National African American museum architect sets campus visit

Zena Howard

Zena Howard, an internationally known and award-winning architect whose projects include the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, is this year’s inaugural speaker for the UO’s African American Workshop and Lecture Series.

Howard is the principal architect at Perkins+Will and is known for her success leading visionary, complex and culturally significant projects. Her UO talk, “Cultural Expression in the Built Environment,” will share how she has used the power of design to engage disenfranchised communities, unite disparate parties and infuse cultural meaning into projects from national icons to urban landscapes.

The talk takes place Nov. 6 in the Giustina Ballroom in the Ford Alumni Center. Doors open at 11:30 a.m.; lecture is noon-1 p.m. ​​​​​​​The event is free and open to the public. An RSVP is requested.

Howard believes every site has a story that is a unique blend of physical, cultural and historic character and that the built environment is an expression of human understanding and collective values. She leads projects that successfully navigate social issues of equity and justice, honor history and memory, and restore lost cultural connections.

To tell these unique stories, she engages with the people and communities that the design serves who often have historically been denied a voice in the design of their own environments. She sees this iterative process as critical in creating designs that are meaningful, relevant and enduring.

Central to Howard’s work are “remembrance projects,” a term she coined for community-driven design that infuses historical context into built form. She works with small teams and engages stakeholders to create a design experience which she calls “rich in a distinct sense of authenticity and sensitivity to culture.” She sees the built environment as significantly affecting the human experience and works to create designs that nurture positive change.

Yvette Alex-Assensoh, vice president for equity and inclusion, noted the relevance of Howard’s work to the current campus situation.

“Our campus, like other campuses around the country, is focusing attention on how our increasingly diverse demographic of students, faculty and staff can live harmoniously in our built environment, whereby some of our buildings and statues either reify or perpetuate racism, genocide and exclusion,” Alex-Assensoh said. “Howard’s work with communities across the United States has helped to include African American voices, as well as the voices of other communities that have long been denied a voice in the design of the environments in which they live and work.”

In addition to her public talk, Howard will also meet with School of Architecture and Environment faculty members, staff and students; colleagues engaged in campus planning; university strategies groups; and members of the committee on representing diverse histories. 

Alex-Assensoh said she looks forward to the conversation Howard will generate.

“As our campus engages conversation around how to make the UO’s built environment inclusive of our many diverse histories, Ms. Howard’s talk is expected to offer a fresh perspective and relevance for all of us,” she said.

For further information on Howard’s talk or the African American Workshop and Lecture Series, see the Division of Equity and Inclusion website.

—By tova stabin, University Communications