HKS’ Adaeze Cadet Believes in Design for Everyone

HKS’ Adaeze Cadet Believes in Design for Everyone

HKS’ Adaeze Cadet sees herself first and foremost as a designer. The Los Angeles-based architect, who joined HKS in 2005, has grown from a newly hired graduate to Design Director and, most recently, a Principal at the firm. Leading innovative large-scale projects, Cadet champions a community-minded approach.

In West Hollywood, Cadet’s passion for exciting, meaningful architecture will soon be on display in a big way. Her competition-winning design for The Birdcage, a 55-foot-tall inhabitable structure with indoor and outdoor dining, is set to become a new landmark on Santa Monica Boulevard. Located in the city’s historic LGBTQ neighborhood, The Birdcage will represent the rich cultural past of the area.

Adaeze Cadet's design for The Birdcage creates an elegant, dynamic structure envisioned as a central meeting point in West Hollywood.
Adaeze Cadet's design for The Birdcage creates an elegant, dynamic structure envisioned as a central meeting point in West Hollywood.

Throughout the 20th Century, gay and queer bars in cities across the country risked being shut down and to remain open, they often adopted bird names so LGBTQ individuals could easily identify them. This, along with the classic film, The Birdcage, served as inspiration for the inventive design. Cadet envisions the structure as a meeting spot for folks who come to the neighborhood to partake in its storied nightlife scene.

“It was a fun challenge to come up with an iconic form where people could say, ‘meet me at the birdcage!’,” she said.

Sparking a Passion for Design

Cadet, 38, became fascinated early in life by the many ways she could create and manipulate space. She developed her design sensibilities building play areas made of blocks for her friends, assembling LEGO structures and attending open houses with her mother in her native Sacramento, California. 

At age 9, Cadet decided that she was going to be an architect. On trips to the local library, her mother encouraged her to check out books about the field. The books opened her eyes.

“I did see, from a young age, that a lot of architects in these books didn’t look like me,” she said. “I started to realize how there weren’t a lot of women or people of color in the industry.” 

Adaeze Cadet and twin sister Akilah accompany their parents on a visit to  Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.
Adaeze Cadet and twin sister Akilah accompany their parents on a visit to Grand Place in Brussels, Belgium.

Growing up as the children of a first-generation Haitian immigrant father and an African American mother, Cadet and her twin sister, Akilah, received steadfast encouragement to follow their passions.  Cadet’s father, a lawyer and diplomat; and mother, a corporate executive with a PhD in economics, knew the difficulties their children would face. But they taught their daughters to confidently pursue their professional dreams regardless of circumstances.

That support fueled lifelong determination that helped Cadet throughout her education and career. And it helped propel her latest promotion to the rank of Principal at HKS — a rare achievement in the industry for women of color.

“They always encouraged us to push through it and not let the fact that we didn’t see people that didn’t look like us in that role be a deterrent to our careers,” Cadet said of her parents.

Seeking a Fair Path

Starting her architecture education at majority white East Coast design school, Cadet grew frustrated when classmates often neglected to invite her to social gatherings. She also received repeated negative and harsh critiques from white male professors and was subject to what she perceived as sexist comments when she expressed her desire to add interior design elements to projects.

During her first semester design studio, she watched as white students’ work was praised by her professor while hers was not.

“It was the first time I had ever questioned whether or not I should be an architect,” she said. Only when an outside critic came in and celebrated her design, did Cadet realize her skills and ideas were not lacking.

After three years at the school, Cadet decided to transfer to Prairie View A&M University in Texas, one of just a handful of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) that offers architecture degree programs.

“I wanted to be in a space that had people that looked like me that were equally excited about architecture…and Prairie View gave me that opportunity,” she said.

At Prairie View, Cadet noticed an immediate difference.  “I felt like my creativity could really thrive a lot more without having the pressure of having to navigate a white space while trying to design,” she said. “I could focus on honing my craft.” She went on to earn a B.S. in Architecture followed by a M.Arch degree the following year.

When Cadet graduated in 2005, and still to this day, the number of licensed Black architects in the U.S. has hovered between 2% and 3%, with Black women only making up approximately 0.4% of the architecture and design workforce.

The gloomy outlook was not lost on Cadet and her fellow graduates. “We were very much aware of the statistics nationwide. We all knew that [being at Prairie View] was a rare opportunity for us to see so many people of color in the architecture field,” she said.

Cadet believes HBCUs excel at preparing Black students to enter white-dominated fields and is particularly grateful for the technical, professional practice-oriented education she received at Prairie View. She credits the school with preparing her to navigate the ins-and-outs of working in a firm.

I wanted to be in a space that had people that looked like me that were equally excited about architecture…and Prairie View gave me that opportunity.

Transitioning from a majority Black educational setting to conducting a job search in a majority white profession was frustrating, if not deflating, for Cadet. Despite graduating with honors and valued internship experience, she only received one interview — at HKS — where she was hired and has worked ever since.

Cadet is grateful to have landed at HKS, which she likens to a teaching hospital for the breadth of experience and support the firm offers young talent. Her first supervisor, Jason Crist, a Dallas-based Principal who leads large commercial projects, saw Cadet’s potential for success immediately.

“From day one, Adaeze showed a drive and passion for learning and absorbing the job,” Crist said. “When there’s that type of engagement from someone, you just know they’re going to do well in the profession.”

Leading Meaningful Collaborations

Cadet transferred from the Dallas office to San Francisco in 2007 and then to her current base of Los Angeles in 2013, where she has excelled as a designer, working on the Two Lincoln Tower Residences and the West Hollywood EDITION hotel, among others.

A resident of the Beverly Hills neighborhood, which she appreciates for its charm and walkability, Cadet now sees LA as her home. The diversity of people and thought, the proximity to natural wonders, and the inspiring architecture all satisfy her curiosities and fuel her design work. The fashion-forward neighborhood is also a perfect backdrop for Cadet to bring to life another major design endeavor — her clothing line House of LVA, which she designs outside of work because it “keeps the creative juices flowing.”  

A natural problem solver, Cadet thrives as an architect in part because of the complexities of the job.

“I enjoy the fact that there are so many constraints in architecture,” she said, adding that she loves the feeling she gets when a design “checks all the appropriate boxes and can actually be built.” Cadet enjoys every piece of the puzzle required to bring a project from initial concept to reality. She’s even excited by meetings with government officials because, to her, those are critical parts of a collaborative design process.

Through her unique perspective and passion for great design, Cadet communicates a simple, but important principle: an equitable design process can result in more equitable communities. She urges other architects and designers to think about how they can elevate a community without alienating it.

“We want to do both within our projects and encourage our clients to do the same,” she said. “If you can do that well, I think the projects really sing.”

Working Towards Change

Now a highly regarded leader at HKS, Cadet recalls instances during her early days in practice when she was excluded from client meetings or passed over for opportunities that went to white male colleagues.

“Fifteen years ago, there weren’t even that many female architects at the principal level,” she said, noting that it would have really helped to have people who looked like her in leadership positions she could turn to. Remembering the teachings of her parents, Cadet found her voice and learned to advocate for herself.

“The idea of being first never scared me,” she said, noting that the difficulties she faced as a young designer compelled her to speak up as she advanced, and have uncomfortable conversations when she noticed others being treated unfairly.

With her resolve to succeed as well as the help of architects like Crist, who encouraged her on her path to licensure even after she left Dallas, Cadet excelled professionally.

“It was only natural to give Adaeze any support she needed, any little tips, pushes and guidance we knew would ultimately be turned around and passed back on to others at HKS,” he said.

And that’s exactly what Cadet has done — paid forward support and lessons learned to younger designers.

“She is truly interested in seeing others grow, and our firm has reaped the benefits of that,” said Robert Skelton, an architect who works with Cadet at HKS in Los Angeles. Skelton says Cadet’s encouragement has been vital to his career and that he has gained many valuable insights working alongside her. Specifically, he says Cadet has encouraged him to think about the “why” behind design solutions, which gives way to a better “how” in regards to decision making and methodology. “Because of this mindset, I’ve been able to have a more holistic understanding of issues we confront in our practice,” he said.

She is truly interested in seeing others grow, and our firm has reaped the benefits of that.

In LA, Cadet is active with the Southern California chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects (SoCal NOMA). She has signed up the HKS office there to participate in the group’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Challenge, which aims to increase representation among minority architects in the region and champion support for them.

She also mentors local architecture and interior design students, which she does not only because she loves it, but because when she was younger, she didn’t have mentors whose backgrounds matched hers. “I like to give them that role model so they can see someone who looks like them succeeding in architecture because there’s not a lot out there,” Cadet said.

Adaeze Cadet — seen here at h.Club in Los Angeles, an HKS project.
Adaeze Cadet — seen here at h.Club in Los Angeles, an HKS project.

Including All Voices in the Conversation

Fostering a more inclusive environment within the firm — one that offers more support for people of color and women to advance — Cadet has been involved with HKS’ Better Together initiative and Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (JEDI) efforts for years. As a member of the firm-wide JEDI advisory committee, she collaborates with colleagues to gather information and strategize about how HKS can be a place where everyone feels like they belong.

“The whole movement is about being included in the discussion and being considered,” she said.

Cadet is a firm believer that being an active listener is one of an architect’s greatest assets. To her, that means seeking to understand and engage with everyone who will design or use a building including HKS colleagues and consultants as well as clients and the community.

“Being a person of color, having to be in spaces where you’re not necessarily heard, I seek out the people in the room that aren’t talking as much,” she says. “Everybody has an opinion, so I try to pull them into the space.”