Building a Career in Architecture
A designer reflects on her first three years on the job.
Not so long ago, Lulu Li was in a classroom in graduate school, inspired by her education, the buildings around her, and a childhood dream. Since joining SOM as an entry-level architect a little more than three years ago, Lulu has grown in her role. She’s now a leader of the design team for a new science center at Wellesley College. We spoke with Lulu to learn more about her experience: the opportunities she’s found, the challenges she’s faced, and her advice for new graduates ready to begin their careers.
How did you get interested in architecture?
Lulu Li: I was born in Shanghai and as a child, I remember watching the first two supertalls being built across the Bund, in Pudong. One was the Oriental Pearl Tower and the other was the Jin Mao Tower (designed by SOM). Those new towers were bigger, taller, more daring than anything previously in the city. To me, it was what the future looked like.
My family immigrated to Massachusetts when I was seven. In third grade, I was asked to write an essay on what I wanted to be when I grew up. I didn’t know any adults who liked cartoons, so I wrote about the most adult-sounding profession that gets to draw: an architect. I went on to study architecture as an undergrad at Yale, and later got my masters in architecture from the GSD [Harvard Graduate School of Design].
When did you know you made the right choice?
To be honest, at the beginning, I didn’t really know what architecture was. I had a crisis moment right before my first year in college. I worried, “What if I hate this? What if I’m terrible at it?” I had somehow convinced myself since I was nine years old that I wanted to be an architect, but I had no idea nor had I ever seriously considered what a good building was. Most people do not feel a sense of individual agency to affect our larger environment, but everything in our urban fabric is the result of the collaboration between planners, developers, engineers, architects, and the communities they serve. The more I learned, the more I wanted to be a part of that — of thoughtfully shaping our environment.
The typical day is only so typical for a short while, because something new will come along that extends your responsibilities and evolves your job. That’s what keeps things interesting.
What made you decide to join SOM?
When I first graduated from architecture school, I hadn’t considered SOM. I had just finished putting together my portfolio and my resume when I got an email from an old classmate. There was an opening on her team in SOM’s New York office, and I thought, why not apply?
I got an interview with the person who I report to today. He took me along the gallery wall and showed me the projects at the office. And I was really surprised and excited by the work. SOM has an incredible legacy, but in school, there’s not much focus on what the firm is doing today. I was interested by the work that I was seeing, and I thought this would be a great place to be trained as an architect.
Has your experience been different from what you expected?
SOM has a reputation as being — I’m going to put in air quotes — a “corporate firm.” I thought there might be a lot of hierarchy, and I wondered how much I’d be able to contribute. But what I found is that small studios are at the core of the experience here. Naturally, you learn a lot from the people around you, and there is tremendous talent and expertise in the office. My coworkers have also become close friends. And as I said, I got to work on some exciting projects from the start. It’s also rewarding to be able to contribute to the firm’s culture and practice. I have found the office receptive to my ideas and what I can bring to the work. There’s no one way to do things — you are encouraged to take your own initiative.
What inspires you in your work everyday?
I find the work we do for colleges and universities very rewarding. These are program-driven projects that ask us to consider how spaces can enable new methods of teaching and learning, new environments for collaboration, and new ways to foster community. From a personal perspective, I feel deeply grateful for the educators that have invested and advocated for me as a young person — from when I was an immigrant child who couldn’t speak English, to a graduate student considering career options. To be able to contribute to higher education and help shape those environments for future generations of students is a personally rewarding motivation.
What does your typical week look like here?
Every day, I’m challenged to do something just beyond what I know how to do. The typical day is only so typical for a short while, because something new will come along that extends your responsibilities and evolves your job. That’s what keeps things interesting.
Right now, we’re in the Design Development phase for a project at Wellesley College. It’s a complex project — we are renovating an existing building and designing a new addition. We have client presentations onsite and meet with the faculty to understand their pedagogical needs. We coordinate a team of more than 90 consultants that includes structure, MEP, lighting, landscape, civil engineering, lab planning, AV/IT, acoustics, and sustainability. We research and select materials and finishes, and meet with suppliers to look at samples and learn about new products. Concurrently, we have weekly internal meetings with the entire team to review design issues. While everyone has their own roles, collaboration is fundamental to our work.
What would you say is the most rewarding part?
I had worked on The Milstein Center, a new academic building at Barnard College that’s currently under construction. Last week Barnard had its annual gala, and some of us on the SOM team attended. I was with Roger [Duffy, the design partner in charge of the project], and he said to us, “You’re so fortunate to see a building built early in your career.”
I remember the first time I went up to Barnard to see the project. The slabs were in, and the contractors had marked out in chalk where the walls were going to be. I walked the space and thought, this is the office that we drew. This is the classroom that we laid out. These are all the devices we coordinated. The tiles that our team had picked out. That was a profoundly rewarding moment.
When I was onsite at Wellesley recently, the temporary trailers were already set up where the swing space is going to be, and they had begun demolition. I just said, “Wow — this is going to be real.” All those abstract lines are becoming a real thing. That’s what makes this job worthwhile.
What do you find the most challenging?
We work at a very fast pace. The office offers a lot of different opportunities, and that’s one of the great characteristics of SOM. You get exposed to so much. But you also need time to reflect and think about what you really care about, and where you want to deepen your expertise.
We have project managers who are passionate about client engagement. We have technical leaders who are dedicated to the quality of our construction and documents. We have design leaders who are invested in setting the standard for design. Each has been a mentor to me by example. In this environment, I am encouraged to consider what I am passionate about and where I want to deepen my own expertise.
What’s been your proudest moment here?
I think it’s yet to come. When the Wellesley College Science Center is completed, that will be very meaningful. I’ve been part of this project since the competition stage, when it started with an open-ended question about the future of science at Wellesley. Through this process, I’ve gained insight into the college — its culture and its vision — and developed a relationship with its administrators and faculty. One of our meetings was on my birthday, and they surprised me with a cake. It was a very touching moment. Architecture is a long game. Projects often take years to complete. But I suspect that when this building finally opens, it will probably be my proudest moment at the office.
What advice would you give to new graduates?
In architecture — both in the workplace and in school — there’s a lot of pessimistic talk about the industry. That projects don’t get realized, and it’s hard to find a job. That you work a lot and don’t get compensated or recognized for it. Just look at the discussions on any architecture forum online. But don’t let that scare you off. A lot of people are ready to start thinking about other career choices when they graduate, before seeing for themselves what the industry could be.
I’ve found that the reality isn’t so extreme. Different offices have their own distinct cultures, process, and vision. Don’t just find an office that will offer you a job. Think about what type of experiences you want, and find a place that can offer you those experiences. We need more smart, young designers, now more than ever.
Think SOM might be the place to build your career? Learn more about working with us. And for more perspectives on starting out in the design field, read on: