HKS’ Keith Lashley Works To Boost Black Representation in Architecture
When Keith Lashley was a little boy in the late 1950s, he’d crawl up on the rear window shelf of his father’s boat-like sedan as the family cruised through Manhattan, and he’d stare, mesmerized, at the glittering skyscrapers. Once the family returned home to Connecticut, Lashley would make his own buildings with Legos and Lincoln Logs.
Lashley knew at age 5 that he wanted to become an architect. He held onto his ambition as he grew up in a white, suburban New England neighborhood in the 1960s, when he and his twin sister were usually the only Black faces in their classrooms. He held onto it even as the brilliant men who taught him architecture at Howard University in the 1970s spoke of the ways that the profession demeaned them because of the color of their skin. He held onto it as he set out to build his career in a city he loved but where he wasn’t always wanted.
That city, Boston, was much more welcoming to him in the late 1990s, when Lashley returned to the area to attend graduate school at Harvard University. Soon after, he joined HKS, where he became the firm’s first Black principal in 2011.
Tracing his career over the span of four decades, Lashley, who specializes in construction contract administration, can see how he climbed to levels of professional success that many Black architects before him were denied. And he can also testify to the racist attitudes that remain entrenched in the profession.
Lashley recalls the sting he felt when a fellow architect with whom he clashed about a project punctuated a retort by calling Lashley a “boy.” A shocked Lashley kept quiet about the term, deciding to give his colleague the benefit of the doubt. But when the white architect called him “boy” again the next day, Lashley realized his colleague was intentionally belittling him. Lashley pointed out to the man that he was the elder of the two and explained that the term was unacceptable.
Black faces are still hard to find among the ranks of licensed architects in the United States. According to data from the Directory of African American Architects maintained by the University of Cincinnati, Black architects represent only 2% of the more than 116,000 licensed architects in the country.
Lashley, one of eight Black architects at HKS, is trying to boost those numbers by exposing students to architecture and by encouraging persistence among the young Black professionals who are following his path.
“You have to have broad shoulders and thick skin,” he said. “The generations coming up, they get it. They’re not going to have the kind of struggle that my generation had. But they also have to know that they have to be laser-focused and understand that they’re still going to experience racism, no matter what they do.”
Lashley’s parents grew up in Barbados, a picturesque Caribbean island and former British colony with a predominantly Black population. His father, Edgar Lashley, blended in the crowd. But in Connecticut, where he eventually moved to reunite with relatives, he stuck out. When he and his white friends went to a diner to celebrate enlisting in the Army, Edgar Lashley was turned away at the door because he was Black.
It was a sample of what was to come.
After Edgar Lashley was discharged from the Army in the late 1950s, he studied business administration at night. Saving his wages from his work as a U.S. Postal Service employee and a minister, the elder Lashley planned to move his family from Connecticut’s largest public housing project — a maze of 40-plus brick buildings known as the Father Panik Village in Bridgeport — to a house in Stratford, a more prosperous suburb. As a veteran, he should have been able to take advantage of low-cost mortgages guaranteed by the Veterans Administration, but discriminatory practices such as redlining and racial deed restrictions put desirable homes out of his reach.
After a white homeowner in Stratford reneged on an agreement to sell the Lashleys his home, a white friend of the Lashleys bought a home in an adjacent suburb, Milford, and then transferred the deed to the family. It was a dream house: a roomy Cape Cod in a leafy cul-de-sac lined with oak and elm trees and pristine lawns.
Keith Lashley remembers pulling up to the home in the family’s moving van. White neighbors stood on the sidewalk and stared at them.
“It was eerie,” he said. “Not too long after that, ‘for sale’ signs started popping up because people felt threatened, and they thought their [real estate] values were going to go down.”
But about a year later, a neighbor noticed that Edgar Lashley’s car had sat on the driveway for days and went over to the house to investigate. Lorna Lashley, Keith’s mother, told the neighbor that her husband was sick but couldn’t afford treatment. One neighbor took Edgar Lashley to the doctor, another bought the medicine, another cooked for the family and yet another helped babysit Keith and his two sisters.
“That was kind of what broke the ice,” Keith Lashley said. “It wasn’t automatic. There was still resentment from some of the other neighbors. But we had some allies.”
He found more friends along the way. White high school teachers pushed him to excel and get into a good university, and a Black guidance counselor told him about Howard University in Washington, D.C., a top-tier historically Black college. He enrolled in Howard’s architecture program in 1972.
William M. Brown III, a New Jersey architect and civic leader and one of Lashley’s Howard classmates, remembers him as an exceptional draftsman in a class full of talented students.
“When people needed help, we helped each other with our projects and gave each other ideas,” said Brown, a former AIA New Jersey president. “Keith was always unselfish; he was always giving people constructive criticism.”
Ernest Dickerson, another Howard classmate who went on to become a distinguished cinematographer, recalled camping out in the design studio with Lashley and their peers for all-nighters. The group would work to exhaustion and then catch quick naps in their sleeping bags. The next day, the bleary-eyed students would rush back to their dorms to suit up for their presentations.
“Keith, like most of us, believed he was training for one of the noblest professions in the world,” Dickerson said. “He had that sense of duty that what he was doing would help create better and more progressive structures and environments for living and public consumption. African-Americans in architecture are far and few in between, and he knew there would be forces trying to hinder his efforts toward success. But he always kept his eyes on the prize.”
Lashley was taught at Howard by luminaries such as Don Roberts, the first Black man to study under Frank Lloyd Wright, and Frank G. West Jr., designer of the Washington Convention Center. West could draw freehand upside down so the client could see across from him instead of having to sit next to him.
There were other stories, too, about prominent Black architects shoving their hands into their pockets or clasping them behind their backs so that white men would avoid the dilemma of whether to greet them with a handshake.
“[West] used to say he was born at the wrong time,” Lashley said. “He had his own firm, but he said no one would give work to a Black architect. He did small and medium projects that the government would give, but when it came to big projects, clients would not give him that work, or commission.”
Lashley, however, was too enamored with architecture to become discouraged. In his fifth and final year at Howard, he replaced a friend at Turner Construction in Washington, D.C., one of the largest construction companies in the country, processing prints for plan revisions and logging construction documents. A few weeks before graduation, the company moved Lashley to Boston for a job there.
In Boston, Lashley put on a hard hat and boots. He moved in with a cousin and embraced his new job doing line and grade — determining the alignment and elevation of walls, columns and other structural elements. He did a stint in the cost department and went back to the field as an assistant project engineer.
Lashley was charmed by Boston’s quaint neighborhoods, but in the 1970s the city was a tinderbox. A judge’s order to desegregate Boston schools through mandatory busing sparked violent protests in the city.
The bubbling racial tension spilled into Lashley’s life on a St. Patrick’s Day in the late ‘70s, when he left Harvard Square by subway in the evening and made a stop to switch lines. At the transfer station, three drunken white men intercepted him on a ramp. One grabbed Lashley by the jacket, so Lashley shoved him into the other two men and darted onto a train.
“I was shaken,” he said. “On both sides of the ramp and in the train, it was all white people. Nobody lifted a finger. Nobody said anything.”
When Lashley got home, his cousin admonished him: “Are you crazy? Black people don’t go out on St. Patrick’s Day. You’re going to get killed!”
On a previous occasion, a group of white men leaving a bar in South Boston had called Lashley the N-word and hurled bottles and bricks at the baby blue Fiat Mirafiori he had recently purchased.
In the 1980s, Lashley settled in Philadelphia, where he held jobs at Ujima Architects and Saxon and Capers, two Black-owned firms whose portfolios included the headquarters of an organization fighting gang violence and an ice skating rink in a minority neighborhood. He later worked for two white-led firms with a broader client base, David Beck and Amburn/Jarosinksi, and got a teaching position at the Art Institute of Philadelphia.
After three years in Philly, he decided to take a six-week sabbatical in Barbados. Lashley ended up staying for six years.
“When I got there, there were tower cranes,” he said. “There was so much building going on.”
He dipped into crystalline beaches before work and admired the postcard views from his office at a design firm. But the economic recession of the late ‘80s closed that chapter of his life and brought him back to the U.S., where he worked for a Black architect from Boston, Jack Patrick, to upgrade historic Auburn Avenue in Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Olympics.
Insite Construction Management later tapped him to serve as a construction administrator for Atlantis, a mammoth luxury resort in the Bahamas where he met HKS architects also working on the project. That connection led Lashley to HKS after he graduated from the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1999 with a master’s degree in design studies.
Lashley moved to Florida, where he still lives and where HKS has offices in Orlando and Miami. He was quickly thrown into major health and hospitality projects with particularly tricky logistics and difficult players.
He had planned to work in construction administration for a few years and resume teaching full time. But Lashley has now been at HKS for 20 years. His portfolio includes the University of North Carolina Women’s and Children’s hospitals in Chapel Hill; the Washington Headquarters Services office for Department of Defense employees in Alexandria, Virginia; and Boca Raton Regional Hospital’s Lynn Cancer Institute at Sandler Pavilion in Florida.
Kirk Krueger, an HKS principal and director of construction services, said he was impressed by Lashley’s even-keeled temper in confrontational meetings, along with his meticulous notetaking and record-keeping.
“He could have an owner’s rep or a contractor yelling at him, face-to-face, and Keith would look him in the eye and say, ‘Yes, I understand what you’re upset about, and let me see what I can do to work this out.’ He had the ability to immediately diffuse the situation, and he would quickly gain the trust of our clients, as well as the contractors and the trades that work in the field every day,” Krueger said.
Krueger praises Lashley as a colleague and as a friend. In the past decade, the two architects have grown close during whirlwind business trips, bonding over hotel dinners and chatting about their families and their lives during late-night prep sessions for client meetings.
“We kidded each other that we became brothers from different mothers,” Krueger said.
Since joining HKS two decades ago, Lashley said the firm has become more diverse, expanding its international presence with 24 offices worldwide. He’s also seen many more women join the ranks. But architects of color remain a small number among his colleagues.
Lashley believes the reason there are so few Black architects is because most people in general don’t understand what architects do. He has been mentoring kids in Tampa-area schools and juvenile detention centers for the past 20 years, freehand drawing for them, showing them design software and taking them to job sites.
“I’ve seen some kids who have some incredible drawing abilities, and when I show them what I do, they’re just fascinated,” he said.
Lashley’s advice to architectural firms is to develop and maintain relationships with aspiring Black architects throughout high school and college. He said even talented college students and young professionals of color may feel intimidated in a large, predominantly white architecture firm, especially if they attended a university where they also felt out of place. Letting mentoring relationships happen organically and giving budding minority architects a sounding board can make them feel more comfortable, he added.
Lashley’s message to current and aspiring Black architects is this: Stick with it.
“If that’s your heart, don’t let anyone deter you,” he said. “Don’t get sidetracked by the noise.”