How She Got There: A Conversation with Vivian Lee
The first in an eventual series on mentorship, with mentors. By Julia Gamolina
Vivian Lee is the only female Associate Partner at Richard Meier & Partners in the firm’s fifty-two-year history. Having lived and practiced abroad extensively, Lee brings an extraordinary diversity of experiences to her twenty-four years as an architect. She has worked on both interiors and new construction projects of all types and scales—from corporate interiors and institutions, to high-end retail and high-rise towers. Her philosophy and approach to architecture is characterized by being well-rounded, and having a dedicated love for her work and an unending inner-drive despite facing challenges in the industry. She finds poetry in the technical aspects of architecture and believes that truly great architecture should make a contribution to society. In this interview with her mentee Julia Gamolina, Junior Architect at Gabellini Sheppard Associates, Lee shows us how unexpected opportunities help us shape our careers into exactly what we want them to be.
JG: What drew you to architecture?
VL: My approach to architecture is about creating a vision, a design statement, with beautiful and functional spaces. The technical aspects are as important as the design, crafting the details to express the design and being conscientious about delivering practical solutions without compromising the architecture.
How would you summarize your approach to building a career?
The key word is diversity. I don’t want to be the person who specializes. To be a good architect you also have to be very well-rounded and exposed to all different aspects of the building process.
In terms of approach, every career choice that I made has always been something I’ve wanted, which has always led me to something better. I take the expression “stepping stone” literally. That’s how my career has been paved out—one stone to another stone to another stone. Once you know what you want, things just fall into place.
How did you get your start?
My first job was with a boutique firm in Italy, doing mostly commercial and retail interiors. I loved starting in interiors because it’s about feelings, atmospheres, intimate tactile qualities—there’s a direct relationship and connection with the users. To be a good architect, you also need to understand interior architecture, and unfortunately not all architects do.
However, architecture is about entire buildings! At a certain point I felt that I needed to cover more ground and explore the world outside of interiors. When I came back to the US after five years in Italy, I worked for SOM on the San Francisco International Airport and then had the opportunity to join Gensler in Hong Kong.
Are you happy with your decision to become an architect?
Being an architect completes and defines who I am. Without architecture, I’d be very lost because I wouldn’t have one outlet to channel my passions. Everything that I do and I like to do, as my hobby, I am able to do in my work.
For example, I love going to art galleries and I love the creative process of fashion design. The creative energy is the same amongst all these fields. The process, the concept, the creation, the lines, how you package everything together. An outfit is not just about the dress; an outfit is the dress and the shoes and the hat and the accessories. A building is not just a building – it’s about materials, scale, line, space. It’s a whole package.
Of course, like any job, even though you want it and are passionate about it, there are good days and bad days. But challenges make you better and stronger, especially if you always try to learn from your mistakes.
Can you describe some of the challenges?
The first time I really felt a challenge was when I was in Italy, and my boss wouldn’t send me to the job site. He said a woman on a job site is like “legna d’ardere”, which means they are “firewood”—tossed into the fire and burned. That really affected me.
How has it affected you?
I always felt like I had to prove myself—to my colleagues, to clients, consultants, construction managers. When you’re a woman on a construction site—a minority woman, no less—you can be eaten alive. So I always felt that I needed to know what I am talking about so there can be no questions about it, by anybody. That is how I earn respect. But women still have to earn it, and it is a real challenge, even today.
Speaking of diversity, how did you achieve such breadth in your career?
Well, I always knew I wanted to be in New York. To quote Frank Sinatra: “…if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” My first job in the city was with Peter Marino doing interior projects again.
Peter is a genius and a brilliant designer, but he is very eccentric. During my time there, I began to question my goal and purpose as an architect. I asked myself if I really wanted to design ultra-luxury stores catered only to a select group of people. I wasn’t comfortable doing that, so I went to EYP Architecture & Engineering to work on more institutional projects—schools and universities. I was a project architect on the Fine Arts Building for New Jersey City University, which was my first time running a ground-up building. It was sink or swim, and I had to learn how to swim really quickly. I did a lot of research to educate and push myself—this is where the subconscious need to prove myself appeared again. EYP was a great springboard for me. I really owe them for providing me the first opportunity to do a complete building.
That’s a nice marker for the middle of your career. Did you feel like you were getting closer to finding your passion, your niche within the field?
I was thirty-one when I began to realize that institutional work is extremely rewarding. It felt like I was giving something back.
With two school projects at EYP under my belt, Polshek Partnership hired me to do my third, which was the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts, a high school in Queens. To have an opportunity to design a school for these extremely talented students in music, acting, theatre and dance was exactly what I always wanted to do. I believed that a well-designed environment can inspire students to become better at what they do. It made me feel that being an architect is not just about designing a building, but contributing to a greater cause. The building was my gift.
How did this lead to your joining Richard Meier and Partners?
I was traveling in Rome when the Ara Pacis was under construction. There was a great white billboard that said “Richard Meier and Partners,” and I wondered to myself, “Who is the lucky person working for Richard Meier & Partners on this project in Italy? That’s the job I want!”
Years later, I came across a job posting looking for an “Italian/English speaking architect with a master’s degree who uses Microstation.” That was me! At the time, I wasn’t even really looking for a new job, but when I saw it, it was exactly what I wanted, to be able to work on a project in Italy. The company on the job posting was anonymous but when I submitted my resume, I learned that it was with Richard Meier and Partners. The stars aligned!
How have you grown during your time with RMP?
My first completed project with Richard Meier was the Italcementi i.lab in Bergamo, Italy. It was completed in 2013 and to date, it is the best project I have ever worked on. During construction, we went to the site every two to three months to conduct site inspections, discuss all the coordination issues, and meet with the contractor, manufacturers, and vendors. The construction team would go to a trattoria nearby for lunch, and it felt like one big happy family with everyone seated around a big round table. There was a bond, a friendship that was built over a three-year construction period. So the last trip, I sat at this table and I looked around at everyone and started crying! They looked at me like I was crazy, but it had been such a great experience. Then everyone felt it too and got misty eyed.
Now you’ve got me crying just talking about it!
To find this kind of working relationship is harder than finding the perfect husband. This is about finding a group of individuals who are dedicated to one common goal. To find a team that works so well together is extremely rare. Of course you have your shouting matches, but at the end everyone just wants what is best for the project. It was such a wonderful experience that when the project was finished, we were very sad. We knew there wouldn’t be another opportunity to work together again. It’s just too rare.
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of?
I’m proud of all the schools that I’ve worked on. I’m proud that I can mentor younger architects. I am most proud of becoming an associate partner at Richard Meier and Partners. I always felt very fortunate that I get paid to do what I’m passionate about, to have fun, to learn, to have all these great experiences, to be a better person. If I didn’t have the title, I would still be enjoying what I do. Looking back after 24 years, I think I’m at the climax, the peak, of my career. Being recognized for doing what I love is the ultimate satisfaction.
What did it take?
You really need to be dedicated. If you love what you do and you’re dedicated to what you do, it doesn’t take much for others to see it.
What does “being dedicated” mean for you?
I sleep very little! A client asked me today, “when do you stop?” because he sees the time that I send emails. I wake up at 3:00am. When you have a lot to do, the energy just keeps going. I hardly ever go home before 7:30pm.
I make a point though, even if I work late, to go home and have dinner with my boyfriend. That’s very important for me. We don’t see very much of each other during the day. He’s also an architect, so we understand each other.
What is the next step for you?
I am not sure yet, but I believe the right opportunity will come, because it has always come. If you prepare yourself, things are always going to line up. In the book The Corner Office, Adam Bryant says, “don’t plan a career—prepare for one,” which means diversify and build a skill set. Whatever the next opportunity is, even if it’s a small project, it has to be worth my time. My work isn’t about the paycheck anymore. I will only do something I feel strongly about, because I have choices now.
I don’t see myself at RMP forever. Maybe I’m ready to start something of my own…
Why did you become involved with ArchiteXX?
I think I’m at a stage of my career where I feel I can actually share my experience with younger architects. My purpose in joining ArchiteXX was about mentorship to women. Women can have male mentors, but men sometimes don’t understand the range of challenges women go through. ArchiteXX is the perfect venue to do so. And of course, that’s how I met you!
I thought about teaching, but I’d rather mentor young architects like you who are confident in becoming dedicated architects and who are active about learning about the profession. I’m very result-oriented, so I would like to positively impact someone who will truly benefit from a mentorship.
I want there to be more women in architecture at the forefront and running projects. Nicole Dosso is the technical director at SOM, and working on one of the biggest projects in that office. I have a lot of respect for her. She’s really playing in the “men’s field”.
What advice do you have for other mentors?
Mentors need to recognize the potential of their mentee. Once you recognize their enthusiasm you inspire and push your mentee to the fullest of her or his potential.
Julia Gamolina is a New York City-based designer, writer, and illustrator. Her academic and professional work focus on branding and identity on all scales—interior, architectural, and urban—with a particular interest in fashion brands. She is a Junior Architect at Gabellini Sheppard Associates and is interested in career development and new models of professional practice within the industry.
Top image: © Richard Meier & Partners