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From Harlem to Howard: Stephen Wilder, A Black Architect On the Rise

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In preparation for an upcoming aesthetics and design-based project, I’ve begun interviewing folks whose line of work is centered on the Black aesthetic. This includes architects, designers, artists, curators – basically anyone whose sweat equity contributes to making our world a more sustainable, functional, and visually beautiful place.

One of the first people I thought to interview was my friend of 20+ years, fellow Howardite, and husband to my linesister – Stephen Wilder of Think Wilder Architecture. Look forward to similar conversations on SHOPPE BLACK.

Shantrelle P. Lewis, Retired Curator + Co-Founder, SHOPPE BLACK


When we met freshman year at Howard, you were already an architecture major. At what point in your childhood did you know you want to become an architect? 

First, I want to say thanks for the opportunity.  It’s an honor to be featured on such an important site.

I wanted to be an architect long after architecture chose me but I first knew in the 9th grade. Architecture is not something you just decide to do.  It’s a lifestyle. My interests, talents, and personality traits fit that lifestyle.  So it was a match made in heaven. Life events would often test the decision to become an architect, but no matter how many times I’ve strayed, I never got too far away from architecture’s grip on me.     

La Familia – Spring Semester, Freshman Year, Howard University circa 1997.

What was it like studying architecture at an HBCU, especially the MECCA? 

Studying architecture at HU was interesting.  It was like living in two worlds.  As an architecture student, you’re kind of like an outcast.  Our school is the first building on the corner when you arrive on campus, but people only came to our building to wait for the shuttle bus. No one really knew who we were, for obvious reasons. 

But who comes to the MECCA to be put in a corner?  So I lived two lives.  The demand and commitment the School of Architecture requires, makes you think you need to spend your life in the Mackey Building. We were told that “we would not have lives.”  

The rest of the student body treats you that way.  But I had other plans. Don’t get it confused, I can’t count the number of nights I slept in that building.  Architecture required it.  The material was tough and seemed never ending. I loved architecture, loved the challenge from the professors as well as my peers.  I learned so much.  Howard University’s School of Architecture did a great job preparing me to be a professional.

Although I excelled academically, I also didn’t deny my other interests.  I took classes outside of Architecture like Blacks in the Arts and Social Psychology.  I was a Resident Assistant, 3-time Intramural Basketball champion, leader of the NY Club, Fashion Show participant and the list goes on.  I enjoyed Howard so much, I took it for granted my last two years.  Wish I could have those days back.

Who would you credit as your architectural influences? Is there an individual architect or schools of thought that have primarily influenced your design? 

Early on, I gravitated to the Modernism.  This often-polarizing style fit who I was as a person.  Modern design is not here to fight for attention.  It wins by being consistent, clean and orderly – intelligent.  It’s going to make sense. 

I liked Mies Van Der Rohe but I also appreciated other architects.  Architects that you could tell from looking at their work, that they paid attention to detail and they had well developed designs.  People like Jack Travis, Paul Williams, Phil Freelon, IM Pei, Antoni Gaudi, and Santiago Calatrava.

The late Phil Freelon who passed away in 2019, standing before perhaps his best known design achievement.

What’s your design philosophy? 

“Less is a bore when the situation requires more.  But when more is a mess, stick with less.”  Design for me is like any great business: it responds to a demand, to a person or person’s needs.  It’s functional with form closely following and often interjecting.  Pushing and pulling until it checks all of the boxes of the program and the problem it’s solving.  It’s implied, revealing itself only when necessary. 

Who are a few Black architectural icons? 

I don’t know the exact number, but roughly 2% of the licensed architecture community is Black.  That 2%, as well as everyone that came before them, are my heroes.  The challenges we face and crush every day is nothing less than iconic.  We carry the task of making sure the built environment of people who look like us, represents us.  We are in meetings all the time fighting to create spaces that fit our cultural needs while also fighting to get rid of spaces that negatively impact our path to success.  There is NO ONE else that does this.  The majority of our own people can’t quantify our importance. We are the unsung Black professionals. And that’s perfectly fine.

As a Black architect, are there any other regions in the Diaspora that inspire you architecturally? 

I’m always amazed at the indigenous architecture of many of our African and Caribbean countries.  The buzz word today is sustainable architecture.  But sustainable architecture has long been the architecture of the places our ancestors come from.  Designing buildings and homes out of local materials that responded to social, cultural, economical and environmental demands was second nature. Builders and designers had to be responsible with the limited resources that were present.

The Great Mosque of Djenne, Mali, West Africa.

If you had to design a model city for a utopian society, how would it look and function?   

Great question. Throughout our history, quilts played major roles.  But I won’t get into slavery or even the quilt my mother sewed for me when I first went to college (that I still have).  But visually, traditional quilts are individual patterns and representations laid out and arranged in an underlined system.  They are like a body full of tattooed experiences. My model city will have these elements.  Individuality.  Balance.  Connectivity.  Cooperative. 

Gee’s Bend Quilt.

It will be self-sustaining.  I believe that when people have the opportunity to be who they truly are, they are more likely to work with others on a larger common goal. My model city would encourage that. There will be places for farming and technology. 

Dope skylines serving as the backdrop to black sand beaches. Buildings of various heights with open green spaces throughout.  It’s irresponsible to think you can please everyone in one place, but maybe this city is transient.  A person will stay if they can vibe with the city’s ethos and they’ll visit when they need a dose of it.

The perfect building has what elements, in terms of design? 

It has a defining entrance.  It tells a story.  There are some elements of denial and reward sprinkled throughout.  There’s separation of private and public spaces.  Every inch has been thought about.  Every element has multiple design justifications.  There also must be order and balance.  There must be explicit and implicit sustainable elements.    

What elements are necessary for amazing design?

Genius loci….There has to be a sense of place!  Amazing design is memorable, and can emotionally take over someone’s mind, body, and soul. It solves a problem. This is often achieved by having a parti.  The building is based on a concept or an overall theme that guides the design and structures the building’s many elements.  It’s like the hook of a well-executed rap song.  Are we sticking with the script? 

Who are some other Black architects and designers that you rock with?

There are so many great, creative minds out there that I can’t begin to mention them all.  Everyone helps keep my sword sharp.  There are so many I admire from a distance, but I’ll start with my NINES ARCHTX crew: Najeeb Hameen, Ibrahim Greenidge, Nico Zapata, and Erasmus Ikpemgbe.  Be on the lookout for us as a group, and as individuals. 

Steven Lewis, who is a legend. He’s in LA now, but he spent a lot of time in Harlem.  There haven’t been many, but I cherish every moment I get to converse with him. Melita Issa, of MISO Studios.  She’s an Interior designer killing it on two continents. My HU brother Jason Pugh, out in Chicago who’s been killing it at Gensler for years.

Michael Adumua who was out in Vegas designing casinos then went home to Ghana and started creating beautiful buildings for his people. Adaeze Cadet out in LA.  I don’t know her know her, but she’s a superstar.  I’ve been secretly recruiting her.  Two of my favorite professors that are no longer with us, that continue to push and inspire me – Barbara Laurie and Oswald Glean Chase.

What is the greatest architectural achievement in your opinion in world history? 

Even if I believe that there is nothing new under the sun.  I still believe we had to start somewhere.  The Pyramids of Egypt.  For their longevity.  For their symbolism.  For their originality.  Literally, nothing else compares.

The Great Pyramids of Giza, Egypt, East Africa.

What obstacles do Black architects face? 

I try to say challenges instead of obstacles.  The challenges we face more than anything are lack of opportunities.   But there are so many levels to this.  Obstacles, as an architect, are one thing, but when you add Black in there, the magnitude of these obstacles increase exponentially. From being a student to navigating a career path, to becoming licensed, to having access to a certain client type as a business owner.  The obstacles are endless.

I won’t go too deep, but let me paint a picture for you.  Let’s understand that only 2% of the world can really afford an architect.  So who’s funding these opportunities? What entities? Do they look like us? Do they represent us and have our best interests in mind? Whether it’s an institution or a municipality, are they making sure Black architects have a seat at the table?

The architecture in Urban areas, predominantly the base of black communities, is changing drastically.  Who is behind these developments? Our neighborhoods are being changed right under our noses and we have very little influence.  Ultimately, we don’t even get to design the communities where our people live, work and play.

We all know that the Black community has resources.  If some of these resources are used on Black Architects, we don’t have to go anywhere else for work.  Our challenge is making sure we are known, accessible, and available to the people with these resources. We have to work very hard to get projects from people who don’t look like us.  Respectfully, we shouldn’t have to work as hard with those who do look like us.    

black architect

How has COVID impacted your work, if at all?

COVID has impacted everyone’s work.  Some more than others.  There is this unknown aspect of it that makes it difficult to forecast future business.  Everyone has an opinion about how the economy will be affected and how that will affect the construction industry. 

But the thing that stands out most to me is the personal side of the business that has been impacted.  As a business owner, especially as an architect, I need to be known, trusted, and liked. I have yet to figure out how to make that happen via video conference calls.  I literally can’t build without building relationships.  It’s vital to our survival and it’s been compromised due to COVID. 

It’s not all bad though, COVID has forced me to slow down and take a step back.  Figuring out ways to pivot and adapt.  Remembering the ideal clients to target.  I’ve been able to reassess my business model. Since March, I’ve been doing a little bit of destroying and rebuilding.  It’s allowed me to get excited about the future.

What are you currently reading?

The Color of Money, Black Banks, and the Racial Wealth Gap. (I’ve been reading this for a minute now, don’t judge me).  The Soul of Black Folks.

You’re currently hiring, what kind of creatives would be a perfect fit for your team?

Technically, we are always looking to hire.  When there is a fit or a dynamic person that impresses me, the hiring process has started.  They may not know it, but I’m immediately in recruit mode.

I like people that are stars in their roles.  I prefer problem solvers and not problem starters.  Those that dream big and don’t kill dreams.  We are trying to accomplish something here.  They should know what that means. 

It’s important to be qualified.  Whether that is through education, experience, or certifications.    Be a leader.  Be forward-thinking, sustainable design-driven, and passionate. 

Even though we are vital to our community, they must know that our role as an architecture firm is privileged. 

They have a sense a culture, a sense of urgency, understand the importance of a Black business and the role it plays.

The positions we need filled immediately are Project Architect / Project Manager, Junior Architect, Interior Designer, and MEP Engineer.  Email info@thinkwilderarchitecture.com for job descriptions and any other information.

black architect

Who is your ideal client?

Think Wilder Architecture’s ideal clients are developers and municipalities that understand the value an architect brings and has projects that positively impact large groups of people.

Who do you want to work with? 

We like strategic partnerships however they come.  No one should feel like we can’t do business together.  Let’s think outside the box. 

What type of opportunities are you seeking?

We’ve done a lot of residential work.  We enjoy this, but we also want to do more schools, community facilities, and commercial projects.

What is your dream project? 

My next project of course.  These things aren’t guaranteed you know. 

Nah, but to answer the question, because of my love of sports, I used to say a sports arena was my dream project.  That was long before I had an actual business and thoughts of legacy.  These days, I’m not sure I have one. My life’s work will be my dream project. 

I’m living a dream. In the past, I used to hesitate and look around before I said this, but now I kind of say it with my chest.  I know it’s true every time someone puts trust in me to design their space.  I get excited about any and every project that requires some level of the design process.

Check out Stephen’s design work at Think Wilder Architecture and follow him on IG.

 

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