Kyle Johnson is currently a consulting architect with Snøhetta. Mr. Johnson is also a member of the AIA New York Chapter, where he leads architectural tours (in better times).
Mr. Johnson graduated from Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in 1977 with a Master of Architecture. Prior to GSAPP, he received his B.A. in architecture at Rice University.
How did you get to where you are now? Did you have any major career transitions?
I currently work part-time at Snøhetta; before that, I was a Senior Associate at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners.
As an undergraduate student, I studied at Rice University in Houston. Usually, students earn a B.A. after four years, then they do a preceptorship in a professional office for one year before the final year in school, after which they receive a B.Arch. I did my preceptorship at I.M. Pei & Partners in New York. Then, instead of returning to Rice, I transferred to Columbia for an M.Arch. Because I had already done 4 years toward a professional B.Arch degree, I was allowed to start out in the second year of Columbia’s M.Arch. program. During the summer, I worked again at I.M. Pei & Partners, and they hired me back after graduation. I ended up working there for over 30 years on various projects, including a low-rise corporate office building in Westchester County, a high-rise office building in downtown Minneapolis, the Dallas Symphony Hall, the San Francisco Main Library, and the U.S. Air Force Memorial. I worked primarily with Jim Freed during this time.
After working at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, I worked as a consultant for Snøhetta, reviewing and coordinating drawings and specifications, first for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art expansion. That job went well, so I continued working with Snøhetta on a part-time basis, which I am still doing — though work has been limited by Covid circumstances.
In addition to my professional employment, I have also been quite active in conducting architectural tours for the AIA chapter in New York. I was one of the inaugural guides who started doing boat tours, then helped to establish a walking tour program which started a few years ago.
How did your time at GSAPP set the foundations for your career path?
When I was at GSAPP, during James Polshek’s Deanship, the program was quite pragmatic. Most of the faculty consisted of practicing architects. Because GSAPP also had the Historic Preservation program, I took a coupleof writing and criticism courses, one taught by Ellen Perry Berkeley and another by James Marston Fitch. It was a multi-disciplinary school, which gave students a lot to choose from.
When Bernard Tschumi later became Dean, the program seemed to shift more towards the theoretical side. I personally liked the fact that I was studying from faculty members who had buildings under construction and could speak to “real-world” architectural issues.
On the other hand, I know that Snøhetta and other firms hire designers who have more theoretical backgrounds and value that training. While I enjoyed the pragmatic approach, it is difficult to say if either way is superior.
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?
Fortunately, Snøhetta has weathered this storm rather well. Most projects have not been stopped, and the staffing has not had to be reduced. In fact, Snøhetta is even beginning to bring people back into the studio, though in a limited way.
I do know that other firms may not have been as fortunate. In general, I expect that the job market may not be so active for recent graduates. In terms of advice, I would tell people to be patient and to keep their eyes open for potential opportunities — network! In these times, it would also help to stay open-minded; it might be possible to work in a company other than an architectural office. Don’t be afraid to do something different, if it helps you make ends meet. Look at the big picture, and don’t necessarily be focused on what you think you want to do. Sooner or later, this will turn around, and you may be able to do what you originally wanted to do, even if you weren’t able to for a while. In fact, doing something different may even direct you to something you end up liking.