Angel of the Month
Each month, The Angelrock Project features an Angel of the Month, interviews of inspirational people involved in grassroots volunteer efforts and exceptional humanitarian endeavors. We hope that by reading their stories, you will be moved, inspired, and grateful for their tremendous efforts.
Rodney Leon is currently president and co-founder of AARRIS Architects, LLP, a firm specializing in residential, commercial, and institutional projects. He and his colleagues make a point of nurturing relationships with community and non-profit organizations and he has turned his passion for architecture into a moral obligation for building communities. He is a husband and father of two daughters, and as the child of Haitian immigrants, feels a deep commitment to the Haitian-American community and to helping to re-build Haiti and to empower its people.
Q. How long have you been a professional architect?
A. I have been a professional architect for 10 years.
Q. Where did you go to school and train to be an architect?
A. I did my undergraduate work at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, NY and my graduate studies at Yale University in New Haven, CT.
Q. Tell us about your company AARIS Architects PC. What does the company specialize in and when was it founded?
A. AARIS Architects, PC is a multi-disciplined firm located in Lower Manhattan. I founded the firm with my partner Nicole Hollant-Denis seven years ago. We take on a diverse range of projects, including but not limited to private residential construction, school renovations, transportation projects for the Port Authority, church renovations, and many non-profit projects including one that we are currently working on for Haitian Americans United for Progress.
Q. Please tell us how you came to design the African Burial Ground? What was the process like?
A. It was a long and very satisfying process. I was and still am very interested in the importance of commemorating the contribution that people of African and African-American decent have made to this country. So the chance to design The African Burial Ground and the reasons behind it were extremely relevant to me as a person and as an architect. We first put in a RFP (request for proposal) in 1997. I put together a design team that included not only architects but a construction company, lighting designer, landscape designer, structural engineer, etc. In 2004, our team was short-listed with four other design teams (out of 61 applicants) to enter the second stage of the competition. We spent a little under a year fine-tuning the design with the input of the entire community. The National Parks Service put together community forums in each of New York's five boroughs and invited the public to voice their opinions on what they wanted for the design of The African Burial Ground. This was immensely helpful to us, as was putting our design online for more feedback and being able to have access to the transcripts of each community forum. We were finally officially selected as the designers of The African Burial Ground in May 2005.
Q. Please tell us why it was important to commemorate The African Burial Ground for those who are unfamiliar with the history or the monument.
A. The first reason is a spiritual one. The African Burial Ground is a sacred sight. The remains of the people buried there were not acknowledged for over 100 years. On a larger historical note, people did not realize there was slavery in the North or that New York was one of the largest slave holders outside of Charleston, South Carolina. It was also of utmost importance to acknowledge the contribution of African-American people as it pertains to the growth of New York City. African-Americans were carpenters, masons, and dock workers - jobs that contributed directly to the success of New York City as one of the world's leading business centers. And lastly, The African Burial Ground is an important educational tool. It communicates to the world and to young people about the history of slavery in a way without having feelings of shame, fear, and denial. The African Burial Ground is a good teaching tool to uncover the past and feel proud of the culture, history, and contributions of African-Americans. I was also very happy when it became a National Monument under the management of the National Parks Service ensuring that it will be a long-lasting testament to the history of our past.
Q. What is the best thing about being an architect?
A. For me the best thing is the opportunity to dream about a space, create it, and see your ideas realized. Though it takes a while for an idea to become a reality, to see something built is very special.
Q. You are the lead architect on a project at The Salvation Army Bushwick Community Center. You are designing a new computer lab/library and an art room for the Center. Why did you agree to take on this project pro bono?
A. I have been interested in doing work in community facilities for a long time. This project allows me to do just that and also allows me to inspire young people to know that they are allowed to transform their spaces and exist in a beautiful space. I have also enjoyed the fact that this project needed to happen very quickly. We broke ground once the school year ended and have only had the summer to work on it in order to have it ready by the end of September. This, of course, allows me to experience that rewarding feeling quicker than I usually do.
Q. Bushwick, Brooklyn is an at-risk neighborhood of about 110,000 people. Half of the residents never graduate from high school and many fall victims to crime, substance abuse, and incarceration. There is also a high level of child abuse, child neglect and a disproportionate number of children living below the poverty line.
How do you think the new computer lab, library and art room will help the children who attend the Center for after-care or summer school?
A. For me, it is so pleasing to be able to provide them with a place for learning and reading. I would be thrilled if some of the kids just go into the room and curl up in a bean bag and quietly read a book and if the younger children are led in story-time. Of course, by providing the technology aspect of the space through the computer lab, we will really open up a whole new world for them.
Q. What is your ultimate wish for the children?
A. I hope the space we provide will draw them in and that they feel the room is an oasis where they feel safe. We also want them to feel proud of the space and take ownership of the room. Once they feel that it is their own, they will be comfortable to access all of the wonderful information that will be a part of the space. We want them to be self-motivated and utilize the tools in a way that create independence.
Q. You are also working with a recent graduate of Pratt Institute on the project and a project manager, both of whom are also donating their services. How were you able to encourage these individuals to give of their time and talent?
A. The recent Pratt Institute graduate is a very talented young man named Darius Somers. He is extraordinarily talented architect and dedicated to the project. He has really been the steady rock and has gotten involved in every aspect since its inception. Darius is a person who is selfless and has also volunteered on other projects through The Black Alumni of Pratt. He is really a natural fit. Our building manager, Ron Baker, has been a friend for years and is a very opened minded. Hence, he jumped in right away. I feel blessed with their sacrifice and dedication.
Q. What other types of volunteer work have you done in the past?
A. I have helped to renovate a community theater with another architect and have done career presentations at Pratt Institute, and provided job training skills and ELS workshops to members of a Haitian Community Center.
Q. How would you like to continue serving in the future?
A. I am currently on the board of the Brooklyn Arts Council. One of our programs is to team up artists with public schools. This provides jobs for the artists and also provides the kids with a supplement to their art education, which you know has been drastically cut in all of the school budgets. This is a very satisfying way to serve.
Q. As a parent, what would you like to instill as it pertains to serving and volunteering?
A. I have two young daughters ages 4 and 7. As parents you often want to give your children everything, but at the same time you must give them a sense of responsibility. With my oldest daughter, we are doing something that is quite effective in that we make her split up her money in three categories: savings, spending, and giving. This is a good way to give her a lesson about having a sense of responsibility to someone other than herself.
Q. Your wife is a medical doctor who serves at-risk patients. Does her perspective of working in the inner-city have an impact on your desire to give back?
A. Absolutely. Every day she tells me about her experiences with the patients she cares for. My wife also has a degree in Public Health and I think this helps her to have a different and much-needed perspective in her work, especially when she works with adolescents and adolescent medicine. She really cares about them as human beings and spends a lot of time finding out about their lives and not just treating them from a medical point of view. She also incorporated a reading program into her practice, by providing books to kids who attend her clinics. She also sees herself as a role model and opens up about her background and tells them that I am a doctor and you can be one too. I find this to be very inspiring.
Q. You live in the borough of Brooklyn. What do you think is the greatest need of the residents who live below the poverty line?
A. For me, the most important need is the reformation of the public school system. I was born in Brooklyn and went to public school for many years and then switched to Catholic schools. I think that the public school system is doing a great deal of disservice to the children who attend the schools. I think that teachers, as adults, have a responsibility to instill values in an environment of learning. The classroom needs to be a space that is respected and the teachers have to care enough to instill this and expect it from the children. What has become a negligent environment with low expectations really saddens me.
Q. What is your background? Where did you grow up and what was your youth like?
A. As I mentioned, I grew up in Brooklyn. My parents were born in Haiti and moved here with the typical immigrant dream of a better life for themselves and their future children. I have two sisters and we were lucky to have our parents and to attend good schools.
Q. Who is your mentor?
A. I have two that immediately come to mind. The first is Harry Simmons, Jr. He is a great architect of African descent. He really provided a positive place for people to train under and I was fortunate to be one of them. The other is Gerard Paul, the designer of the National Black Theater in Harlem. He provided me with inspiration and really let me know that I could actually become a successful architect.
Q. What is your favorite city in the world?
A. New York City is my favorite city in the world. But if I have to choose another, then I will pick two. Abidjan, the capital of Ivory Coast in West Africa is beautiful. The city is built around the water and the weather is beautiful. There are many different cultures living in the city -- people from the Middle East, France, and other African countries -- giving the city a very international flair.
I also love Barcelona in Spain. I was there for a period of time in the mid-to-late 90's and modern architecture was really taking off and it was very exciting. Gaudí is also a favorite of mine; so of course, I love the city as well because of his extraordinary influence.
Q. Who is your favorite architect?
A. Two contemporary architects that I really like are Zaha Hadid and David Adjaye. As mentioned, I very much like Gaudí from a historical point of view.
Q. What is your favorite architectural building?
A. La Sagrada Familia, Gaudí's church in Barcelona.
Q. What is your favorite book?
A. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Q. What is your motto?
A. I do not really have one unless I can count "The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves."
Q. Please tell us a lasting thought about you that we did not ask?
A. I believe the work that I do has a relationship to the African-American and African culture, but I love doing it in a contemporary way.
For more information on Rodney Leon and AARRIS Architects, LLP, please click here.
Past Angel of the Month
To view all past Angels of the Month, please click here.
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