Chicago’s architectural community is trying to diversify with the help of a new UIC fellowship and a project led by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill designer Tiara Hughes

University of Illinois Chicago graduate student Martina Smith has always been curious about buildings. Growing up in Jamaica, a colorful structure that she called “the cake house” sparked her curiosity at the age of 7. Because she loved art and math, her father suggested that she try her hand at architecture. The Richton Park resident has been on track to become an architect ever since.

With plans to graduate in 2024 with a degree in architecture from UIC’s College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts, Smith wants to eventually open up her own firm and put her building skills to work in marginalized communities.

“I feel like they don’t really get that much attention as other communities do,” she said.

Smith is the first recipient of the Hartshorne and Plunkard Fellowship, a new annual award given to a UIC architecture graduate student. She received the award in September, which comprises $10,000 in financial assistance for up to three years of graduate study, academic and professional mentoring, and a paid summer internship at Hartshorne Plunkard Architecture in Chicago. UIC alumni Raymond Hartshorne and James Plunkard committed $500,000 to create the endowed fellowship, which aims to increase diversity among students obtaining a UIC architecture education and diversify the talent pipeline into the architectural profession. The endowment will support two graduate architecture fellows in perpetuity.

“Our idea was making this fellowship graduate-specific would address not only the pipeline at the beginning of that undergraduate level, but also the attrition that happens as you move up the ranks in architecture where diverse students become a smaller and smaller portion of the represented group as you get into graduate programs and the professional field,” said Olivia Woolley, assistant director of advancement at the College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts. “Ray and Jim thought if they could alleviate some financial burden by providing major tuition support to a graduate student that would help them get through the program, then they would graduate into a field ready to be that diverse candidate that the industry is looking for.”

The fellowship is but one move being made in Chicago to diversify the architecture field. Architect Tiara Hughes, a Skidmore, Owings & Merrill senior urban designer and project manager, launched the First 500 website in October. Hughes said the site’s sole purpose is celebrating and elevating Black women in architecture, who make up less than 1% of licensed architects. Unlike Smith, who attends architecture classes with students from many different backgrounds, Hughes, a St. Louis native, was often the only female in her Drury University architecture classes, and the only student of color.

“Honestly, the only architect that I can think of watching growing up, was the dad off “The Brady Bunch,” And that’s not our representation,” Hughes said. “I felt a little isolated and a bit deprived from my education.” The experience prompted Hughes to move to Chicago, where she has been able to to meet Black women architects and be introduced to the National Organization of Minority Architects.

“It was a bit of a shocker when I dug deeper to learn that in 2017 there (were) between 115,000-116,000 licensed architects living in the U.S., and less than 500 of them were Black women,” Hughes said. “That’s when I founded the First 500 — the three pillars being raising awareness, resourcing, and building a strong community.”

Hughes named the website First 500 to be a visible marker around the shocking representation of Black women in the field. “People were able to quickly wrap their minds around what Black women represent in this field, and how it’s unjust,” Hughes said.

Hughes, 30, has traveled the country talking about the low number of BIPOC architects, encouraging and inspiring young girls to enter the field and reiterating to Black females who are in the field that they belong there. The Woodlawn resident hopes the site serves as a touchpoint for young girls and women of color throughout their career. Profiles and contacts of existing Black female architects are present on the site, as are resources for those regardless of where one is on their architectural journey — from young girl to licensed professional.

“For our younger population, we want them to feel inspired. And most importantly, we want them to see women that look like them that are successful in the field. And likewise for students and people who are studying architecture,” Hughes said. “Another important component of the website, the building of a network. Within these women’s profiles, if you click on them, their social media or LinkedIn profiles are connected as links, allowing Black women to actually cross reference, meet and connect with each other.”

Already professionals from Canada, the Virgin Islands and Trinidad are aboard. Hughes said she’s in talks with Black architects from the United Kingdom. Hughes said she wanted First 500 to be global because statistics for Black architects are stark in other parts of the world as well. The website also has a leadership board and an advisory council comprised of Black women in architecture. Years in the making, Hughes said there’s more to come on the platform.

Hughes continues to talk to students from her alma mater, hoping to see more Black faces in the mix and when she does, she pulls her in front of all her peers to say: ‘You belong here. A fan of Dina Griffin and Jeanne Gang, Hughes said architecture is a part of her DNA.

“I grew up in the ghettos of St. Louis and when I was a very young child, learning that there’s people out there that can design the world around us to be a better place was something that has always stuck with me and it still sticks with me to this day,” Hughes said. “All of us have a lot more work to do if we want to see more of our Black and brown babies getting into architecture. And it’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.”

Hughes is also an adjunct professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology, a commissioner with the City of Chicago Landmarks Commission (she just landmarked Emmet Till’s Chicago residence and is working on Muddy Waters’ home), and a real estate broker. She uses all of her intersectionality as a resource in as many spaces as possible to aid in her effort.

“Because we can’t move forward if everyone is afraid to say something and to grow and evolve and learn,” she said. “I’m jumping into these spaces and being a resource and a voice.”

Applications for UIC’s fellowship, specifically for students of color coming into the Masters of Architecture program, are due Jan. 15, 2022. UIC tries to get high school students interested in architecture too, with a summer program called HiArch, taught by faculty members in the UIC School of Architecture. An introduction to studying architecture at the college level, participants work through design exercises, receive one-on-one feedback from instructors and current UIC students, and engage in group discussions and tutorials.

“Ray and Jim share UIC’s vision for architecture and its practice, as an attractor for inclusion and difference,” Woolley said. “We’re hoping that in addition to the immediate impact that the gift gives to our students and to UIC, that it will provide a model that’s inspiring to other firms in the city who want to collaborate with us who share that vision. So then, we’re starting other pipelines and eventually diversifying the entire industry. That’s the goal, that there will always be this pipeline that’s being fed.”

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