Iconic poet Maya Angelou liked to say that whenever she strode onto a stage, she carried the spirit of forebears who made her rise possible. Twin Cities architect Mohammed Lawal felt the truth of that sentiment in December at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., during a ceremony that elevated him to the American Institute of Architects' College of Fellows.
"My mother used to pick cotton in Mississippi, my grandfather was a sharecropper," Lawal said. "Walking across that stage, it hit me — wow. I was so overwhelmed I was just trying to walk and not fall."
Lawal was honored for his distinguished body of work over 30 years as well as his commitment to broadening the field.
"Mohammed's greatest asset is his ability to listen and discover solutions that resonate with very diverse groups of people," prominent architect Craig Rafferty said in his recommendation. "He has the rare ability to expand architecture's reach to new audiences, visibly expand the profession's diversity, and lead a practice that is both profitable and builds social equity."
The ceremony made Lawal only the second Black Minnesotan to receive the distinction, which dates to 1857 and is awarded to about 2% of licensed architects. The first, Lorenzo D. "Pete" Williams, was elevated to the college in the late 1970s.
"Pete was a quiet soul, retiring in attitude, but he cared deeply about advancing architecture," said Josie Johnson, the Minnesota civil rights icon who was his fiancée at the time of his death in 2011. He would have been proud of Lawal, Johnson intimated.
Lawal, 55, can be quiet, too, but he is far from retiring. Witty, affable and often self-deprecating, he and business partners Quin Scott and Ron Erickson have built a 10-year-old practice, LSE Architects, that's now one of the state's largest architectural firms.
The local architect of record on the billion-dollar U.S. Bank Stadium, LSE Architects builds schools, hotels, casinos and a host of large-scale projects.
Lawal also has specialized in niche homes, designing and building additions and ADUs pro bono for special-needs clients. He designed an accessible addition for a man who was paralyzed from his chest down. That home is in the Bryn Mawr neighborhood of Minneapolis.
He recently took on a client whose child has pantothenate kinase-associated neurodegeneration, a degenerative ailment.
His aim is to take away some of the stress and strain on those already confronting difficult odds. And he gets enjoyment out of helping people lead better lives.
"That is the ultimate aim of architecture, to improve people's lives," Lawal said. "That part of the practice is private and can be very emotional."
LSE's distinctive buildings in the Twin Cities include Minneapolis' sleek Regional Acceleration Center as well as the bright, airy Seward Montessori School and Webber Park Library. The library, completed in 2017, was called "a jewel" by the Star Tribune's Rick Nelson, who hailed it for "deftly balancing residential scale and civic weightiness. Welcoming from all directions, the building takes full advantage of its parklike surroundings while providing a much-needed civic haven for the surrounding neighborhoods."
"Mohammed has a way of building not just distinctive buildings, but also community," added Frank Edgerton Martin, a landscape historian, preservation planner and writer who has worked with Lawal.
LSE has work planned or near completion in 26 states. Lawal is lead designer for a sleek $280 million hotel and casino complex called WarHorse that is to be built on an extant racetrack in Lincoln, Neb.
"The main thing about Mohammed is his personality — he's great to work with but he also makes you feel heard," said Lance Morgan, president and chief executive officer of Ho-Chunk Inc., for whom LSE is doing the Lincoln project. "He's a good listener and he translates your words into his work. We wanted modern and cool and that's what he delivers."
Hardness and heart
Ask those who know Lawal and they'll tell you that he's an iconoclast and an original. He wears bespoke sneakers and socks. He likes to drive fast. Although he is CEO of LSE, he is not hierarchical and seems to have minimal ego needs.
Lawal is diligent and dogged, said business partner Quin Scott, who met Lawal on the first day of design studio at the University of Minnesota.
"He's got this hard side, when it comes to the practice, of grinding for the business going after projects and exceeding expectations," said Scott, who focuses on business and contracts. "But he's also got this heart side where he takes time to be patient with our staff and mentor them."
A visit to company headquarters near the Stone Arch Bridge means dropping into a buzz of creativity. Discrete architectural teams cluster over photographs, renderings and models, pulling Lawal in for this or that bit of input.
If meetings happen in open spaces, it's part of an ethos. Lawal welcomes differences and encourages employees to speak honestly about things not necessarily architectural. When he's not in his office, and sometimes even when he's there, it doubles as a conference room, one where pictures and mementos of his interests serve as guiding stars.
There's an image of Bob Marley, the reggae legend. "Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds," he quotes from "Redemption Song."
If Lawal seems to be atop the world now, he has risen from a childhood where he knew want. "I'm a proud North Sider," he said.
With his parents fresh out of Bethune-Cookman University in Florida, a historically Black institution, his family moved to Minnesota in 1968. He was a year old.
They relocated to escape the South, Lawal said. His mother, Lorraine Singleton Lawal, had grown up in Woodville, Miss. His father, from Okene in central Nigeria, was experiencing segregation for the first time. In Minneapolis, the family lived on Humboldt Avenue N.
"It was humble but it was very nice," Lawal said. "I still have friends from then."
After nine years in Minneapolis, the family relocated to Nigeria. Those heady years in the 1970s, in which Lawal lived in five different places while attending school, were impactful in many ways. A year after the family moved there, Nigeria hosted Festac '77, a legendary monthlong pan-African festival that drew artistic talent from more than 50 nations.
Lawal reveled in the splendor of historic Benin bronzes. His family had an ivory mask that was used as the festival's emblem.
It was also while in Nigeria that he discovered his talent. "I can draw and illustrate to capture people's imaginations," Lawal said. His father, a mathematician who had taught at Macalester College, appreciated his son's artistry but wanted him to have a vocation as a backup.
"He would give me quadratic equations that I would solve," Lawal said. "That was his way of keeping me interested in both the arts and math."
His father died when he was 16, and the family moved back to the Twin Cities two years later where his mother, who had been a teacher in the Minneapolis Public Schools, resumed her career. Lawal enrolled at the University of Minnesota.
While there are fewer than two dozen Black architects in Minnesota today, one of the state's most famous building designers was Clarence "Cap" Wigington.
As St. Paul's senior architectural designer, he shaped the look of the city in the 1920s and 1930s with his designs for public schools, fire stations and other municipal structures. The Harriet Island Pavilion, which Wigington designed and which is on the National Historic Register, was renamed in his honor. He also designed the Highland Park Tower and the Holman Field administration building.
Paying it forward
Lawal knew of Wigington, of course, but he didn't have many living role models. Over the past 30 years, he has tried to remedy that for others coming up behind him by mentoring over 450 high school students. Some of those youngsters who were introduced to the design arts have gone on to study architecture and are now working in the field.
"I was 14 when I first met Mohammed in 1994, and professionally there's been no one more influential in my life," said architect Keon Blasingame, who recently was promoted to principal at LSE. "One of the major things he's imparted is that you've got to do the work. There are going to be challenges that you face, personally and professionally, but you have to look at them, assess them, analyze them and find strategies to work to a point where those challenges spur you to something greater and higher."
Jennifer Newsom, an architecture professor at Cornell University who also was mentored by Lawal, traveled from New York to Washington for his induction ceremony.
"Mohammed is very modest and self-effacing but he's a force who has been a fabulous mentor to me," Newsom said. "Part of what makes him such an excellent architect in terms of client management is that he keeps up with people — with their interests — and he genuinely cares."
Newsom added that the award "really is an incredible achievement for he's done it in a profession that only now, kicking and screaming, is coming to its own realization of how it implicitly carries white supremacy."
Lawal has had a number of addresses in the Twin Cities, but the forever home the family moved to in 2016 had a nice serendipity to it. The 1924 Tudor is on the same street that he lived on when the family first moved to Minnesota. But the new address is 5 miles south on Lake Harriet.
"They are worlds away from each other but I'm the same person," Lawal said, as he lives his dream of yoking disparate worlds together. "I don't want to compare the two — they're both rich experiences."