GSAPP Alumni Interviews: Phu Duong, MSAUD ‘99| AIA, AICP, LEED AP

Principal at NBBJ (GSAPP ’99)

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Phu Duong, AIA, AICP, LEED AP is currently a Principal at NBBJ. He has worked on a number of visionary projects across the globe, including the Tencent “Net City” in Shenzen, and the One Shantou Vision Plan, Shantou, PRC.

Mr. Duong graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP) in 1999 with a Master of Science in Architecture and Urban Design. Prior to GSAPP, he studied at Washington State University, where he received his Bachelor of Architecture.

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?

I had a pretty common entry into architecture; I graduated with a Bachelor of Architecture from Washington State University. I was one of those people who knew I wanted to be an architect as a child. After studying abroad, I realized I also had an interest in cities and buildings that created larger communities and neighborhoods. I practiced in Seattle for a few years out of college and developed shopping malls in Hawaii and the Philippines. These larger projects were much more interesting to me and gave me a chance to understand different cultures. It also allowed me to translate Western ideas to be appreciated in a different part of the world. Creating shopping malls exposed me to the complexity and a scale that was primed for large developments and it offered me a chance to develop concepts that required innovative representational techniques. But I knew there was more to design than creating spaces for consumption.

Later, I applied for urban design programs at various schools, and I found that I wanted to study urbanism in New York City in particular. Fortunately, I was accepted into Columbia, and since then have had great interactions with Richard Plunz as a student and now as a peer.

After graduating from GSAPP, I had a chance to work at NBBJ on the Telenor global headquarters in Oslo. So I was both able to live in interesting cities and design amazing spaces with a networked organization. Oslo, at the time, was opening itself up to trade and commerce that resonated with the global cities discourse gained from being at Columbia. These ideas gave me insight on development pressures and policies far beyond the world of design. It was an incredible experience to be in a joint venture with Norwegian architects at that early stage in my career. I later came back to New York shifting my scope from architecture to master planning. After 9/11, I had an opportunity to help start the NBBJ London office. Throughout all these experiences, I realized that I appreciated design in general, but it also came with an added benefit of being with a networked firm. While designing spaces and places, I began to recognize I was part of something larger in terms of practice. I also learned about running an office and thinking about company culture. Creating a design culture became interesting to me, albeit daunting. At the time, NBBJ was undergoing a strategic alignment: its work processes were being streamlined so that we could work better across different geographies. The firm made great headway, which included improving the technology infrastructure and internal initiatives and programming. This became incredibly interesting to me, although I never thought that I would be exposed to that when I was interviewing. I never thought about how agency and point of view could be scaled up and out, for impact. At that point, I began to see how design was empowered by the realm of communications. Its actions worked at intrinsic levels while doing the work and when realized, by design expression and media channels, its meaning was at work just by being in the world.

In 2003, I joined the urban design faculty at GSAPP. My former professors, Andrea Kahn and Sandro Marpillero, invited me to co-teach in the Urban Design studios. So, I felt that I began to combine theory and practice. It was an instrumental moment, when I decided to continue going down the teaching path. In 2004, I joined the faculty at Syracuse under Dean Mark Robbins. Syracuse University was the place where I would develop a deeper understanding of design education and establish a role within it. I was also able to continue in the MSAUD program and co-coordinate the summer program. I especially enjoyed collaborative teaching, as that in itself was another way to consider creativity by design — at least in pedagogical ways. I am still grateful for what I gained from the urban design program. Collaboration was everywhere, all the time. Relationships were important and this, I feel is core to the cities we need today. It is central to what makes 21st century cities better than what we have witnessed in the past. It is not so much about technology; we will always have that. Instead, it’s about the heightened degrees of sensitivity and human compassion needed to address the ever changing and escalating issues we choose to embrace by design thinking.

It is interesting that you bring up academia: I am curious about the interaction between the theoretical and the practical. Being an active member of both, what do you think about the relationship between academia and professional practice?

I am glad you make me clarify this; I, too, had kept them separate. One cannot practice without theory. My professional and academic experiences conjure up this notion of theory and practice, which I believe are mutually beneficial. It’s the reason why design matters and why it has value beyond going out and creating a “building.” Architecture merges multiple dimensions of thought. I especially appreciate how the arts and humanities are embedded in architectural thinking and then our structures must also withstand catastrophic events and imbue social justice. And I’m deliberately highlighting architecture as a mode of operation that also finds its way into landscapes, interiors, and planning.

Design cannot exist without theory. As designers, we are testing our “theories” everyday. We create spaces that can be unhealthy, or very healthy. For example, we can incorporate a bamboo garden into the basement of a recovery room at a hospital. This has been built, in fact, and it is now changing people’s lives at Massachusetts General Hospital. Or, how we are making sure people have access to nature, fresh air and daylight in extraordinary places halfway around the world. And then, what if we operated in that lens to treat spaces accustomed for vehicles and reclaim them for people? We created this vision for Tencent while integrating human health, outdoor human comfort and coastal resiliency. When I think about architecture, design and cities, I think about all the scales of our offering, by that I mean our wider profession, to take our ideas into reality. We can’t do that if we separate theory and practice. They must go hand-in-hand. Sometimes I think we need to crack the possible intimidation of “theory” in architecture. Simply put, we could opt to be more inclusive about theory and humanize it; elevate it as “vision” in which theory is encapsulated. Good visions have depth — they have compelling theory because they work to solve both a client and a community’s challenges and have referential existence to other things in the world. And a good theory is deep enough that it can foster a life of its own because it has meaning beyond what the author or co-authors intended. Yeah, it has meaning to a community of people. This is another good test to distinguish a good idea from one that needs more development.

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 can only imagine what recent grads must be enduring at this time, we will need a lot of conscious patience and individual leadership. I can remember the scarcity of jobs coming out of my undergrad period. But I don’t think anyone can relate to what it is like to have online interviews; then the online on-boarding in a firm and then be integrated into a project all online! Maybe what I can offer here, as a career note, is that we need to accept our own differences as our own strengths. We will always need the generalist architect, as to be mindful of the early stages one’s career, when many of us are open trying a lot of new things. However, because our discipline has created many specialties, we will need to build upon our individual strengths and have the wherewithal to align them to needs that clients and society requires.

What you are saying is true; now more than ever, it will be important for us to develop our individual skills so that we can stand out in the marketplace, when it picks up again.

Indeed, if you have a special skill, you should build on it, rather than worry about deficiencies. It is good to be aware of them: just don’t let them run you down. Building on strengths will give you more value and happiness, whether it is at a new job or finding yourself at a firm you may not have expected you would join. Having these special skills aligned to your passions will ultimately show up in your portfolio. Whether it is a paper that you have written, or a strategic methodology for designing something, the rights to these drawings and ideas are ultimately yours: your personal investment. Over time the commitment to this path will be uniquely yours despite the potential places that you ventured through or have resourced to get you there. If you’ve just graduated, focus on your specific labor of love and find the different dimensions of that “industry” that will add up to something bigger as you move about the profession. So chart out the dots and connect them over time. Along the way new dots will appear that you never saw before which is great because you will have more choices. Being sensitive to these tough times may mean that you need to broaden your search to other design fields rather than the one that you currently have in mind.

How do you think this virus will shape this industry?

The issues we face ultimately make me look back and trace why I think the way I do to uncover what we, as an industry have to offer. This points to design education, which is grounded in the arts and humanities. I think many of us appreciate the “why” or purpose in our endeavors. And, today, I think our clients can see that as well; in some ways this gets us back to the value of theory again. One issue that we must think about differently is density. Density essentially means sustainability and stewardship- that hasn’t changed. But it has been spotlighted now more than ever, with social justice and human rights, which rightfully daylights issues of human health in cities. In our everyday lives many of us are thinking about how to return to work. We think about taking public transit and using the elevator. Getting around town or through the “density” at multiple scales is a next industry space as well. The density, we know is not the cause of rampant transmission, but can be mediated with physical design. There is an accelerated interest on the topics surrounding density that needs to be better understood alongside socio-economic inclusion.

It is interesting that you mention the social issue of density. At times, we think of architecture as its own bubble. However, we do in fact need to consider larger, social issues; they do impact our designs.

I agree. I felt before that we were limited to our own hermetic environment and maybe over-valued it ourselves. We could potentially address this problem in our education. The interesting thing this time around is that we are better as a society with granular data and have proven to be more sensitive with the ways we are deploying research. The best place to study this issue is at universities that are engaged with local governments and professionals and any other place with design-oriented mindsets. Already you can see that it requires multiple perspectives. Thank goodness the world is making progress organizing multidisciplinary teams. It’s no longer about a master architect or a single-handed influencer.

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