By Their Design: Award-Winning Planners

WITH a recent Presidential Design award for Stull & Lee's work on the Southwest Corridor project, a mixed-use office and retail development in Boston in the works, a subway station in Los Angeles, and designs for a high-rise apartment complex in Miami, this 23-year-old firm, says partner M.David Lee, is just on the edge of breaking through to the big time. The firm started in 1966, a time he calls ``a window of opportunity'' for minorities, being fueled by such events as the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. Today, the composition of the 45-member mulitracial firm that overlooks historic Boston Common resembles Jesse Jackson's ``rainbow coalition.''

In the early days, he says, ``There was this interest and curiosity in seeing people of color in the American consciousness. A lot of people were put into the spotlight. There was a lot of federal money being poured into cities, via programs like `Model Cities.' We were beneficiaries of a lot of what was happening in the streets, but it was a case of being prepared.''

His partner, Donald Stull, had graduated from Ohio State University and Harvard; Mr. Lee, from the University of Illinois and Harvard. They started getting public-sector work in minority communities. ``If there's anything we've been able to accomplish, it's been to try to bring quality design with limited resources to communities of color,'' says Lee.

When a reporter says it must have been hard, 20 years ago, being part of a minority firm in Boston (a city known for its chilly climate for blacks), he snorts, ``have been? past tense? It was cooler in the '70s. It's cold today.''

Today, this firm is struggling to be seen as more than ``just'' a minority firm. ``What has always been the issue is how one breaks out of the strictly public-sector projects,'' says Lee. ``Frankly, we got a lot of work because it was by mandate; you had to have minority involvement. Now, private-sector opportunities are still limited. We've not had any major downtown commissions even though we've been in business over 20 years.''

Architecture critic Jane Holtz Kay says, ``Donald Stull has been one of the more talented and unrecognized architects over the years, but in the last five years [the firm] has been doing pretty well.''

``They had gifted consultants who were willing to learn,'' says Winkie Cloherty, who worked with them on the Southwest Corridor project in the '70s. ``I think they wanted to make the process work, and really grew to have a fondness for the project.''

THINGS are looking up. ``Our first downtown, visible project is going to be in Miami,'' says Lee. ``Providing things continue to move, it's going to be right in the Overtown area, where the unrest was.'' Lee points out that the firm is working with a black Boston-based development firm on the Miami project.

``I do believe that minority percentages are important tools, but my point always is that those things should be seen as floors, not ceilings. I have to tell people, don't always call me when you got colored work, call me when you've got projects that you think our firm is capable of doing and we'll work together on that.

``Parcel 18 [one of the Southwest Corridor's commercial parcels, across from Stull & Lee-designed Ruggles Station] is a major opportunity for us, a high-visibility project. It is giving us a chance to explore in greater detail an office building, commercial and retail opportunities.''

Lee says the firm does not go for a highly visible signature style, but prefers to work contextually. ``We try to draw themes and ideas in part from the place where the project is to happen,'' he says. ``Looking around at the neighborhood, what's been built there before? In the Miami project we drew a lot of inspiration from the Art Deco district of Miami Beach.''

In the Los Angeles subway stop project, since halted because of pockets of methane gas, one of the themes the firm used was the bringing back of the heyday of Hollywood. ``I'm a real Fred and Ginger fan,'' says Lee. ``The elevator enclosure for the handicapped we modeled after the old ticket booths of the movie palaces. We had some ideas about large, backlit movie-marquee type of stuff with Clark Gable or Sidney Poitier. We wanted to work with [filmmaker Steven] Spielberg or somebody to try and develop some kind of animated thing so when you came there from Cedar Rapids, you knew you were in Hollywood.''

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