The Right Dynamic: Utako Tanebe on Speaking up and Keeping an Eye on the Bigger Picture
By Julia Gamolina
Utako Tanebe is an architect and designer at DLR Group | Westlake Reed Leskosky based in Cleveland, Ohio. Born in Tokyo, she has lived in several cities and countries including Bangkok, Toronto, Vancouver, Boston and Cleveland. Utako is currently the project architect for the Samson Pavilion, Cleveland’s new health education campus for the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University, seeing the project through from design to construction, including spending two years on site working closely with the construction team and owners.
Utako is a graduate of the University of Toronto in Canada with a M.Arch (2013), B.A.Hon in Architectural Studies (2009), and B.A.Sc in Civil Engineering (2006). In her conversation with Julia Gamolina, Utako speaks about her path to architecture and working full-time on the job site, advising young architects to speak up and advocate for themselves.
JG: How did your interest in architecture develop?
UT: My interest began was when I was little in Tokyo. I remember watching a news clip about female carpenters and thought “How coo!”, because I didn’t know girls could be carpenters. This would have been in the early 1990s in Japan when buildings and design were predominantly considered to be a man’s profession. I had always liked hardware stores and construction sites as a child, so when I watched the news clip, it really stuck with me.
Fast forward, I went into engineering after high school thinking that’s what I wanted to do because I was good at math. Even though I had loved art, lead the art club, and won the graduating class art prize, I was also on the robotics team of my all girls school. I graduated from civil engineering with a focus in transportation engineering and urban-scale modelling, but I realized that focus just wasn’t creative enough for me. I ended up finishing a second undergraduate degree in architectural history and theory, and then followed it up with a master’s degree in architecture. Of the three degrees I completed, the M.Arch degree was the most rigorous and enduring experience, but also the most rewarding and exciting. I felt most comfortable in the studio environment and knew right away that it was the path for me.
What did you learn about yourself in architecture school?
I learned that I like working on group projects. I liked the team dynamic where everyone brings their own special skills because when it’s the right dynamic, you can get a lot of exciting things done that you can’t do on your own. I hadn’t expected that I would enjoy that. I thought I was an introvert and that I liked to keep to myself, but I learned that I lova to work with people.
Tell me about your internships.
I had three pretty good ones during graduate school. The first was in Tokyo for a really large design-build firm called Kajima. I got to see the inside of a large firm and how it operated. My second internship was with a professor at the University of Toronto who had had started up a research lab about eco-tourism in Morocco. We interviewed the local residents and came up with a publication booklet and design proposal for an eco-tourism accommodation for the Ministry of Tourism in Jordan. With that project, we ended up getting a Progressive Architecture Citation Award and I had the opportunity to receive it in person at MOMA in New York.
Finally, my third summer internship was in Boston at Utile Inc. They are a research-based design firm with both local projects, such as libraries, schools, bike-lanes, but they also do large international urban design projects. My internships were my start. I had the chance to see three different scales of firms and with projects that spanned from local to global scopes. I saw the breadth of what I can do as a designer.
What was the first thing you did when you were finished with school?
When I finished school, I was pretty burnt out from my M.Arch thesis project and honestly a little lost on what to do next. I ended up coming to Cleveland, Ohio, to visit my parents and to take a breather, when one of my professors introduced me to an architectural firm here.
I did a couple of interviews with other firms that summer, but with this firm in Cleveland, I felt like I could really learn from their practice. Coming out of school, I was used to having someone guide me, so I was also looking for a mentor. The architect I interviewed with had a great team of young designers and I thought that I could fit in with his studio dynamic and keep learning.
Tell me about your experience so far.
I’ve been working on the same project for four and a half years, almost the whole duration of my time at my current firm - the Health Education Campus Project (now formally called Samson Pavilion), which is a collaborative medical campus between the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve University. The design architect is Foster and Partners, and we are the architect of record.
This is the largest scale international design project in Cleveland in decades and I was lucky in that I was placed in such project so early on. I started out by just listening in the background of the conceptual design process lead by the design architect. With design development, I took on a more active role in developing drawings, coordinating with engineers and consultants, and fine-tuning the program with the user groups. Our firm’s role was to document and assist, not to design, which I was OK with since I had very little practical experience fresh out of school and I knew I needed to learn a lot.
What did you learn from your experience working on this?
I learned the importance of communication. I spent a month in the Foster and Partners London office early on in the design stage, so I could understand the technical and cultural differences between the US and UK practices. We had a very complicated network of people with various expectations, and I learned to communicate between two proud architectural firms, two strong owner teams, two capable contractors and between countless design professionals based all over the US and the UK. More so than the design, effective communication really took the bulk of the effort.
What is your role on the project currently?
I’ve been working at the site with the construction team for two years now as the project architect and contract administration assistant. I go to the office about once a week, and I try to call in to the internal office meetings from the site and stay caught up on things. At first, being on the site everyday was a complete unknown - I was told not to trust the contractor [laughs] and that ‘they’ all hate architects. Coming from an engineering background though, I really appreciate the work that the actual builders do.
My typical day now includes handling Requests For Information and Submittals that come through, coordinating design with the engineers, designers, and consultants, answering offshoot questions from the field, attending user group meetings, developing sketches, preparing construction documents and anything else that comes up. It took a really long time for me to get to a comfort level on site. After two years I now know almost everyone on the project and how to work and talk to people in different trades.
Where do you feel you are in your career today?
At this point, I’m really excited to see what comes next. I finished my AREs earlier this year. I had over ten years of academic training and skills, but I didn’t have practical experience, so it took time to get the confidence I needed to tackle the exams. I am so glad to have finally moved on from the exams and plan to never study again!
Also, with my first project ending in a few months I’ve seen all the elements - local and international, engineering and architecture, construction and design - just everything. I have a broader background being an engineer and architect, and I’m curious to break the boundaries between the two and see what this combination of skills can offer in the next phase of my career.
Looking back, what have been some of the biggest challenges?
The most challenging thing has been people on the construction site assuming that I am young and inexperienced. I’m also one of the few Asian person on the site. All this can be really frustrating at times, but it forces me to prove people wrong by action, and thus be a better architect. It’s not uncommon that people assume that I’m a student intern and only attend the meeting to take notes. Breaking through that perception has not been easy.
How did you break through?
Within my project, I tried to speak up when I could. It’s hard to get your voice heard in a large meeting with older and more senior team members, but when I had good grounds to be helpful to the subject or to bring something productive to the table, I tried my best to participate and join the discussion. I would also make sure to follow up after the meeting and complete my assigned tasks, however minimal or mundane they may have been, to prove that I was worth having in these meetings.
In my office, I’ve been fortunate to have a few great mentors. One gave me advice when I was struggling to transition from school to work as a young designer. Another gave me guidance on how to become a thoughtful and responsible architect. I have female colleagues that I can lean on when going through ups and downs of work and life or just need a lunch powwow to get through the day. All of them are different in age, gender, experience and expertise, and in that way, I’ve been able to break through the boundaries of a traditional role of an ‘Architect with a capital A’ with a more interdisciplinary way of thinking and collaborating.
What have been the biggest highlights?
The unexpected highlight has been the people I met working on the construction site. This includes designers, construction administrators, field engineers, project managers, electricians, plumbers, equipment planners, AV designers, lighting designers, lab users, deans, professors, students, philanthropists, donors, just about everyone.
In a large project like the one I worked on, I’ve learned that everyone has a different focus and they all work really hard to meet their specific goals. Architects may prioritize aesthetics and contractors may prioritize schedule and cost, but with the same end goal of a successful and complete project. Hearing and understanding each person’s story through the lens of building and design has been really exciting.
What has been your general approach to your career?
The first has been keeping an eye on the bigger picture. It’s easy get bogged down at small things at work - for example, the contract administration work I started out in required me to process the RFIs and submittals, which can be tedious and secretarial. I wanted to be out there leading, talking to people, solving problems, and designing things. But I focused on the task they gave me - I wanted to do it well and prove that I was ready for the next task - and over time I became familiar with every shop drawing and product sample in the project. This gave me the confidence and knowledge I needed to eventually take lead in some of the design topics. It was important for me to keep an eye on the bigger picture and to take any tasks as an opportunity to learn and grow within the project.
The second is knowing the importance of support. My friends and I have a WhatsApp chat group that started as way to stay in touch after we graduated from the M.Arch program and moved to different cities. We share everything on this chat - work experiences, current news, silly and bad jokes, pictures of vacations and videos of babies, as well as serious conversations on relationships, careers, salaries, and big life choices. It’s been a huge support to have these talented and strong women in my daily life and it’s been amazing to stay in touch and support each other.
Finally, it’s worth remembering that architecture isn’t everything in life. It’s certainly a big part of my professional life and I am happy with my career path, but we all need something outside of work that brings happiness. For me, that’s horses and riding - I’ve been riding since I was nine. Spending time at the barn and hanging out with the horses give me the mental break I need from work, and I think it ultimately makes me appreciate architecture more. I also think it’s important to talk to people outside the field about architecture as it helps us appreciate the role of architects and designers in society at large.
What advice do you have for those who are just starting their career in architecture?
Stay curious and inspired. You must find something that excites or motivates you within every task, however mundane it may be, and make it yours to conquer. If you do it well, you can prove to yourself that you’re ready for the next step and a new challenge. Often young designers fear that they will be pigeon=holed into a task at the office, but once other architects see that you have a fire within to take on more roles, they will be more than happy to support your growth as an architect.
Also, speak up! Shortly after I started working, another young designer told me, “You have to speak up for yourself because no one else is going to do it for you”, which was a critical but sound advice that I still carry with me today. If you feel that you can be effective in a new role or that you’re ready for the next challenge, it’s your job as a professional to communicate this to your senior or project manager. With every experience gained, technical knowledge honed, and decision-making skills mastered, your voice will become stronger and stronger.