When the ice melts and the tulips sprout, the Noir Design Parti will resume educational bus tours of buildings designed by Detroit’s most famous black architects, hoping to inspire others to follow in their career footsteps.
“We’re exploring the physical identity and landscape of Detroit, how black architects have shaped a city that is more than 80 percent African-American residents,” says Karen Burton, architectural designer, owner of SpaceLab Detroit, a coworking center, and co-founder of Noir Design Parti along with Saundra Little.
The pair won a $35,0000 grant from the John S. and James. L. Knight Arts Challenge to research black architects, host tours and inspire others. A tour the pair sponsored with the Detroit Experience Factory had a full bus and people eager to share with friends.
“Detroit has been named a ‘City of Design,’ by UNESCO, a United Nations organization,” says Little, a license architect. She also owns the Centric Design Studio. The American Institute of Architects offers continuing education credits for tour participants.
When buses roll again, they will visit some of the most interesting architectural and historical buildings. The addition to the 2nd Baptist Church in Greektown affords more opportunity for worship, a museum and bookstore devoted to the Underground Railroad, and classrooms. Architect Nathan Johnson designed the addition to this historic church. (Tour goers are shown admiring the churches interior in the lead photo.)
Another stop is the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Midtown, designed by black architects Howard Sims and Harold Varner with 125,000 square feet of space devoted to exhibits, lectures and gift shop. It opened to the public April 12, 1997 as one of the largest African American museums in the world.
Kim Varner Tandy participated on the bus trip and spoke of her father’s finest work, the museum with a central gathering space so sensitive the whispers can be heard all around the room.
Other sites included Bethel AME Church, designed by Nathan Johnson, one of the first known black architects in Detroit who has served as a mentor for many.
“He inspired me to be an architect,” Burton says. “I could create something enduring.”
Indeed, Burton is creating something enduring.
SpaceLab hosts book clubs, marketing seminars and National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) meetings in its spacious quarters. The space was designed by Little’s firm, Centric Design Studio.
Fewer than 3 percent of architects in the U.S. are African American, according to NOMA. It’s a statistic Burton and Little hope to address with tours and websites carrying the history of black architects and mentoring of youth.
Videos, photographs, maps and tours conducted by Burton and Little could fill the archives of college libraries around Michigan. School children could stoke their own dreams of creating something significant and sustaining.
Detroit is ripe for new buildings.