How Rod Henmi, FAIA, is inspired by his heritage and architecture's push for diversity
Rod Henmi, FAIA, grew up in a world where architecture was omnipresent.
His father, Richard (Dick) Henmi, studied and eventually practiced architecture in St. Louis, Missouri, after leaving the West Coast when his family was forced to live in a Japanese-American internment camp during World War II.
After growing up in St. Louis, Rod moved back to the Bay Area and is currently the Director of Design at HKIT Architects in Oakland, California. In addition to being an AIA Fellow, he is an active NOMA member. For Asian-American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we spoke with Hemni about diversity in architecture, his proudest moments in the field, and what makes him hopeful for the future of the profession.
What inspired you to become an architect?
Rod Henmi: I’m lucky as I had a father as an architect, and it was easy for me to visualize myself becoming an architect as well. For many, particularly those who have no role models, this is difficult to conceive, and it prevents them from going into the field or doubting themselves if they do.
It’s also true that architecture fits my personality well. I was always good at math and science but have a love for artistic and intuitive explorations. I find working intuitively, hopefully poetically, in juxtaposition with pragmatic and rational aspects of architecture to be a richly fulfilling challenge.
Who are some of your significant role models or mentors?
RH: Well, naturally, my father, but there were many. I grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and the airport was done by Minoru Yamasaki, another Japanese-American architect, and that was inspirational.
I’ve been very active in NOMA, and the late beloved Phil Freelon was and continues to be an inspiration to me. He was active and passionate about helping BIPOC students and professionals in so many ways. He was a consummate gentleman, and I always thought he was a person to emulate.
I was recently back in St. Louis for an exhibition on four Japanese-American architects: my father, Gyo Obata (one of the founders of HOK), George Matsumoto, and Fred Toguchi, who were honored by Washington University. They all were released from Japanese-American prison camps during World War II to go to architectural school at Washington University. They opened offices in the Midwest and the Southeast because, at the end of World War II, they’d never have gotten jobs in California, where they were all from.
All four ultimately succeeded and did significant mid-century modernist work in the cities of St. Louis, Cleveland. and Raleigh, North Carolina, and this exhibition honored their achievements. Their story is so inspirational. One of the reasons I participate in NOMA is because I am part of the Japanese-American diaspora and am reminded of this legacy of injustice when I see others being treated unequally because of their race.
The other thing I’m really interested in is dance. It’s like architecture in that it is spatial, rhythmic, structured yet intuitive. Early in life, I was inspired by James Brown and Fred Astaire because of his elegance and beautiful, clean style. Now, I’m doing a lot of Hip Hop dancing and I’ve been moved by the person I consider to be the Fred Astaire of hip hop dancing: Wren Crisologo of Sacramento.
Why is diversity especially important in the world of architecture?
RH: Our country is racially, ethnically and culturally diverse, but unfortunately, the architectural profession is not. AIA isn’t truly diverse. One’s background shapes how one sees the world, and since each person has a particular background, which is partly race, partly income, gender, religion, culture, education, then their viewpoint is inevitably a result of this.
The challenge is to expand one’s viewpoint beyond the limits of one’s background and be open to others with very different histories, and to also diversify the profession so we better reflect the population of the country. I believe this would result in better, more sensitive and thoughtful work based on a deep understanding of the myriad communities we serve.
In the last two years since the murder of George Floyd and other injustices, the country has opened itself up to other parts of our history. People are more concerned with BIPOC history, including the history of BIPOC architects. Recently I’ve given many presentations on Asian American architects and other BIPOC architects across the country to AIA and NOMA chapters, universities and firms. Hidden figures are no longer hidden.
Can you share what your proudest moment or achievement is in your career?
RH: I love ribbon cuttings. Everyone is smiling, everyone is happy, and all of the headaches that went into getting a building together are momentarily forgotten.
I’ve done a lot of affordable housing in my career, and it’s especially moving when residents of affordable housing communities are there at ribbon cuttings. Sometimes people have been homeless, and they are moving into a new home that is theirs, and it has good light, good air, nice finishes, is well laid out, and is just overall a quality home. These people are really touched, and their emotions reach everyone who has worked on the projects and showcases how badly needed this type of housing is. It’s an amazing feeling when people tell me that my building has changed their lives. It makes all of the hard efforts worthwhile.
Another proud moment was when I became an AIA fellow. There’s an investiture ceremony where you receive a medallion, and afterwards the entire audience gives you a round of applause. That was unexpectedly moving, my peers applauding me and the other new fellows. I was very proud in that moment, and I am still honored that I was selected.
What are your thoughts about the state of the profession and the future of architecture?
RH: The figure we commonly cite is that 2% of architects are black compared to 13% of the population of the country. Latinx architects are also underrepresented, and the profession is disproportionately male. These are some of the negative parts of our profession and I hope those numbers will drastically change.
On the other hand, I am proud of the profession’s efforts, including efforts by AIA and NOMA, to really address social justice issues after the murder of George Floyd and the increasing awareness of Black Lives Matter. I think diversity issues are much more at the forefront of our profession and people are focused on trying to improve those situations. It’s gratifying to see that response, and I hope it is a lasting one.
My biggest concern for the future of the profession is artificial intelligence. Some of our profession is problem solving and rational processes that could very well be taken over by AI with a concomitant impact on employment. There are definitely areas much more difficult for AI to do, such as interaction with clients, management of large teams, highly creative solutions and forms, and synthesizing input, but I am still concerned that AI will severely impact our profession in many ways.
More information on the four Japanese-American architects honored at Washington University in St. Louis is available here.