A Silver Jubilee Celebration

Carlton’s Twenty-fifth MWAnniversary 

Principals Sitting Together

A graduate of Tuskegee University, Carlton Smith, FAIA, NOMAC, joined MWA Architects in 1995 after spending the early part of his career in commercial architecture. In the early ’90s, while on a work trip, he realized that he wanted his work to contribute to humanity. He wanted to look back at the end of his career and know that he had used his skills to profoundly affect the community. This realization brought him to join Michael Willis and Associates, Architects. Since joining the firm, he has been responsible for some of the firm’s most innovative civic-minded work, including the extensively published County of Alameda Self-Sufficiency Center, Thomas Berkley Square, and Youth UpRising.  

During his career, Carlton has continued to serve the architectural community through his commitments to the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA) and The American Institute of Architects San Francisco (AIASF). He served as President of the national organization and on the Board of Directors, respectively.  

From all of us at MWA, thank you for your hard work and dedication to guiding the firm to what it is today. 

When you started your career, why did you want to become an architect? 

With over 40 years in the profession, I must admit that I didn’t have altruistic intentions when I entered school. I didn’t have role models in the profession or knew of anyone who looked like me. At the time, I was on a student draft deferment (the Vietnam War). I liked to draw, but I wasn’t an artist. I did enjoy building things and was in search of a bona fide and sustainable career.  

Needless to say, my views of my place in the profession have changed over the years, and I feel that I have made contributions. 

What is one piece of advice you would give every aspiring designer? 

Make yourself indispensable! Take your work seriously, work hard, and everything else you desire will follow throughout your career. 

Looking Back

What stage of your career have you enjoyed the most?  

The best of times was being a project architect. I enjoyed putting things together and being out in the field seeing things getting built. 

What trait of MWA Architects makes you most proud to work here? 

The passion that we have for the work that we do and for the people we design for. 

How has your job changed in the last few years?  

I have been fortunate enough to continue a good balance of design, management and mentoring.  

What has been the most difficult skill for you to develop?  

Public speaking has never been my forte. I do it because I have to. I prefer more intimate settings where I can make direct connections. 

What phase of a project is your favorite? 

Learning about a client and their needs is a favorite of mine… getting to know a client is very rewarding for me. 

What project has been your favorite to work on?  

The Self-Sufficiency Center at Eastmont. It was our first project for Alameda County, CA. We helped them program a new way of providing services to their clients and helped to transform a dying shopping mall into a thriving community support facility. All of our clients associated with the project were thankful for our help and it has led to a relationship lasting over 20 years. 

“Carlton brought a forward-looking approach to our practice, particularly in interiors. [His] design was always at the highest level, no matter the economic status of our clients.  At the Eastmont Town Center, he featured open-air with a rolled back roof and a police station that looked like a modernist hotel lobby—with space for community meetings.  And my favorite picture from that time, the open garage door of the Youth Uprising project with the eternally joyful “Dancing Kid” in the open space. Here’s to another 25.”   

Michael Willis, FAIA, founder of MWA Architects, née Michael Willis and Associates, Architects 

What has kept you at the firm for this long? 

I have enjoyed the work that we do and the people that make up the firm. Of course, not everything has been perfect, but we continue to find ways to make things better.   

What do you hope MWA will achieve in the future? 

As the firm continues to mature, I see opportunities for the firm to gain national recognition for the work that we do on behalf of the communities that we serve. We are doing great work, but the recognition for it is limited.    

I hope that my legacy of hard work toward achieving success continues to impact the firm. 

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