Design’s holistic potential is paramount to Roger Smith’s practice. It was a key factor in taking a role with Michael Graves Architecture & Design after completing his [architecture] studies at the University of Pennsylvania. “I chose Michael primarily because he was an artist,” says Smith, who also holds an undergraduate degree in art history and fine art. “I also appreciated his desire to bring meaning and life—almost a humanist approach to architecture where the human figure was a part of the thinking.” But as Smith honed his craft under Graves, a disparity became glaring. “That support sort of erased the notion of race as an issue. There was camaraderie and respect,” Smith says, “but beyond that, the representation wasn’t there.”
Smith returned to the classroom as an educator “so that the youngest of those people, who represent the future of architecture, would see a different phase,” he explains. He helmed courses at the University of Pennsylvania and the New Jersey Institute of Technology’s Hillier College of Architecture and Design in visualization and design basics, while also diving deeper into ethics for graduate courses. “I had keen interest in communities and strengthening communities, and in many of the places that I taught, those communities were largely African American,” Smith explains.
Programs explored how to create housing that does not lead to displacement or become an economic driver of gentrification. “Students were asked to go out and interview people about the impact that a building could have, and how do we design to lessen the negative impact on the neighborhood. It was a wonderfully meaningful exercise because it humanized the designs.”
In 2016, Smith joined Gensler, the global firm known, among other merits, for the Gensler Research Institute, a platform examining the bonds between design, business, and human experience. Catalyzed by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Gensler committed to actionable solutions. “We realized the research that we do really has to be much more purposeful,” Smith says, “so we created essentially a new center for research on equity in the built environment to tackle these issues and educate our people.”
A design director and principal in the firm’s Morristown, New Jersey office, Smith also serves as co-chair of the Gensler Research Institute’s Center for Research on Equity and the Built Environment alongside design manager and principal Lisa Cholmondeley, helping to outline the company’s five Strategies to Fight Racism. In addition to exploring equitable design solutions, the framework vows to increase racial diversity within the firm, educational and job opportunities for Black students and designers, and partnerships with clients on diversity and inclusion initiatives. So far, more than 40 research proposals have been funded to make good on these promises. “One of the things that has come out of the research is the need to look at the structural issues that influence certain barriers that lead to inequity,” Smith says. “After unpacking the issue, how do we incorporate that into design?”
Smith lauds Gensler for its culture of empathy, the sentiment that has steered his work from the beginning. “My time at Gensler has been about strengthening my commitment, but also finding a community around these issues,” he says. “For a firm like ours, that can have an enormous impact.”
This is part of an ongoing interview series curated by the Hospitality Diversity Action Council (HDAC).