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Nigerian immigrant Wale Falade thinks Minnesota is ready to see more work by architects of color. His own firm, FIHAN, just won the bid to redesign Minneapolis’ North Commons Park. Wale Falade realized a dream two years ago to open his own architecture firm by founding St. Paul-based FIHAN, which means “to reveal” in Yoruba, one of the languages he spoke growing up in Lagos, Nigeria.
The Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board unanimously chose FIHAN Design + Architecture to lead a multimillion-dollar renovation of North Commons Park in Minneapolis, a popular but aging park near North High School. Plans are in the works for a community center, aquatic center, athletic fields, ice skating rink and amphitheater.
Community members who have been advocating for a revitalized North Commons Park also participated in the selection process, and also unanimously chose FIHAN. Other minority-owned businesses will be involved with various aspects of the renovation, from mechanical engineering work to community engagement outreach. If fundraising is successful, construction could start late in 2023 and the park could be ready for use in 2025.
Although this will be Wale’s first experience on a park project, he has embraced life as an architect in Minnesota: He and his wife recently completed several DIY renovations on their 1937 St. Paul home, and he helped design and create a public art project devoted to curling.
Sahan Journal talked to Wale, 40, about his journey from training as a budding architect in Nigeria to becoming vice president of the Minneapolis–St. Paul chapter of the National Organization of Minority Architects.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you end up in Minnesota?
My mom had friends in Minnesota, so when she was looking for a place with better economic opportunities, Minnesota seemed to be the right place because of her connections here. The whole family got to come over in 2000. In 2001 I went to MCTC [Minneapolis Community and Technical College] for about a year, and then in 2002, I transferred to the University of Minnesota to study architecture.
What does the name of your firm mean to you?
For me, my experience of growing up in Lagos helped me learn to appreciate things that sometimes we take for granted. I believe that one can find beauty in the simplest things. I believe there is more to be seen and learned from the things around us. Fihan means “to reveal.” The idea is by looking closer and engaging people, we can see beauty in the simplest things, things we might take for granted.
How does your childhood in Lagos impact your design aesthetic?
My dad was a draftsman for a major telecommunications company in Nigeria, so he was the one who introduced me to architecture. I love drawing and I was very good at science, especially physics.
Lagos is a very large city, one of the largest in the world. The larger metro area is about 17 million people. We grew up in the mainland, and the island is the commercial district. So when we would go visit my dad at work, we’d drive over the bridge.
Nigeria was colonized by the British, so there’s a large influence of British architecture that was still there. And at a point in time, slaves were traded from Brazil to Lagos, so there’s some Brazilian influence on the architecture. There’s quite a mix of design and building types. It’s very eclectic and very colorful.
And then there’s a community right by the edge of the lagoon called Makoko, and every time I drove over that bridge you could smell the stench of living on the water. The homes were on stilts, and you could smell the cooking, human waste. That fleeting moment of driving on the highway over the bridge is seared in my memory to the point that when I was doing my thesis project at the U in grad school, I decided to focus on that community.
The conclusion I came to is that most architects will approach it with a lens of, ‘They need housing so let’s build new, beautiful modern housing.’ But my research shows that was not the case. They don’t need beautiful houses; they already took the unique way their houses were on the water into account with a 5-foot difference in tide, and they even created a playground on the water by using sawdust and wood.
My proposal was to create an intervention—nodes for the community to gather that would provide sanitation and water centers, like a communal water cooler. There were five different interventions that were connected by a bridge. That was my proposal —it won a couple of awards at the U and an international award.
Will any of this apply to the North Commons project?
We’re just getting started. I’m coming to this project with no agenda of my own. The idea is to listen intently to what the community wants and engage in a very collaborative process. That’s where we believe our work is: in rigorous community engagement.
I teach at Dunwoody [College of Technology] so I’ve done that for the past eight years: the idea of getting to know people and talk to and engage with them. I believe everyone has something to bring to the table. As an architect, you get to put those conversations to paper and reality, and end up with something tangible.
What are your favorite types of projects?
The project I enjoyed working on the most was a residential project, because of the personal nature of it. It tends to be more intimate than most commercial projects and you get to know people at a personal level. [Commercial] projects don’t get as personal as residential projects, and when you’re able to get to really know what people want at that level, with mutual respect, that’s been fulfilling. We’re looking for that same level of engagement at North Commons.
How did the curling club project for the Art Shanties come about?
The firm I was working for was at White Bear Lake, and we decided to do something for the Art Shanties. The winter Olympics were going on, and people here like curling. The inspiration was based on when you have wind and snow interacting on a hillside and snow blankets forming. The idea of the snow dunes of our landscape. The white fabric was the same plastic used in winterizing boats.
What did you learn from renovating your own home?
That it’s much tougher than it seems. And it saves a lot of money, especially as a designer. When we bought this house we had some cash left over, but not enough to have someone redo the bathroom. We had a desire for unique details and certain beauty, so my wife and I decided to build it ourselves.
We’ve been living here five years, and I have learned a lot of cabinetry.
You’re a new dad. How do you feel about your son being born in Minnesota?
We’re so excited to have him in our lives. There is trepidation when we know about what it means for a Black boy to be raised in general here and the struggles. But at the same time he will have access to more opportunities than I did in Nigeria. Still trying to navigate that and understand it.
What do you do when he is up at 2 a.m.?
When I’m awake I just work. I figure that’s how I could use this time effectively.
How do you feel about the future of architecture in Minnesota?
I would say one thing that’s shown promise, that I’m excited about, is the growth and opportunity starting to be available for minority architects in Minnesota. That really wasn’t the case in the past. Even as an undergrad in 2002–04, and when I went back for my masters in 2008, there were few designers of color that I knew. But in the past three years there’s been more hope, more promise.
I always wanted to start my own firm, but wasn’t sure if, as a Black immigrant in Minnesota, I could succeed. But the last three to four years have given me a little hope.