Published March 8, 2021
For Petreen Thomas, a great deal of power exists in design – a concept that is shaping her future aspirations as an architect and urban designer, with an eye toward public interest design.
Thomas, a senior in UB’s Bachelor of Science in Architecture program, says design carries with it a narrative that can have deep impacts on the world around us in big ways.
“Design is all around us whether or not we realize it,” she said. “It can intentionally or unintentionally assert a narrative in an environment, thus perpetuating systematic issues in different forms. As future designers, we need to be aware of how every material, wall, color, line, and fixture has a role in the design and different meanings to different perspectives.”
Racial injustice is one of the issues Thomas hopes she can address as a practitioner in the future by asserting “input on the designs in our environment by being able to tackle issues, such as race, from multiple perspectives.” Her deep conviction and thoughtful aspirations earned her selection as the 2021 recipient of the Watts Scholarship.
The honor, dedicated to outstanding students, is supported by Watts Architecture and Engineering, D.P.C, a progressive, Black-owned architecture and engineering firm with offices in Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City. The full service architecture, engineering and environmental consulting firm was formed in 1986 by the late Edward O. Watts Sr., who specialized in environmental engineering and training. Thomas said the scholarship will assist her in reaching her educational goals which she notes include an interest in the School’s dual MArch and MUP program, and specifically studies in inclusive design and neighborhood planning and community development. Her education has already set her upon on a path to make a difference on issues that matter most.
“I assert my role in this space (of racial injustice) by becoming aware of what my role currently is and I’ve begun that journey through my education,” said Thomas, who serves as president and vice president, respectively, for UB’s African American Students of Architecture and Planning and National Organization for Minority Architecture Students organizations.
As she looks ahead, Thomas sees a clear link between her future profession and needed change. She is inspired by Chicago-based Black architect Kimberly Dowdell and former president of National Organization of Minority Architects, whose philosophy and actions work toward a more just built environment to improve the quality of urban life. Dowdell urges a structural transformation in the design disciplines, calling for doubling the number of Black architects in the profession (fewer than 2% of all licensed architects in the US are Black while approximately 13% of US population is Black).
Like the architect who inspires her, Thomas is clear-eyed about the power of design disciplines. She says, “Architecture has played a role in both racial injustice and justice.” She adds “As architects, we have the power to decide what narrative we want to portray and/or continue within our designs.”
Thomas’ approach to the change that she will be part of is particularly inspiring now as the school kicks off celebrations associated with Women’s History Month during March and continues celebrating Black Excellence following African American History Month.
As a Black woman, Thomas shared her thoughts on how architects can do a better job of centering the heterogeneous experiences of Black families in their work. “The involvement of those whose story you’re trying to take into account will reflect better in your design,” she said. “You can start by educating yourself on their history. So, being aware that there are mixed experiences. But I also think this is where representation really matters. You can be more aware of these various experiences by having a diverse group of architects involved in the design that can actually speak on their own personal experiences. You can also engage with the community to which their experiences will affect the design.”
Black women architects are reimagining and transforming communities for a more just future.
“Design is all around us whether or not we realize it,” says Petreen Thomas. “It can intentionally or unintentionally assert a narrative in an environment, thus perpetuating systematic issues in different forms. As future designers, we need to be aware of how every material, wall, color, line, and fixture has a role in the design and different meanings to different perspectives.”