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Jul 27, 2023

H. Killion Mokwete

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H. Killion Mokwete.

Photo courtesy of H. Killion Mokwete.

Principal and co-founder, Social Impact Collective (SIC); assistant professor, Northeastern University


Master’s in Architecture (University of Portsmouth, Portsmouth, England); AA Diploma, Architectural Association School of Architecture, London; BA (Hons) Architecture (Plymouth University, Plymouth, England)

Professional or personal website

Professional interests:

Urban design, participatory design, community design, teaching

When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?

In the small rural village in Botswana where I grew up, there were no professional architects, as architecture was not a known profession. I grew up seeing vernacular buildings built through collaborative community effort without one master builder or designer. While finishing high school (which is secondary school in our system) and before applying to college, you would have to apply for government grant scholarships, which is where you first get acceptance to apply to the profession you want to study. I originally wanted to pursue law but changed direction when I wasn’t accepted into law school because, at that time, my written English wasn’t very good. Luckily, I really enjoyed drawing, started looking into careers that required drawing, and chose architecture. It also helped that my high school organized career fair days and invited various professionals to speak about what they did for a living. After meeting an architect for the first time, I became convinced that I wanted to pursue a career in architecture. Looking back, I think it is important to expose young people to as many career pathways as possible, and also having role models can really have a positive impact on the careers that young people choose. This is especially true for architecture, since it has always been a misunderstood field and profession.

Who or what deserves credit for your success?

I give the most credit to my family, especially my mother, who despite having not much schooling herself, made sure that I had the best chance to attend school through great sacrifices of her time and the little resources she had raising me and my siblings. I also credit my wife and kids who have to put up with my sometimes tricky schedule when balancing travel, teaching, and, in some cases, late hours.

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Photo courtesy of H. Killion Mokwete.

Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?

During my years practicing and teaching architecture in Botswana, I founded Boidus Media, a media publishing startup that focused on giving a platform to architecture and the building industry in Botswana, becoming the first company in the country to do so. Through this startup, we published a monthly print publication; hosted a digital website; facilitated industry events that brought together practitioners, clients, government entities, and many other industry stakeholders to deliberate on issues affecting the industry; and also celebrated local works and emerging talent. This certainly was not something that I had envisioned an architect doing, but in a place where the industry did not have a voice or platform, it was important to me to set up and cultivate dialogue and collaboration through a dedicated media space within the built environment.

Which one of your current projects excites you the most?

At SIC I am currently working with a client in Roxbury who is looking to regenerate an old lodge building into residential units and a community archiving space. This project has a very grounded program, and the client is very particular about preserving neighborhood character but also exploring some interesting new materials, such as cross-laminated timber construction combined with the existing brick masonry structure. This creative juxtaposition of materials and methods of old and new while preserving local character is very exciting. Also in Roxbury I am working with a neighborhood association as part of a research project at Northeastern University to design and install a mural commemoration of the legacy and cultural heritage of the Black Panthers of Boston. This research, which was done through engaging and collaborating with residents, will be part of a community garden managed by The Trustees of Reservations on a site that used to house a Black Panthers’ operation building. Lastly, I am undertaking a research project in Porto-Novo, Benin, with other Northeastern University colleagues and local partners in Benin that will leverage technology toward the preservation of the country’s historical Aguda architecture buildings. This digital documentation will result in an interactive digital database created through social participation of local building custodians and curated social narratives of their building heritage.

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Photo courtesy of The Celtics.

What do you see as the largest barrier to equity in your profession?

Architecture is an unduly long and difficult profession in terms of academic rigor and gaining professional licensure. From that standpoint, for most students from marginalized backgrounds, the biggest barrier to entry into architecture is cost. The cost of tuition for the four to five years needed to complete an architecture degree prevents a lot of students from pursuing this career path. Also the cost of study materials—such as model-making materials, computers, and the necessary software—means that once enrolled in an architecture program, students may still be at a disadvantage in not having equitable access to the right equipment and materials to help them thrive in their studies. Lastly, the practice hours required in order to qualify for the professional exams are often prohibiting to candidates who might not have jobs with the built-in security and support that would enable them with a pathway to licensure. Many candidates, therefore, never become fully licensed due to the barriers of cost and the time required to qualify for the exams.

What policy from another city sets an example you think Boston could successfully follow?

Boston is a coastal city that will soon experience sea-level-rise threats and can learn from other cities facing similar situations, such as Amsterdam, which has developed a climate adaptation strategy, and perhaps also learn from other communities that live on and have long been able to coexist with water, such as Makoko in Nigeria or Ganvie in Benin.

What is the greatest potential for architecture to shape a neighborhood community?

I believe that architecture is rooted in society and that the built environment affects our everyday actions and our understanding of cultural values, social relations, institutions, and the distribution of power. Therefore, to achieve long-lasting and impactful development in communities, architects need to work in partnership with local communities and stakeholders through open and honest collaborative processes. Promoting community-driven architectural practice will ensure community ownership and provide a foundation toward local resilience—the ability of local communities to learn from experience and to increase their ability to prepare, cope with, and recover from disturbances.

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Photo courtesy of The Celtics.

What architectural buzzword would you kill?

Value engineering.

Where do you find inspiration?

I find inspiration in the local community—ideas that come during community engagement.

What are you reading right now?

Restorative Cities: Urban Design for Mental Health and Wellbeing, by Jenny Roe and Layla McCay; and The 900 Days: The Siege of Leningrad, by Harrison E. Salisbury.

What would you like to see change about Boston’s built environment?

Boston’s public transit system and Boston’s affordable housing. Currently, Boston’s public transit system (buses, trains) is not really good at all. If it’s not slow, then half the time it does not get you to where you want to go due to few routes, inadequate options, old and dilapidated infrastructure, and bad urban planning of transit routes. In fact, I drive into work not because I want to but because the transit system is not fit for my purposes. In my opinion, the entire system needs an overhaul and massive investment to bring it anywhere close to other leading world cities’ public transportation.

Boston’s housing market is one of the most unaffordable markets in the country. This is well documented. Lack of new housing development, inefficiencies of existing housing stock and land, and other reasons make housing another aspect of Boston that would require a complete overhaul.

The housing and transit system problems in Boston are systemic problems. If given a chance, I would try to solve them by taking a comprehensive systems approach.

Have you had a memorable experience while working on a BSA initiative that you would like to share?

While serving on the BSA Nominating Committee, I worked with an amazing set of colleagues. The group took their tasks seriously and worked hard to welcome and include diverse voices into the leadership of the BSA.

Whom would you like the BSA to interview next?

Gerard Georges Assoc. AIA, director of architecture, Build Health International.