Enrique Acosta

Spotlight: Enrique Acosta

More than a decade since moving from Mexico City to San Francisco for an internship at SOM, Enrique Acosta is recruiting and mentoring the next generation of architects.


I am an Associate Principal and a co-studio head here in San Francisco. Our office is organized into small studios, so that when people join SOM, right away they belong to a team. Our studio doesn’t have a single speciality; we’re generalists, and that’s what’s exciting. You can get opportunities to work on many types of projects—residential towers, civic buildings, even airports. We’re constantly learning along the way. 

I joined SOM as an intern in 2010. This was a year after I earned my bachelor degree in Mexico City. I graduated in the middle of a terrible economic recession, and I couldn’t find any jobs with architecture firms in Mexico. But I decided to take this as an opportunity—I partnered with a friend and we started working on our own. We landed a couple of small jobs: we refurbished a number of coffee shops in the city, remodeled an office space, and designed a small manufacturing facility. I learned a lot from working with contractors and builders, and from interacting with clients. But I was always thinking about what was next. I really wanted to do large-scale projects.

So, I reached out to my university. I had developed really great relationships in the architecture department there, particularly with the dean, Carolyn Aguilar. I told her I was looking for opportunities. That year, I also visited New York City for the first time. Ahead of my trip I put together a list of must-see buildings, and many of the buildings on that list were designed by SOM. I was already familiar with the firm, but when I spent the time visiting these buildings, taking photographs, sketching, my appreciation for SOM went to a different level. I was really impressed by the firm’s legacy and by the quality and breadth of work.

After a few months, my dean called me. She said, “I know about an opportunity to work abroad. Are you interested?” My first reaction was, no way. My whole world was in Mexico—my family, my circle of friends. I had no intention to move. But then she told me, “This is an internship in San Francisco, for Skidmore, Owings & Merrill.” That’s when my eyes opened. I decided to apply, and a while later, I got an email from SOM offering me a three-month internship.

Enrique Acosta at San Francisco office, 2010
Enrique explores the materials library during his 2010 internship in the San Francisco office.

I came to San Francisco not knowing what to expect. I didn’t speak English as a first language. I tried to learn as much as I could, and I made a lot of mistakes along the way. One of the toughest things at first was understanding the architectural lingo. I didn’t ask a lot of questions, but I was always listening. I would carry a dictionary in my pocket and I would write down words, just how they sounded to me. Then I would search for them in the dictionary so that I could get up to speed with how we communicate in the office. Today, one piece of advice I give to young architects is to be courageous and ask as many questions as you can. That’s the only way to continue learning and accelerate your career path.

Fortunately, during those first months at SOM, I had really good people around me, supporting me and coaching me. It was a great experience. Three months became six months when I requested additional time. I was going to request another extension to make it nine, but my boss stopped me right there and said, “Well, if you’re interested in continuing here, why don’t we hire you next year?” He made me an offer in 2011, and that completely changed my life.

I’ve been lucky enough to have really good mentors, and now I’m at the point where I’m mentoring others.

I didn’t know exactly what the future would bring, but I knew at the time that SOM was a great fit for me. It’s been 11 years now. After putting in the work and understanding what it takes to start as a junior architect, getting those years of experience, now I’m working with my teams to establish the design direction for our projects. It’s been a great journey.

What really inspires me at SOM is the people. There’s an incredible number of smart, talented people working for this firm and contributing at the highest level. I’ve been lucky enough to have really good mentors, and now I’m at the point where I’m mentoring others. Javier Arizmendi, the person who hired me, has been my mentor through the years. I’ve learned a whole lot from him and he’s been incredibly supportive along the way.

Enrique Acosta presents in the San Francisco office.
Enrique presents his team's work at a 2019 design forum.

Things are changing culturally at SOM. There’s more youth in our leadership, and there’s more diversity as well. When I joined, I was the only Mexican intern in the office. Since then, I’ve established an internship program with my university—I get to bring in interns from Mexico to work with us. With the pandemic, we put that program on hold, but I’m hoping that in the next few months we can resume it. The people who have interned in our office coming from Mexico have done an incredible job. Some of them have been given the opportunity to extend their internships, just like I did. It’s been so rewarding to see students and young architects coming here and making significant contributions.

I’m part of the Equity Action Team that was formed at SOM. My focus is on expanding mentorship—it’s something I’m really invested in. Our goal is to continue shaping a mentorship program that is equitable and accessible to everybody. We are looking at all of these questions—what’s the ideal structure for a mentorship? What’s the best pairing and matching system? What are the resources you need to provide a mentor so that they feel equipped? Now we’re in the process of building a program that can be deployed firmwide.

I’m also part of Arquitectos, which is a resource group within the firm, inspired by the Chicago-based organization of the same name. We started the group last year around this same time. During Hispanic Heritage Month, my colleagues in Chicago organized a forum and asked me to speak about my experiences as a Latin American architect at SOM. From there, I connected with many people I didn’t know before. I’ve been getting to know more Hispanic and Latino architects who have been through similar paths and journeys. Now we have this platform that allows us to share information and experiences.

I’ve come to find that the education I received in Mexico as an architect was incredible. Even though when I first joined SOM, I was extremely intimidated—I was afraid I would make mistakes. I didn’t know the software that they used here. I had a lot to learn in those first few months, but I eventually realized that I came here well-equipped.

Architecture takes a very long time—you could be working on a project for four or five years. But at the end, when you see it built, it’s so rewarding. Out of 30 or more projects I’ve been involved with, a few really stand out. One is the San Diego Federal Courthouse. I got to work with a great team and learn the fundamentals of how you put a building together. The second is 500 Folsom, a residential tower that was recently completed in San Francisco. That’s one of my biggest achievements. I came here not knowing the city, and now I can look at this building that I had a significant role in designing. It’s just an incredible feeling.

500 Folsom
500 Folsom in San Francisco

Now we’re working on an office building for San Mateo County in Redwood City, California. It’s going to be the first net-zero project of its kind in the Bay Area. We used timber instead of concrete and steel to significantly reduce the building’s carbon footprint. It’s under construction now, and hopefully by 2023 we’ll see it built. Those are the three big projects that I’ve been the most proud of at SOM.

COB3 project in Redwood City
Rendering of SOM's design for a net-zero office building in Redwood City, California