Though he’s only just graduated from architecture school at Woodbury University, Demar Matthews is already making waves in the industry through his self-owned studio, OffTop Design. The young designer is exploring Blackness in architecture and bringing his thesis project to fruition in Watts, a historically Black neighborhood in South Los Angeles. “Unearthing the Black Aesthetic” is a 700-square-foot accessory dwelling unit on a lot next to the Watts Towers, the area’s only cultural tourist attraction. On land owned by longtime resident Janine Watkins, the home will serve as a community gathering space and arts center with a “for us, by us” attitude. Matthews’s design for the house is derived entirely from Black culture: box-braid and wave hairstyles inform its façade pattern, the way sunlight streams into the structure is based on Black body language and its massing is inspired by the work of Black artists like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Kehinde Wiley, he says.
“This project advances the mission of developing a Black aesthetic,” explains Matthews. Currently fundraising in partnership with the Architecture and Design Museum in LA, he plans to start construction this year. The Watts home will be the first case study in a series of ten.
Though the political awakening in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd led to new scrutiny of whiteness and discrimination in the architectural profession, Matthews maintains that there is a long way to go. His own thesis was prompted by the lack of specifically Black structures presented for study when he was in school. “The focus has been on achieving equity in the profession—only two percent of licensed architects are Black or African American—and equity in academia, where diversity in the classroom is also sorely lacking. But it is hypocritical to fight for equity in academia and the profession, yet not fight for equity in the built environment,” he says. “This architecture isn’t meant to speak to me as a Black person, it’s supposed to speak to us as Black people.”