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The ArchRecord Interview: Marshall E. Purnell, FAIA

January, 2008

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Interview by James Murdock

JM: Do enough architects give back these days? A couple of groups such as The 1% and Architecture for Humanity do pro bono work, but do you wish that there was more of that?


Although Devrouax + Purnell Architects promoted four people to become partners in the firm last year, will it be difficult for Purnell to devote most of his attention to the AIA for a year? “You better plan all that out before you even declare a candidacy for AIA because you might win,” he says. (0:46)

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MP: Our firm has always done pro bono work and served as mentors. As a minority-owned firm in the community that we live in, Washington, D.C., which is primarily black, we’re always looked to provide some avenue, if you will, to introduce people to the profession of architecture. Many people look at us as if that’s something we owe to the community but I look at it as something I want to do.

There is an organization I’m trying to start called the After-School Architects Program, ASAP. African Americans are under-represented within the field of architecture and we need them ASAP. We’ve been doing something like this unofficially for many years. Three or four days a week after school we bring as many kids as we can into our office—even if they have to sit in shifts in different parts of the office—just to let them know what architecture is all about. We’re not trying to make them architects, we’re just trying to show them what a professional environment is.

It’s not unusual, on any given day, to have someone come into the office with their spouse or their kids and say “I used to work here.” And they may be an accountant, or a lawyer, or nothing to do with architecture, but we’ll get someone drop in like that because they worked here 15 years ago. We actually have an employee who turned 40 last year and he started working with us when he was 12, part time in the summers. He had an interest in architecture and we helped him get through school in terms of mentoring him. And he’s typical. Of the four people we made partners in 2007, the one with the least amount of experience with the firm has been with us for 20 years.

JM: How could the profession as a whole do something similar?

MP: At one point I served as the president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA). It was a two-year term and at the same time I was also chairman of the scholarship committee for AIA nationally, so I had a foot in both camps.

I’ve always served as a liaison between the AIA and NOMA, at least since 1974, and I want to continue in that role and get the two organizations talking about: how do we make the profession more diverse, how do we make the profession look more like the communities that we serve? By working together I think we can put some programs in place. AIA has some resources that NOMA doesn’t, and NOMA has some resources that AIA doesn’t, so it makes sense for us to pair up.

JM: What are some accomplishments that you are most proud of during your time with NOMA?

MP: NOMA didn’t have a design awards program when I was president so I started one and they have it to this day. Quite frankly, I patterned it very much after AIA’s design awards—after all, I’d worked there and the information was available to any member. That was in 1985 and 1986.

Also in those years we went to the public schools for the first time as an organization. I identified schools within the city where we were going to have our annual convention. If we were going to be in Atlanta, as we were in ’85, I went to the public schools and the superintendents and I asked permission to go and talk with the art teachers about establishing a design competition among students. We went to three elementary schools, three junior highs, and three high schools and asked the students at each level to complete this one design competition project. They had to do it on their own time, outside of school. Then, when we came to town six or seven months later, the professionals from NOMA went into the schools where the work was put up on the walls and they juried it. We selected the winners, the runners up, and brought them down to the hotel that evening so when we handed out the design awards for our members we gave them their own design awards. We made them and their families a part of our whole presentation.

In my second year as president we were in Los Angeles and we did the same thing out there. We had even a larger turn out. Some months later I even got a proclamation from the state legislature of California thanking us for doing that.

JM: Could the AIA do something like that?

MP: I made a recommendation to the AIA’s diversity council that, as we struggle with this issue of diversity, there’s no reason we should visit a city without introducing ourselves as a profession to the people there who wouldn’t otherwise know us or meet us. So when we were in San Antonio for the convention we had kids shadowing members who volunteered to walk them around. We’re going to do it in Boston and hopefully wherever we go from this point on.

You know, someone asked Willie Sutton, the famous bank robber of the 1930s, “Why do you rob banks?” He replied, “Because that’s where the money is.” So we’ve got to go where the kids are. If we want representation from those who are underrepresented, we’ve got to go to them. We’re already in those cities, we might as well reach out to them. The profession is getting more and more diverse but we’re not anywhere where we need to be.

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