Leading Carolina’s Black Design Community

A sidebar to today’s architecture column in The News & Observer in Raleigh focuses on the Black woman who is the undisputed leader in the North Carolina Triangle’s African American design community. A gifted architect who injects the essence of culture into every project she tackles, she’s also known as a super-sensitive listener who knows how to ask the right questions. That’s because, by her own admission, she has a profound and deep connection in understanding how special constructs affect our social well-being.

Zena Howard stands firmly at the top of the Triangle’s Black architecture community.

The late Phil Freelon recruited her to join his Durham-based firm 2003. He was committed to making good design accessible to everyone.

“I thought it was a great firm doing the type of work I like to do,” said Howard, a 1988 graduate of the University of Virginia’s School of Architecture. “I thought by joining them, I could take it even further and contribute and grow what they’d started and take it to another level.”

That moment came as Freelon began tracking congressional legislation sponsored by the late Rep. John Lewis to fund the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. “By 2004, we really talked about how to position ourselves for the museum,” Howard recalls.

In 2009, a collaborative group called Freelon Adjaye Bond/Smith Group triumphed in a competition for the museum. David Adjaye would handle the design, the Freelon Group would be named architect of record, and Howard would wade into a dense thicket of logistics, timing and execution.

“It’s not an easy project when everyone in world is looking at it — and at you — and has an opinion,” says Brenda Sanchez, senior architect/senior design manager at the Smithsonian. “It had to express the glory and resilience of the African American culture and the resilience of the culture — and (Howard) was interested in making sure that came across.”

In 2014, the Freelon Group merged with Perkins&Will, with Freelon heading up the North Carolina practice. By the time the museum opened in September 2016, he had been diagnosed with ALS, a debilitating disease that led to his death in 2019.

By then, he already had passed the practice baton on to Howard, who embraced his groundbreaking practice of “Remembrance Design.” It addressed the destruction of seven minority communities coast-to-coast — the result of urban renewal during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, when entire Black neighborhoods were decimated and replaced by highways and public housing.

Howard and her team ventured into meetings full of former residents, asking questions and listening. “I believe there is no progress without struggle, and she understands that and embraces that struggle,” says Los Angeles community organizer Joanne Kim. “She’s learned how to listen and respond in a way that’s constructive.”

In L.A., the result is Destination Crenshaw, a 1.3-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard with its own Metro stop, 11 parks, and a series of permanent art exhibits.

“It was not place-making – it was place-keeping,” Kim says of the reimagined neighborhood.

It’s also the product of an inquisitive mind and a perceptive eye — with design that delivers a positive impact on people’s lives.

For more, go here.

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