Jonathan Moody, AIA, is the CEO of Moody Nolan, an Ohio-based architecture firm with 12 offices across the U.S. He received his Bachelor of Architecture from Cornell University and a Master of Architecture from UCLA. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Aaron Seward: Tell me about Moody Nolan, and your story of starting architectural practice.
Jonathan Moody, AIA: My father started the firm 38 years ago. So much of his life was based on perseverance and overcoming being told “this won’t work,” “you can’t go to school for architecture,” “you can’t be an architect,” “you can’t play sports and do architecture.” Then, once he entered the field, “you can’t start your own practice.” So, he started the firm in ’82, at a time when he didn’t have many peers he could rely on. Our firm’s history is really built on breakthroughs, collaborations, and taking big leaps of faith. Early in our work, we partnered with other architects in small roles, and then at some point, when we felt like we had learned enough, we were like, “You know what, we can do this whole thing by ourselves if somebody would just give us a chance to show that.” So, there was a state project in the late ’80s in Ohio, and we pursued it solo and won. Since then, every one of our offices has a story like that. For example, in Texas, instead of partnering with a local firm to work on a K-12 project in the Third Ward of Houston, we decided we would do the whole thing and that led to the formation of our Houston office. And here we are now, with 12 offices, over 200 staff, the largest African American-owned architecture firm in the nation.
AS: Was it always assumed that you would follow in your architect father’s footsteps?
JM: Not at all, I never publicly admitted my interest in architecture until late high school when I had to start thinking about career paths. I had been around it, so I understood it very well. I was aware of what I was getting myself into in terms of the stories my dad brought home, the things he had to overcome. But I think the big difference was that I had him. Nobody could tell me it was impossible.
I had an opportunity to walk on to the football team at Cornell when it was the number one architecture school. The football coaches said, “Hey, you’d be a good player if you’d forget about this architecture stuff.” And my architecture professors said, “You might have a future here if you forget about this football thing.” But I knew that my dad did it, so I just wanted to try. I ended up playing all four years at Cornell, and then my fifth year, we joined the NOMA Student Design Competition. I helped lead the team and we won. And then my thesis had a lot of unfinished ideas, which my advisors, who were UCLA grads, encouraged me to study further. So, I did a one-year program at UCLA. And then, after that, I worked in California for Mehrdad Yazdani for about three years. While working there, my dad called, I guess it has been about 10 years ago now, and said, “Are you planning on moving back to Ohio?” I said, “Sooner or later.” To which he replied, “Well, sooner or later needs to be sooner.” So, I moved back to Columbus and started working in the design studio. The best way I can describe my time at Moody Nolan is drinking from a fire hose. My dad just kept tossing things onto my plate and I figured it out as I went. But it’s been about 10 years and I’m laughing because, even now, I became CEO in January, and then all of a sudden, there’s a public health crisis. Personally, I’ve been using the metaphor of David and Goliath. There’s this insurmountable, unforeseen task, but someone has to try to take it down with only the limited tools that they have.
AS: A lot of minority architecture students don’t last long in the profession. That’s true for non-minorities as well: A lot of people burn out. Do you have any thoughts on how we might help the retention of young and specifically minority architects once they get into the profession?
JM: There’s broader conversation in the profession about the cause of drop off around senior year. Why does it take so long? And why is it, after five to seven years, if you haven’t gotten your license, the likelihood that you’ll be licensed significantly drops? And a lot of people trace this to families. When I had my kids, there was no paternity leave and there was no standard in the industry to cast firms in a bad light if they didn’t provide or allow support for families.
There have to be more cultural structural changes around how we support families in the workplace in order to help get over that hump. The same can be said about racism. If we truly want to be against racism, there has to be cultural things put into place to make sure that we are supporting and encouraging minorities. And offering people avenues when they’re saying, “Hey, this happened. What are my resources? What are my options so that I feel culturally safe?” Right now, it’s not really clear how to deal with racially inappropriate behavior. What do you do? Where do you go? Who do you talk to? And on top of that, because of the numbers, you may be able to find somebody, but what are the chances you feel comfortable talking to them if they don’t look like you?
The easiest thing to identify is the numbers and make plans to recruit, retain, and track diversity throughout firms and programs. Getting further into it, how do we put people into positions where they can grow into leadership? To do that, there must be support mechanisms put into place so that they don’t fall under the radar, do feel encouraged, and clearly see pathways for advancement. And then there’s conversations about, “If this happens, this is how I know how to respond.” Or, “This is clarity on how to talk about it.” Lately, we’ve also been creating safe spaces where people can have a dialogue without judgement, so we can all learn more about one another. Those are things happening right now that I think really support diversity from a cultural standpoint.
AS: Can you talk a little bit about how a diverse workforce has been important for Moody Nolan?
JM: A lot of our work started with churches, schools, libraries… community buildings. Most of those communities were historically diverse. We realized we could do better work if the people we were hiring had a great understanding of these neighborhoods. In order for the work to be effective, our staff needs to look like and reflect the cultures and ideas of those communities. It’s picking up a lot more lately, because more and more development is happening. Most of the architecture of the future is happening in diverse communities. That’s just the reality. We don’t build stuff up on a farm in the middle of nowhere. Most things happen in cities, and the demographics of cities are becoming more and more diverse.
AS: Do you have any advice for white people who might feel a little bashful while talking to a black person?
JM: [laughs] Our staff asks me to be direct and intentional, hoping that will open the door for others. We had an all-staff town hall meeting, over video, that got very emotional. I’m not personally looking for solutions. I’d just like to reach the point of acknowledgement, which is uncomfortable. The metaphor that resonates for me, or makes this clearer for me, is the Israelites leaving Egypt. They prayed for change for years, asking for a better life for everyone. And then it came when they were freed from the pharaoh. But then they realized, “Oh wait, the wilderness is really uncomfortable.”
The hard reality is, if you really want change, it has to be in this uncertainty of the wilderness. And it’s going to be really awkward, but you can’t get to milk and honey if you go back to the pharaoh, if you go back to the way it was. I hope it never goes back to normal, and yes, I’m going to be out in the wilderness hoping that everyone will come out into the wilderness with me and not go back to pharaoh.
In the over-simplified version, the pharaoh represents fear. And we can’t live in fear. It’s not ideal, it’s not easy, it’s really uncomfortable, but that’s got to be step one for me to say, “This is how I’m feeling. It makes me really uncomfortable, but here I am, uncomfortable, in front of everyone.” And my request is, “Hey, can you come join me in this discomfort?” You don’t have to solve it right away. But if you can get uncomfortable too, then maybe we can get somewhere.
We all fall short. Everyone needs to acknowledge that. Acknowledgement of personal bias is opportunity for growth. For me, I’m learning that I need to acknowledge that looking at things through the lens of a black male is an opportunity for growth. As a result of these times, more of my conversations are around people like Breonna Taylor and other marginalized people or groups. Maybe, as a male, I’m blinded, not as focused as I should be on that because I make it all about my struggles. You know, black women and many others have struggles too. That’s a bias I’m working on and acknowledge. One thing I know for sure is that I’m not alone. There’s room for growth for everyone.