In Progress: Thanh Nguyen on Architecture School and the Beauty of Uncertainty
By Julia Gamolina
Madame Architect's first student, Thanh Nguyen will graduate from Cornell University’s Bachelor of Architecture program in December 2018 with a concentration in Architecture History. Before switching to architecture, Thanh completed one year of studies in Cornell’s Fine Arts program. She continues to integrate photography, drawing, and writing in her design work and is currently working on her undergraduate thesis on the spatial and visual relationships of pop media and the sex trade.
Thanh grew up in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and has lived and worked in Europe. She has recently completed internships at the Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam, The Netherlands and at Herzog and de Meuron in Basel, Switzerland. In her interview with Julia Gamolina, Thanh talks about her time in architecture school, her thesis, and her internships, advising architecture students to stay healthy, stay critical, and to learn as much as they can.
JG: How did your interest in architecture first develop?
TN: It took some time – I first started studying art at Cornell, because I didn’t have an art education in high school and all I wanted to do was to paint [laughs]. When I came to Cornell, it was my first time in the US and living away from family. The setting of the campus was a great place to experience architecture, and that’s when I first started seeing what buildings could do.
At Cornell, because the art program was very explorative, I started working with light and space and then program was very close, literally, to the architecture program, so I could see both in my first year. I tried an architecture studio in my second year, while still being an art student, so it was a slow transition period, but helped me make sure that architecture is indeed what I wanted to pursue.
How did you know that it was?
I knew halfway into that first studio, just because I really enjoyed what I was doing. Of course, I didn’t actually know what architecture was and I’m still figuring that out, but it all feels right. I love the energy of the school – I was concerned coming to the States about what kind of education I would get, and I knew the architecture education was very thorough and equips you to do a lot of different things. I wasn’t sure I wanted to be an architect, but I was sure that this is the background and the training that I needed.
Tell me about the first few years of school.
First year was a roller coaster [laughs]. There was a lot of making, being thrown into strange waters, having to make sense of everything, learning to ask for help, and learning how to figure things out myself too. I developed my methods of working too – at this point, I still make a lot of models, and I still draw by hand to figure things out, and all of that was learned first year.
Second year was interesting because you start to know about the various architects around the world and what they do. Second year was also very comprehensive, because we learned structures and building technology, and that was really overwhelming as well.
What about the third and fourth years?
Third and fourth year was like an explosion of things for me. I was in Rome, my first time in Europe, and I was seeing a lot of new things. You’re thrown out into the world where within a one-hour flight you’re somewhere completely different. I saw a lot of architecture.
I came back and did a robotics studio led by Jenny Sabin, and then I took a gap semester to work at OMA, in Rotterdam, and then I came back and took a landscape focused studio, and then I moved to Switzerland for a year to work with Herzog & de Meuron. The past two or three years I feel like I was exposed to something totally new every six months, and that was a crucial aspect of my education. Now I’m going into my last semester, thesis, and it’s time to calm down and settle in it all.
Tell me about your internships at OMA and at Herzog & de Meuron.
They were very different experiences – OMA was fast-paced, extremely creative, quirky, and very artistic. I was rotating through so many competitions that my take away was that I had to teach myself to be very versatile, flexible, and willing to plunge into a whole new mentality from week to week. I worked with so many different creative people, all of whom had so many different ideas and approaches. I got my OMA internship from a friend’s referral – a great mentor and a friend of mine had worked there. There’s a tradition at Cornell that the upper classmen help the underclassmen, which is wonderful.
For Herzog & deMeuron, I applied cold to the website. There, I worked for a year on schematic design for a big development project. There was so much negotiation between the design aspect and the problem-solving aspect of the project – a lot of coordination between the various sub-teams. I was lucky to be on the project when it was starting and to see all of the teams grow three times, and to see how the whole operation needs to adapt as the project gets more complex.
It’s funny that in school, you’re given a design prompt and you’re the only one carrying the design through, whereas when you start working, you see the incredible amount of people, within the office and beyond, that it takes to carry a project through.
I love that – I work well by talking things through with people, so being able to have these internships really helped me because, to be honest, at a certain point I was really frustrated that I was alone working on my projects. I really enjoy having a team, having mentors, having conversations, all that.
You’re about to enter your thesis semester! How do you feel and what will you be focusing on?
I really thought that thesis semester would be about bringing all that I’ve learned the past five years to the surface to make the project that best represents me and all that I’ve learned. At this point though, I feel like I’m doing something totally new and exploring a whole new set of problems [laughs].
For my thesis, I’m exploring how architecture is a subject and a catalyst for pop media that commodifies spectatorship towards women’s bodies. I’ll be studying two typologies – the arcade and the brothel, both shopping malls for bodies, basically. My thesis deals with visual images and how pop media is the mechanism for these things. I’m drawing from my work in photography and art and I’m drawing from my reading – but its so far unlike any studio that I’ve been in so far so I’m also very nervous. Excited and nervous [laughs].
What makes you nervous?
How to construct it, how to make an argument – I think about thesis as making a small book, but how do you begin and how do you conclude? What are the steps along the way?
What is your position on the subject you’re exploring? Do you want to change how it’s perceived in media? Comment on it?
If anything, I do want to change it. My point is that I’d like to look at the human body and the idea of ownership in a different way. I’m fascinated with the idea that a prostitute has the ability to sell and to put her body out there on her own terms, and then how architecture has been part of this the whole time. I was reading a book that looked at the playboy archives, and how architecture has been the subject of this empire which changed the whole way we looked at pop media.
With thesis, you are also about to graduate. How do you feel? What are you excited for, nervous for, what questions do you have?
I’m super excited and I’m super nervous. I feel that I need to be more careful about making first moves, meaning that I’m looking to join a practice where I feel like I can continue learning. I’m excited to begin working. Although in school, there’s always a professor who is interested in your interests, and there’s space to explore other interests as well, like writing and photography. Once I start working however, I feel like I’ll have to really take control and be intentional about putting myself out there and making time for my interests and motivate myself.
When I look at Madame Architect’s website, I also see that you’ve met so many people and that there’s a network of amazing designers - my question is how do I begin to familiarize myself with the people in the city who are doing amazing work and build my own network.
Looking back so far, what have been your biggest challenges?
The challenge of time – not in terms of having a lot to do in a little time, but making sure I am using my time wisely and getting something worthwhile out of my work, not simply producing mindlessly. There is a side of architecture school and to working in firms that is competitive and about producing the most, which I guess is great because the more you do, the more options you have, but can be a little bit about quantity over quality. I’d love to be able to sit back and know that I’m learning from doing all this work.
Also within the five year framework at school, there’s pressure to find what you want to do and who you are - a pressure to figure yourself out. I’m not too stressed about that at this point because I’ve been out for internships, and I’ve realized that there’s so much more outside the school that I’d like to focus my time in school on learning as much as I can.
What have been some highlights?
I like talking to people [laughs]. My favorite collections of moments are when I’m with my group partner rushing to make a model, or making a last minute sketch model with a partner at a firm.
One specific highlight is when Yvonne Farrell from Grafton Architects came to speak at Cornell, and I got to spend two hours touring the Johnson Museum with her. Seeing her curiosity after all these years of practicing, and her humor, the way she thinks, was incredible. She said about the Johnson Museum, “Pouring concrete is like baking bread – and this is some really good bread.” [laughs]. Definitely a highlight, she’s so inspiring.
What has been your general approach to your student years?
I’ve learned to accept uncertainty in how you go through things. Around second or third year, the uncertainty that comes with working through a project and making decisions was really tough for me, and I couldn’t handle it. Now I can finally accept that everything is in progress, everything is a draft, and that you have ten options for a project, or ten ways that you could lead your career, and that’s fine.
In design work too, being uncertain about your decisions and taking chances rather than being so determined by what your style is, whatever that means, makes for more beautiful things. The fact that you have conflicting thoughts and different approaches to life, is not a mess, but is nice and is great for being an architect.
What advice do you have for those about to begin their first internship?
For internships, my advice would be to find a mentor at the company that you’re working for. You don’t have to be aggressive about it – finding a mentor can be as simple as having someone to look up to and to observe. With internships, something I’ve also learned is to be a sponge and absorb what they give me, but to also be critical of the situation that I’m in.
What’s great about internships is that there’s an expiration date – there’s a limited amount of time, so you make the best of it and can think of them as an experiment. That allows you to have the opportunity to speak up, to speak for yourself, and when something is fundamentally wrong, to be aware of that and to know that there are different work environments that are different than the one you’ve been educated in. Be a sponge but be critical.
What advice do you have for those that are about to begin architecture school?
For those about to begin architecture school – make sure you stay healthy through it. Stay healthy. Work hard and stay focused, but what I’ve learned is that architecture is a hat – you put it on, you do it, and then you take it off. It’s not an identity, it’s not everything, it doesn’t define who I am. Spend time on yourself and your hobbies and do things that make you happy – all this is very important. I forgot to do that for my first two years, so its something to keep in mind. You’re also a better architect the more you engage with the world and the other things in it.