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Kimberly Dowdell

A self-described “downtown girl,” award-winning architect Kimberly Dowdell splits her time between Chicago and Detroit, and attributes her career aspirations to her upbringing in Detroit. It was there, she said, that the seeds were planted in her “to utilize architecture as a tool to revitalize cities and improve people’s lives by design.”

Deeply affected by the disinvestment of her city as a child, there was one memory that stands out.

“While I never set foot inside the JL Hudson’s department store downtown myself, because it was shuttered at the time, I remember watching it being demolished and feeling crushed because of all of the stories I had heard and its rich history,” recounted Dowdell. “I promised myself at that moment that I would be a force of change in revitalizing buildings like Hudson’s, or more currently, like Michigan Central Station, and to make my purpose healing my great city.”

Receiving a scholarship to attend Cranbrook Schools for grades eight through 12, and coming from a different socio-economic background than many of her peers, it opened her eyes to the opportunities and experiences available to her. “I identified as a freshman that I wanted to be an architect, and had so much support from teachers who encouraged and believed in me,” said Dowdell. “I was also inspired by the architecture and landscaping on the grounds that elevate the life experience. Cranbrook is really the gold standard of beauty and what a built environment should be.”

In what she refers to as her east coast tour,” Dowdell earned her bachelor of architecture at Cornell University and her master of public administration at Harvard University, and in 2022, was elected to the Cornell University Board of Trustees. Over the past two decades her professional experience has spanned architecture, city government, teaching at the University of Michigan and real estate development.

Currently the director of strategic relationships and a principal with HOK, a leading global design firm anchored in Chicago, she collaborates with partners around the globe focusing on sustainability within the cities.

During her 2019-2020 term as national president of the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), she worked to increase opportunities for women and people of color to gain more equitable access to the building professions – something she continues to advocate for in the industry.

Making ground-breaking history in her field, Dowdell was inaugurated as the 2024 American Institute of Architects (AIA) first Black woman president last December in Washington, DC.

“I am excited to serve as our 100th president and to be part of AIA’s leadership team that has a diverse range of experience and perspectives that mirrors the communities our profession serves,” she said. “Diversity supports AIA’s vision by ensuring an equitable, inclusive, innovative approach to shaping the future of architecture and design.”

As a leader in her industry, Dowdell sees a future where architects across the globe share a profound sense of responsibility for the stewardship of our natural resources and are celebrated for helping civic leaders solve some of the most challenging issues.

“Members of our profession are invaluable in the capacity to add much needed perspective in terms of re-using and revitalizing existing buildings and environments –the ultimate in sustainability.”

Coming full circle, Dowdell recently was honored to give the commencement speech for Cranbrook Kingswood's 2021 graduates. Reflecting, she said, “Inscribed in the garden wall at Cranbrook is the saying 'A life without beauty is only half lived.' They have invested in that philosophy and I make every effort to do the same, and to help people have a better understanding of what architects do to build a better world.”

Story: Susan Peck


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