On Wednesday, the American Institute of Architects announced the election of Kimberly Dowdell, marketing principal at HOK’s Chicago office, as the organization’s 2024 president. A winner of RECORD’s 2020 Women in Architecture Award, Dowdell previously acted as the 2019-2020 president of the National Organization for Minority Architects (NOMA). She will be the first Black woman to serve as AIA president in the organization’s 165 year history.
In her campaign, Dowdell proposed an “alphabet platform” consisting of advocacy for architects in practice, belonging, climate action, and designing the future. “I think it's important that the AIA is advocating for the prosperity and fulfillment of architects,” she told RECORD. “By increasing our relevance and opening our world up a bit more to the public, we can attract more young people to want to pursue architecture and have more informed clients.”
Born in Detroit, Dowdell decided she wanted to be an architect at age 11. “At that time, in the early 1990s, Detroit was experiencing disinvestment, crime, blighted buildings, and things of that nature,” she says. “I recall a very specific moment right in front of the old Hudson's department store–this iconic building in Detroit which had shut down the year I was born. I remember looking at the building and saying, ‘I want to fix this.’”
Dowdell’s early aspirations of urban regeneration became a throughline in her career, as she moved between public and private sectors, and from city to city. After graduating from Cornell University with a Bachelor’s in Architecture in 2006, she worked at the General Services Administration in Washington, D.C., where she came up with the idea for what is now called S.E.E.D., a framework used by the agency to advance the right of every person to live in socially, economically, and environmentally healthy communities.
She moved to New York in 2008, shortly before the financial crisis struck, and “rode out” the recession at HOK and real estate consultancy Levien and Company. In 2014, she enrolled at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government for a Master’s in Public Administration. “People sometimes ask, why would you study public administration as an architect?” she says. “I firmly believe that buildings are very much a part of the public realm. If we're able to help to shape policies that impact the built environment, then we can be more effective in our work.”
In 2016, while living in Detroit, Dowdell received a call from a friend at NOMA—where she had served as a board member from 2006 to 2010—who asked her to run for the organization's 2019-2020 presidency. Founded by a group of Black architects at the AIA’s annual conference in Detroit in 1971, NOMA has served as a space of advocacy and support for minority architects in a notoriously underrepresented industry; Dowdell was eager to lead the organization in the next phase of its growth. Under her leadership, NOMA grew from 902 members to over 2,000. “We were being intentional about including more people in the discussion and fostering a greater sense of belonging within the organization,” she recalls. Dowdell, who has a self-professed love for acronyms, credits this success to her platform “A.L.L. In,” which stands for access, leadership, and legacy, and is focused on attracting membership from all career stages.
Dowdell led the organization through a particularly tumultuous time: the advent of the pandemic and a nationwide reckoning with systemic racism. “One thing I'm really proud of is speaking up when it was time to say something,” she says. She wrote a letter to NOMA membership every week in the early uncertain months of Covid-19, and after the murder of George Floyd she wrote a statement on racial injustice on behalf of NOMA. “As architects, we are professionally responsible for protecting the health, safety, and welfare of the public,” it reads in part. “The tragic execution of Black Americans at the hands of people infected by racism has plagued our nation for generations.”
Reflecting on her tenure at NOMA, and what she will carry to her new position with the AIA, Dowdell says she will prioritize creating partnerships and coalitions that cross outside of the profession. “I'd like to have strategy sessions with, for example, the American Medical Association or the American Bar Association, other groups that are trying to solve complex problems in society,” she says. “Architects have an important role to play. How are we collaborating? How are we breaking down silos?”
Dowdell notes that she is also the first millennial to serve as AIA president. Her career began at the cusp of the 2008 recession, and she has a distinct perspective on the cultural and financial grievances aired recently by students and younger architectural professionals. “I've seen, from the beginning of the recession, the ebb and flow of success within the profession. I can relate to a lot of the challenges that have been articulated,” she says. “We lost so many potential architects between 2008 and 2010.”
“Many young people are getting other options opening up to them in construction, in real estate, in the tech field,” she adds. “People vote with their feet and if they don't find that architecture is meeting their needs, they will move on. We want to prevent that as much as possible.”
Dowdell will be the 100th president of AIA, and will serve as the organization’s vice-president in 2023. Delegates at the 2022 AIA annual meeting also elected Britt Lindberg as 2023-2024 secretary and Illya Azaroff as 2023-2025 at-large director.