ZEVILLA JACKSON PRESTON, R.A.
I am the child of Edith Brewster and Richard Jackson. My mother and my father’s families migrated to the New York area when they were adolescents and met at the old Needle Trade High School in NYC. My Mom became a seamstress and my Dad a tailor.
My parents married straight out of high school and had five children. I am the youngest. My parents separated when I was just 3 years old and I was a Mommy’s girl from that point forward. As the youngest, my older siblings did not like me to hang out with them; hence, I was often left to hang onto my mother’s skirt. I remember sitting under the table of her industrial Singer sewing machine and playing with bobbins and spools of thread. As I grew older it was inevitable that I would become a seamstress as well. I started out sewing belts in sweatshops in the Bronx for five or ten cents a belt. I eventually developed a skill set that allowed me to make everything that I wore, including my coat. By my early twenties, I earned a decent income making custom party dresses and other clothing for people. I even made a couple of wedding dresses.
As a child, my loves were reading, math and sewing. While I could not make a pattern, I could alter any store bought pattern as needed to customize one’s clothing. While growing up, most people wanted to be a doctor, a lawyer or an Indian Chief; in my heart of hearts, I wanted to be all three. When forced with the decision to choose one, I selected lawyer. I entered Brooklyn Technical High School with the intention of taking general education courses and going to college and law school. Who knew that at Brooklyn Tech, the school is run like a college, you have to choose a major. Freshman year you were exposed to the engineering disciplines, architecture and a broad spectrum of science and math careers. After taking an introduction to architecture course I thought that I’d died and gone to heaven.
This notion of designing and constructing buildings filled me up inside like nothing else that I’d experienced. Born and raised in NYC, more specifically, Harlem, I always had a sense that the physical space below 110th Street in Manhattan was different from that above 110th Street. The word “architect” was not often, if ever, used in my community by those that I knew. This introductory high school course opened a world to me that made me a staunch believer in Exposure/Exposure/Exposure for young people. It doesn’t matter what one is or isn’t interested in, expose young people to everything. You will often be surprised by what they will gravitate toward. I shudder to think of what my professional life would be like if I had not found my passion.
As an architect, my passion stems from my commitment to serve my community, Harlem, and similar communities that have been historically under-served by the architectural profession. As I think back to my days of going up and down the stairs in old law tenement buildings and surveying Harlem’s landscape as a young person, I cannot say that I ever thought about an architect as one involved in creating the spaces that I ran through. Many of the buildings were beautiful with ornate details on the outside, but the actual spaces that people lived in and inhabited were not conducive to their everyday lives and the concept of ‘Design Excellence’ seemed non-existent.
While the architectural practice has not been a financially lucrative endeavor for me – nor has it been one free of stress and headaches – it has been one of love. I started out with an internship at The Harlem Urban Development Corporation (HUDC) where I worked closely with and directly for Phillip Morrow who was then the Director of Real Estate Development. From there I worked for small NYC based Black-owned firms, as most young Black architects did 20 years ago. Firstly, I worked for Roberta Washington Architects, a firm where the principal truly nurtured young architects. Secondly, I had a brief stint with Harry Simmons Architects. The internship gave me a sense of who hired architects and the role that architects play within the larger context of overall development. These architectural experiences taught me the basics of what it took to design and build small projects, mostly brownstones, tenement buildings and community facilities.
My entrée into the employment market quickly became a casualty of a down economy in the early 90s. Fortunately, my three work experiences provided me a sound foundation for professional practice. Hence, I was able to turn my misfortune into an opportunity for me to enter private practice and J-P Design (JPD) was born in 1996. As many know, Harry Simmons died an untimely death, but both Roberta Washington and Phillip Morrow remain active in the NYC Design/Build community. I value each as people and industry professionals. Phillip Morrow has been a mentor to me from the day that I met him and Roberta Washington and I forged a strong professional relationship early on. Both of these relationships have grown into true friendships. I was fortunate to have crossed paths with two quality individuals so early in my professional life. My respect for them as people made me want to keep in touch with them. The flip side of the coin was to determine what I could bring to the table that would make them want to keep in touch with me.
Through the years I have pursued Design Excellence with zeal while remaining true to my commitment to my community, the Harlem that I grew up in, and the community of professionals that I joined through the New York Coalition of Black Architects (NYCOBA). NYCOBA has been and remains my professional home. Without people like Henry LeGendre, L.E. Tuckett, Richard Franklin, Roberta Washington, Elliot Hardie and others, several people, including myself, may not have passed the architectural registration exam when we did. I am forever indebted to NYCOBA’s old guard for this. These men and one woman thought enough of me and other young Black architects to take away from their personal and professional lives to tutor young Black architects and to run simulated building design sessions for the architectural registration exam. The cross-generation pollination, the professional mentoring and the collegiality that was fostered in my early years as a NYCOBA member made it impossible for me to say no when I was asked to take the helm of the organization as its President in 2005. At that time, NYCOBA had a lot of young and newly registered members. I assumed the presidency in the spirit of ‘Sankofa’. I felt that the membership had to look back in order to clearly understand how we had to collectively move forward. As with most things in Black life, NYCOBA, as an organization, is running a relay race. America has about 233,000 registered architects, of that about 1,900 are Black architects and of that about 300 are Black women. There is no mad 50-yard dash that will cement progress for Black architects in America, so the endless relay race continues.
As far as my professional life goes, I founded JPD, right after receiving my architectural registration. Initially, my clients came from a pool of Harlemites that were most familiar with my community volunteerism, separate and apart from my architectural life. These personal relationships opened doors to work that otherwise would have been shut. In most cases the work was not glamorous, but, it was real work that covered my overhead. I remember doing my first gut-rehab of a tenement building and having long and lively discussions about things like why the sinks needed to be deeper than HPD’s guidelines allowed for; why it was inappropriate to rehab a building and the only provision for garbage cans was to chain them to the building’s front door after the renovation and I even had to justify why I provided broom closets and food pantries in my designs. The answers were simple for me 1) Black people have collard green pans and shallow sinks do not allow for their proper washing, 2) It psychologically damages people, particularly, children that have to go in and out of buildings every day that have garbage cans chained to the front doors and lastly, 3) Poor people do not want to sit their mops, buckets and cleaning supplies in the corner of a room, they do this because a broom closet has not been provided. When providing a built-in bookcase in one unit, I shudder to remember, someone jokingly asked me if the shelf was for the residents crack pipe. These things may seem minute and irrelevant to most, but they are the things that is truly sustainable environments are made of. Energy efficiency and low VOC paint are good, but what good is it if the room is too small for you to live in or if there is no space for a family of 4 – 6 people, typical family size for many, to sit down and eat dinner together. There is a lot of talk about families, especially, urban families, not eating dinner together. Few ask the question as to whether or not living environments are designed for this activity. Because of the location of my practice and my experiences as a human being, I tend to ask these types of questions more so than whether or not the wall should be painted or wallpapered.
I am grateful that my clients have been willing to discuss what I see as deficiencies in agency design guidelines and whether or not the guidelines given to me met the minimal standard that JPD seeks to achieve. When they haven’t I have had to push back and sometimes push back hard because JPD’s minimal standard sometimes had cost implications. Note a deep sink costs more than a shallow sink. Some of the play in wall planes, and the use of traditional flooring materials on wall planes along with other interventions, illustrated in JPD’s portfolio images. Initially, these interventions were hard to sell to affordable housing clients because they were outside of the norm. Today, consumers of architecture are savvier and they are often looking for the creation of distinctive living environments. The design-savvy client is JPD’s dream client.
Since 2008, the advent of the current economic downturn, JPD has been struggling as has the entire profession. Large firms have scaled down. In some cases, 100 men firms are down to 20 or 30 people. As the old saying goes, ‘when it rains for others is pours in our community’. I would have to say that this adage is true in this case. Many small and large Black firms have had to close their doors. With retrenchment and God’s grace, JPD is still alive and functioning. I have taken this slow period to take stock of where JPD has been in the past 20 years and where I would like for it to go in the next 20 years. To this extent, JPD has a strong and viable strategic plan in place that I am deliberately executing.
I am a research oriented design architect. For rehab projects, I try to visit the building many times before I re-design it. I walk the environment as it is; I sit quietly, if possible, and take in the sites and sounds, the spatial qualities, natural light vs. artificial light, etc. I get to know the structure and the intended user before I start designing. In the case of new construction, I do the same by walking the site, or in the case of an in-fill project, I will sit in front of a vacant lot all the while surveying the existing neighborhood fabric. The existing building, the site and the end-user are my focal points. When it comes to the actual design process, I never really think about materials, though I have a preference for glass, metal and concrete. When designing I think most about the intersection of planes, volume, sources for natural light, strong axial connections and how to create a sculptural piece of art. A ‘JPD Original’, as I call each design, should be distinctive without any finishes.
In 2013, many people opened design discussions talking about ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ initiatives. While I believe that climate change is real and that the design industry must do its part to minimize its adverse effects on the planet, the promotion of green and sustainable initiatives worries me. These initiatives have been and remain part of the basic practice of architecture, yet, we are so focused on energy efficient building envelopes, green roofs, solar panels, geothermal energy, water reclamation and other things that you never hear people talking about the actual quality of the spatial environments that people inhabit. A building with a solar panel on a roof and a garbage can be chained to the front door is not a sustainable project to me. A building with low VOC paint and a 5 x 7 bathroom with a tub that an adult cannot actually sit and cover their body with water is not a sustainable project to me. The specification of energy efficient materials and equipment were a norm until industry professionals discovered that they could make extra money by saying that they are employing sustainable measures. The truth is that one would have to try really hard to find inefficient material and equipment to specify in these times. Yet, there is a cottage industry that is flourishing around the specification and documenting the installation of these items. Suffice it to say, ‘at JPD we design environments that sustain people’.
To date, most if not all of my work has been in Harlem and similar NYC communities. Looking forward, I have a strong desire to work in Africa or South America. Too often, I read about architectural solutions being imposed on communities of color from the outside in. Having developed a particular expertise in community development processes through the years, I think that as a design professional I would bring a skill set and sensitivity to projects in these places that could be used to give voice to disenfranchised communities of color. While in college, I spent a couple of months in Nigeria, studying indigenous building materials and a couple of weeks in Cuba. While in Cuba, I engaged in a series of discussions and charettes to better understand the needs of rural communities in order to provide an architectural intervention to stem the flow of young people away from rural communities. Most architects will take a contrasting or harmonic approach to building design. Another approach that is not often talked about is the architect’s decision to celebrate one’s self or the client and the existing environmental fabric. I never try to superimpose my fingerprint on the environment or a client in celebration of myself. As an architect, I approach every project by listening to the client and/or end-user and I strive to meet their needs down to the most minute detail. This approach lends to a dialog that results in appropriate architectural solutions that grow up and outward from the interaction.
Information provided by: Zevilla Jackson Preston
Edited by: Janeen Ettienne