#MentorMonday: Julian Owens
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.
Washington, D.C. / Augusta, GA
What/who sparked your interest in Architecture and when?
I grew up a military brat with very little knowledge on the field of architecture. I think I subconsciously grew an affinity for beautiful buildings during my family’s travels. We lived in Germany for seven years before I went into high school, and because of that I was exposed to architecture throughout Europe at an early age. All the while, I loved to draw cars and cartoons, and in high school I slowly started to draw things relating more to architecture like windows and perspectives of spaces. I think all of that played a role in eventually choosing architecture as a career path.
What does it mean to be a black architect/ designer to you? Do you feel that you have more responsibility?
Black designers absolutely have more innate responsibility than others. We come from a community that has a very unique relationship with this country, and though Black Americans are not at fault for the circumstances of Black America, many, like myself, feel we are responsible for playing a role in finding and executing solutions. Black designers and architects aren’t excluded from that. This subject always makes me think about my time at Clemson University. I had countless conversations with white classmates about my goal to use that education to affect change and positively impact marginalized communities, especially the Black ones, and I specifically remember one classmate responding to me with “I just want to make pretty buildings.” We’re different. Ideally, every designer and architect would eventually acknowledge their ability to affect change and seek out opportunities to do so, but I think Black architects are the only architects that are born with that sense of responsibility.
What are some obstacles you’ve experienced or currently experiencing as a black architect/ designer?
The daily microaggressions get old, for sure. However, lately my frustrations have stemmed more from a specific burnout that I feel only Black architects are experiencing in our field. Watching the death of George Floyd one day and having to communicate with your white coworkers the next day, as if everything is okay in the world is exhausting. To be asked “How are you?” on a call the morning after Kyle Rittenhouse walked away from killing protestors and peacefully slept in his bed is a trigger because they don’t actually care to hear how I’m doing. If I say anything about what’s really on my mind, the typical answer is “Yeah, it’s crazy out there.” Or we’ll go into a much longer back and forth on the issues at hand, and a coworker might end the conversation with something like “The U.S. is the least racist country there is.” That actually happened on a work call.
Burnout also comes because of the responsibility that I spoke on earlier. When I get off work, I continue doing community work through NOMA, UAP, or Pledge of Excellence, all while studying for the AREs. My white counterparts don’t understand that struggle. It’s especially exhausting when, as Black designers, we already go above and beyond during work hours to get the same amount of respect as everyone else in the workplace. All of it leads to a certain exhaustion that I feel is unique to our experience.
Should we ignore race in this profession?
Absolutely not. You could, and life and work may honestly be more comfortable if you did, but there’s no way Black designers can intentionally make any sort of positive impact on the Black community if we ignored issues related to race. You could also argue that change could come even quicker when we stop our white counterparts from ignoring issues related to race, but people are going to have to break out of their comfort zones for that to happen. Ignorance is bliss.
If you could give advice to a black student in Architecture school right now, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to take risks in your designs, career choices, and life decisions. We live within systems and institutions that weren’t built for us, so there will be times that you have to think outside of the box in order to move forward or get the best result. Also, it’s important to know your worth and know what you bring to any table. Once you acknowledge your worth, don’t let anything anyone says or does change what you know to be true about yourself. The more you see your value, the more risks you’ll be willing to take.
Also, get close to a mentor. Build relationships. The National Organization of Minority Architects is a great place to start.
Describe a moment you were at your lowest on your pursuit to licensure and how did you overcome it?
I’ve been a pretty good test taker my entire life. I went into the licensure process thinking I would knock the exams out the park, easily. That didn’t happen. I failed two, and that was unchartered territory for me. I was discouraged from taking another exam for almost 2 years. I had to learn the value in the lesson that came with failing the exams. It’s more of a lesson than a failure, and at every step in your career, you’ve got to be willing to learn. I didn’t come to that realization until talking through it with my mentors.
How important is representation?
I may have a bit of a controversial point of view when it comes to this. Representation should only be looked at as a byproduct of actual progress, but representation by itself isn’t progress and shouldn’t be the focal point. If we fix the education gap, or at least create a supplemental education within our community that better exposes us to the value of our lineage, then more Black architects and designers will absolutely come. Exposure leads to expansion. We were the first architects on earth. World history is filled with Black architects. There’s so much power and representation in that, but until we acknowledge that as a community and do the work to educate the next generation, we’ll continue to struggle searching for Black representation in a historically Black field within the boundaries of an anti-Black country. Think about that.