Nigeria proud, Minneapolis bold

From left to right: Mohammed Lawal, AIA, Principal Architect, LSE Architects; Ravi Norman, CEO, Thor Companies; Quin Scott, AIA, President/Principal Architect,LSE Architects – business partner Photo by Susan Schaefer

The economic impact of the creative arts in Minneapolis astonishes. Estimated at over $4.5 billion in sales, or eight times that of Minneapolis’ sports sector according to the 2015 Creative Vitality Index (CVI), an economic measure used by the city, it has earned our region a lofty place as a national creative mecca.

Behind such stunning statistics toil humans whose creativity and innovation fuel this so-called creative class, dubbed by author Richard Florida. Frequently laboring for the sheer love of their craft, many visual and performing artists, directors, inventors and innovators produce from an inner creative core more likely fueled by passion than personal gain. These makers are marked by an almost holy drive to create – and when their artistry and intent collide, it often yields something extraordinary in its wake.

In the eye of the storm

The opening weeks of 2018 unleashed a storm of controversy centering on America’s immigrants and immigration policy. At the eye of the storm were the appalling allegations of obscene and offensive language used by President Trump to refer to African countries, Nigeria in particular.

Prior to this firestorm, I had interviewed my former colleague, Mohammed Lawal, CEO and principal architect of LSE Architects Inc. Much honored for his creative contributions to the field of architecture and design, Lawal is of Nigerian descent.

The controversy prompted him to post an emotional denunciation on his personal Facebook page: “What is also unfortunate is that many people think immigrants provide and mainly fill unskilled labor and jobs. My dad was an immigrant from that ‘s***hole’ Nigeria, and he went on the get his PhD. in Mathematics, was a university professor, a McKnight Fellow, taught so many, and gave his life to make our home, neighborhood and America better. My sisters and I have all received our college degrees and contribute as an IRS agents, an MD and Mayo Clinic trained Neurosurgeon and a Founder of a flourishing Architecture firm….”

It is heart-rending that any of our citizens feel the need to justify their contributions to our country. I salute Lawal’s impassioned defense in the spirit of expression with which it was offered. I’ve known and respected this talented architect since our days together at Cuningham Group, where I served as director of communications getting to work with Mo, as we all called him, on a primo project for healthcare giant, Epic Systems, based in Madison, Wisconsin.

Family first

Lawal raised his family in the Lynnhurst Neighborhood. He and wife Julie are fiercely protective and justly proud of their brood: daughter Serina, who graduated from the University of Minnesota with a major in languages (Spanish) and a minor in public health is currently in graduate school; son Mo, who is now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School; and their youngest, Waziri, who attends Breck.

Lawal jokes easily about the fact that his eldest children surely won’t go into his profession: “If anyone of the kids might possibly be an architect it would be Waziri. So, I’m happy that we are batting 0 for 2 right now, and I would be okay striking out with zero kids becoming architects. I think there should be a limit of one architect per family!”

Proud North

Though Lawal was born in Florida, the family moved shortly thereafter to North Minneapolis where he spent his early childhood. He has a strong affinity for this part of the Twin Cities. In fact, his recent architectural projects in this former neighborhood have gained wide acclaim. The Star Tribune’s Rick Nelson called Lawal’s new Webber Park branch of the Hennepin County Library, “a jewel [that] … deftly balances residential scale and civic weightiness. Welcoming from all directions, the building takes full advantage of its park like surroundings while providing a much-needed civic haven for the surrounding neighborhoods.”

In a recent Vimeo interview for a punchy little show titled “Ping Pong and Jellyfeet Friday,” Lawal spoke about his firm’s three interrelated North Minneapolis projects — the Webber Park Library, three blocks away from Patrick Henry High School, North Market, a 16,000-square-foot health-forward grocery store for nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities that also features a health and wellness clinic run by North Memorial Health, and the headquarters for Thor Construction, the largest African American-owned construction company in the U.S.

Lawal believes that the intellectual time and savvy entailed in realizing these projects “will have a tremendous impact on people’s lives for years to come. I want to see this community prosper.”

This second generation immigrant from Nigeria has a definitive proud northern streak, spending a majority of his time working to make our community a better place.

Local roots, worldwide perspective

In 1976, when he was 9, Lawal moved back to his parents’ native Nigeria. He explains, “It was an exciting time in the country, because 1977 was Festac ’77 (the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, held in Lagos), a year of African pride. My father taught mathematics at various colleges and universities, going on to become a director of schools in Nigeria; my mother, who also taught English in the Minneapolis Public Schools, was a dean at Bida Polytechnic in Northern Nigeria.”

The family traveled quite a bit, with Lawal living in five different cities, Benin, Minna, Bida, Kaduna and Zaria, providing him broad and diverse perspectives. “I graduated from high school at age 16 (which was common) and completed two years of college, first in basic studies, then architecture at Ahmadu Bello University in Zaria.”

Lawal originally wanted to be a fine artist but yielded to his father’s wish that he find a career: “I think when I was 14 or 15 I discovered my love of ‘pure’ art — pencil and ink drawing and painting, along with technical drawing,” he muses. “In fact, I always wanted to be a painter — an artist — but my dad told me to choose a vocation and I thought architecture seemed like a great option — mixing my love of art and mathematics while still perhaps being artistic. Since this profession worked for my parents, that was it — I was going to be an architect!” He’s never looked back.

Returning to Minneapolis in the mid-1980s, Lawal attended the University of Minnesota, receiving his architecture degree. For all his diverse influences growing up in Africa, Lawal cut his architectural teeth with Minnesota’s undisputed old school design giants: “I met quite a few wonderful professors that got me going, kept me grounded, and stoked my interest in architecture. A few notables are my thesis advisor, Lee Tollefson, Julia Robinson, John Cuningham, Tom Meyer, the late Jim Stageberg, Leonard Parker, Sharon Roe, Cynthia Jara, Craig Rafferty, Joseph Burton and Milo Thompson.”

It was at the U that Lawal met fellow design student Quin Scott, now one of his partners at LSE. The other is Ron Erickson.

Quin, Erickson and Lawal worked together for close to 16 years at KKE Architects, a firm where Erickson was a founding partner in 1968. “We all served on the board of directors together for a number of years, and collectively were responsible for significant management, growth, project generation and design leadership within the company,” explains Lawal.

In 2009, when the economy was tanking, KKE sold its assets to another local firm. “Soon after, Ron and I decided to form Lawal Scott Erickson Architects, believing that the Minnesota and national markets could use a new firm with such diverse capacities and capabilities.” Given the tough economic times, this brash move has paid off.

Their first office was in the Warehouse District. Then, in a serendipitous move, they found their current “super” space in the nascent Mill City District, the district about which Lawal had done his architectural thesis project as a student. “This area has been very familiar to me for a very long while,” Lawal beams.

Inspiring minorities to aspire

More than ever, with racial tension making national and international headlines, statistics not only from Minneapolis’ Creative Vitality Index, but also from the American Institute of Architects, speak to a pretty sizable gap in the representation of people of color, specifically African Americans, in the field. From the time I met Lawal in 1995, he had been mentoring aspiring young professionals through the locally based Architectural Youth Program, a program with a goal to encourage more people of color to get into the field.

All these years later, I asked Lawal about his thoughts on this diversity gap in architecture. What might he say to individuals who would like to consider the field?

“Since we started the AYP, the ‘diversity gap’ seems even greater than it was before,” he admits. “From what I see in the profession, it does not appear that more minorities, specifically African Americans, are getting into the profession. I am not quite sure what I think of the diversity gap, but I do know that we have a long way to go in Minnesota.”

So, as with his projects in North Minneapolis, Lawal and his firm have committed much of their resources to doing good work in the urban core.

From Nigeria to our northern clime, Mohammed Lawal is a testament to everything right about immigrants, immigration and diversity, and why we should fight to keep this basic tenet of American life alive and thriving. Minneapolis is fortunate to have captured his loyalties and sensibilities.