Graham S. Wyatt, FAIA, a Partner at Robert A.M. Stern Architects since 1989, is one of the firm’s Studio Leaders, responsible for the design and management of large, complex projects for academic institutions including Yale, Harvard, Stanford, the University of Virginia, Penn State, the University of Michigan, Tsinghua University in Beijing, and many others, as well as corporate headquarters office buildings for companies including Comcast, the Gap, and GlaxoSmithKline.
Mr. Wyatt graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in 1983 with a Master of Architecture. Prior to GSAPP, he studied Architectural History at Princeton University. As a Marshall Scholar, he also studied at the London School of Economics.
How did you get to where you are now? Did you have any major career transitions? How did your time at GSAPP set the foundations for your career path?
As an undergraduate, I studied architecture at Princeton, where the program was at that time very Euro-centric; now my interests are global, so I encourage others to continue to educate themselves after school, including in disciplines that are not architectural.
After graduating from Princeton, I worked at Skidmore, Owings and Merrill in New York, primarily on large commercial buildings overseas. This was a great education in its own way: I learned the importance of always going the extra mile, thinking ahead to the next step, beyond what I’d been asked to do.
I was then awarded a Marshall Scholarship, which allowed me to study at any university in England. I chose to go to the London School of Economics. Even though I knew I wanted a career in architecture, I saw this as an opportunity to do something entirely different. It was a very valuable experience, and one that I fall back on frequently. While I was living in London, I was a member of the Architectural Association and took courses there. I also traveled a lot; I wanted to take advantage of being abroad.
But while I was in London, I decided I wanted to return to North America for graduate school. In the end, I applied to Columbia because it combined its Architecture program with Historic Preservation (which I continue to think is a real strength at GSAPP), offered the amazing collections in Avery Library, and was located in New York City. Finally, I chose Columbia because Bob Stern taught there. I had studied Stern’s work as an undergraduate, and I started working in his office while at Columbia. After I graduated, I thought I would spend a few years with him, but I ended up staying at the firm for my entire career. When I started, Robert A.M. Stern Architects was an office of twelve people, and it has since grown to between 200 and 300 people.
In general, I think it’s important to look at one’s career broadly. But taking the long view doesn’t mean a career has to be linear; it can have many facets that can ultimately make you more adaptable and valuable.
COVID-19 has had a devastating effect on the economy in general, including architecture. What are your suggestions for students and recent graduates who have been impacted by the virus?
I have lived through many ups and downs in the economy, and all of them have been different. If you’re not only committed to architecture, but also passionate about it, you should stay the course through its crises.
I believe that the current situation makes people wonder about the future of architecture, and the future of the world that architects serve. I remember people predicting that 9/11 would change the future of architecture; they thought that people would never again want to be in tall buildings and that airports would go away. Of course, none of that happened. But there was a period when people had to adjust, which was challenging.
Concerning the current situation, we hear people saying that there will be no more cities and public transportation. But, who knows? I think one has to be adaptable and curious about the world beyond architecture. I often tell those in my office to read not only architectural periodicals, but also The New York Times, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal to stay informed and to understand the perspectives of your clients and of society at large.
How do you think this virus will shape this industry in the short, medium and long terms? Do you think it will create new ways of working (such as remote working) and new opportunities?
I don’t think the current situation has created remote working: remote working existed before. I do think the pandemic is a “tipping point” event, in which the many incremental technological and social changes that enabled us to work around the globe have made it possible for us to work remotely. Certainly, in my office, we had planned for extreme contingencies to some extent. When we had to close down our physical office, we weren’t sure how things would unfold, but in general the transition has been far smoother than most people (myself included) expected. The current situation has shown us that the way we had been working is viable even in the absence of a physical location. For us, that has been liberating and productive. We do not plan to stay 100% remote; we are currently planning for a way to return to the office. However, I know that once we return, we will bring with us many of the lessons we learned during our time apart.
In your interview with “Bespoke Careers,” you say that you look for several qualities in applicants (such as their fit in the firm’s culture and their ability to speak coherently about their career). If you were to interview a candidate now or in the near future, how would you assess if they had these qualities? Is there anything that you would add to the list, given the most recent circumstances?
It is difficult to assess a candidate’s abilities during an interview. There are, however, techniques that one can use. One of my favorites is to ask people to describe a specific challenge they have faced and to talk about what they did to address the situation. I find when I do that, it is much more likely to give me greater insight into their capabilities than simply asking people to describe their strengths.
I definitely look for employees who are self-directed and self-motivated, instead of people who expect to be directed and given instruction. It is important in the first year, and much more important in the tenth year.
At the same time, I look for demonstrated team players. I really want to know how they work with others and how they direct and focus their self-motivation. Even small projects involve many people, and certainly at our firm, all members of the team have to pull in the same direction. Ultimately, I look for a balance between self-direction and the ability to collaborate with others.
I also look for excellence in time management and prioritization. In architecture school, there are those who are in the studio day and night and judge their success on the number of hours they spend there. But that doesn’t mean they’re the most productive. The ones who are most productive are those who manage their time well and are goal-oriented. Those are the people who have time to read about science, economics, art history, and culture, and ultimately broaden themselves and become better architects. That holds equally for employees: those who know how to get their work done efficiently are the ones who have time to develop themselves more broadly.