Out of Office: Angela Wu

Why resilience and empathy will take you far, and other insights from an architect.

Angela Wu and her daughter admire Alexander Calder’s “Eighteen Numbered Black” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). All photos courtesy of Angela Wu.

Equal parts dreamer and doer, Angela Wu saw design in her future from a young age. An architect based in our San Francisco office, she values collaboration and multiple points of view as the answer to design’s toughest challenges. For the latest installment of Out of Office, a series on the people behind SOM’s global practice, Angela tells us what drives her — and what she wants to drive.

What made you want to become an architect?
I knew when I was very young that I wanted to be a designer. As much as I am a dreamer, there is always a practical side pulling me. Out of all the arts fields, I wanted to choose one that would create something tangible, practical, and lasting. What better than architecture? It creates an environment that can be occupied, used as a shelter, become a symbol of a city or a way of life, and affect a large number of people in positive ways.

What aspect do you enjoy the most about your job?
Seeing buildings come into fruition and no longer just on paper.

If you hadn’t become an architect, what would you be doing?
I might have become a fashion designer, automobile designer, furniture designer, or graphic designer. But I chose architecture because it encompasses aspects of all those professions. It would be great to do what Frank Lloyd Wright was able to do: design everything needed for a building, furniture included.

What piece of advice do you have for students?
Learn public speaking skills. Architects bring people together to champion a vision. Without the ability to communicate, our visions cannot be achieved.

On a reproduction of the Nolli map of Rome, Angela points out one of the urban spaces that’s inspired her the most.

What are 3 books you think anyone should read in their lifetime?
The Art of Negotiation: How to Improvise Agreement in a Chaotic World by Michael Wheeler. We all need to learn how to adapt, be agile, and move forward in order to achieve something great.

Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead by Sheryl Sandberg. Whether we’re men or women, we all need our voices heard.

They Cage the Animals at Night by Jennings Michael Burch. Not too many people know this book. It’s a true story about a little boy’s struggle with the abuse and neglect he experienced through the American foster care system. This book has had a great influence in my life. We all need a little humanity in us.

What’s your favorite app?
Amazon — because apps and technologies are supposed to make life simpler. No more shopping lists and wasting time going from store to store and aisle to aisle just to buy five items. With the push of a button, it’s done and boxes show up at your doorstep!

What experiences are on your bucket list?
Anything with race cars! I’d love the chance to compete in a Touring Car or Le Mans Race, or, if racing isn’t in my future, drive a Lamborghini to its full potential.

You’re showing visitors your city, where’s the first place you take them?
I consider multiple cities “my city.” I grew up in Hong Kong but spent the majority of my life in the U.S. and in San Francisco. In Hong Kong, one must experience the streets and the tall buildings by riding in the front of a tram. In San Francisco, one must visit Golden Gate Park to go to the de Young Museum, the California Academy of Sciences, the Japanese Tea Garden, and its other attractions. The park is very characteristic of San Francisco because it represents the city as a mixing pot of culture, history, technology, science, and nature.

Angela explores Richard Serra’s “Sequence” at SFMOMA.

What keeps you up at night?
I don’t go to bed until I know I got everything I needed done. So other than jet lag, nothing really will keep me up at night.

When you think about the future, what excites you?
A fully integrated life with a driverless and seamless transportation system. Driving should be a sport and not a necessity.

What is most important in design right now?
Cross-disciplinary collaboration. More brains are better than one. If we want to create a fully integrated and well-thought-out environment for people, it needs to come from multiple disciplines and multiple points of view. As architects and designers, we are here to solve massively complex problems and find solutions for an otherwise chaotic world.

Who is someone you admire?
Someone who is selfless and resilient.

What is the most awe-inspiring space you’ve been in?
Bernini’s Piazza San Pietro in Rome. On my first trip to Italy, my friends and I went there right after we dropped our bags off. I was in awe at the sheer scale of the space. No drawings, maps, or written description could have prepared me for such a simple, functional space that has stayed relevant over the past centuries.

What are the most important qualities for an architect to have?
Empathetic — we need a connection with people so we can relate to all stakeholders and understand their real needs.

Resilient — we need to be flexible and have the ability to bounce back. Projects last a long time and we may encounter many bumpy rides before their fruition.

Analytical — we need to dissect issues and piece them back together so we can solve the array of complex problems out there and create a better environment for people.

Define good leadership…
Seeing people not only for their current capabilities, but for the great potential they will be able to achieve.

Define good design…
You know good design when you see it. You know great design when you feel it.


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