The RAW Approach: It Succeeds

Whiteson is a Los Angeles architect and writer whose most recent book is "The Watts Towers of Los Angeles."

Six years ago, when Roland A. Wiley decided to set out on his own, he knew the odds were against an architect who was both young and black.

By age 27, Wiley had worked his way up the ladder of Gruen Associates, a large Los Angeles architectural firm. As construction manager on such large projects as California Plaza, he had achieved a comfortable senior position.

But he was eager to test his mettle in a Los Angeles design world more open than ever to ethnic diversity and technological innovation.

"Architects of color are an endangered species in this city," Wiley said. "We tend to be out of the major L.A. power loops, and we suffer other strikes against us in a profession still dominated by white males."

Fighting to preserve this "endangered species," Wiley founded RAW Architecture in 1984 with young African-American partners Steven Lewis and Steven Lott in a small Baldwin Hills office.

"We chose the name RAW because it echoes my initials, and because it suggests an essential kind of architecture, stripped of frivolities," Wiley said. " 'Raw' has a ring of honesty about it, a suggestion of purity of purpose, which we try to honor in our designs."

RAW Architecture's honest designs have rapidly established the firm's reputation among the rising generation of architectural Young Turks in Los Angeles. Raw's first completed project, the Sing Kai Hong showroom in the Pacific Design Center, won the center's 1990 Excellence in Design award.

With a 13-person office in downtown Los Angeles, plus the small original branch in Baldwin Hills, RAW's thriving practice now covers a considerable variety of projects.

RAW's work includes: design of retail spaces in the massive Citadel development in the Assyrian-style building that once housed the Samson Tyre and Rubber Co. in the Commerce; construction of a Pacific Bell vehicle maintenance facility in San Pedro; rehabilitation of 100 housing units in Harlem, N.Y.; construction of the Golden Bird restaurant in Baldwin Hills; and design of a prominent Beverly Hills doctor's office.

"Few people expect to see an African-American architect operating in Beverly Hills," Lott said. "We got this high-profile job by demonstrating to the client that we were both efficient and creative--more so, perhaps, than equally qualified young white designers might need to be to succeed."

Wiley, Lewis and Lott were encouraged by the success of an earlier generation of Los Angeles-based African-American architects, such as Paul Williams, Robert Kennard and Norma Sklarek.

Williams designed the 1937 Saks Fifth Avenue store on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills and the downtown Los Angeles County Courthouse in 1958. Kennard, whose practice includes a wide range of projects, was a member of the architectural "All Stars" team that created the dramatic Grand Avenue plan for Bunker Hill in the late 1970s.

Norma Sklarek, the first black woman to become a member of the American Institute of Architects, gave Wiley and Lott their first jobs when she was a principal at Gruen Associates.

"I hired them when they first got out of school," she said. "I admired their dedication, and their belief that a positive attitude could overcome any resistance their being black might provoke. On a recent visit to their offices, I was greatly impressed by their competence and their confidence."

Things are easier now for African-American designers than they were when she first looked for a job, Sklarek said. "The person who hired me at Gruen later admitted that he had to overcome powerful prejudices to employ a black who, to compound the difficulties, was also a woman," she said.

RAW's design of the Sing Kai Hong showroom for Oriental arts and artifacts was both a social and aesthetic challenge, according to the firm's principal designer, Steven Lott.

"Every detail had to be approved by the family patriarch back in Hong Kong," he said. "At the same time, we had to come up with a setting that would have a real presence yet not compete with the marvelous objects on display, that include ancient vases and precious jade."

Entry to the showroom in the Pacific Design Center's Center Green building is framed by a black steel portal that mimics a traditional Chinese gateway. In the display areas, the materials are subdued in tone and texture to give primacy to the expensive artifacts. The overall lighting is soft, with higher levels of illumination in the showcases.

"In our design, we tried for an art that conceals art," Lott said. "Rampant ego statements are not our aim."

Annie Chow, spokeswoman for the Sing Kai Hong Co., said that "working with RAW was wonderful. They're easy to talk to, very flexible and patient in explaining the pros and cons of any particular plan. They're also nice and friendly, which is a big plus."

At age 37, Lott is the self-described "old man" of the practice. A native Angeleno, he was trained at Cal Poly Pomona, but dropped out of the design field to become a businessman before RAW brought him back into the fold.

"For a while, I was kind of disillusioned with the way architecture seemed to be going," Lott said. "But Roland seduced me with his RAW idea."

Lewis, 33, followed a different route to RAW. A New Yorker and son of a successful architect, he migrated West to work as a planner for the Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency.

One of his main roles in the firm is to manage the office and oversee the operation of the firm's extensive computer-aided design system.

"Roland is the managing partner who runs the projects; Steve (Lott) is the chief designer and marketing front man, and I run the office," Lewis said. "But all of us get involved in design issues, even to the point of fierce argument, when egos can get trashed in the glorious free-for-all."

Wiley, 33, who grew up in Indianapolis and graduated from Ball State University, claims that the trio represents "the East and West coasts and the Midwest, by birth and by temperament.

"Lewis is East Coast managerial; Lott is West Coast imaginative and I'm the man-in-the-middle," he said. "Together, we've managed to exploit a niche in the design market to provide a mixture of interior design, project coordination and 'shell' exterior architecture."

A past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects, Wiley takes seriously his role as a model for young African- American professionals.

"Our generation will have to be the problem-solvers for the almost unlivable urban environments we've created for less-advantaged blacks and minorities in so many U.S. cities," he said. "We'll have to find ways to rebuild the crumbling infrastructures, and design affordable housing and shelter for all those who need it so desperately.

"In this endeavor, we want to make RAW Architecture a fertile soil for creativity and innovation."

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