Perspectives 08.11.2021

‘We’re the vanguard of humanity’: Mide Akinsade on Architecture’s Imperative, and His Own Professional Journey

In the summer of 2021, award-winning architect Mide Akinsade joined Perkins&Will as design director for the firm’s Houston studio. With over 20 years of base building, interior architecture, master planning, urban design, furniture design, and digital experience design, Akinsade brings an eclectic, collaborative approach to his work and leadership style. We spoke to him just as he was beginning his new role, delving into topics ranging from diversity and inclusion to research to client engagement.

 

Perkins&Will: What was it about Perkins&Will that appealed to you?

Mide Akinsade: I have long admired Perkins&Will as a firm that exemplifies design excellence. It’s apparent as much in the caliber of their work as it is in the character of its people. I knew joining the firm would ultimately feel synergistic, as we stand for the same values.

When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Maryland, I was doing research for a project—an educational building—and I’d gone to the library to look up precedents, notable projects to use as a guide. I came across a school designed by Perkins&Will back in the 1930/40s, and I remember being enamored by the rigor of the design, façade, and plan—by the way it fit into its context and represented the zeitgeist of the era in a bold unapologetic way. It was the Crow Island School in Winnetka, Illinois. Later, as a young working architect, I saw Perkins&Will’s “Selected and Current Works” on my then-boss’s desk, and he gifted it to me. It was serendipitous! I still have that book in my personal library, and it’s been a source of inspiration ever since.

PW: A lot of people who come to work for Perkins&Will do so because they share our core values—our “pillars of purpose”—and feel a synergy. Is that the case for you?

MA: Perkins&Will’s core values are in alignment with my personal design ethos. I’d say the values that resonate with me the most are research, design excellence, living design, J.E.D.I. (Justice, Equity, Engagement, Diversity, and Inclusion), and social purpose.

PW: Could you elaborate?

MA: Research and design excellence are inherently intertwined. The fact that Perkins&Will places a high value on research, from a project-level to a practice-level, indicates that they’re preparing us all for the future. They’re creating architecture that responds to ever-evolving human and planetary needs. They’re  defying the notions of what’s possible today and exploring innovative solutions to tomorrow’s greatest challenges. Perkins&Will is not just a firm that makes buildings; they’re a firm that’s fundamentally invested in the prosperity of the planet.

I place the same value on research. For example, I’m currently exploring ways to create building materials that alter how we perceive, interpret, and leverage sunlight for improved well-being in dense urban areas. We love tall buildings for their ability to reduce horizontal urban expansion, but they often obstruct light and air at the street level. What if we could design tall buildings that allow light to bend around them, therefore “cloaking” them—towers that seemingly “disappear” during daylight hours only to re-emerge as the sun sets? A novel idea like this would allow us to reclaim the groundscape, and it would be transformative in terms of zoning, density, light, and air.

"Making a positive impact on our communities is key. This is a fundamental part of my personal ethos—giving back. After all, as architects, we’re not just designing buildings in the abstract; we’re helping and developing neighborhoods and communities in special ways."

PW: And what’s your take on Living Design?

MA: I remember when the word “sustainability” started permeating the architecture zeitgeist. The concept was always approached as an “add-on” as opposed to a fully immersive and integrated aspect of design. Today, we see that our planet’s future depends on sustainability, and architecture plays a very important part in this.

Living Design is the next chapter in our sustainability story. It focuses on creating spaces and places that make the planet habitable now and in the future by encompassing resilience, regeneration, inclusion, and well-being. The goal is to holistically support and nurture life for generations to come.

As architects and designers, we must be at the forefront of these efforts, and we need to chart the way for other industries to follow. Why? Well, for one thing, every morning, the very first thing people see upon waking is some form of built environment, whether it be a building or a piece of infrastructure. These built environments represent the places where we’re born, where we’re schooled, where we get married, where we have children, and where we love. In a word, they are our “shelter.” Architects and designers are the creators of these built environments. In that sense, we are the vanguards of the planet—and of humanity. Everything that makes us human is rooted in the built environment: buildings, cities, and every type of infrastructure. We are the ones in charge of ensuring our cities survive and thrive 1,000 years from now. Designing them in ways that sustains us long-term is very important. Let’s be the example the rest of the world can follow.

PW: You had mentioned J.E.D.I., too.

MA: Yes. So important. In the last year especially, with the global pandemic and the racial upheaval we saw in the U.S. and all around the world, it brought to the forefront a growing awareness of the need for equity. We must elevate diverse voices across lines of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, physical and mental ability, and sexual orientation. When we, as a species, decide to address this comprehensively, only then will we achieve holistic sustainability. I’m ecstatic to join an organization that champions these efforts.

As an American with family origins in West Africa—I was born in Washington, D.C. and raised in different countries around the world, including Nigeria—my personal experiences have shown me that we still have a long way to go before achieving J.E.D.I. in its truest and most complete form. Perkins&Will ‘s J.E.D.I. commitment is inspirational and, hopefully, a model for others to emulate.

PW: And Social Purpose?

MA: Making a positive impact on our communities is key. This is a fundamental part of my personal ethos—giving back. After all, as architects, we’re not just designing buildings in the abstract; we’re helping and developing neighborhoods and communities in special ways.

My volunteer work with Habitat for Humanity and the ACE Mentor Program, as well as my positions in academia, are a great way “get involved”—to help elevate communities, especially the next generation of architects and designers. Perkins&Will’s Social Purpose program, which donates time, design resources, and human power to support purpose-driven nonprofit organizations with shared values, really appeals to me. I think it’s terrific, and I look forward to being part of it.

PW: What was it specifically about Houston that made you want to join the practice?

MA: I’m an international citizen, and I grew up in a part of the world where outsiders looking in believe there aren’t any rules governing urban planning. In Lagos, Nigeria, where I spent some formative years, urbanity defines its own set of rules based on the organic needs of the people who live there. These people inherently understand the rules, all which challenge “normative” urban conditions. That’s why I find Houston—with its typological diversity and confluence of textures and nuance—so resonant. Without traditional zoning laws and preconditions, Houston has created its own parameters, and they work for its people. For that reason, I’ve always seen Houston as an interesting city. In fact, I worked on a mixed-use project here for Hines not too long ago.

Breck Jones Photography

PW: What’s your vision for the Houston studio?

MA: My vision is to help grow the studio and elevate its design discourse. It’s already quite robust and present, of course, but I’d also like to create a design culture here that’s really steeped in research. I want to use research to push boundaries on our projects, and I’d like to see us well-represented in the bi-annual Perkins&Will Research Journal. You know, we sit on a vast amount of knowledge and resources in the Houston area—not just in our industry, but also in academia. Prairie View A&M, Rice University, and the University of Houston, for example, are at our doorstep. The caliber of brilliant minds coming out of these schools is impressive, and I’d like us to engage even more. The best design happens when our teams are engaged on all levels, when they’re challenged to think outside the box, and when they’re given opportunities to fuel their curiosity and creativity. That’s the kind of culture I want to nurture.

As far as opportunities go, Houston is the fourth-largest city in the country, and historically has been known as the epicenter of the oil and gas industry. But increasingly, it’s witnessing a growth in its medical, science/technology, corporate, and cultural markets. I want to make sure we’re leading in those markets. I aim to transfer my knowledge and experience within these sectors to benefit our community and clients. Let’s not just meet our clients’ expectations; let’s exceed them!

"We’re not just designing buildings in abstraction, or as glorified artifacts, we’re creating them for real people, with real aspirations, just like you and me."

PW: What is your opinion on the role the greater community has in design?

MA: I always think about whom we’re designing for. We’re not just designing buildings in abstraction, or as glorified artifacts, we’re creating them for real people, with real aspirations, just like you and me. They’re the ones who, at the end of the process, must inhabit these built environments—to work in them, learn in them, heal in them, play in them. Listening to people—seeking their active participation through feedback and idea sharing—is extremely important!

One of the things I love to do is to visit a project I’ve designed, post-occupancy, to observe how people use and engage the space. Sometimes I will ask them what they like and do not like about it. In a sense, I casually interview them: What is working so that I can apply it to my next project? What can I do better next time? You learn quickly how the end users feel about the place. This is part of engaging the community, too—drawing out from them how to improve one’s design. It’s critical that we engage communities to create great places and spaces for all.

PW: What is your design philosophy?

MA: Inclusivity and participation are critical aspects of architecture, because at the end of the day, we’re designing for a collective, for humanity. So, being an inspirational champion of everyone on the team, including the community, is important. As Design Director, you set the role, the direction, and the design course for a project, but you also must consider the many moving parts and pieces of a project, such as the various team members. I compare my role to that of a race car driver: A driver will accelerate and steer, expertly navigating the course. But it’s not just the driver’s effort that wins the race. Various crews—the sponsors, the pit crew, the people who assemble the car, the people who fuel the car, etc.—they’re all essential and important to the win. If they’re not working in unison, optimally, they lose the race. If I spearhead an idea, I look to others to augment it, to collaborate on it with me to make it even better. An expansive and elastic mindset is part of the process. Design is not a closed system; it’s very important to keep asking questions, even after you deliver a project.

PW: Why did you go into architecture? What was your inspiration?

MA: The funny thing is, my Nigerian parents—both of whom were educated in the U.S.—had a vision: My older brother, who’s very structured, was going to be a doctor, and I—the much more creative, free-spirited, inquisitive child—was going to be a lawyer in the arts. But sometimes, small and unexpected moments alter the course of history. My parents moved us to Nigeria when I was 4 and my brother was 6, and my father was intent on having a house built for us. I witnessed the house being built over time by brick layers and carpenters, and of course, we lived in it during much of the construction. One evening, my father and I went for a walk and came back to an amazing sight of the sun setting behind the house. As the roof wasn’t installed yet—only the trusses and rafters were up—the sun beamed through the wooden framework, creating a filigree of brilliant light and shadow everywhere. Mesmerized, I grabbed my father’s hand and said, “Wow! Can’t we leave the house as it is with no shingles!?” Of course, he said no (chuckles) and reminded me of the punishing seasonal rainfall. Then he asked if I’d ever thought of being an architect. I didn’t know what an architect was then, but I soon learned. And voilà!  Here we are!

PW: What’s a surprising fact about you?

MA: I’ve always been interested in being a film director! In fact, I’ve directed some short films with friends, and I’ve even entered local film festivals. It’s a world away from architecture, but there are many similarities, too. In many ways, filmmaking employs the same thought processes and creativity as design. Both fields tell the story of us, a story of the human experience. Cinema is a great pastime for me.

Akinsade’s portfolio of built work includes the Morgan State University Behavioral and Social Sciences Building (Jenkins Hall) in Baltimore, Maryland (completed in 2017); the University Of Maryland Health Sciences Facility III in Baltimore, Maryland (completed in 2016); and the King Abdullah Petroleum Sciences and Research Center (KAPSARC) Mosque in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (completed in 2013).

Jenkins Hall is the recipient of an Excellence in Design Merit Award from AIA Maryland. The Health Sciences III buiding is the recipient of the Design Excellence Award from AIA’s Baltimore Chapter, as well as an Institutional Architecture Jurors’ Citation from AIA Northern Virginia. KAPSARC Mosque is the recipient of the Award for Religious Architecture from Faith & Form magazine; a Design Excellence Award from AIA’s D.C. Chapter; a Best of Best in Architecture Award from the Iconic Awards; and the International Architecture Award from the Chicago Atheneum Museum of Architecture and Design and The European Center for Architecture, Art, and Urban Studies.