Promoting Justice Through Architecture — Alumni Profile, Bryan Bradshaw ’13
An artist, designer, and activist, Bryan Bradshaw ’13 works to design spaces that center the needs and stories of historically marginalized groups.
It’s a magical feeling for Bryan Bradshaw ’13 to imagine an idea in his mind and have it come to life. The reward lies in the challenge of it all, of adapting the idea to the tools available and the constraints present.
His fascination with this process has driven Bradshaw’s passion for art from a young age, and sustained his subsequent interest in architecture — where a simple two-dimensional sketch can become a real, tangible space that people experience and inhabit.
As much as Bradshaw is an artist and a designer, however, his work isn’t just about creating. Also an activist, Bradshaw is intentional in centering voices that have historically been neglected in traditional design processes. A Black man in a white-dominated field, he is also committed to tackling tough questions surrounding how the profession as a whole can better promote equity and justice for disadvantaged groups.
A Chance Introduction to Architecture
Coming from a family with several artists and musicians, Bradshaw had always been around art growing up. A ceramics class he took at a middle school summer program piqued his interest in sculpture making, and his love for the craft grew as he took more sculpture classes in high school.
It was in high school that Bradshaw had his first real encounter with architecture, but it came from a perhaps unlikely place: the school nurse’s office. A member of the school’s soccer team, Bradshaw was always getting patched up at the nurse’s office for various injuries he sustained from the sport. One day, the nurse told Bradshaw that she’d been enjoying seeing his sculptures around the school and asked him if he wanted to be an artist for a living.
“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t know. It’d be great to be an artist, but I don’t know what other possibilities [there] are. Like, architecture is something I’ve been hearing about a little bit, but I don’t know too much about it,’” Bradshaw recalled. “And she was like, ‘Oh, well, I think you should check out the architect, Antoni Gaudí, because his architecture kind of reminds me of your sculptures.’”
The next day, the nurse brought two books on Gaudí for Bradshaw to look at, and they “just blew my mind,” Bradshaw said.
“To me at that time, I thought architecture was just like box buildings, like very standard-looking things because of various high rises that I would see in the city, growing up in New York, but Antoni Gaudí’s sculptural buildings had so much form and texture, and it just really opened up the possibilities of what I thought architecture could be,” he explained. “So at that point, I really saw architecture as like habitable sculpture, and [started] thinking of it in terms of spaces that can be formed to various experiences.”
Bradshaw went on to take an introductory drafting class, and shadowed at an architecture firm the summer before his senior year of high school. Although many dissuaded him from pursuing a career in architecture, Bradshaw was not deterred.
“Up until that point, a lot of people discouraged me to be an architect, saying like, ‘Don’t be an architect, it’s a thankless profession. There’s a lot of time committed to it and not the level of gratification that you may want,’” said Bradshaw. “For me, I never wanted to be an architect to be rich and famous — like, that’s not the goal. Essentially, why I originally wanted to be an architect was to create spaces that people can be happy in and people can have great experiences in.”
Navigating Spaces, Engaging Community
Nonetheless, when Bradshaw first got to Amherst, he wasn’t entirely sure yet he wanted to go into architecture. All he was certain of was that he wanted to keep making art — he quickly got involved with the art and history of art department, which he would eventually join as a major.
Since he also initially considered becoming a programmer instead of an architect, Bradshaw took some computer science classes, but found that it just wasn’t a passion.
Bradshaw thus continued to dabble in architecture, all while keeping tabs on the discussions that were taking place at the time about establishing an architectural studies program at the college.
Simultaneously, Bradshaw took classes across the Five Colleges from a diversity of other departments, including classes that helped him navigate his identity at Amherst and eventually in his career.
“There are English classes that I took that were really great just to think about how Caribbean artists and writers navigated space, … [which] was important to me, mostly because my family is from the Caribbean,” he said. “Just hearing, reading about the stories of these individuals and their coming-of-age stories and how they’re able to navigate spaces was something that, at the time, was important for me as someone at a predominantly white institution. How do I navigate that space as a young Black man, as well as how do I later navigate a profession that’s dominated by mostly older white men?”
During his summers, Bradshaw interned at various architectural firms, experiences that provided him with more validation for his interest in the profession.
The summer before his senior year, the architectural studies major at Amherst was approved, and Bradshaw was able to join the first class to graduate from the program. He completed a thesis in the department, which was about revitalizing an abandoned train station in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, into a community center.
The idea for the thesis came from Bradshaw’s own experience seeing skaters in the area not have a designated space to skate. Through interviewing people from the area, he also found that mothers liked to frequent the workout center across the street, but there was no childcare at the facility. The project thus sought to tie multiple communities and their needs together.
The thesis was Bradshaw’s first taste of a community-engaged design process, and started him on a path of intentionally designing spaces for people who had previously been overlooked.
Embracing a Radical Design Approach
Following graduation, Bradshaw started working at William Rawn Associates, Architects, Inc. — the firm that designed the college’s King and Wieland Dormitories. He was able to get the job despite not having a professional architecture degree like all of his colleagues, something he credits Amherst for.
“I do think that going to Amherst had a large part in me getting that job, because they knew the quality of work that students do at Amherst, and from working with Amherst on their buildings, they were familiar with the university,” he said. “So they gave me a chance to work with them, even though I had the least amount of experience in the office. … And that kind of set the path for where I am now.”
After a year at the firm, Bradshaw decided to attend graduate school for architecture, which was necessary for him to continue working in the field. He applied to a few places and ultimately chose the program at Tulane University for its emphasis on community engagement.
When he started grad school, Bradshaw was the only Black student in his year, something that initially made him feel like he had to conform in his work. “In my head, I was like, ‘Oh, I have to blend in, do work like everyone else, so that I don’t stand out too much,’” said Bradshaw. “But I really came to learn that that difference and setting myself apart was extremely important in terms of how my work can be seen as special or unique.”
“If I’m digging deeper on an issue or thinking about how to apply techniques in different ways that [potential employers] might not have seen, that’s where it really just draws people in to be like, ‘Okay, who is this person? Like, let’s know more about him,’” he added.
This change in mindset allowed Bradshaw to make grad school what he wanted it to be, as he focused on figuring out his own interests and honing his craft. He described the way he has come to approach his projects: “I often approach things by first thinking of like, ‘Okay, what is the wildest idea that this can be?’ And then reeling it in from there many times.”
“I approach things trying to be somewhat radical and being like, ‘Okay, how can this have the biggest impact and be a moment where people would really want to come back to this space?’” he added. “And hopefully, every time they come back, they’re having a different experience, or they’re noticing something new about it, so that they have more reasons to keep coming back.”
After completing his master’s in architecture in the spring of 2017, Bradshaw worked for a few years at an architectural firm in New Orleans. It wasn’t until March 2021, however, when Bradshaw found a place that “check[ed] every box for things I wanted to be doing” in Colloqate Design, a nonprofit design justice practice started in 2017 that works to expand community access to, and build power through, the design of social, civic, and cultural spaces.
“We are a radical firm, where we’re pushing boundaries, we’re pushing limits,” he said. “We’re trying to create spaces that … are primarily for people who have been overlooked in those spaces.”
Bradshaw noted how this approach differed from other firms he worked at previously, which were more formulaic in their design and “less about the actual direct individuals that use those spaces.”
“I think that the nature of actually considering the specific individuals allows for a more creative design process,” he said. “Because it is harder — it’s hard to have everyone feel heard and feel like their input has been valued when there’s so much input from community and stakeholders. So there’s a balance and a negotiation of like, ‘Okay, how do we incorporate various elements of this without it being too chaotic, and while having everyone still feel like their voice is a part of that process?’”
Future Aspirations for Change
Looking forward, Bradshaw hopes to continue combining art and architecture to design spaces that will bring joy to people.
Bradshaw also cares deeply about working to diversify the architecture profession. He currently runs the National Organization of Minority Architects’ Project Pipeline Architectural Summer Camp in Louisiana, a program that teaches students about architecture and design through a social justice lens, with the aim of increasing the number of underrepresented minorities, especially Black people, pursuing careers in architecture.
Bradshaw also teaches in Tulane’s design program and aspires to be part of changing how design education is delivered to students. “I think the curriculum of architecture schools is oftentimes too focused on Western architecture and not enough on what is happening in various parts of Asia and Africa,” he said. “We know a lot about what’s happening in Europe, but I think there’s a lot we can learn on what’s happening in those continents of Asia and Africa.”
“I think that a lot of [the lack of diversity in architectural programs] has to do with how the design education is being delivered, what type of work is being used as precedent, [and] when we’re designing the projects, the stories that are being told [and] the communities that are being worked with for the design process,” Bradshaw added.
There are other challenges to diversifying the field as well, challenges that Bradshaw thinks about constantly. He also grapples with questions of how to get the profession as a whole to adopt more inclusive and intentional design practices.
In many ways, though, Bradshaw is well-equipped to take on these challenges. For it is just another application of the process he undertakes every time he designs or makes art: imagining radical possibilities and bringing them to fruition.