For Corey Norman, the journey from the mean streets of the west side of Tampa, Fla., to the five-year architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona took many years and many detours.
Since arriving at Cal Poly Pomona in 2016, Norman, who credits his grandfather with encouraging him from an early age to design and draw buildings, has emerged as a capable, engaged student and a devoted activist.
In 2020, he was a founding board member of Cal Poly Pomona’s chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architecture Students (NOMAS).
He has also been a member of the community engagement and outreach subcommittee of Diversity Plan of Action (DAPA), ENV’s college-level committee of administrators, faculty, students and staff. DAPA’s goal is to attract and retain talented scholars and instructors of color and to move architecture studies and practice away from the Eurocentric style that has dominated the profession.
Capping these achievements was the announcement in March that Norman was one of five recipients of the inaugural Robert L. Wesley Award, presented by the SOM Foundation (established in 1979 by the partners of the legendary architecture firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill) and named in honor of the firm’s first black partner. Norman received $5,000 and the chance to be mentored by the competition’s jurors and a network of advisors.
Come fall, Norman, 33, will begin graduate studies at SCI-Arc, based in downtown Los Angeles. The school was founded in 1972 as an alternative, experimental project of architecture faculty, including renowned architects Ray Kappe and Thom Mayne and students who broke away from Cal Poly Pomona. His LinkedIn entry confidently lists his year of completion as 2023.
After that, opportunities are likely to abound for Norman, who is African American. In 2019, only about 11% of architects in the United States identified as a racial or ethnic minority, according to data from the National Council of Architectural Registration Boards. Although the number of architects of color is on the rise, change is happening slowly. Fewer than 20% of new architects identify as a racial or ethnic minority. Candidates of color are 31% more likely to stop pursuing licensure. This means that talented architects of color who complete the licensing process are in demand as firms seek to honor commitments to increase diversity.
Such a promising outcome for Norman seemed unlikely in his teen years, when he loved being a top-rated linebacker on his high school football team but, as he puts it, “became acquainted with gangs” and street fighting.
Norman was born in Madrid, where his Air Force father was stationed as a jet engineer. His mother and father separated soon after, and Norman grew up in Tampa with his mother, a city bus driver. Every summer, he spent time in Columbus, Ga., with Fred Singleton, his grandfather. Norman still chokes back tears when he speaks of Singleton, who died when Norman was in high school.
“Grandpa Fred would tell me to draw for him,” Norman recalled. “I started drawing buildings and creating makeshift elevations. I didn’t even know what an architect was … but he said: ‘You could be an architect. Houses and buildings all start on paper.’”
Norman tended to release all of his anger and hurt on the football field. Off the field, he was an unreliable hothead.
After high school, he tried community college. “It was a dark time,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was going to do. Mom was really cracking down on me. … I was lost and started getting deeper into the streets. I really beat myself up about it. I was terrified of not becoming anything.”
One day, he was venting to his barber, who told him: “What you need is a restart button.” A Marine Corps staff sergeant overheard their conversation and urged Norman to consider time in the military.
“What do you want to do in your life?” the sergeant asked. Norman replied: “I want to travel, play ball and become an architect. How can you give those to me?” The sergeant said: “Easy.”
The “travel” element included 10 months in Helmand province in Afghanistan in 2011 and 2012. Norman, a gunner, provided security for convoys and lived in constant fear of coming too close to a roadside bomb. He suffered no physical wounds, but emotional scars and memories of fellow warriors who did not return linger.
After Afghanistan, he served at California’s Camp Pendleton. While there, he went clubbing one night with friends in Old Town Temecula, where he flirted with the woman who in 2016 would become his wife. The couple live in Murrieta with their daughter, Heiress Aria Norman, 6, and Adriana’s son, Sire Elijah-William Logan, 14, from a previous relationship.
He left the Marine Corps as a corporal in 2014 and took advantage of the Montgomery GI Bill education benefits to enter Mt. San Jacinto College, a community college. He received an AA degree in art in 2016. A Mt. San Jacinto football coach encouraged him to apply for the architecture program at Cal Poly Pomona. Norman started the program in 2016 and studied while working summer jobs as a security officer and an electrical technician at Northrop Grumman. He also had an internship with Smith Group, one of the country’s oldest architectural firms.
He describes his time at CPP as “a tough five years.” His passion, he said, is “what drove me through.”
Support also came from Henry Chu (’21), who, like Norman, was an older architecture student. Chu enlisted Norman’s help in founding the CPP-NOMAS chapter. “Corey … had a great rapport with everyone in the department and has taken on a big-brother role with most of our class,” said Chu, who encouraged Norman to apply for the SOM award.
Norman’s professors sing his praises and envision good things for him at SCI-Arc and beyond.
“Corey is an eternal optimist, which all of us architects are or should be,” said Wendy E. Gilmartin, an architect and a lecturer at Cal Poly Pomona. “We all believe things can be made better by design, or by some form of design thinking.”
Gilmartin was particularly impressed with Norman’s design for a make-believe Joshua Tree Writers Retreat. As part of the assignment, Norman attempted to channel the methods of the late Zaha Hadid, one of his favorite architects, and to use as inspiration the design of the sole of a classic Chuck Taylor All Star sneaker that his wife donated to the cause.
Norman took the shoe apart piece by piece, then, using CAD software, began to draw diagrams of the components. He described the process: “I took the rubber tracking prints from the shoe and tried my best to imitate Hadid’s concepts of stretched geometric confetti, with long vectored angles, and juxtaposed them to create this complex form. And BOOM!”
The result is an angular design that creates introspective underground spaces for the writers, with natural lighting pouring in through towering light wells of painted rammed earth and glass.
“Corey has a really strong command of the software and digital tools to make these complex kinds of geometries in 3D modeling programs,” Gilmartin said. “The project reached a level of development that was beyond my expectations.”
Gilmartin first worked with Norman in the second-year undergraduate studio, which she describes as a “brutal … design boot camp” experience. “Corey stood out,” she said, “for being fearless in asking questions, engaging in dialogues, staying positive and, most significantly, in always supporting his fellow students’ work.”
Lauren Weiss Bricker, interim dean of Cal Poly Pomona’s College of Environmental Design, met Norman when he took her architectural history course in spring 2019. “He always sat in the front row and asked challenging questions,” she said. “It was clear that he was committed to an architectural education and a future as an architect.”
Since then, she has seen the depth of Norman’s commitment to introducing young people to the world of architecture through his activism with NOMAS and DAPA.
Cal Poly Pomona has exposed Norman to a great many things that he never could have dreamed of while he was misbehaving on the streets of Tampa. And he has learned the value of hard work and dedication. “I do the best I can at everything,” he said.
His Wesley award bio closes like this: Norman believes that all the hardships in his life have led him to a place where he can finally do what he loves and cannot wait for the day he designs something that people can walk through and touch, knowing that it all started from a pencil in his hand.