​Ken Okonkwo

Associate Director
Haworth Tompkins

I am a British-born, second generation Nigerian architect. My mum lived through the Biafran war in 1967 and was the first member of her family to go to university. My dad, the oldest of 10 brothers and sisters, joined the British merchant navy in 1958 when he was 21. Neither parents were interested in architecture, but I was always fascinated by buildings. From the age of 6, I drew pictures and plans of dream houses.

I chose to study the subjects that I loved at A-level. Languages have always interested me and I felt a natural affinity to the calm and creative atmosphere of the art studio. Work experience in the fields of graphic design and architecture confirmed my decision to pursue the latter. At the time, I was excited by the High-Tech style of Richard Rogers and buildings like the Lloyds Building and Pompidou Centre.

I was fortunate to be mentored by neighbours who were architects, and a female Nigerian architect and family friend, who helped me with my UCAS personal statement. I turned-down an undergraduate place at the Bartlett, as I was put off by the building and having to ride the bus every day for 3 years with my mum, as she worked next door!

My first year in Manchester was challenging. It took awhile for me to adjust to the freedom of a new city and living on my own, but I found my feet and graduated with a 2:1. I was a bit underwhelmed with the employment prospects in Manchester after graduation. A fellow student and I had developed an interest in the scene in the Netherlands and the ‘SuperDutch’ movement, which was getting a lot of publicity at the time. Through contacts from Manchester University alumni, I moved to Amsterdam for a 6-month internship at UN Studio. The experience blew me away – Amsterdam was full of young enthusiastic architects from all over Europe, and architecture and design was given such importance in the Netherlands – it really left an impression on me.On return to the UK, I completed a second year of work at a great small practice, Charles Barclay Architects, where I gained fantastic site experience. I did make it to the Bartlett, in the end, for diploma. I joined Unit 15, which was run by Nic Clear, focusing on film and animation. I loved it. Through a tip-off from a friend, I was interviewed at Haworth Tompkins and offered a job.

Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London- HaworthTompkins ©Philip Vile

I’ve been at Haworth Tompkins for 14 years and the practice has grown organically in that time. There is a range of excellent work in various sectors. It’s a fantastic place to work, with talented, inspirational, and thoroughly decent leaders. One of the highlights was winning the Stirling Prize in 2014. I have had a significant role in a number of built projects, such as Peabody Avenue, Open Air Theatre, Royal College of Art, Battersea, and Fish Island Village – all of which have received awards. Last year we became an Employer Ownership Trust which has been great for empowering staff to propose new policies and initiatives.

Our reputation in the industry has given us a platform to be influential. We are one of the founding members of Architects Declare and are working with Stephen Lawrence Charitable Trust on the Building Futures programme to improve diversity within architecture. We, as the profession, need to use the recent events and Black Lives Matter movement as a wake-up call and capitalise on the momentum to make real progress. I feel, with my role as Associate Director at Haworth Tompkins, I am well placed to do this.

Fish Island Village, London – Peabody. HaworthTompkins ©Kilian O’Sullivan