Many thanks to Kimberly Zerkel and Morgan Pansing for words and photos. Filmed on location at the H Club LA.
Adaeze Cadet knows the game is important.
As a child in Sacramento, the LA-based director and design director of renowned architecture firm HKS didn’t foresee her master’s degree, boardroom notes, and swaying skyscrapers like San Francisco’s The Jasper with her name. All she knew was that she really loved playing with her box of LEGO bricks.
When she was nine, she got up in the midst of her block creations and told her family that she would become an architect. Rather than defy their goal or treat it as a passing phase, Cadet’s parents understood the importance of promoting it.
“My mother took me to open houses so I couldn’t take care of the design,” the architect and designer recalls of her upbringing. “She got me some architecture books and really helped promote that.”
But while leafing through these books, Cadet first saw a problem that continues to plague the architectural world.
“Nobody looked like me,” she recalls, “there are all these great architects, but none of them is black or a woman according to these textbooks.”
Lack of representation and apparent bias led to an early incident that nearly destroyed her family’s years of self-motivation and encouragement. It started with a certain professor at Philadelphia University, where Cadet began her academic career.
My first professor – white, male – made me wonder if I could become an architect. For my whole life this has been something I wanted to do and he just kept laying inside me making me feel like my design was inappropriately.
It took the encouragement and praise of outside critics to finally remind her why she studied architecture in the first place.
Knowing that she had talent but not a single moment left to lose to unsupportive faculty or alienating classmates, Cadet moved to Prairie View A&M University, an HBCU, where her educational experience became transformative.
“When I switched there was a big difference. I got a lot more support from my professors. I had camaraderie with my classmates. “The need to connect and the ability to share their love of architecture with their peers who looked like them were vital. “This Prairie View Foundation has helped me gain confidence in my abilities. That led to my success, and that’s how I was able to develop further within the company. “
And she has made progress: at the end of January, HKS, an international architecture and design firm with more than two dozen offices around the world, announced that Cadet had been promoted to Principal, one of the company’s leading functions. This appointment makes Adaeze Cadet the first black headmistress at HKS, an achievement that is both considered to be no trivial matter and long overdue.
Despite an illustrious career including a masters degree in architecture from Prairie View and overseeing massive projects – from apartment buildings to hotels and resorts – along the west coast, Cadet still faced the many challenges of being a black woman in a sphere dominated by white men. To be discussed in meetings, to let consultants question their work, customers to address their white colleagues first … The disrespect seemed to culminate in a particularly shocking moment. When she was introduced to a reporter at an event by a former client, she was asked if she was the client’s assistant. At that time, Cadet had been with HKS for over ten years and was the company’s vice president.
As black people, we learn how to make white people comfortable. So, even though I wanted to say, “What the hell …” I couldn’t. Instead, I said, “I know I look a lot younger than I am” and laughed at it.
The emotional burden of inequality, in addition to a busy work schedule, is enough to drain anyone’s energy. So how can you stay charged and ready to go? When Cadet feels particularly worn out, she relies on some well-chosen motivational cups (“I have one that says ‘Be Wild’,” she smiles), sewing, or Beyonce lyrics to get through the day.
The biggest motivational factor, however, is to remember what she has known since childhood: that she is talented and is where she needs to be.
What has helped me over the years is staying confident in my abilities, in the fact that I’m here for a reason, I’m at this table for a reason. I have an opinion and a voice that is just as valid as my colleagues.
She brings this trust and love for problem solving to the JEDI Council (Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion) of her company. And despite the “cuteness” of the council’s name, Cadet is here to remind everyone that they are dealing with issues of life and death. Of the many initiatives they oversee, one of the main priorities of the council is to get more Black, Indigenous, Colored (BIPOC) and women into leadership positions.
“Until you start seeing BIPOC and women in leadership positions, you won’t see any real change,” says Cadet.
Cadet emphasizes another lesson she learned at a young age: you would have to be twice as good to get half as much. When asked about earnings, she suggests that the BIPOC candidate is likely to be more qualified.
With this implicit tendency, there is already an obstacle to progress in our profession. Our industry therefore needs to bring more BIPOC into leadership positions so that it can ensure that the architecture teams are diverse and that the entire project team, working with BIPOC-owned companies, is diverse. This is where you will really notice a difference. And the data already suggests that a more diverse team creates a better project and design. The team will have more diversity of thoughts and will not be deaf in certain areas.
One look at their recent projects – from Robertson Lane in West Hollywood to the aforementioned Jasper in San Francisco to the Two Lincoln Tower Residences in Bellevue, Washington – and it’s clear Cadet deserves the spotlight.
But as she rises to the top of her field, she just as focuses on the people who emerge behind her.
“I’ve had friends who said, ‘You know, my daughter is thinking of becoming an architect,’ and I say, ‘Send her my way.'”
Check out NOMA and their local chapters to aid in their efforts to improve DEI in architecture. There is also Beyond the Built Environment, which involves the community through architecture to advocate for equitable and diverse environments. It was founded by Pascale Sablan, another talented architect who recently joined the Adjaye Associates team.