2023 Women Of Live: Michelle Stevenson
Principal, Sr. Project Architect | HKS
Michelle Stevenson has a knack for being in the right place at the right time during her 23-year career as a sports architect.
Take SoFi Stadium for example. Stevenson, a principal at HKS in the firm’s Los Angeles office, started work immediately on the signature project at the time she joined the company eight years ago. Stevenson worked on the seating bowl design and the YouTube Theater next door.
Stevenson, from Thousand Oaks, California, an LA suburb, said she “jumped right into the fire” for planning the two-team NFL facility after Scott Hunter, HKS regional director and Stevenson’s former colleague at NBBJ, contacted her out of the blue about joining his new firm for an interesting project in Los Angeles.
“SoFi is in my hometown, and I felt very strong about that opportunity,” she said. “The project was so big that we had three different groups working on it across different time zones.”
For Stevenson, it’s been a bit of an unconventional path, mixed with lots of hard work, from growing up as a high school athlete and cramming as many sports as possible into three seasons, most notably track and soccer, to designing a $5 billion sports venue.
Her parents were both engineers, so the blood ran thick in terms of her analytical mind. Stevenson also did well in the arts. At the same time, she had no preconceived notions about pursuing architecture as a vocation as she went off to college at Rice University in Houston.
“I didn’t have that grandiose feeling and didn’t idolize any specific architect,” she said. “I came in there with the attitude of ‘I’m going to learn from this profession’ and found out I could mix my passion for sports with this discipline.”
While still in college, Stevenson picked up an LA phone book to see which local firms could provide her with some practical experience. She discovered Lefler and Associates, a small firm, so small in fact, that it consisted of three full-time employees, including the receptionist, before Stevenson came on board as a seasonal hire.
Stevenson returned to Lefler after graduation and spent three years at the firm before moving to NBBJ to work on larger scale projects in sports. She had cold-called Robert Mankin, an NBBJ principal, after he visited Rice and spoke to students about the architecture industry. There were no jobs open at the time, but Stevenson was persistent, eventually got hired and spent 10 years there, working on Pauley Pavilion and Rupp Arena renovations.
Pauley Pavilion, UCLA’s storied basketball arena, was the one project that shaped Stevenson’s skills as a sports designer. She spent 18 months on campus, working from schematic design through to construction administration.
Moving to HKS to work on SoFi Stadium in 2015 came during a sharp decline in stadium projects, according to Stevenson. The market would soon heat between SoFi and Allegiant Stadium.
“I was lucky,” she said.
Then came COVID-19. SoFi Stadium opened in 2020 for events without spectators, which for the NFL, meant no tailgating, except for those working on the development.
“I did not pause during the pandemic,” Stevenson said. “I just sat in the field in a trailer. I laugh, because I tailgated before anybody else did. I would eat my lunch in the back of my car in the parking lot.”