#MentorMonday: Charles McLean

Welcome to #MentorMonday! Mondays are dedicated to celebrating Black LICENSED Architects, Designers, and individuals in the profession of Architecture! The questions asked to these individuals are to allow us into their lives and to be used as an inspiration. I hope you all enjoy this series. The opinions and views expressed do not reflect those of America’s Hidden Gem(TM). They are exclusively opinions of those by whom they’re shared.


Charles McLean


Cleveland, Ohio

What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?

My brother. James McLean. As a kid. I would engineer my own toys from cardboard boxes. Create houses and bases for the toys to live in. Money was far fetched. So you had to improvise. Had to be creative. My friends would rather play with my cardboard than their own toys. It’s what made being poor fun.

What does it mean to be a black architect/ urban designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?

It doesn’t mean anything. I retired from architecture a few years after I graduated from college. Once I saw racism and how becoming an architect was designed for certain people. I lost interest in the profession as a whole. Even tho, I love being creative. At some point in time I had to understand that being self sufficient was more important. I used my engineering and architecture background to achieve being self sufficient. I dug deep into investing, development and real estate. Which increased my responsibility within my community. That responsibility allowed me to purchase real estate in the metro detroit area where I saw value in having tenants live in nice homes. The people in the neighborhood saw a black man be creative, and show ownership. Where I used my creative skill to develop community gardens where I engineered hoop houses and so forth. Used energy management to help sustain high yields of produce to give back to my community. My black tenants till this day have become family. With everything you do, there are going to be some rough edges. I just decided that my rough edge wasn’t going to come from depending on someone to give a check for punching a clock. If the world was fair, it would be a different story. But, my momma always told me that the world would never be fair. Till this day I lace up my boots and hold my chin high in the sky.

What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ urban designer?

The main obstacle was being black. When I first started out in architecture. I worked for african american architecture firms. I was chosen to work on one of the biggest projects in the world at the time for General Motors. As a junior in college. This is where I learned architecture. The truth about architecture and not the bubble gum I learned in college. But, as we all know. African american architecture firms are scarce with scarce opportunity and development. Caucasian firms wouldn hire me, even when I had experience working on one of the largest projects in the world. So, I decided to leave the profession where I became a college instructor. Once the racism sunk in. I decided to venture out on my own and rebuild houses to become a real estate investor. Where I made more money in six months than I did an entire year fooling with architecture.I tried to go back to get licensed. But, the racist systematic system wasn’t for me. Growing up, my moms made 3 bucks an hour when she worked. Being in college, you don’t have that monetary support. I often went to financial services at my school and asked for help that I never received. So, I decided to work 2 jobs in college while I attended school full time. I never graduated with a 3.0 gpa, and without that 3.0 gpa. I was denied entry into the master program. Even tho my junior and senior year I was working on the largest project in the world for General Motors. When I saw the system wasn’t designed for my type of player. I knew what I was up against in this world. The same system my mother fed to me my whole life. It just had to happen to me in front of my eyes.I often tried to come back and consult with architecture firms. Mostly African American firms. But, as we all know. Those African American firms had to team with caucasian firms. The teams never worked out, where African Americans received the blame for their mistakes. A system full of finger pointing. I was often told, I couldn’t speak in meetings with the clients and other racist crap. Often had my work stolen or received partial payments for my services. Again, I distanced myself from those firms and decided to consult with the client myself. People don’t understand that I can construct a building by myself in less than 6 months. Where everyone else needs a team of 10. I was often hated for having that skill. Got tired of being disrespected in the profession. Was often called a cadder or BIM guy. But, some of the junk I’ve seen come from caucasian firms made me laugh. And I laugh till this day.

Should we ignore race in this profession?

Race should not be ignored. There are african americans who are passionate about the profession and understand every angle. It upsets me when a caucasian is glorified over you and the caucasian doesn’t even know what epoxy is. Or, does not take the time to learn the software to take the company to the next level. Or, they get mad at you because you can do ten times more than they can think in one episode. It’s a shame, but it is what it is.  It’s tough consulting with architecture firms and you walk into the door and maybe there is one black person. I’ve worked for African American firms where the color of my skin was far fetched. Or, the african american firm glorified the new caucasian over the 10 year black veteran. But at the end of the  day, it’s about the bottom line and client relationships. I get it. (CREAM)

If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture /Urban Planning school right now, what would it be?

If you decide to get into this profession. Do it to be self sufficient. Cause they wont give us opportunity in our own city. The blacks that are there only tuck their legs between their legs for a check to avoid the unemployment line. (What do you do when we can’t own our own) And if BLM matters. Black students need to boycott the NBA, NFL, MLB, Entertainers, Rappers until they become more business minded and put opportunity on our table. Cause, right now. There is no opportunity for us. Lebron James is not developing 1,000 unit apartment buildings for us to live in. We don’t have a car manufacturing company to employ our own. We don’t own that food chain franchise that’s trading on the stock market. We don’t have our own NBA league. We can’t sell out our concerts at our own stadiums. We don’t have our own global advertising companies. Legal law firms. Medical practices that will encourage us to go to school to become an asset. Until that happens. We lose.  Being young and black. They must understand this and maybe one day they can change this Zeitgeist.  The key is not to succumb to the ignorance that plagued us over the past 50 years. The time is now.

Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?

Never wanted to be a licensed architect. Let them have that responsibility and liability. When I consult because the world doesn’t know what a BIM model is. On contract. I make more money than an architect. No headaches, no problems. I can model existing buildings in less than 4 hours and charge a premium for the services. There are many architects in the world. But, without production, you will never receive a product. I did try to go back for my license. But, with the systematic racism. I decided there was more money and opportunity elsewhere than dealing with some crap design by 50 board members who deliberately made a system to fail.

How important is representation?

Not important at all. Trust me. If you have a black face, you are automatically not represented. You never know which one in there who wears a hood over their head. Lying, cheating and trying to deceive you behind closed doors. Guess who they believe when the shit hits the fan? I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. I don’t talk their talk. Just something about the hood in me they don’t like. That’s why they say I’m fudge black and not black. Was actually told this. I guess in this world they still see the house n*gger vs the field n*gger and that representation. Or, maybe it’s just me.

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