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Colorado’s Only Black, Female Architect on Designing an Inclusive World

Kaci Taylor believes in the power of asking questions and listening closely. She's made it the foundation of her Denver architectural firm, THE5WH.

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Kaci Taylor was always attuned to space, even as a child growing up in Los Angeles. She noticed when a room soothed her, for example, or when an entrance seemed to welcome her. “I was a very shy kid,” she says, “so finding spaces that felt supportive was really important in helping me feel comfortable engaging with people and getting out of my shell.”

But at times, finding such environments proved difficult. Taylor, like many Black Americans, often encountered disquieting reminders of her country’s racist history. Such signposts seemed to be entangled in the nation’s very infrastructure: Some were overt, like statues honoring enslavers or buildings, roads, and towns named for openly racist politicians. Others were more subtle, like the looming columns endemic to antebellum-style architecture. “A lot of spaces have elements that allude to the past, that remind people of color that they were once the property of someone else,” Taylor says.

For Taylor, a career in architecture was a way to address the gulf between some of the thoughtless design she saw in the United States, and the comforting spaces she knew people craved. Prioritizing humans, not history or profit, is the keystone of the two-year-old architecture and consulting firm she founded and runs by herself in Denver, called THE5WH. Through her work on single and multifamily residences, along with mid-sized commercial and mixed-use projects, she hopes to build a more inclusive city.

(Read More: Could Denver Become the Country’s First City Designed for Women?)

Of course, even getting to this point was a challenge. Taylor is one of just 18 Black architects currently working in Colorado, and the only woman of that bunch, according to the Directory of African American Architects .  According to the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards (NCARB), 7,804 architects registered for licenses allowing them to practice in Colorado in 2018, and in 2019, fewer than one in five new architects identified as a racial minority. “It has everything to do with systematic racism,” Taylor says. “Those who can afford to get an architecture degree in the first place often face a very discouraging, microaggression-filled environment. It can be mentally draining.”

Taylor recalls often being the only Black, female architect in the room, and says she often experienced gaslighting while working in the industry: She would point out a problem early in the design process and be ignored, only to have construction go wrong and be reprimanded for the mistake. When she stood up for her ideas, she was accused of being combative and confrontational. She did receive praise for her work, but promotions rarely accompanied the plaudits.

Such barriers and frustrations often push people of color out of the industry, Taylor says. African American architects are 14 percent more likely than their white peers to say they’ve faced discrimination at work, and two thirds of African Americans said they can’t identify people in leadership roles that look like them, according to a joint survey conducted this year by NCARB and National Organization of Minority Architects. These problems contribute to a lack of diversity that hinders good design. “I think we can all get stuck in our own little bubble,” Taylor says. “In an inclusive atmosphere, ideas are generated that can then spark other, amazing innovations.”

She experienced that inventive energy while getting her masters degree at Tulane University in New Orleans (while there, she worked on homes for folks displaced by Hurricane Katrina) and during her time in San Francisco, where she designed affordable housing. Taylor is especially proud of her work on the Mercantile Hotel in Missoula, Montana, helping revamp a historic building into a full-service hotel. Mentors helped her along the way. “I’ve met some great co-workers and great bosses,” Taylor says. “But people need to learn and address their internal biases and become educated on how other people experience things.”

Then, four-and-a-half years ago, Taylor moved to Denver in search of a change of pace from California. The Mile High City is receiving a long-overdue education in the way design choices impact its Black residents. The Stapleton neighborhood, named for a former Denver mayor who was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, will soon have a new moniker. Until recently, a statue honoring Christopher Columbus, the explorer responsible for widespread genocide of America’s Indigenous peoples, towered over Civic Center Park. Another one commemorating the men of the 1st Colorado Cavalry who fought in the Civil War for the Union—including some who took part in the Sand Creek Massacre—stood outside the state Capitol building. Both were taken down by protesters in June (Governor Jared Polis has vowed to reinstall the monument to the 1st Cavalry).

(Read more: Is Mt. Evans Due For A New Name?)

Taylor believes removing statues and renaming neighborhoods is a step in the right direction, but says far more is needed. “Awareness is great. However, renaming a street or removing a statue or for that matter painting Black Lives Matter on the road does not change the systemic racism that is embedded into our society,” she says. “These acts are only performative if what follows isn’t policy and procedure changes.”

Still, she hopes the current attention to spaces and naming conventions will morph into a more thoughtful, humanistic approach to design. She longs to see more courtyard designers consider shade while they build; she’s also tired of rooms with no windows. And Taylor wants architects to do more of the very thing she feared as a child: talking to people.

Conversation is a cornerstone of THE5WH: Taylor pours time into asking her clients questions about their lives and considering their answers to uncover subtle design choices that will make their space feel well-suited to them. One example? Understanding the lasting impact of Jim Crow policies that only allowed Black people to enter buildings through the side or back entrances, a tool used by white populations to instill oppression in public places. These rules, and the repercussions that came along with breaking them, affected how Black Americans experience space and created a generational trauma that, Taylor says, many still experience to this day: “Some may feel more comfortable entering the side of the building.” Having that understanding, and knowing to ask that question, gives her a better chance of creating an inclusive space. “Through education, anyone can learn and gain an understanding of those elements,” Taylor says. “In my experience, I do not see many white architects taking the time to educate themselves, rather I see the assumption that what works for them will work for everyone, and that is simply just not the case.”

Of course, that’s not true for all of Taylor’s Black clients. Similarly, not all Black people feel unsettled by sweeping upper-balconies and grand entrances, both hallmarks of plantation-style homes. “One person of color’s experience is going to be different from someone else’s,” she says. That’s why having that conversation is essential: “It’s about identifying and understanding how the societal realm that we are placed in affects how we experience our surroundings.”

THE5WH is still new, so projects are still in the design phase and therefore under wraps, though Taylor is pushing to work on affordable housing. But you can get a taste of the spaces Taylor loves at her company’s Instagram account—and stay up-to-date on forthcoming projects. “Quality design has really given me hope for a better future,” Taylor says. “And part of that is because we have the control and the power to change it. That’s what gets me up in the morning.”

ELECTION 2020

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