Meet Zena Howard: MAPP’s 2019 Kea Professor


A city’s urban fabric plays a central character in a community’s story—the buildings and spaces lodged in memory that witness history and nurture communities. When those physical spaces are lost, how do you continue the narrative? This question occupies the thoughts of Zena Howard, FAIA, every time she approaches a project.


For the past 30 years, Howard has centered her practice on thoughtful, innovative and universally accessible design that re-envisions spaces—primarily in African American communities—while preserving their stories, some of which are being told for the first time. As Principal and Managing Director of the North Carolina practice of Perkins and Will, Howard’s work spans the urban environment—from museums and buildings to cultural landscapes and gathering places—and encompasses many voices, particularly those that often go unheard.


The daughter of a chemist, Howard spent most of her childhood in Syracuse, N.Y., growing up among the cul-de-sacs and strip malls of suburbia while experiencing the vibrant historic blocks of downtown where her family spent most of their weekends. It was there that Howard found the important stories that culture, history and architecture can tell, if you take the time to listen. “We had a life in the suburbs, but our culture was really connected to the city—it was more diverse,” said Howard. “Seeing the stark contrast between the rapidly developing suburbs and the city, which had this really nice character and beauty, really stuck with me.”


Howard is behind a number of community-centric projects, including the Durham County Human Services Complex in Durham, North Carolina; a 1.3-mile-long outdoor art and culture experience slated for the Crenshaw community in Los Angeles, California and notably, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. where she was the senior project manager.


It was her work with the Smithsonian—and MAPP alum Brenda Sanchez (B.ARCH ’78)—that brought Howard to College Park this semester as a 2019 Kea Professor. Howard is sharing her experiences with graduate architecture students in the program’s Integrated Design Studio to conceive a visitor’s center for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Pope-Leighey House. Below, Howard talks about the importance of remembrance, designing a national treasure and how the industry has changed for the better:


You specialize in “remembrance projects,” which meld the historical and cultural context of the site and community into a new creation. How did you start this work and why is it important? It was just a natural outcropping of the work we had done over the past 20 years: museums, libraries and centers—cultural work as we know it. Naturally coming out of that, was a thought that we could apply the same sensibilities that we use in those typologies to a broader scale. It was also the recognition that cities are changing fast, and erasure happens with the sweep of a bulldozer. People are seeing areas transformed but it’s not like they are organically being transformed, it’s rubber-stamped monoculture. So much was being lost. Design should be people-centric, humanistic and represent our values. There was a large segment of the population being left out of the design process and future of their own communities. The thought was if we could engage more of those people—particularly the ones being underrepresented in that process—they can help us to remember in a way that’s fresh and relevant.    


How do you know when you’re successful? Meaningful transformation that happens within a community has to be the result of engagement. Engagement is not posting a few flyers, it’s a partnership; almost a co-design process in many ways. You know you’re successful when people say things to you like, “I never thought I would see this.” or “I never thought the built environment could express that feeling of what we’ve lost.” The real test is going to be when these projects are built. It’s wonderful to see what time brings and how these places are used.


You were senior project manager on the National Museum of African American History and Culture—what was it like to take on a project that size, and for such a national audience? That was an amazing experience. Not many people get the opportunity to design a museum on the National Mall. It’s a very tough place to design a building. It was a long and lengthy process from the pre-design phase that started in 2007 to the international design competition. After our team’s selection in 2009, it was a full-time effort for me for eight years and there were a lot of players involved. But I respect the process. I believe that we have a better building because of it.

We predicted two million visitors a year—but visitation has greatly exceeded that estimation. It also has the highest dwell time of most of the Smithsonian museums. While other museums are about two and a half hours, the National Museum of African American History and Culture is nearly double that. This is the first time that the complete African American story has been told in a single place.  Before it was mostly told in fragments in multiple locations.


What’s your favorite exhibit at the museum? I don’t have a favorite, but the most impactful for me during the design process was when we were creating the space for Emmett Till. It’s one thing when it’s just an area, and you’re concerned if the contractor interpreted the design correctly. It’s another when it becomes real, and for that particularly meaningful space, I just couldn’t bring myself to go into it for a while after the coffin was placed inside. The first time I visited the space was actually the night before the museum opened. There is incredible power in this exhibit; it was the first time I was hearing his mother speak about that day, and you try to reconcile what happened to this child. It just blows your mind and is very emotional. I went back again last month with the Maryland students and it still has that impact.


What’s a trend that today’s architecture students face that you did not see when you entered into the profession?  I think it is the collaboration required for today’s industry. The field of 20-30 years ago, you could be a lot more insular. That’s kind of how the profession has historically been. But that’s not how complex, groundbreaking design is made. It’s not just one person and it’s not just one discipline. It’s also not just one client or owner, which used to be just the person who paid you. Architects today have a responsibility and social purpose to realize designs that are sustainable, resilient and thoughtful; not just beautiful objects that are given to people. I think students today are cutting their teeth with that ideology. It was different for us, we had to fumble and bumble our way into it. But if you look around, it creates much better design.


What are students working on this semester in the Integrated Design Studio? What do you hope they learn from you? Well, first of all, I think it’s wonderful that the University of Maryland runs this program. It has been such a great experience. I’ve got these wonderful cohorts with Amy [Gardner] and Julie [Gabrielli] and I’m very happy to be working with them. For this particular project, the students must create something that respects but doesn’t compete with a historic, treasured place. One that serves as a precursor to the other distinct experience of the Pope Leighey house. Originally, many of the students were thinking, “this is my site, and I have to put a building on it.” And I asked them, “Why are you thinking of ‘this’ as your site? Why aren’t you thinking of this whole experience as your site?” I’m trying to get them to think beyond the four walls. It’s about creating an experience, a destination; not just a beautiful building. It’s a marriage of both.


It edifies me as a practitioner to work with these students; they bring a very fresh, unencumbered perspective. The challenge for us is not to dampen that spirit; the dampening will take care of itself! But instead guide them and just let it happen.


-By Maggie Haslam

Posted on November 19, 2019 by Jelena Dakovic