Demar Matthews of OffTop Design wants to bring a ‘Black aesthetic’ to the world of architecture

“I was never shown architecture in a Black neighborhood,” Matthews shared

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When Demar Matthews was in school for architecture, he was the only Black person in the whole graduate program. His overall experience was great, despite working full time to pay for the program. While completing his degree and seeing the absence of people who looked like him in the space, Matthews began imagining what a Black aesthetic would look like in the world of architecture.

“I was never shown architecture in a Black neighborhood,” Matthews shared. “I said man, I am about to go into a world where I’m just a Black face in a super white office. I felt everything I had just learned was not going to benefit my own community.”

Founder and Principal Demar Matthews Off Top Design shot by Monica Orozco

During the three-year masters program, Matthews was introduced to various types of design ranging from Indian to Japanese. He realized that we see mainly white folks bringing their designs, rooted in whiteness, into majority Black neighborhoods. 

The Los Angeles landscape, where Matthews works, differs only slightly from that norm. Famed Black architect Paul Revere Williams, an orphan who would graduate from The University of Southern California (USC) School of Architecture in 1919, is from Los Angeles. 

Although Williams faced racial challenges and discrimination, he designed homes for some of Hollywood’s biggest stars including Lucille Ball and Frank Sinatra. Williams also designed various buildings in Los Angeles county ranging from LAX to The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Nickerson Gardens in Watts.

“Black people have had hand-me-down housing since we have been in America. I followed the history from slavery, until present day,” said Matthews. “Look at the projects in L.A. They were never built for us. They were built for lower-middle class whites, whose families were in the war.”

Originally from Moreno Valley, Matthews, who is now an assistant professor at Long Beach City College, was drawn to historically Black communities like Watts and South Central, which have deep cultural roots within the Los Angeles area. 

“With gentrification, you see these white houses popping up everywhere. Literally white houses. They make them so they are inviting for white people to come into the community,” Matthews expressed.

His main goal is to make sure Black people feel represented in the buildings and design concepts of their communities. Matthews said he couldn’t help but wonder if houses and schools with bars and gates around them, pre-condition Black people to live inside the confines of actual prisons.

During the summer of 2019, Matthews began working on a project to bring his Black-centered housing vision to life. He was connected to a woman through one of his professors, who owns a lot right next to the Watts towers.

“Ms. Janine was actually the one to bring up the concept of community symmetry. She wanted everything to flow together and to blend in with her neighbors’ houses and Watts Towers,” Mathews shared.

Through his company OffTop Design, he is working on a design that meshes both their visions. Last month, Matthews was able to secure the $270,000 fundraising goal for phase one of his project — an accomplishment he is proud of, considering he only received two call backs when applying for 10+ internships daily. 

Now, Matthews is in a position where some of these same firms are contacting him to partner. 

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