Academics Arts and Humanities

Revealing cultural identity in architecture

Demar Matthews, a visiting professor in the School of Architecture, challenges his students to explore their own cultural backgrounds and incorporate their identities into architecture.
Demar Matthews, School of Architecture visiting faculty member and Social & Environmental Justice Fellow
Demar Matthews is the founder and principal in the architecture studio OffTop Design. Photo: Benedetto Rebecca/University of Miami

Students in Demar Matthews’ Cultural Identity in Architecture course are delving deep into the connection between architectural design and diversity and equity. 

“I was very intrigued by the curriculum of this course, and I also wanted to take a class where I would be forced to be creative, in a way that I haven’t before,” said Khalil Bland, a fifth-year architecture student at the University of Miami. “I also wanted to learn from someone who looks like me and may have shared similar experiences.” 

Matthews, a visiting professor from Los Angeles, is the founder and principal in the architecture studio OffTop Design. He leads the charge in pushing the boundaries of traditional architectural norms by infusing his designs with elements that celebrate cultural diversity and promote inclusivity. 

During his time in the graduate program at Woodbury University in LA, Matthews started envisioning how a Black aesthetic could be incorporated into the industry. Fascinated with the idea of incorporating cultural identity into his designs, he set out on exploring the rich history of Black experiences. He now wants others to do the same using their own cultures and experiences. 

“Traditionally, students are taught to begin their design process with European ideas and concepts—it's become the precedent. In my course though, students aren’t doing that,” he said. “Students are not asked to look at buildings. Instead, they’re asked to look at themselves, to look at their family members, to look at their traditions, and they are asked to create based off of themselves,” said Matthews. 

Bland, a Philadelphia native, said this unique course has encouraged him to dig deeper into his own personal narratives, to draw inspiration for his own work. 

“Demar makes us think in different ways,” said Bland. “He wants us to break boundaries and think of different architectural styles. I think this has been more challenging because you have to think outside the box.” 

Demar Matthews and students on a walking tour in Overtown.

On Monday, Matthews and his students traveled to Overtown, a Black historic neighborhood located about 14 miles north of the Coral Gables Campus. While there, they participated in a tour to learn more about the rich history and culture of the area.

Ana Jouvin, a fourth-year architecture student, found the tour to be eye-opening. She said Matthew’s course has inspired her to want to create designs that others who were born and raised in Miami can identify with. 

“I give Professor Matthews a lot of props because he seems like someone who is very persistent and consistent in his messaging,” said Jouvin. “He makes us think very differently and he has ingrained in me that it's architecture and culture—not just architecture. I find this course really interesting and I would recommend it to my peers.”

Matthews said the lack of buildings that represented him is what inspired him to create OffTop Design, and teach the next generation of designers and builders. 

“I want my students to understand and analyze their own lived experiences and turn them into sketches,” he shared.