Fairway resident Phillip Hofstra uses a crab’s sideways and slow movement down a sandy beach as a metaphor for his winding career path.
The acclaimed Kansas City architect and professor of design at the University of Kansas School of Architecture, Design and Planning hasn’t moved in a straight line from practicing with some of Kansas City’s — and the world’s — most well-known architectural firms such as HNTB and HOK Sport (now Populous) to the halls of KU.
Hofstra’s wide-ranging career at KU includes graduate student, two stints as a professor and associate dean. He earned his doctorate from KU’s American studies program while working at HOK and teaching at the university.
And now, his path has led him to winning the KU’s coveted and prestigious HOPE award — Honor for an Outstanding Progressive Educator — the only KU honor for teaching excellence bestowed exclusively by students through a ballot-and-interview process.
“I received an e-mail on my phone saying I was a HOPE finalist and I looked at it in disbelief, convinced it had been sent to the wrong person,” says Hofstra. “I thought, ‘Any minute now someone is going to hit the retraction button and say this message wasn’t intended for me.’ ”
When his name echoed over the Memorial Stadium loudspeaker Nov. 17 at the KU-Iowa State Football game as the winner, you could have knocked him over with a Jayhawk feather.
Hofstra has seamlessly combined a rich and varied career as an acclaimed architect with teaching and mentoring design students at one of the country’s top-ranked schools of architecture.
At KU, Hofstra perpetuates a student-focused teaching method through studio classes, an intimate setting that allows him and his colleagues in the design department to work with the same students up to 12 hours a week.
During his tenure at HOK, Hofstra directed a creative conceptual design unit called the “Studio.” It was that style of small-group teaching that Hofstra translated to KU.
Kate Medin, a 2013 master of architecture candidate at KU, says Hofstra influenced her education with his innovative teaching by breaking away from the usual rhetoric to challenge the norm when it comes to design.
“Dr. Hofstra tasks his students to ask why things are the way they are, how they could be and what elements could possibly fade away,” says Medin. “Rather than getting bogged down in unemployment statistics, he moves on to question what the evolving role today’s designer should have in society to better our world. It was Hofstra that said, ‘Follow the need, not the money, and you will ultimately find success.’ ”
Jane Mobley is perhaps Hofstra’s biggest cheerleader and confidante. His wife of 36 years, Mobley believes her husband’s many colleagues and students over the years would agree he models what he considers basics.
“I’m not sure how Phil would sum those up, but from the outside they look like this: Believe in design as a decision process that creates good solutions. Commit yourself to shared success. Give your best effort every time to everything you do,” says Mobley.
And Mobley says it’s been a long time since Hofstra’s life in design was only about buildings.
“Maybe in the beginning, but over the years, as he taught and practiced architecture, the core of what he does changed,” says Mobley. “I like to say that he used to design buildings, but now he builds designers.”
One of Hofstra’s characteristics is humility, a quality that has served him well during the decades he has left a remarkable footprint in the world of architecture and design, both practicing and teaching. A consummate collaborator, Hofstra is humbled by the HOPE award, saying it belongs to the school and not just him.
“I happened to be the person who was in front of the seniors when they nominated me,” he says. “But I know this is the culmination of the collective experiences they have had with the many great teachers in our school.”
There’s a traditional expression Hofstra says his family uses when accomplishments are publicly recognized.
“If you find a turtle on a fence post, you know it didn’t get there by itself,” he says.
Mobley fondly remembers the nickname Hofstra’s younger Populous coworkers affectionately gave him.
“Yoda,” she says. “Probably for a number of reasons, but likely because Phil is a walking example of Yoda’s mantra: ‘There is no try. There is only do or do not.’ ”