda of making people feel powerful.
Those who know how much the built environment impacts social behavior are often not at the table during the design process. Those are my people — people who grew up in the inner city and far away from where decisions are made. In college, I was conflicted because my professors offered me positions at their firms to design for the wealthy and powerful. I declined the offers and decided to be a voice for those under-represented.
After moving to the U.S. in 2008, I realized there has to be a more nuanced way to talk about affordable housing.
A housing unit can be labeled “affordable” if it is accessible to those who make 60 percent of the area median income (AMI). However, the real demand for housing is for those who make 30 or 40 percent AMI.
I believe it is the responsibility of a developer to determine residents’ economic situations and provide for that need. For example, the cheapest area to live in Minneapolis is the Northside. When developers decide to capitalize off a need for denser housing and demolish three or four $12,000 three-bedroom homes, those families that were displaced cannot come back and rent apartments because they likely won’t qualify. Instead, the new “affordable” housing may attract the recently graduated, likely Caucasian, and middle class.
New developments often don’t take into consideration how low-income people live in a village system in order to provide for childcare. When houses are demolished, it is often more than single families who are affected.
Architects, especially those from privilege, are responsible for thinking outside of their own experience. We have to consider how a project will impact an area on multiple levels.
When I began work in Minnesota, I realized that I was not being treated as an equal. I realized, after two jobs with similar issues, that it had a lot to do with my gender and my race.
I considered leaving my profession. But after I began meeting with women and POC architects, I was hearing the same stories. I knew that we had to create a community. I needed someone to believe me without question when I said that my idea had been ignored three times before it was accepted out of the mouth of a white male co-worker.
I co-founded the Minnesota chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) in 2017. Around 20 Latino architects attended our first meeting. Everyone who walked in had the same emotional reaction. “Are we all architects?” It was an inspiring moment because we were not aware of each other in the field.
Early on in my career, I designed the International Student Center at Northern Arizona University. It was important that the building acknowledged every demographic that walked through the door. I decided against flags or names of countries, which is too predictable, and chose instead to display untranslatable words.
We placed the words in staggered panels outside the building. The intent was to say: we are all different, but together we can make a beautiful composition. The design inspired people to exchange world views by explaining what the words in their language mean.
Every student, even those who spoke regional dialects, found an untranslatable word in their language. That was huge for them. It is a feeling I want to replicate in all my projects.
After moving to Minnesota, I designed the interior of the offices for Thor Companies, Minnesota’s largest minority- owned company. That was the best job I’ve ever had. I felt comfortable to be myself, and I was given the benefit of the doubt when I made mistakes.
I named the conference rooms at Thor after influential African Americans. The company gave suggestions and voted. Each room included a paragraph explaining the namesake’s influence. When we were moving into the offices, one of the movers brought his young son to help. He saw the names on the rooms and he started googling them. He said, “All these folks are Black.” He asked, “Who owns this place?”
We explained, “It’s a Black man, and most of the other people who work here are Black.” He was impressed.
That, to me, is the most important job. Those conference rooms were a way of making him feel powerful.
I want to make people feel acknowledged and respected. That doesn’t happen in most places for people like us, and that’s the difference that I want to make.
Damaris Hollingsworth (she/her) designs solutions that are deeply rooted in responding to community values and economic realities. She has an Architectural and Urban Planning degree from the Faculdade de Arquitetura & Urbanismo at University of Sao Paulo, Brazil and is a Registered Architect, a LEED accredited professional, and a TEDx Speaker.