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Jan. 22, 2024

Noir Design Parti w/ Saundra Little & Karen Burton

Noir Design Parti w/ Saundra Little & Karen Burton

This episode features a conversation with Saundra Little and Karen Burton of Noir Design Parti. This was a fun conversation and reminded me that we all have agency and often times have to follow our own curiosity to get the answers we're looking for. Unfortunately, we had some issues with Karen's audio but I wanted to share the content that we captured.

Saundra Little, FAIA is a Principal and Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Quinn Evans. Karen Burton is the co-founder of SpaceLab Detroit. In addition to their full time jobs, they also launched a research project called Noir Design Parti to raise awareness about African American architects impact in shaping the landscape of Detroit and surrounding areas. Their research then evolved in a fantastic podcast called Hidden in Plain Site. 



Connect with Saundra and Karen on LinkedIn:



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 Welcome to Tangible Remnants.  I'm Nakita Reed, and this is my show where I explore the interconnectedness of architecture, preservation, sustainability, race, and gender. I'm excited that you're here. So let's get into it. 

Welcome back.  This week's episode features a fun conversation with me, Sandra Little, and Karen Burton. Unfortunately, we had some audio issues and lost the majority of Karen's audio, so there'll be a little bit of infill to help close the gaps in what she was saying. I still did want to include The portion of Karen's audio that we did capture, since I know it's powerful to be able to hear someone's voice when they're telling their story. 

This was such a fun conversation, and it reminded me that we all have agency, and oftentimes have to follow our own curiosity to get to the answers we're looking for.  These women are multi-passionate and wear many hats. Sandra Little, FAIA, is a Principal and Director of Diversity and Inclusion at Quinn Evans, and Karen is the co-founder of Space Lab Detroit. 

In addition to their full-time jobs, they also launched a research project called Noir Design Parti to raise awareness about African American architect's impact in shaping the landscape of Detroit and surrounding areas.  Their research then evolved into a fantastic podcast called Hidden in Plain Sight.

The show is part of the Gabl Media Network. And focuses on lifting the voices and elevating the careers of Black architects who are passionate, community-oriented, yet often overlooked.  Historically, the work of Black architects has not been recognized at the same level and through the same lens as their non-Black peers.

And although they attain the same education, perform on the same project teams, and complete similar project types, most often Black architects' credentials are questioned, and their work often goes unnoticed. And so, with a focus on Detroit, Michigan, their show weaves together stories from the careers and lives of Black architects and highlights the hidden and plain sight projects for their award-winning Noir design party project. 

It really is such an inspiring show. So check it out. If you want to hear more stories from black architects in their own voices,  head over to our podcast webpage at tangible remnants to see some highlights of Nathan Johnson, who was one of the trailblazing architects that we talked about in this episode. 

And as always, you can click on our bio on Instagram to get links to more resources and upcoming podcast events.  So without further ado, I hope you enjoy this conversation between me, Sandra Little, and Karen Burton.  So why don't we just jump right in and I would love to know, I guess we'll start with Sandra and then go to Karen.

So what got you into the profession?  Oh, wow. Art, the love of art and drawing brought me into the profession.  My mom taught me how to draw, like I wanted to draw, but she sat down with me like, Oh, here, you know, let's try to draw this, this, it was a Santa Claus. It's like, we just tried to draw this together.

So we were trying that, but I always tell everybody I knew my mom did not play. So I was when I got older and started to hear about artists and starving artists, and I said, well, I need to find a career that I could dabble in art and creativity maybe, or, you know, something that's more stable. I started to research, like, you know, different careers around art and.

And the profession of architecture sounded really prestige, right? So, learned a little bit more about it and really started to get into it once I started to learn about the profession. So, it was art that brought me there, but I was, I felt good when I told my mom I want to be an architect. So,  Karen, what about you? 

Well, when I was in the fourth grade, one of my friend's dads came to our class and he was really good at it, he brought some sketches of African American leaders. National leaders and he was an architect and I was like, Oh, I like to draw. I like to sketch and maybe I'll be an architect. But what I didn't know, probably didn't know at the time was my uncle, Harold Ward was also an architect here in Detroit.

He had passed away when I was really young, but my family kind of steered me in that architecture direction. I was good at art and math. Well, I decided in the fourth grade, I wanted to be an architect. And then my dad would. Walk us through the houses that were under construction in my neighborhood. And I really liked that, like seeing the, I didn't know they were joists and studs and things like that.

Just seeing the buildings under construction. So that's how I got started. I love that. Also, y'all also knew at a young-ish age what you wanted to do. I had a similar background. I basically knew pretty young and then started taking drafting courses in high school. Yes. And so then, I know both of y'all know what a mayline and a drafting board is.

Yes. We can truly date ourselves and say yes in over the drafting board, don't wear a white shirt. Exactly. Get all the pencil marks on it. Yes.  Right. Oh my goodness. I still have that in my garage too. Yeah.  I still have a drafting board in my, in my basement.  My son started to use it for tie-dyeing. He would lay his shirt down and do different things.

But yeah, it's just collecting dust now, but it's still down there. Yep. I remember, so at UVA, our, my class was the last class that actually had to use a drafting board. The classes after us were all computers. And it was like, what? So I get good to be in, be able to talk both the, you know, try to talk to some of the youngins, but I don't know.

It's very different now. But then also in my last crit, one of my classmates presented a 3d walkthrough of his project.  And this was very early on in 3d. So the, the walkthrough is really jumpy and grainy, but we were like, Oh my gosh, that's so cool. That's the best thing,  but not till 10 years later did we actually get to see something that actually looked good.

Right.  That's amazing.  I mean, if you think about how, how fast technology has changed since then, it's like the, the speed of it, the speed of change is so quick now.  Hearing about AI and multiple, you know, versions of, of designs. And once you have the one started, I mean, it's just mind blowing. Yeah. I'm curious what's next, particularly with even, I feel like, uh, chat GBT that hasn't been out a year yet and it's already. 

It's kind of crazy. I use it all the time. That's my new research assistant.  See, I need to get into it more. Okay. All right. And like next year, AI computers are going to come out. Wow. So it'll work. It'll work with you. You know, you like your stuff is integrated with the, with the chat, GPT  and different things you like.

You just speak to your computer. So it already knows what you're planning to do. That's crazy. That's a little scary  and it probably, yeah, like I said, I don't know how far it's going to go, but like, yeah, probably if you're working on something, they'd be like, Oh yeah, I found some more stuff on what you're working on.

I can see the possibilities. I'm just ready.  Colleague took chat GPT and mid journey and said, I want to develop some renderings for my development project, my affordable housing project,  draw these renderings.  And it was, it was close to what he wanted, you know, the room sizes weren't all that weren't right, you know, exact, but they look good. 

But that's fantastic. I mean, it's going to be another tool in our toolbox,  just like that mail in was. But  we're learning how to use the tool. Right. Exactly. Exactly. Right. So then as you both got more into the profession and you looked around. And you notice that there just weren't that many people that looked like you in the profession.

I guess when did you first realize that being a black woman in architecture was  not necessarily abnormal, but not as not as frequent. So I went to a predominantly white college, Lawrence Tech here in Michigan. And it was, it was a more of a commuter college worker, people who worked. Went there, but they, you know, they're really known for their, the technical side of their program. 

And so being a young person, you know, because there were a lot of people who went to Lawrence Tech that were working and going to school. So they were like directly in the profession and going to school. So I was meeting those people.  I would go up to Michigan State to hang out with my cousins, right? So I'm like, they don't have architecture up here, but I got a place to hang on the weekend, right? 

And I'm like, man, that's a lot more People of color on this campus, you know, that same cousin when she got started working in the profession and I went out to dinner with her coworkers after work. I'm like, yeah, I don't have a table full of coworkers that look like this.  And me and every person you do see in the architecture building.

Right. Did you see somebody of color. So that's how I met my business partner and now work colleague Damon Thomas I was like. We met at LTU on the college campus. So you'd like, you knew every black person that was there because you're like, look, you okay, you know, that's like, that's real.  So I think there were a hundred of us in my class at university of Michigan and four were black.

So that was way different. I started on an engineering school. So that was a lot different from the engineering school and a lot different from my dorm and, you know, other places that I would hang out. But then when I, I got my first jobs, I was the only, you know, and in most cases, the only woman and the only black person.

I mean, at least I did have the advantage of working with. Minority firm owners who were in Detroit, you know, you had to seek out and find out where the firms were, but they're, and there's less today than it was when I started to start the profession. But yeah, it was several black firm owners coming out of college and a number of, uh, colleagues that I had along the years that they worked for.

We work for various of those firm owners.  So that's even yours. Your experience is even more stark.  Right? Yeah. And I think the.  Part of the reason why I ask a lot of questions is because I think a lot of times, some of our non Black colleagues don't understand how othering the experience can be when you are the only Black person, the only woman of color, and how you kind of have to present yourself a little bit differently to be, because otherwise it's like, oh, well,  you're not really an architect, right?

Or, you know, you can't call yourself an architect if you're not licensed or like all of the credential checking and all of the, like, proving yourself because  Basically, a bunch of white people keep asking you, like, are you sure you belong here? But are you sure? Is this really what you want to do? And so, I appreciate you guys talking about that experience.

Because I'm also assuming that that experience is what led you to start Noir Design Part T.  Very much so. Yeah. Right. I started my, my career, uh, working for small black owned firms and I'm like, what are you talking about? You know, I don't know any black architects besides me. I'm like, what the,  and like I say, in college, my, my big moment was, and this, and you're talking about old school.

So. There used to be this bookstore that you wasn't Amazon, right? This is pretty.  It was this bookstore called the Prairie Avenue bookstore that it was an architectural bookstore. It was in Chicago that everybody would order books from now. All you had was a title and a list, you know, the, and it was separated by subject, you know, technical history, different things.

So you had to read the titles and say, I'm gonna order this book. You couldn't flip through it. It was no look at it again. And unless you actually went to the Prairie Avenue bookstore on Dearborn Street in Chicago, you were not gonna see what these books look like. So it was a. Listing of books that would come every month to our architecture school.

So we would pick up this paper and I'm looking, you know, I always been a book, I call myself a book collector more than a reader because I have a lot of books and I was like, I need to really sit down and read it. But I'm looking through a list and I'm like,  I said, this says African American architects in practice.

Oh, I am definitely ordering this book. So  fill out an order form, right? This is what you had to do. It was no computer, right? And he sent it back. So I gave my book back and. I, it was just, and it was cool the way the book even looked. It was, it was African American architects in practice by Jack Travis. 

And you pull the book out as an all black on black cover that's made of a fabric type material. And then the African American architects is basically embossed in the cover. So it's black on black. And I was like, this is dope, right? That's like flipping the book around. I'm opening it up. And, and it just, it had architects across the country who had their own firms and.

I was just like,  you know, and then I see a couple of Detroit architects in there and I'm like, one of them, I did recognize Sims and Werner. The other one was Roger Marjan, which I say, I don't know who this is, but I was like, this is so cool. So that just  really. Excited me it was like my sophomore year in college.

I was like, this is just I could do this right? This it was a uplifting experience. So, when I finally got involved in Noma and got to a Noma conference, I think it was my 1st normal conference where I met Jack Jack Travis. I was in Orlando, Florida.  And I was like, Oh man, I said, I wish I had my book with me so you could autograph it.

I was just like, this is just great to be too. And I was like, yeah, when, when are you going to do a new, no, actually I didn't ask him that time. I was just excited. Starstruck. By the next time I seen him, I was like, okay, Jay, I said, when are you going to do a new version of this book? I said, there's so many more firms now.

He said, well, you know, he was all into Afrocentric architecture and doing that. He's like, I'm doing other things now. He said, that's for you to do.  And then I came back and told Karen that story and she's like, well, we need to do a book, you know, she's just like, and then we just, it just took off from there.

We, we, I mean, we applied for the Knight Stars challenge. We were like, and we were like, okay, let's at least focus on. You know, we first said Detroit, then it ended up being Michigan. I said, let's just focus here because I didn't know. Karen didn't know who was the first black heart attack. And it's in Michigan.

We were like, we have no idea. There's no history of it. Right. We knew of some of the ones we were talking about, but I was like, we don't know who the first person is. So we started there and have built a list of what we call the trailblazers and, and a list of people that we know are practicing today, and then we're kind of filling in the gap.

But that's also wild to me how we'll learn, particularly in architecture school, Canon is very much about,  you know,  Frank Lloyd Wright, Le Corbusier, like those dudes. But it's like, what about the people here locally that came through the university, the impact that they're having? But yeah, it's just,  I'd be curious if hopefully the University of Michigan Architecture School is actually starting to highlight. 

They're alum a little bit more now. They are. They, they are. Yeah. Yeah.  Yeah. They actually are starting to do a study of all of the African American or African Americans that graduated from all of their colleges and to collect the information on each of those individuals. So not just the school of architecture, but all the schools.

So I thought that was a great project that they started recently. And I'm super excited that y'all have taken a lot of the research that you've done on the trailblazers and turned it into a podcast. Because I enjoy listening to all of it. So why don't you talk a little bit about hidden in plain sight? 

Yeah, we set up our whole podcast and like,  I mean, we're a whole project. And then now the podcast is following that with putting each architect in a generation. We were like the trailblazers, like the, the first generation and.  If they had a practice before a certain date, we said, okay, this is the first group first group.

And is there, you know, for the 2nd grouping, you know, we'll do the same thing and pick, pick a decade and put them in that decade.  And so now, like I said, the, at least we can say this current day generation is bigger than those other decades and, and the list is, is plentiful enough for us to have plenty of people to interview.

So  it's amazing. And I asked, I should let y'all know that I'm very grateful to you. For educating me about Nathan Johnson, because so recently I was on the African American cultural heritage action funds. through the National Trust for Historic Preservation. They have a grant for preserving Black modernism.

And some of Nathan Johnson's projects were in that pool of projects to be considered. I felt very fortunate to know who Nathan Johnson was before I even went in on that jury, very much thanks to both of you.  Right. His whole obituary write up is in the New York Times. I was just like this. That's amazing.

This, this right here made it worth all the work, right? Yes. To, for him to get his recognition before, before he passed away, he, as, as, as what they would say in my church, we get his flowers now where he's living, but for him to come out, for him to go out on top, it was a great, great accomplishment. That makes me feel even more excited and more validated in terms of, yeah, the podcast work, the work you're doing with Noir Design Partie, all of the work that you're doing, just documenting the history is so important.

And I think it's also one of those things where sometimes I forget that we still have agency to continue documenting history. There was one story that Amber Wiley tells about the DeForest brothers in D. C. and they're, they own the Afro Bicentennial Corporation and they're responsible for like 75 percent of the National Register nominations that have to do with African American heritage.

Because it's like, they're like, we're going to use preservation as a tool, get all these things documented to get it on there. So I love that you guys are doing something similar in terms of black architects in Michigan and Detroit, making sure that people are aware of all of the contributions.  Oh, wow.

You gonna have me, uh, wow. And, and we, and we didn't think of ourselves like, like even when we, when we started to make.  The organization, because, like, 1 of the things we were setting up our Google page and different things when we started to get the organization set. It's like, it just kept growing. Right?

And I was like, what are we going to put as a business? And we put research institution, but it's like, like you said, realizing you, you have the agency to do something like that. It's not something that I. initially sought to do when we were starting, you know, it's like, and now it's like, yeah, you know, we're historians and soon to be authors.

Yeah. Yeah. You know, so it's just this whole thing that, you know, it's almost like talk to yourself in the mirror until you could do it. You know, you think it's important in the inside, but you don't realize how important it is to the rest of the world. And to, like you said, what you shared about knowing about Nathan until you get deeper in the work.

It really started out selfishly, you know, like How do we find out? So we know the history, right? We know who's the first licensed Black architect. So we'll know who's the first licensed Black woman in the state because we didn't know that either. So, and then now it's like, everybody else is like, oh, wow, that's, that's exciting.

It was like, oh yeah, everybody else is  excited. You know, it's like, it didn't seem important at first, but now it's important.  It's, it's a whole mind flip. I am still taking it all in and to hear about this organization, it's just,  it just, yeah, it warms my heart to hear that. But then also I love the fact that  because of the work that you've done, Google now knows who Nathan Johnson is.

You know what I mean? Like, it's like y'all are training the AI and the technology to so people all over the world can research and find out more about all these different architects. Like that's so cool.  Yeah.  Right. You have a, you can go through the numbers at the bottom before you can maybe get to the scenes at the top and no photos of him at all.

Donald white. No, no photos of him at all. And then that took us down a different rabbit hole though, is. Getting into the whole Google search engine optimization. Yes. And how Wikipedia is the leader of that, that, that space, and ended up doing a Wikipedia edit, hon. At the, well, no, it was 50th anniversary, normal conference in Detroit.

So we were, we, we got engaged, we got, we had Wikipedia experts in the room. We had a nice hackathon. Virtual and in person people helping us to put together some of the sources for the pages and just starting to get that information out there and we're still trying to get the pages started. Then you have to learn about what it takes to be an editor.

That's a whole nother  can of worms. It's like, I'm not a trusted editor yet until I do like so many.  Yeah. Oh, the whole process. It was just like, I said, Whoa, this is a deep one. I don't know if I, I said, we need, we need to get some more consultants to help finish that pathway. Cause that is a, a deep rabbit hole to go down, but it was very informative.

Like you said, learning where to put the information that you're discovering out there. It's been a learning exercise as well. Yeah. That's great. Because I'm also thinking of, um, there was one preservation conference I went to where there was someone there who was talking about, you know, the future of AI and the future of technology, but people were promoting, oh, you know, our robot overlords and all of that stuff.

But then he was like, well, someone's going to have to tell the AI what is culturally important. So preservationists need to be at the table to be able to make sure that information gets in there. So it's realizing how No one's going to be made irrelevant from the technology that's going to evolve. It's just making sure that we're at the table to keep interfacing and learning.

And so the fact that y'all have gone from Maylines to AI to Wikipedia, I love it. 

Well, you just made my mind go to a whole nother place when you said all that. I'm like, Whoa. Yeah. Right? So, you know, now, now actually we have to think about mentorship. We have to think about who, you know, who's going to keep this going because it is important. So, yeah, if we get a little bit more of that going on with the mentoring, yeah, we will be good.

We will have the preservationist at the table for the, for the AI conference. There we go. Right. Exactly. Absolutely necessary.  Definitely. Right. And so then remind me, when did you guys start Noir Design Party?  Hey, so jumping in real quick, since we lost Karen's audio, I wanted to connect some dots for you. 

After I asked when they started Noir Design Partie, Karen mentioned that it was a 2016 Knights Arts Challenge winner, and Karen and Sandra's submission of Noir Design Partie was one of the top 45 winning Detroit projects out of 64 finalists and nearly 1, 000 entries. Sandra then goes on to keep explaining more, but just wanted to give you that context. 

It feels like long and short though. Yeah, we were like, you know, they had the A big public press release and announcement and we went to an award ceremony and you know, it was a whole celebration of art that night there at an event. I was like, Oh, we really got to do something now. This is it. And, and from that point, it's just, it really did.

We just, we really got into it. We set up our organization, uh, you know, legally within the state and, and we really started to move things forward. So,  Yeah. It happened so fast. It happened so fast. I love it. Well, I'm glad that it did and that y'all keep on doing the amazing things that you're doing. I mean, that's just amazing too, to hear like, you know, you and the boards that you sit on Nikita and you're like, yeah, I'm hearing tricklings of where I know where this source came from.

And you're like, exactly. Just, that's just powerful to get that report back. And to have his name spoken outside of Michigan and rooms that we don't even know that his name is being said now. Right. That ripple effect is far more than we ever thought that we would.  And what's wild. I probably, Oh, I probably should have mentioned this.

So the, the grant, it was co sponsored and really funded by the Getty. And so I was at the Getty in California, having this conversation, hearing about Nathan Johnson. And so. You know, it'll be in the Getty archives and all that sort of stuff as well. I'm sure. yeah, so we, we were, we were able to get, so there was a call for the national African American museum had a call.

It was called rendering the invisible and they were asking for renderings of black architects. So we did submit, uh, Nathan Johnson's, uh, one of his renderings and Roger Margin, one of his renderings to the national African American museum. And then we contacted the family of. Sims and their family submitted as well, uh, to the African American museum for that.

It was, it all happened. In fact, we were like, Oh, we need to, we need to submit something. We need to, you know, wait a minute. I think, I think you're right. I think. Yeah. So that was, that was at least three. Of the trailblazers, they got got a chance to go through that submission process and we haven't even like, looked at other ways to do that because so many irons in the fire.

And like I said, it's 3 people. Really? So it's hard.  Yeah. Like I said, yeah. And the Wikipedia thing was intent. That was literally, I would 8 month effort. It was 8 months. It was an 8 month effort. And the other thing is to getting the sources for, for black architects, right? Because a lot of them. We're not published.

Right. And so how do you do that? Right. And, and, and that was a conversation within our. In our work and trying to do this, and then we realized we became the catalyst for some of the publications, right? We would talk about in a lecture this and this architect, then they are mentioned in the article. But before then, and then what, like, an interview with, uh, Michigan radio, which is Michigan radio is a subsidiary to the University of Michigan.

And so they did a feature just on Donald White. So then now that's out there, right? So it's these things that you now can link to that before weren't there. It was nothing for us to link to on Donald White. So it's like, we're weaving  what can I, can I say tent? Was it tangible remnants?  We have remnants.

That we're weaving together and  it's, and it's like that. It's just this, this connection of different things that we realized it was helping a cause. Right. All of that was learned along the way. We didn't, you know, we, we promoted things on social media, but when we start to get picked up with our articles from, and interviews from news sources, then that, that gave us that cited source that we needed for a lot of trailblazers. 

Thank you so much for listening. Links to amazing resources can be found in the episodes show notes. Special thanks to Sarah Gilbert for allowing me to use snippets of her song Fireflies from her debut album, Other People's Secrets, which by the way is available wherever music is sold.  If you haven't already, be sure to subscribe to the show. 

And now that Tangible Remnants is part of the Gabl Media Network, you can listen and subscribe. to all network partner content at That's G A B L media. com.  Until next time. Remember that historic preservation is a present conversation with our past about our future. We don't inherit the earth from our parents, but we borrow it from our children.

So let's make sure we're telling our inclusive history.  I saw the first fireflies. 

Right then, I thought of you.  Oh, I could see us catching them and setting them free.  Honey, that's what you do. 

That's what you do to me.