Elevated Conversations: Melody Tang, AIA, and Ryan Jang, AIA
AIA’s new series, Elevated Conversations, will feature architects from diverse backgrounds and their perspectives on their career paths, changes they’ve seen in the profession, the importance of diversity and inclusion, and more. To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Elevated Conversations' inaugural article features two prominent young architects, Melody Tang, AIA, project architect and associate at LPA Design Studios’ Irvine, California, office and Ryan Jang, AIA, principal at Leddy Maytum Stacy Architects in San Francisco. Both Tang and Jang are honorees of the 2022 AIA Young Architects Award.
What inspired you to become an architect?
Melody Tang: When I was little, I loved everything to do with being creative. I loved drawing, crafting, writing, music, everything that had to do with “artsy-ness.” I had parents who looked at that and said, “Well, we don’t want you to be a starving artist.” In high school they encouraged me to put my interests to use in a practical way and they suggested that I look into architecture as a way to blend my interest in art and my technical skills.
And of course, I loved playing with Legos as a kid, which I think many architects did. I used to set up these imaginary environments for my dolls to live in, and [my parents] took that as a sign that [architecture would] be a good career for me to pursue.
Ryan Jang: I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, but at the high school that I went to, you had to choose a visual or performing art as an elective. I didn’t think I was very artistic, but I saw a class called “Art and Architecture” and I thought, “ How hard can that be?”
I signed up for it and the teacher, Hugh Aanonsen, was an older architect who just happened to be a great teacher, a great mentor, and a great inspiration to follow in that path. So that class that I chose on a whim, in combination with an internship program that paired high school students with different professionals to shadow for six weeks during the summer, inspired me to go to college for architecture.
Who was your role model or mentor when you were studying architecture?
MT: When I went to school at Cornell, one of my biggest role models was a student a few years ahead of me named Jerome Garciano. He acted like a big brother to me and helped me get acclimated to the very demanding environment of the design studio. That’s so important for young people; there’s a high attrition rate for people entering design school and it’s extremely taxing mentally, physically, and emotionally due to the long hours and the brutal critique sessions.
Having someone who went through the whole thing, who had the full perspective, and was able to give me advice and encouragement – he even gifted me his drafting supplies after he graduated—that was valuable to me.
RJ: I had several wonderful professors at California Polytechnic State University. [Students] spend a lot of time in the studio environment with professors and [stay] with them for a long time. This gave me an opportunity to get to know our professors well and develop strong relationships. Tom di Santo was a great role model when I took his class.
At my internship at HOK I worked with Thomas Pippin. He’s still an architect now and was probably only in his twenties then. He was just the coolest guy I could imagine as an 18-year-old. He made architecture look so cool and I appreciated his time and willingness to help me along. I’ve been lucky to have great people show me there are possibilities in architecture that I just wasn’t aware of.
What advice do you have for young people looking to become architects?
RJ: Get your hands dirty and jump right in, and I mean that literally. Some of the best advice I got was to work in construction or on construction sites to see how the buildings that we design are actually built. Seeing the ways in which they physically come together will make you a better architect.
Jump into community organizing and engagement in the communities that we’re a part of. Get involved in our neighborhoods and politics because the buildings we design are inherently political. One thing I love about architecture is that it really is a generalist profession at its heart. As architects we’re called upon to wear a wide variety of hats and really think about the details, but also to look at the broader scale and the big idea of whatever it is we’re currently working on.
Embracing all of these ideas as a generalist is really important, but also one of the most fun parts of the job. It makes every day a little bit different.
MT: Be open to learning from every experience and stay humble and curious. I find that a lot of young people in this profession are very ambitious, and I think that’s a generational thing. There’s a sense of urgency where [young] people feel as though they need to succeed very quickly and climb the ladder immediately, but there’s so much learning in the field. You have to have knowledge in so many areas and it’s hard to become good very quickly.
There’s no replacing the time that it takes to collect layers and layers of knowledge. It’s not just technical knowledge, but you need to have a lot of soft skills that require years to learn. You need to be able to communicate, negotiate, deal with difficult situations, and lead your team through the entire building process, including working with contractors, clients, tradespeople, consultants, and many others. It takes a lot of people skills and those aren’t things you learn how to do in school. Have patience, be humble and continue to learn.
Why is diversity especially important in architecture?
MT: I think there’s two different responses to this. One is, “Why is diversity important for our clients?” and the other is, “Why is diversity important for us?”
From our clients’ perspectives, architects can prove our value by reflecting the demographics of the people we’re serving. If a firm shows up to a meeting with a potential client and no one on the design team looks or acts anything like them, how are they going to be convinced that we can relate to them or understand their cultural context? It’s not always tied to race or ethnicity, but it might be tied to socioeconomic or religious or political backgrounds. There’s tons of ways to be diverse.
And why is diversity important to us as architects? Mentoring a more diverse pipeline of young professionals to grow up into future leaders will help us become better at what we do. If everyone leading a firm looks, acts, or thinks the same way you’re not going to get a lot of groundbreaking or innovative ideas. You will miss out on a whole new realm of possibilities by going in a different direction. An increase in diversity will help architects continue to innovate.
RJ: Having people of different backgrounds will inevitably lead to having different perspectives. Those diverse perspectives will make our buildings stronger and better. At our best, we as architects can design authentically for the communities that we serve. In order to create or design a building that reflects its community, the people that are working on the design of those buildings must be diverse.
I was born and raised in San Francisco, but further back my family were immigrants to the Bay Area. For me, my journey has been one of exploring issues such as belonging. What does it mean to belong to a place, to a community, to a firm, or to any given social group?
In thinking about the idea of belonging I’ve become more self-aware when I’m designing a building, by thinking about who I am designing for and thinking about how I can help design a sense of welcome into all of our buildings. Hopefully diversity can help lead to an authentic representation of the communities that we serve.
What are some of the biggest changes in the field of architecture since you started your career?
RJ: When I was in school and starting my career, so much of the conversation about architecture was around style and aesthetics; this style of architecture versus the next. I’m pleased that it seems like we’ve moved beyond that. Instead of focusing simply on how a building looks, it feels like we’re thinking more and more about other topics related to the built environment such as environmental sustainability, resilience and a reduced carbon footprint.
There’s more of a conversation about how buildings reflect the diversity of the community that they serve, and how they can be welcoming places. I appreciate that topics like building performance and inclusion are prominent.
The practice of architecture seems to be moving on from this idea of singular authorship, beyond the idea that the boss is sketching things on a napkin and giving it to others to see through to completion. Things have gotten more sophisticated; the buildings we design require a more collaborative approach that incorporates a variety of voices and perspectives. It makes the design of these buildings richer and fuller than if they were designed by a single person.
MT: There’s been an increase in the amount of paperwork and documentation that’s required to get a building from the design phases all the way through plan check and then construction, which feels like a reflection of the increasingly complicated world we find ourselves in.
But in general, there seems to be more diversity in terms of racial and gender dynamics, which keeps me hopeful for the profession. There are certainly a lot more opportunities for people who don’t look like the majority—what people generally think of as architects—which is older white men.
There’s still a lot of room for improvement in terms of equity. The beginning stages of the pipeline are diverse; there’s more diversity in terms of people entering the field, whether they’re studying architecture or they’re hired in entry level positions. But when you look at firm principals, that area is still lacking in diversity.
If you had a magic wand, what would you change or improve about the field of architecture?
RJ: Our profession doesn’t have as much of a diversity of perspectives or backgrounds as we’d all like. It’s hard to change that. It takes a long time for curious high school students to become practicing professionals. The pipeline takes a long time to build.
When people ask why the profession isn’t more diverse, the classic answer is that it takes a long time, but to me that’s a poor excuse. We need to give people with different backgrounds a reason to stay in architecture by showing that they provide value to clients, by proving that they can be trusted advisors and confidants and experts in their field.
MT: There are so many things we could improve, but one thing that has stuck out recently is that people don’t really understand the value of what we do, and I’d like to fix that. The general public might have an idea put into their heads by popular culture, but that often leads to cost-cutting, which can lead to lower morale and burnout. As architects, I think we can do a better job of communicating our value as problem solvers, as people who have a wealth of knowledge in a bunch of fields of study.
I truly think we have a unique ability to come up with creative solutions to different problems, such as the day-to-day problems that clients see in their lives -- in their homes or their workplace or their kids' schools. But if you blow that up to a bigger scale, I think we have the unique skills to address some of the bigger challenges that society faces like climate change and equity. Architects bring a lot to the table. We have so much to offer, and I’d like to ensure that the public can see that.