There was no blueprint for a young Dwayne Dancy to become an architect. He couldn’t draw well. He wasn’t great at math. And he didn’t know anyone in the profession. Beyond Dancy’s own childhood limitations, Black architects made up roughly 1% of those licensed when he was a student.
But he boasted a brilliant creative eye as a youngster. It didn’t always apply to buildings—in the fourth grade, Dancy vividly recalls putting together his first day of school fit: a red turtleneck accompanied by acid-washed Bugle Boys jeans and a pair of red Champions. Such an eye netted him “best dressed” superlatives in both middle and high school.
When his mom jettisoned him to trade school—and away from his friends—Dancy came across architectural drafting. He took to it like water.
“I couldn’t draw very well, but I was very good at drafting and at design—putting things together,” said Dancy. “[My] teacher came up and said [I] should really consider doing this. I found out how much they could potentially make. It’s not like that when we get into it, but I found out how much you could potentially make and I [went] for it.”
Roughly two decades into the field, Dancy is now his own boss, running Isoparm Design Group down in DUMBO. The firm works on both commercial and residential projects spanning multiple eastern states. Dancy’s work in Brooklyn also includes teaching his craft as a City Tech adjunct. His own academic journey led to both an HBCU and Ivy League pedigree, snagging a bachelor’s from Howard and a master’s from Columbia. But he was largely taught a eurocentric curriculum of architecture, even at a historically-Black college, with a heavy emphasis on Greek temples and columns—Doric, ionic, the whole shebang.
Dancy is well aware of the racial disparities in the field. But his identity informs his work—one current bluechip project involves designing a waterfront skyscraper in South Carolina’s Atlantic Beach, Myrtle Beach’s “Black Pearl” and historical enclave for the Gullah-Geechee people. Another involves drafting up a Black masonic lodge in New Haven, just a throw’s distance from the hospital Dancy was born in. Then there’s the changing landscape of A-list clients, which now include young Black creatives who are no longer content with long-standing architectural conventions.
“People want a different voice and they want creativity,” he said. “You don’t want to be the best Black architect, you want to be the best architect in general. You try to be extremely creative, turn things upside down, shake it [and] test the boundaries.
“There’s a fine line between something being complicated and complex. You want to walk that line and I’m just trying to tell them a lot of the experiences that I’ve had, and I think I’ve been doing a pretty bang up job for them so far.”
And teaching at City Tech allows Dancy to help others find such a voice. It’s not his first stint in the classroom—that would be his time as a teaching assistant at Columbia. But this opportunity is different.
“With the City Tech students, they’re [primarily] Black and brown faces,” he said. “I’m trying to teach them [about] the extra hurdles that we may have to go through or just judgment. It’s not a blame game, I just push that they put their best foot forward…I’m really trying to push all of the things that have happened to me, things that other people from other walks [of life] might not be able to relate to.
“A Black architect 100% goes through a different walk from what everyone else goes through.”
Tandy Lau is a Report for America corps member and writes about public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.