Nkiru Mokwe Gelles is a project designer at Michael Hsu Office of Architecture in Austin. Originally from Lagos, Nigeria, Gelles studied in the UK and Houston, and lived and worked in New York City and Hong Kong before settling with her husband in Texas. The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Aaron Seward: Where are you from, and how did you come to architecture as a chosen profession?
Nkiru Mokwe Gelles: I am from Lagos, Nigeria. My mother is half British, half Nigerian, and my father is Nigerian. We relocated to the UK in the early ’90s. I lived in the UK until I finished my undergraduate degree at UCL [University College London], after which I moved to the U.S. to do my masters in architecture at Rice. The plan was to complete my masters in two and a half years and head back to the UK. But I ended up meeting my husband-to-be at Rice. We lived and worked in New York, then in Hong Kong for a few years, then relocated back to Texas after we got married in 2014.
Why architecture? I think it comes from two very different backgrounds from my mom and my dad. My father is very creative, he makes films. And my mother is far more practical, more of a logistical thinker. It could have been this combination of the technical aspect and the creative aspect that led me down the road to architecture. Or maybe it was growing up in a city like Lagos, which is an ever-changing West African metropolis, with its own unique form of architecture.
AS: Is there a building you remember being the first one that really struck you as something special?
NG: I wouldn’t say a building, no. But more a series of spaces. Lagos is very complex spatially, and I have always been fascinated by the way the city is woven together. The concrete flyovers and bridge network connects the island to the mainland. An ad hoc, thrown-together boat network that takes goods from local providers up and down the lagoon. And then there’s this wonderfully chaotic bus infrastructure with hundreds of jalopy-like buses all held together by a shoestring, and somehow functioning for millions of people in a way that a train couldn’t do. Just the way these informal systems are all held together and make the city work has always fascinated me from a very, very young age. I think I’ve always related to architecture more in the sense of how aspects of people, places, and the city come together to create the culture of where you are, rather than the individual buildings.
AS: What has been your experience with race in your journey through school and coming to the United States?
NG: That’s a very difficult question to answer. I think I’ve always had a unique perspective. Being of mixed-race origin, an Igbo British girl growing up in Lagos, a former British colony. Once living in the UK — I don’t know if it was the strength of my background and support that I received from my family — I never had any problem or issue with being an African immigrant. It was never something that presented itself to me as being an obstacle. I went to the Bartlett School at UCL for undergraduate, which at that time ranked as one of the best schools for architecture in the country. I never felt there was anyone or any group of people that were preventing me from getting to where I wanted to go.
I will say, definitely, as soon as I landed in America everything was different. You feel immediately that you are a minority. The school was nowhere as diverse. And you know, that’s just the difference between Houston and London. It’s just not as cosmopolitan as London is. I had some fantastic, really supportive professors who really pushed me. But I felt it straight away being at Rice. I was the only black female student in my class, [though] there were other black students in the school.
I never really let it affect any of my schoolwork or affect my perspective on where I was trying to get to. I don’t necessarily feel any of the professors at the school were holding me back. But I will say that the school is very much a bubble. I don’t think there was very much of a conscious effort to reach out to Houston as a place. It was completely ignoring the dynamics of the city that it was within and more interested in looking to Europe, looking to Asia. There really wasn’t much in the way of engaging the history of the wards of Houston and the diversity of the population of Houston and how the city was being developed and gentrified in certain areas. None of that really folded itself into the curriculum in a very satisfying way. There’s what’s called the Rice Building Workshop, which, if you were so inclined, you could join. I did take part in that program. It was a sort of outreach building course where we would go into a neighborhood and look at the typology of a row house and what’s the new version of this row house. But it was really a toe dip into a giant ocean of questions.
AS: Where did you go after grad school? It seems your path from Houston to Austin wasn’t direct.
NG: No. I left Rice and we were right in the middle of the recession. I ended up working for Elizabeth Diller in New York. It’s kind of a revolving-door office, where you come in and you’re young and energetic and you get completely rinsed for two or three years through the tireless, experimental work ethic. It was entirely exhausting, however, the most fun I’ve had working in any practice just in terms of creativity and output — working on the Lincoln Center Hypar Pavilion, Stanford University School of Art and Art History, and The Broad Museum of Art — projects that are just dream projects. But it was a burnout-type scenario. Then we moved to Hong Kong where I worked for an office there called 10 Design focusing on large-scale interventions in mainland China. I worked on the university campus of Fujian College in Xiamen.
What I really wanted to do, when we moved to Texas, was work for a firm that was taking the same ideas of a large-scale intervention but doing so in a small enough fashion that I would be able to take part in the construction of those projects. Michael Hsu seemed completely perfect. Everything they do drops into the city and creates a ripple that affects everything else around it. And they don’t look inwards, they always look outwards to the neighborhood, to the community, the user group. Out of everyone that’s practicing in Austin, I really feel they’ve made the biggest impact on changing the way the city is viewed, and now they’re doing the same thing in Houston.
AS: You talk about Houston being less cosmopolitan than London. Austin, though more of a liberal center, has also been called out as the largest city in America with a shrinking African American population. What has your experience been of being black in Austin?
NG: Well, it’s very vanilla over here in Austin. There’s no real evidence of minority communities, in the same way you find pocket neighborhoods in cities like London or New York, or even Houston. There’s a tiny sort of Asian center, if you head north, but other than that, it’s very, very homogeneous feeling. Austin has its own appealing, unique culture that feels very young, enthusiastic, open-minded, liberal, energetic — all the things that I like and enjoy. You feel it amongst the general population; it seems as though people love to be active, walk along the river; people are on their bikes and jogging, and in general have a positive outlook on things. But, yeah, it’s extremely white. I rarely see black males in the city. Occasionally, I might see one or two black females. But when I’m downtown, or when I’m on a job site meeting, or generally about my day and I come across a single, black male in Austin, I’m like, “Oh wow! Oh, look!” It’s like a rare sighting. Honestly, I think the whole time I’ve been here, I think I’ve interacted with two or three black males, and we’ve been living in Austin for over five years.
AS: And yet the makeup of the Michael Hsu office is perhaps a bit more diverse than the population of Austin. Would you say that’s true?
NG: I would say so, yes. I think that the Hsu office is very good at hiring when it comes to diversity. It has a lot to do with the work the Hsu office does, which attracts a much more diverse group to begin with, some really, really great talent. In my time at Hsu I have worked with six very talented minority architects and designers who came through the office and then left.
AS: I feel like a lot of people, if they think about architecture at all, they think of it as a rich white man’s profession. And they might wonder, why is it important that the architecture office be as diverse as the population it serves, or even more diverse?
NG: I don’t really think it should matter if you’re bringing new ideas and new design and a fresh perspective to your client. It shouldn’t matter where you’re from. You can’t say that someone who is white is going to deliver you a better project. It depends on what you’re looking for. If you come to the architecture practice, as a client, and you say, “I want to build something no one’s ever seen before.” You probably want to hire someone who’s been to a few places and has experience and can give you that fresh perspective, versus someone who’s from your same background, has seen exactly the same things that you have, and will give you exactly the same formula. I really believe it comes down to the talent of the individual. A lot of the times though, unfortunately, the client wants to work with someone they feel is going to listen to them, who they can trust, who they feel, two or three years’ time further into the project, is going to have their best interest in mind based on the cost of the project. Unfortunately, more often than not, when that, as you said, rich white male client is selecting an architect, they want someone who reminds them of something familiar, someone that they know, or someone who they’ve had some experience with. And it’s a lot harder, I’ve found, for them to go down that road trustingly with someone unfamiliar. You know, this is a matter of the heart and a matter of the checkbook all combined. And it is a long-term relationship. It’s a question of how do you bridge that gap and make your client feel that, “Yeah, I do have your best interest at heart. You’ve never worked with someone like me before, but I can guarantee we’re going to do the best to give you the best outcome.”
AS: It seems there’s another issue with homogeneity within the profession. If our world is becoming more diverse, also maybe poorer by population, and we’re only focusing on rich, white clients, we’re leaving larger and larger sections of our population out. Architecture itself might be losing its market share by ignoring an entire segment of the population that it could serve.
NG: Yeah, absolutely. I think there are a handful of practices around the country who go out of their way to form conglomerates of clients who individually might not be the wealthiest people in the world, but they all have a stake in creating something unique for a neighborhood, or for a school, or some sort of civic project. It takes a lot of legwork to form that association of people. Funding might come from an odd source — maybe a series of fundraising events are held and somehow there’s a trust created. Some of these practices tend to create some of the most incredible civic spaces. But it takes a special type of architect who’s willing to go that extra mile to be the organizer of all of these people, who individually could not get it done.
AS: Not only are you black, but you’re also a woman.
NG: [laughs] That’s true.
AS: [laughs] I believe you mentioned that you’re also pregnant. Is that correct?
NG: [laughs] That’s correct. I’m here with a huge belly.
AS: [laughs] Congratulations! But also, we know that there are demographic issues with women in the profession, and especially around the issue of having children and child care. A lot of women tend to leave the profession after their pregnancies.
NG: Something that happened not too long after we arrived in Austin, I did a small stint at a boutique residential practice. Within the state of Texas, when you’re under 10 people, there are no laws when it comes to restrictions for hiring or firing, pay or time off, or health care. They only kick in when you have a practice over a certain size. And so, you have situations where you’re working with an office for three or four years, but you don’t have any formal employment agreement. The employer can terminate your employment at any point. You can also walk out at any point, without giving two weeks’ notice.
So, I worked at this practice for a little under a year when my husband and I were trying to start a family. And I very quickly fell pregnant. I had been told by the other female in the office that this situation happened before and the office didn’t look very kindly on it. I was like, “Oh, okay.” I let the partners know and we discussed it. It was described as I would go on maternity leave and then return after that. That was the agreement that was made. The new baby was coming, I took the maternity leave, contacted the office following, and they basically just said there would be no position for me to return back to the practice. I was shocked. I felt as though we had the conversation, and it was completely understood that I wanted to come back, and we agreed. But they said, “Oh, yep, the situation’s changed.” And the other female in the office basically said, “Yeah, that’s exactly what happened before”: A female employee had gotten pregnant and they went on maternity leave and then the office just filled their spot with somebody else, and there wasn’t much explanation, and they didn’t seem to feel any sort of remorse about it. I did meet up with one of the senior associates afterwards and they said, “Look, that’s how small businesses in Texas operate.” Luckily, I was able to find Michael Hsu’s office. No big loss.