M. David Lee, FAIA

David Lee, one of the most original of today’s black designers, has found, as he goes about seeking new business for the firm, how exposed he is to the trials of owning and running a black firm in our time. He looks with longing, but without resentment, at the cutting-edge design breaks afforded majority firms thanks to the power, independence, and big budgets of their patrons. He has found that most private clients still gravitate to majority design firms, and without many of the constraints on budgets and innovation of the typical public client, give their architects a freer hand in stretching the design envelope.

Poorer communities generally rely on public sources for funding. “Often the agencies that underwrite these projects impose design requirements that are inflexible and not suited to reinterpretation to fit a particular ethnic culture,” argues Lee. “The HUD requirements we often worked within did not vary whether one was building on a Hopi reservation or in Harlem.”

On private-sector work and typically on public work, too, black-owned firms have to prove themselves every time. Lee remembers in earlier years how frustrated he and partner Donald L. Stull, FAIA, were when they would show a past project to a client prospect, only to have the client ask: “OK, now what part of that project did you do?” He said: "No, we were the architects of record. The whole thing was ours."

Lee concedes that with his track record he often gets an easy bye in the first round of selection. Having served as president of the Boston Society of Architects, taught at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, and, along with Stull, having judged a host of design award programs—all this has raised the firm’s profile and made things a little easier.

Nonetheless, he points out: “Are we where, perhaps, we should be, given our track record? I'm not certain that we are. If you really look hard, even where we have had breakthroughs—and some of our clients are majority clients—it has been in those places where there was a minority angle in some way, shape, or form.” Work in the majority private sector is still the exception.