Perkins+Will’s Gabrielle Bullock wants to make architecture more diverse

Perkins+Will’s Gabrielle Bullock wants to make architecture more diverse

Growing up in New York City, Gabrielle Bullock, a principal at U.S. architecture firm Perkins+Will, saw firsthand the negative impact poorly designed housing projects had on her community.

Although she did not grow up in one herself, Bullock noticed that “[the housing projects] were very tall, had very small windows, and [had] very little relationship to the scale of a person living there. They didn’t engage the inhabitants. They were simply a place to lay your head.” So at age 12, Bullock decided that she wanted to be an architect as a way to improve public housing and the lives of those who lived in them.

This interest eventually led Bullock to Rhode Island School of Design, where she graduated with an architecture degree in 1984, becoming only the second African-American woman in the university’s history to do so. “It was a somewhat isolating experience,” she recalls.

Now, as the director of global diversity at Perkins+Will, Bullock oversees the diversity, inclusion, and engagement program for the 2,200-person firm, which is based in Chicago but operates globally. The company’s program strives to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion not just within the company, but within the profession at large. This includes conducting K-12 and university outreach to “build a pipeline” to get more people of color into architecture.

Bullock did not know any architects growing up, nor did she have mentors. “I know from my experience that [architecture] is not a profession that is recommended, suggested, or encouraged to young children,” she says. Still, her family encouraged her to pursue her dreams.

After graduating from RISD, Bullock worked for several small firms specializing in public housing, and eventually found her way to the healthcare-focused firm Russo and Sonder, which Perkins+Will, established in Chicago in 1935, ultimately acquired. Bullock has been with Perkins+Will for 30 years, first in New York and now in Los Angeles, where she lives with her husband, the actor Rocky Carrol, and where she became the outpost’s first black woman managing director.

In her architectural work, Bullock focuses largely on building types that by their nature require a sensitivity to their social context: K-12 schools, universities, cultural institutions, and healthcare facilities. In the latter category, Bullock’s notable projects include the Jeddah campus of King Saud bin Abdulaziz University for Health Sciences, the first public university specializing in health sciences in Saudi Arabia and the Middle East, and the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles.

“It’s a lot less about the iconic buildings these days,” says Bullock, “and more about a project that is really community-based and engaged with its neighborhood and city, or around transit development.” Currently, Bullock is leading Destination Crenshaw, an outdoor museum celebrating the story of black Los Angeles through art and the urban environment along a 1.1-mile stretch of Crenshaw Boulevard, in South Los Angeles.

For cultural projects like this one, having a diverse team is essential, Bullock says. “The client is expecting a team that can relate to their community.” Working with Bullock on Destination Crenshaw are Phil Freelon, a lead architect on the National Museum of African American History and CultureZena Howard, and Drake Dillard, each of whom is African American. And of the 419 licensed black female architects in the U.S., a staggeringly low statistic, two are on the team.

Though the profession has a long way to go to greater racial and gender representation—and parity—Bullock has seen moderate progress and is optimistic about the future. There has been steady growth in the number of people of color employed at Perkins+Will, and the firm’s gender demographic numbers are approaching a 50-50 split between self-identified men and women. “But this is a journey, not a sprint,” Bullock acknowledges.

Still, for Bullock, the most pressing issue is increasing racial diversity in the industry at large. “It’s about getting more people of color into architecture and getting young children aware of architecture,” she says. Since her time at RISD, Bullock has seen an increase in the diversity of professors and professionals teaching at universities.

She has also noticed that universities are more actively reaching out to practitioners of color to come speak at their schools. “There needs to be more connection between the actual profession and academia.” And while more women are becoming architects, Bullock notes that the challenge now lies in keeping women in the profession and addressing issues that push them to leave it.

As for what a diverse team of architects does for the actual design of a project: “The different voices at the table make the problem solving more dynamic, [and allow you] to explore more avenues and ideas. And inherently there’s more [productive tension] because you have so many voices. But that’s the wonder of what we do.”