From an early age, Chandra Robinson ’98 knew she wanted to be an architect. But it wasn’t until age 31 while she was leading sea kayaking trips around the islands of Maine that she decided to go to architecture school — and it was a classmate’s experience from her time at Portland State that helped put her at ease about going back to school as an older student.
“Initially I thought it was so incredible that a man of 50 with a family could completely start over – but soon realized that optimism and change were the key to living an interesting life,” she said. “An interesting life has always been my goal.”
Fast forward, and Chandra is a licensed architect — one of only four Black architects in the state of Oregon — and principal at LEVER Architecture specializing in designing mass timber and institutional projects. She has been named a 2022 Women of Influence honoree by Portland Business Journal, joining 24 other women who are making an impact, cultivating change and bringing the community together.
Q. What drew you to Portland State and what was your experience here?
A. I actually grew up in Portland and my mom went to PSU, so going to PSU was very easy and natural for me. As a kid we lived on campus so the campus has always felt very comfortable and welcoming for me.
Q. What was it about geology and physics that intrigued you? Did you hope to go into those fields or did you have other career aspirations?
A. I wanted to be an architect as a kid, but in undergrad I just felt like I wanted to understand the world. I spent time as a sea-kayaking guide during college and spending that much time on the water, looking at mountains and rocks and calculating tides made me want to understand the forces that shaped the world. At the time the only jobs in geology I knew about were all related to finding fossil fuels- and I knew I didn’t want to be part of that industry. I studied it because it was interesting and relevant and the concept of geologic time gave me so much perspective. As for physics, it was a challenge and enormously inspiring. I never imagined that I would go into physics as a career but I loved studying it.
Q. How did you find your way into architecture?
A. After studying at PSU, I went out into the world and followed different passions and eventually decided to study architecture when I was 31.
Q. What skills or experiences gained at PSU have you found most valuable in your career?
A. I had been living in Maine leading kayaking trips when I decided to go to Boston and look at schools. I was afraid to go back as an older student, but thought about one very formative experience I had at PSU that put me at ease. While at PSU, I had a classmate in one of my many math classes and he had been a civil engineer in his home country of Pakistan. After bringing his family to the U.S., he found that his license was not valid here and he decided to go back to school. He worked a lot of hours at a convenience store and supported his family while going to school. Initially I thought it was so incredible that a man of 50 with a family could completely start over – but soon realized that optimism and change were the key to living an interesting life. An interesting life has always been my goal.
Q. What excites you most about your work? What are some of the projects you’re most proud of?
A. I used to always say that the projects I love most are those that serve the communities they are in, and projects that innovate with mass timber. Those are both still true but there are nuances that bring even more excitement to the projects for me. I am passionate about working on projects that not only serve and celebrate the Black community but are also connected to the rebuilding of communities. I am passionate about all the work we are doing to source sustainable wood products for use in buildings and excited to learn about all the new models of forest management that directly impact the types of products we can source.
Q. What can the industry do to make the built environment more inclusive, welcoming and reflective of the communities they serve?
A. Authentic community engagement at many different scales, in different languages and using different types of communication are what designers need to do on all projects that serve communities. Engagement has to be real and led by someone who cares about it and who has the ability to hear what is being said without changing it to fit the narrative of the project. There are many facilitators and theorists who provide training here in Portland and reaching out to them is the first step. Designing for a community requires their input and not just on the color and material selections.
Q. What kind of impact do you hope to leave on the city?
A. I hope that through my work on the Portland Design Commission, I can continue to shape buildings and neighborhoods in a way that makes them more humane and continues to improve the city. Portland is a great city because the Design Commission has been around for decades, pushing projects to better respond to context, quality and the public realm. I hope that through my work at LEVER designing for institutions and communities I can be visible enough that young kids of color in Portland will see that there are Black leaders and Black designers out here and someday decide to join me in this industry.
Q. Do you have any advice for students who are interested in your field or just starting out?
A. When I started working as a designer in Boston firms I didn’t know how different firms can be. Differences in size, type of work and leadership structure all make a big difference in your experience as a new architect. I stayed at my first job for 3 years and it was a great experience, but I wish I had known to move on more quickly so that I could experience different types of work. Once I moved on, I could start to understand what types of work I could do and what type of firm I ultimately wanted to be in. I would advise students to get internships at different firms and to embrace change.
About the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences: We’re Portland State’s largest and most diverse college, with 24 departments spanning the humanities, natural sciences and social sciences.