Michigan architecture fans: do you admire the design of Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, the People Mover stations, and the MGM Grand Casino Resort? Did you know each of those building designs were led by Black architects from Michigan? Or that a new generation of Black architects is contributing significantly to Michigan’s built environment?
How about that while there are 554 licensed Black woman architects in the U.S., only 14 of them are in Michigan?* And that the first licensed Black architect in Michigan was Donald White (1939), and the first licensed Black woman architect was Lynda Haith (1983)? Or that up until recent years, only one Black architect from Michigan was searchable on the Internet – but thanks to a special Wikipedia drive, you can now find several others in your search?
In their podcast, ‘Hidden in Plain Site,’ show hosts and Black female architect and architectural designer, respectively Saundra Little, FAIA, LEED AP, and Karen A.D. Burton introduce the world to the significant contributions contemporary and trailblazing Black architects from Michigan have made to the profession, the community, and major cities across the U.S.
Hidden in Plain Site highlights diversity in architecture, featuring interviews with U.S.-based Black architects (all from Michigan), each of whom is passionate and community-oriented. The goal of the podcast is to lift the voices and elevate the careers of Black architects, as well as to increase awareness of their contributions to architecture, which are often overlooked.
Through intimate conversations, architects interviewed on the podcast tell stories of their connections to buildings, sites, institutions, influential architects, and forward-thinking industry ideas. Each episode’s City of Design Spotlight focuses on the guest’s Michigan influences, in order to encourage the audience to visit architectural sites, research designers, or consider how design and architecture influence their own lives.
The podcast is a project of the award-winning Noir Design Parti, which was founded by Saundra and Karen. Noir Design Parti documents the careers and creative works of Detroit’s African American architects, and the significant contributions that Saundra and Karen’s peers and predecessors have made to design and life in Detroit. Hidden in Plain Site received a MAF Damian Farrell Architecture Awareness Grant in January 2023.
“Damian Farrell was always a supporter of my work as an architect, and cheerleading for my career since we first met,” said Saundra. “He was excited about the podcast, and encouraged me to apply for grants to support the project.” (architect Damian Farrell was the long-time chair of the MAF grant program that now bears his name. He passed away earlier this year).
The inspiration for the podcast came when Saundra and Karen began research for a book they are writing on the same topic. “We discovered so much interesting information about Black architects in Michigan, and had the opportunity to interview many trailblazers in Michigan’s architectural history,’ said Saundra. “One of the trailblazer architects we interviewed, Nathan Johnson, passed away, and someone said ‘every time we lose a Black architect, we lose a library. It really drove home that it was time to interview Michigan-based Black architects and document their stories.”
Saundra continues, “Up until the pandemic, Noir Design Parti did a lot of tours, lectures, and panel discussions. The pandemic provided an opportunity for us to pause and ask ourselves how we could keep connecting with audiences in meaningful ways. We had been guests on a couple of Gabl Media’s (which hosts Hidden in Plain Site) existing podcasts and were already documenting and recording conversations with Black architects for the book. A podcast was a great medium to start telling their stories now, through the conversations we are having with them.”
The first episode of Hidden in Plain Site aired Oct 2020. Season 1 was completed at the end of December 2022; Season 2 will premiere soon (June or July). The episodes are being shared in a ‘reverse timeline’ format that features interviews with current architects and takes a walk back in time through local architectural history.
Among the information that Saundra and Karen have discovered during their research and interviews is that Detroit’s first Black-owned architecture firm served as an incubator for other ‘trailblazer’ Black architects to launch their architectural careers. Many of Detroit’s Black architects worked for one another. Many of them lived, and still live, just around the corner from one another. “At the state level, you discover even more detailed stories and level of connection. The Black architecture community in Michigan is literally an interconnected web, and every time I talk to someone, I discover something I never knew before. Furthermore, the history of Black architects in Michigan is much more extensive than most realize.”
Saundra notes that the audience reception to the podcast has been outstanding and that once people find out about the podcast, they go back and listen to the first episodes. “Another great discovery is learning that our guests are enjoying the podcasts as much as our listeners are, and they appreciate the opportunity to share their experiences and be part of these important conversations.”
The long-term vision for the podcast is to have the same in-depth, eye-opening conversations in multiple forms – the podcast, a book, lectures, exhibits, and more, in order to reach different audiences and keep the important dialogue going about the role of Black architects.
“There are many reasons why Black architects are not in the limelight,” said Saundra. “During the Mayor Coleman Young era, many Detroit projects designed by Black architects were coming online and starting to put Black architects in the spotlight, but the momentum was short-lived. The Black sole practitioners and small firms were doing landmark projects and were history makers even though they were not getting the notoriety. These were the trailblazers whether they were getting the recognition or not.”
“These are the architects who have been hidden in plain sight – and the name for our podcast is very fitting.”
Find out more about the Hidden in Plain Site podcast, and listen to Season 1 of the podcast on the Noir Design Parti website: https://www.noirdesignparti.com/pages/podcast
*numbers not including those with reciprocity to practice in the state
(Photos, top to bottom, feature Saundra and Karen, and two listener reviews of Hidden in Plain Site)