Tobi Sobowale, Gensler London
A woman smiling for the camera.

Gensler Voices: Tobi Sobowale on The Intersection of Art and Design

This Q&A is part of a series of interviews with Gensler architects, designers, and others in the firm about their career journey, and the impact that design and architecture can have on our communities and the human experience. Here, we sit down with Tobi Sobowale, an architectural assistant our London office:

Did you have a mentor growing up or at any point during your career? If so, how did that relationship impact your growth as a person or in the industry at large?

When I decided to pursue a career in architecture, I did not have any reference points in my personal life of what it could look like. When I finished my undergraduate degree, I struggled to find a job and, in that time, I started to reach out and lean on networks that supported young Black professionals. These included Black Females in Architecture, the Paradigm Network and The Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust (now Blueprint for All). I joined the Trust’s mentorship program which led to me having a mentor named Jade Chau. Jade has had a significant impact on my progression. She provided support when I was made redundant, provided feedback on university applications for my postgraduate and she jumpstarted my journey of writing opinion pieces on architecture and the built environment. I remember writing a piece on the need for more representation in the industry and just wanting to post it on my personal blog. I sent it to Jade to read through and she encouraged me to submit to the Architects’ Journal, also providing the contact of the editor there. This was a significant moment for me as it gave me the opportunity to share my work with a wider audience and the confidence to continue writing.

If you could impart any piece of advice to individuals beginning their design career, what would it be?

My advice would be to keep going. I didn’t have much knowledge on architecture when I started my degree, but I knew it was something that I wanted to pursue. Anyone who has studied a design-related course, understands how difficult it can be and often they don’t prepare us for the final degree, which is your career, your life after education. It can be difficult to navigate the workplace, but I am grateful for what I’ve learnt on an educational level but also from a personal perspective. I’ve been able to develop a way of thinking and approach that excites me, and I look forward to seeing how I will apply that knowledge.

So maybe my advice would be to not put yourself in a box. This new generation of professionals are often multi-faceted and want to do many things and I think that is possible, especially within a firm like Gensler that has so many disciplines. At the beginning, it’s important to absorb and learn as much as possible, don’t specialise too early.

Most career journeys aren’t linear. What has yours looked like?

I’m still at the beginning of my career so I would say my journey has been somewhat linear. The path to qualify as an architect in the UK is very defined. I did my undergraduate degree in architecture and then went on to work as an architectural assistant at C.F. Moller Architects in their London office. There were some setbacks, in the fact that it took me a while to find a job and I was made redundant 6 months in. At the time it felt like the end of the world, but I soon went on to do my postgraduate degree in architecture in Manchester. Within a couple of months of finishing, I was offered a job at Gensler as an architectural assistant, and I have been here for 2 years. I’ve since worked on interior design, strategy and architecture projects across retail, hospitality, life sciences and urban planning.

When looking for my first job and after being made redundant, I worked at a retail store in London called New Look. It was not part of the plan, but I was able to develop a range of skills whilst working there and got some insight into the decline of the high street, which is a current theme in the industry. I think it’s important to share this as an encouragement and a reminder that actually, most career journeys aren’t linear.

You are a multidisciplinary artist. How has that part of you helped impact your work at Gensler?

So, I define myself as a multidisciplinary artist and designer. Alongside architectural design, I am also a photographer, writer, and a poet. I’ve recently started to rethink this definition and more recently landed on ‘storyteller’. I often write about my lived experiences such as ‘Why I Need to See More Black Faces in Architecture’ and ‘When Neighbours Are Strangers’. My poem ‘Heritage’ looks at my dual nationality of being British and Nigerian and the evolution of Lewisham, the place I call home. Another piece titled ‘The Yellow Door’ comments on my experience on navigating the in-between spaces of the council estate I live on. My approach to photography is very similar as I produce work on narratives about Black beauty, identity, and culture, often inspired by my Yoruba heritage and upbringing in South London. So, when designing and contributing ideas I’m always concerned with how people would move through and interact with the design, how are we prioritising the users of the space and what story are we telling.

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