by AIA New York
Motoko Shoboji, AIA, LEED AP BD+C, is a Design Lead at the NYC Department of Design and Construction’s Borough Based Jails Program, whose goal is to safely close Rikers Island by 2027. She recently became a co-chair of the AIANY Architecture for Justice Committee, which develops programming and advocacy to help mitigate the intrinsic racism within the American criminal justice system, with a particular focus on exploring architecture’s role in oppression. Born and raised in Tokyo, Shoboji has studied and worked in 10 different cities across five countries. After earning a Master of Architecture from the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), Shoboji went on to design innovative and environmentally responsive projects at Coop Himmelb(l)au, Behr Browers Architects, and David Hertz Architects. In 2011, she received the AIANY Women in Architecture Recognition Award. She was in the 2020 class of the AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) which inspired her to transition to a new professional challenge at the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC).
Q: How did you decide to pursue architecture?
A: When I was little, I was fascinated by perspective drawings and used to draw a lot. When I was 9, my family moved to a duplex to live with my grandparents. At the time, my grandfather said he would give me $20 if I designed a house—so I did! Although my design was not selected, it was fun. As I grew older and went to college, I majored in economics, to “get a good job”. However, when I read about Shigeru Ban’s paper church and community center, constructed out of donated paper tubes by volunteers right after the Kobe Great Earthquake in 1995, I could not stop myself from changing my career to architecture.
Q: What are some of your favorite recent projects that you’ve worked on?
A: The Queens Garage and Community Space project. This is the NYC Department of Design and Construction (DDC)’s first ever design-build project, and I am very honored to be the design lead for it. The fast-paced collaboration with the extremely talented team, despite COVID, has been amazing. I am also a design lead at DDC for the Borough Based Jails—a project seeking to create transformative, humane, smaller, safer, and fairer jails. These projects are required to safely close Rikers Island. I am very blessed to work with such a passionate team of diverse professionals working hard together to truly improve the city that we live in.
Q: What do you see as an architect’s role—and responsibility—within our culture?
A: When I worked for David Hertz, I was shocked how much he was involved in the community. The office itself became one of the first LEED Platinum buildings in Santa Monica in 2007, and we used to give office tours to David’s children’s classes and their parents all the time. He was constantly reaching out and teaching the importance of design and sustainable materials and technologies to the community of a variety of ages and professions. I believe the architect’s role and responsibilities, besides providing beautiful and functional design, is to promote and advocate positive dialogues towards a better community.
Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges, or opportunities, facing cities today?
A: COVID has further revealed the inequalities present in New York City, but it also revealed how we can be kind to each other and how to speak up for each other. New York City’s equitable recovery depends on people’s kindness. Kindness would also promote more productivity and prosperity for the city in the long run.
Another opportunity for New York City public projects is the design-build approach. Now, using design-build delivery method, New York City can select the design builders based on “best value” and not the “lowest bidder”. This process will also realize the city’s policies much faster than before. I believe that architects should play a significant role in these transformations.
Q: What are your greatest sources of inspiration?
A: My kids and their friends—their minds have no boundaries. When they ask “why?”, I often start questioning the things that I had stopped questioning once becoming an adult. They teach me to never stop questioning. They teach me how to try something new, and how to make new friends. Then, there are the groups of people around me who are so passionate about making New York City a better place. My children’s PTA, the AIANY Civic Leadership Program (CLP) cohort and advisors, the AIANY Architecture for Justice Committee members and amazing guest speakers. The teams I work with every day teach me so much and inspire me. I hope one day I can share this same inspiration to the people I meet, too.