By AIA Architect Staff (Reposted from AIA Architecture 12/2/2015)
As the son of an architect who practiced during the Civil Rights era, R. Steven Lewis saw early in life the unique challenges that faced black architects attempting to work in what he described as a "white gentlemen's profession." His own career has been dedicated to helping people of color enter and navigate that profession as it evolves to be more inclusive than even a generation ago, and to documenting the stories of those who have fought to make it so. Lewis has been a tireless advocate for social justice and diversity within architecture, where less than two percent of the nation's licensed architects are black and less than three-tenths of one percent are black women. The practice of architecture "casts its seductive spell widely and indiscriminately," Lewis has written, "yet there remains in play a certain structural inequality that disadvantages people of color, who simply aspire to practice this thing that we all love, equally.
Now an associate vice-president of TRC Energy Services, he co-founded and headed Los Angeles based RAW International in 1984, he has served as president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (and edited its magazine, where he published profiles of the work of pioneering architects of color), and he played a key role in forging a partnership between NOMA and AIA.
In 2006, while a Loeb Fellow at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design, Lewis explored the structural inequality that serves to keep the number of practicing architects of color so low. At the end of his fellowship, he convened a symposium on the issue, entitled "Forced Perspective: Widening the Lens Through Which Architecture Views Itself." The symposium bridged Lewis’ career of advocacy with an urgent question for architecture’s future: what existing attitudes and practices need to change in order to create equity within the profession.
Lewis's father, Roger C. Lewis, was an architect who, among other things, was part of a team that designed the Venezuela Pavilion at the 1964 World's Fair in New York. A then-eight-year-old Steve Lewis vividly recalls watching that structure go up in Flushing Meadows Corona Park and, around the same time, watching a Modernist house that his father designed reach completion in Scarsdale, New York. The pride of achievement that his father felt was palpable, Lewis recalls, but "I also witnessed firsthand while at the side of my father how great a struggle that he and his colleagues endured as they endeavored to enter, what was then, an elitist realm.”
His decades of work on behalf of minority architects, both present and past, has been a tribute to the people he saw while trailing his father as a child. His work on their behalf has been fruitful, wrote Marshall E. Purnell FAIA, a founding partner of the firm Devrouax+Purnell Architects-Planners and Professor of the Practice at the College of Design at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. "Steve enlightened a generation of architects on the importance of knowing the history of those who came before them. He built bridges that they crossed," Purnell wrote in support of Lewis's nomination for the Whitney M. Young Jr. Award. "He has mentored minority architects through his brilliant leadership by example.
Lewis wrote that he has been subject to racism in his own career, but has also "experienced the respect, admiration, and love of colleagues of all races and backgrounds." As a result, he advises persistence. "I can only encourage my fellow architects to seek out interaction and relationships with colleagues of differing backgrounds in order that we might turn ordinary chicken stock into a rich gumbo for all to enjoy."