Interview: Gordon H. Chong, FAIA, Architect

    For Gordon H. Chong, FAIA, architecture is more than just designing buildings. He believes in "community-based architecture" that focuses on designing and constructing public buildings such as hospitals, schools and cultural buildings.

Chong's firm, Gordon H. Chong and Partners in San Francisco, is currently designing the Jewish Museum in San Francisco along with the renowned architect Daniel Libeskind from Berlin and is working on several hospitals and the School of the Arts in San Francisco.

Chong, 57, who lives with his wife, Dorian, and two daughters, in Berkeley, Calif., is a vice-president of the American Institute of Architecture and the organization's president-elect for the year 2002.

He grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii, and attended the University of Oregon where he graduated with a bachelor's degree in architecture in 1966. He then went to Edinburgh University in Scotland where he received a master's degree in 1968. After working for two San Francisco area firms, he began his own firm in 1976.

Chong has served as a member of the AIA Board of Directors since 1997 and led the "Redefinition of the Profession" task force. He was admitted to the College of Fellows in 1994. 

Q: Why were you attracted to the field of architecture?

My father was an artist and I grew up in an environment surrounded by design and it left a great impression on me about the importance of design in one's life. I became excited when I figured out that those of us who have a design orientation see the world differently than those who don't.

Q: What do you like most about being an architect?

I like to build things and I enjoy seeing a finalized product, if you will, and like most of us, I have a right brain and left brain side of me that architecture brings together and integrates.

Q: Can you give an example of community-based architecture?

We recently did a senior housing facility and it was just over 100 units. There were 3,000 applicants for the 100 units. I was walking through the facility and the residents would come up and thank me and tell me how wonderful the facility was. It was very touching.

Q: What do you see as the future of architecture?

These are really exciting times for young students who might be interested in architecture primarily because the profession is changing so rapidly. One of the things I'm leading at the American Institute of Architecture is a program called "the Redefinition of the Profession."

It begins to talk about what we refer to as "upstream strategic planning and consultancy" to clients that may or may not result in a building. It may tell someone how to better utilize their existing facilities whatever their business objectives may be.

Additionally, there will be more of what we refer to as "downstream opportunities" working as part of the construction industry and the facilities management industry and the computer industry and the visualization industry are all areas that architects are now entering.

Q: What qualities do you need to become an architect?

The most important skill is to be inquisitive and to have a desire for constant knowledge development and to be unafraid of change.

Q: What other abilities should you have?

You need to have a balance between right brain/left brain skills sets. You have to have strong communication skills, multifaceted from writing to verbal. You need strong leadership skills because you are dealing with many people and you need to have a business sense to be able to understand strategic planning and those issues that drive your client's decision making.

Q: What do you look for when you're hiring young architects?

I look for someone who will set the culture of our firm, somebody who has that thirst for knowledge and has the ability to change and grow.

Q: What should young people look for in an architecture school?

The interesting thing about architecture schools is that they thrive on the fact that they are not all the same. We are able to celebrate different approaches through education. It's like anything else, it is a matter of finding the right match. There are many schools of architecture that are wonderful schools that may not be the highest brand schools.

Q: What can young people do now to prepare for a career in architecture?

I would suggest that they travel and expose themselves to a variety of cultural experiences. Being open to experiences is very important. Be sensitive to differences and be able to identify those differences, whether it's about the way people respond to buildings or the differences of why some spaces feel better.


Updated June 10, 2001
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