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CRE Future Leaders: Danielle Tillman

CRE Future Leaders: Danielle Tillman,ph1

As part of our series, CRE Future Leaders, we caught up with Danielle Tillman, managing director at Chicago-based architecture firm bKL Architecture. Her vast design portfolio of education and institutional projects includes the renovation of the Whitney Young Library, Wolf Point West, GEMS World Academy and numerous Chicago Public Schools projects.

Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up, where did you go to school?

I was born in Chicago, the youngest child of two educators. At the age of eight, I moved to Knoxville, Tennessee where I was enrolled from grade school through high school. I received a bachelor of science in mathematics from Spelman College in Atlanta and a master of architecture from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

When you were young, what did you aspire to be?

Since early adolescence, I have always had an affinity for art, science and math. Consequently, I aspired to shape my academic and professional career around these interests. My parents actively educated me on a wide variety of career paths that they thought I’d be interested in pursuing. By the sixth grade, I had the realization that it was my purpose to one day become an architect. I vividly recall driving through the city of Chicago while on trips back to visit family and finding fascination with the infrastructure of the city.

How did you get your start in the industry?

As a high school and early college student my first opportunity within the industry was with Barge, Waggoner, Sumner and Cannon (BWSC), now Barge Design Solutions. I worked within BWSC’s planning department in Knoxville, Tennessee. Later on, I had the opportunity to work for a small architecture firm in Chicago, under the direction of architect Raymond Broady. I shadowed Raymond for a summer, having no formal architectural training or background. After graduating from college, I worked at the Atlanta Housing Authority (AHA), for Draper and Associates, a consulting firm. While at AHA, I worked on their capital plan, learning how to collaborate with consultants, work with clients and understand the end user.

Did you have a mentor who helped you get on your feet, or is there someone you turn to now for support?

Throughout the development of my architectural career, I have had several mentors and supporters that assisted with jumpstarting my career goals. First and foremost were my parents and grandparents who went above and beyond in advocating for my success as an aspiring architect. As for mentorship within the industry, Gwendolyn Brown, a city planner and former vice president at BWSC, gave me my first career opportunity within the architectural industry. She has provided me with support and assistance for over two decades. More recently, Walter Street III, from Walter Street Architects, has served as a mentor and supporter to me. Walter has a reputation for nurturing and providing support for young architects in Chicago and around the country.

What does a day in the life of Danielle Tillman look like?

Not one day is ever the same. I recently lead the redesign of the Whitney Young Library in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood. A day on that project could start with a meeting at the library with a myriad of stakeholders including the library staff, community members and officials from The Chicago Public Library and Public Building Commission. During these meetings we would have an open dialogue to discuss the pros and cons of the existing library, as well as establish a design direction with the stakeholders. After the meeting, I’d head back to the office, review the group’s comments and work with our team to update the design to address their feedback.

What do you like most about your job?

Throughout my career as an architect, I have always found enjoyment in designing spaces that effect the lens through which people view the world. There are so many communities that are often underdeveloped, and even when they are developed, they do not contribute to a walkable, healthy and sustainable community. I find passion in working on civic, multifamily and educational projects that are reinvestments into the community in which they are built. I strive to produce designs that restore pride to the community, health to the residents and economic viability for future generations.

Additionally, I find great reward in interacting and collaborating with the bKL team on a daily basis. Together we work to offer optimal design solutions for our clients. I also enjoy working with consultants and clients that hold a variety of expertise to understand and implement their opinions on all project types.

Looking to the future, what do you hope to achieve/work on that you haven’t already?

My personal passion as an architect is with community development. I believe that architecture can assist in the vibrancy and relationships built within a community. In the future, I hope to work with community developers in assisting with the planning and design for retail corridors and public spaces that are located in undeserved or underutilized areas. Ultimately, I would consider this type of work a labor of love in any city nationwide.

How do you spend your time away from the office?

Outside of the office, I am actively involved in several industry related and service-based organizations, including Chicago Women in Architecture, the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA), CREW Chicago, Chicago Urban League’s IMPACT Leadership Development Program and Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. I often attend events and fundraisers for these organizations, both in Chicago and other areas around the country.

As for leisure enjoyment, I love spending time with my family and friends, dining out at new or old favorite restaurants. My network of friends and family is spread out across the country and I travel to see them whenever possible. I also enjoy working out and regularly meet with my boxing trainer.

What is your favorite place that you have traveled to? Where do you hope to go next?

My favorite place that I have traveled to is Rome. The history and charm of the architecture was surreal to experience in person and the city’s beauty was unforgettable. On top of being enamored by the city, the food was fantastic!

As for upcoming travel plans, I have an extensive bucket list including traveling to Africa to visit Johannesburg and Ghana, as well as Fiji and Costa Rica to experience the beaches.

Who would you like to see answer these questions?

If I were to nominate someone to answer these questions it would be Valerie Jarrett. She is a great leader, not only because she had the role of presidential advisor to President Barack Obama, but because she has been able to be so versatile in her knowledge base to build a strong network. Ms. Jarrett’s collaboration skills and ability to navigate different interests to move towards a focused goal has served as a long-standing inspiration to me. I would find it fascinating to hear what she has valued and found most influencing throughout her career.