December 9, 2021

Expanding the Impact of Culture in the Work of the Profession: An Interview with Bryan C. Lee, Jr.

The architecture alum talks about his work, how his firm Colloqate actualizes theories of design justice, and the distinction between representation and the impact of culture in the profession.

Expanding the Impact of Culture in the Work of the Profession: An Interview with Bryan C. Lee, Jr.

Bryan C. Lee Jr. received his Bachelor of Science in Architecture from Ohio State in 2006. In 2008, he earned his Master of Architecture degree at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT). After beginning his architecture career at the New Orleans firm Eskew+Dumez+Ripple, Lee founded the nonprofit collective Colloqate Design in 2017. Based in New Orleans, Colloqate tackles social justice projects through a community lens. Lee is the founding organizer of the Design Justice Platform and organized the Design As Protest National Day of Action. He was selected as a 2018 Fast Company Most Creative People in Business, a 2019 Architectural League Emerging Voice, and a 2019 USC Civic Media Research Fellow. Lee is a member of the Knowlton School Advisory Board.

We spoke with Lee about his current practice, his advocacy for design justice, and his time at Ohio State.

In 2017, you founded Colloqate Design, a nonprofit architecture and urban design practice based in New Orleans. Were there particular events or experiences that brought you to this moment? How much did the historical context affect your decision to start the firm?

I wanted to be an architect from a young age, ten or eleven, although I didn’t recognize the full extent of this motivation until after I finished graduate school. I thought back to the time my family lived in Comiso, Sicily for a few years because my mothers were stationed there through the United States Air Force. After that tour, we moved back to the states and into my nan’s house in Trenton, NJ. It was a formative time, in that the two places were so disparate, I was forced to think about the cause and effect of architectures that have the potential to negate our very humanity. I later moved to Ohio for high school and began searching for black architects to anchor my belief that this profession was a possibility for me. That search came up short until I was a bit older and the internet got a little more robust. I came across Columbus’ very own Curt Moody. Moody Nolan was the first black architecture firm with which I found a deep connection. It didn’t hurt that Curt also played basketball in school.

As I sought out colleges that would allow me an opportunity to study architecture and play sports, I found myself at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee. As an Historically Black College and University, FAMU School of Architecture had a significant black population that provided a culturally rich experience to begin my studies. I left FAMU to return to Ohio before my junior year. I found myself at Ohio State with a far less significant cultural footprint. This reality helped move me to start the Knowlton chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students with some friends. I went on to run that organization at Ohio State and subsequently in grad school at NJIT.

After school, I had the time to reflect and think about the type of architect I wanted to be in this world. I worked in architecture firms, non-profits, and different youth organizations all guiding me towards a lane in the profession that sits outside of the typical pathway. Starting a practice centered on Design Justice was an act of defiance towards a profession that ignores the very people I came from. Every step along the way was important in shaping what Colloqate is and will continue to be moving forward.

Colloqate’s work is fundamentally about justice and equity, especially through expanding community access to the design of spaces. What is your advice to designers on the importance of community authorship in the design process?

Our work examines the pathways to ensure communities’ self-determination through a process that radically honors community voice in design and establishes community benefits in action. Community authorship is critical to building connections in building power. The survival of communities depends on the binding social cohesion between people and place. These relationships allow neighborhoods to be cared for and maintained over time. The more we listen to the griots, the storytellers, and elders in our communities the more we understand that our history provides a clear pathway to a just future.

The black power, civil rights, and human rights movements across the 19th and 20th centuries have long recognized the need for collective power through self-determination, often challenging, marshaling, or seizing physical space as a declaration of justice. Revolutions happen through the claiming of space.

All of our projects center on the voice of communities by ensuring that they are vested in the process from the beginning of the project through the end. We believe in a liberatory praxis that acknowledges the history of place, considers how the work is an extension of mutual aid, how might this work challenge systems of power, and ultimately provide an opportunity to envision a future free from oppressive forces.

In addition to Colloqate’s work designing spaces of equity, you have also created several projects like Design as Protest (hosting more than 30 workshops), the Design Justice Platform, and the Design Justice Summit (in partnership with AIA). Can you talk about how these two facets of Colloqate—practice and pedagogy—work together or inform each other? Does Colloqate challenge what a design practice is?

Yes. Design Justice calls on us to envision spaces of racial, social, and cultural reparation through the processes and outcomes of design. It is also a tool to challenge the privilege and power structures that use architecture and design as a tool of oppression. Colloqate is committed to dismantling inequity in built, social, and political environments. We are actualizing the theories of Design Justice as the driving motivation in our work.

As an educator, I worked to build up and design the Project Pipeline program for the National Organization of Minority Architects. Focusing on social justice through design education. Students work through the steps of design justice to design a space that serves a model community based on the neighborhoods they are from. This program has served nearly 15,000 students across the country since its re-envisioning and expansion.

As an organizer, my most notable work is through the efforts of the Design As Protest (DAP)  and the DAP Collective. Over the past five years of organizing within the design justice movement, DAP has grown from a New Orleans-based effort to an international movement that brings together hundreds of designers from around the world to forward Design Justice’s mission to envision racial, social, and cultural spaces defined by the pursuit of justice and to challenge the privilege and power structures that maintain the systems of oppression through the built environment. In addition to DAP, I’ve had the honor of co-founding Dark Matter University, an anti-racist design justice school, seeking to radically shift the prevailing pedagogy of the field towards justice. All of this work from practice to pedagogy shape a campaign for a radically anti-racist, liberation-based, and BIPOC-led design coalition to dismantle unjust systems of the built environment.

During your first year at Knowlton, you founded The Ohio State University’s student chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). You have remained active with the organization at a national level, including chairing NOMA’s Project Pipeline. Can you talk about minority representation in the design fields?

On one hand, representation is everything if and only if that representation is beyond the superficial considerations of race. This is an interesting conversation for me in that I don’t actually consider representation as a component of diversity and inclusion all that much. At least as a motivation for the work that we do. We believe that diversity and inclusion are a byproduct of justice and equity. Hence the proliferation of organizations using the term JE:DI as of late.

My interests are really centered on expanding the impact of culture in the work of the profession. In large part because culture is the consequence of prevailing conditions and individual circumstances all of which shape our relationship to the spaces and places we interact with. Cultural representation and cultural acknowledgment imply a connection to a lived experience that is necessary in order to engage with the issues that our communities face on a daily basis. This is the core value of representation in the design field.

Last year you were a part of the conversations that led the formation of the BIPOC Knowlton Coalition. Now you are a member of the newly formed Knowlton Advisory Board. You’ve made time to stay connected to Knowlton. What is important to you about staying engaged with Knowlton? Do you have any advice to our alumni who want to engage with the school?

I am glad to hear that the movement for design justice continues to grow at Knowlton. I think of the legacy of the students who have pushed the school to grow and be a better place for communities that are often left out of shaping the culture of the school. I stay connected to the university and to Knowlton because I was born a Buckeye, and this place helped shape the person I am today. I think it’s worth staying involved to hold the school to the highest of standards as it relates to design justice and in service of minority student populations. I truly believe that alumni who have the capacity to be a formative presence in the school community will certainly benefit from the continued bond.