Alumni Q+A / Yvonne Szeto MArch ’79 of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners
Since joining Pei Cobb Freed & Partners in 1979, Alumni Council member Yvonne Szeto MArch ’79 has spent her career advancing the firm’s tradition of well-crafted public works. As a lead designer for 7 Bryant Park, a recently completed office tower that was named Project of the Year 2016 by Engineering News Record New York, Szeto embraced the opportunity to show how a building can both engage the public realm and fulfill an exacting corporate program. In November 2016, she hosted a reception and tour for GSD alumni and students at this memorable building along with the Real Estate Development (RED) Club at the GSD.
A member of the first succeeding generation of design partners at Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, Szeto has gained national recognition as a designer of academic and cultural institutions while extending the firm’s global reach with major corporate projects in Asia and Australia. Early in her career, she collaborated on some of the firm’s most important works, including the Grand Louvre in Paris. additional professional highlights include the ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam and the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina. Currently, she is completing headquarters for Minmetals in Shenzhen, China, and SXSW in Austin, Texas, among other projects.
On March 30, the GSD is proud to celebrate the centennial of founding partner Ieoh Ming (I. M.) Pei MArch ’46. This event—with guests including Harry Cobb AB ’47, MArch ’49 – will be moderated by Mohsen Mostafavi, dean of Harvard GSD and Alexander and Victoria Wiley Professor of Design. The program will focus on the formative years of I. M. Pei’s career as well as some of his special friendships, influences, and projects. The GSD, together with M+ Museum in Hong Kong, is also planning symposia on the work of I. M. Pei for Fall 2017.
In this Q & A, Szeto reflects on her time at the GSD, what inspires her work, her upcoming projects, and more.
1. Tell us about your background. When did you realize you wanted to be an architect?
I was born and raised in Hong Kong. My father had a significant impact on my career choice, as he was an architect and engineer with a successful practice in Hong Kong. He was University Architect for the Chinese University of Hong Kong and was responsible for the master plan and the design of many of the first buildings on its campus. I learned about architecture from the many trips our family made abroad – traveling the world from Casablanca to Angkor Wat. Both my brothers and I have fond memories of spending Saturday afternoons at our father’s office, and we were fascinated by his drawings and models. We followed in his footsteps and became architects.
My father was also an accomplished painter, and I, like him, found great satisfaction in drawing. I credit him with developing my awareness of the visual arts. My decision to attend the University of Minnesota architectural program was no doubt influenced by the exceptional drawing skill and reputation of Ralph Rapson, who was head of the school at that time.
2. Why did you choose the GSD?
After graduating with an architecture degree from the University of Minnesota and working briefly, it became clear to me that I had more to learn and that the East Coast schools offered a theoretically rigorous curriculum that appealed to me. I applied to the GSD and was fortunate to be accepted.
3. Tell us about your professional career. How has it evolved with so much experience at one firm?
I started at PCF&P in the ’80s as a young architect and soon became interested in curtain wall design, an area in which the firm offers unique in-house expertise. I worked on two significant curtain wall projects: one involved working with Harry Cobb on the prismatic 3D wrapping skin of Allied Bank Tower in Dallas, the other with I. M. Pei on the Grand Pyramid of the Louvre, integrating the low-iron structurally glazed glass panels with a structure of bow-string trusses and cables. These projects gave me not only specific knowledge and skills but also the confidence to undertake the same rigorous exploration in the design of all building enclosures. For a young designer, this early technical training was transformative, and I would recommend it to all architects.
In the ’90s, I was part of our winning effort in a competition for a headquarters for ABN AMRO Bank in Amsterdam. It gave me the opportunity to lead a design team, represent the office in a comprehensive work of architecture and interiors, and learn about sustainable design, including the first climate wall as well as geothermal cold storage, daylight sensors, automated shades, cool ceilings, and radiant floors. This has proven useful in my work designing office towers now, using LEED in the US, the Green Building Label 3-star system in China, and the NABERS 5-star system in Australia.
I was named partner after ABN AMRO was completed, and the experience led to opportunities to design a number of other headquarters buildings, such as IMF HQ2 in Washington, OECD in Paris, and the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Compared with these institutional projects, my current work on the new home for SXSW offers the refreshing challenge of designing a new co-working environment for a cutting-edge client.
I have also been involved with many other building types, including museums and educational facilities. We say in our office that practicing with different building types and in different regions strengthens your skill as an architect, that things you learn on one type of project in one part of the world can be applied to challenges on a different project in another locale. Looking back, my long tenure at Pei Cobb Freed has given me a great breadth of experience; it has been not limiting but liberating, offering opportunities I could not have imagined back when I was studying at the GSD.
4. Can you describe your design philosophy? How has it evolved over time?
I believe in the stated philosophy of our firm, “to approach each project on its own terms, drawing inspiration less from formal or theoretical preconceptions than from particularities of place and program.” To me, that is a starting point for my design approach, which is a search for an expressive form, grounded in an underlying geometry that provides a functional solution to architectural opportunities rooted in a particular context. I am always concerned about the posture of a building and how it is understood by those who engage it. This approach has been a constant for me, but it is continually evolving. I think it is vital for an architect to be constantly growing and incorporating into their work new ideas and innovations, from both within the profession and outside it.
5. How has your engagement with the GSD, including your role on the Alumni Council, benefitted you and shaped your vision for design education?
It has helped me keep perspective and maintain focus. Outside the academic world, there are countless problems and distractions in architectural practice that interfere with the design process. Staying engaged with the GSD, and in particular working on the Alumni Council, brings me back to the School and reminds me of the idealism of our profession and the perfect world we hoped for when we were students. However, the contrast between academics and practice also highlights that creating real-world architectural solutions, with the many challenges that entails, is an essential part of our art, and this lesson should be available to students while they are in school. That’s why it was so rewarding for me to present our 7 Bryant Park project, a building that has high aspirations for design, as well as commercial success, to the student real estate group from the GSD who visited New York last November.
6. At that event for alumni and students, attendees had a tour of the building and heard from Tommy Craig, senior managing director of Hines, about the development field and trends and from you about the design process. What was it like to connect with this group around the challenges, opportunities, and innovations of the project?
After working on 7 Bryant Park for over five years, it was wonderful to be able to share the completed project with the GSD community. I was particularly happy that we were able to have Tommy tell the development side of what was very much a collaboration of developer and architect. As a commercial office tower, this building has its own significance in the larger Manhattan real estate market and, urbanistically, a unique position as a neighbor of Bryant Park. A lot of thought went into both the development and the design. Succeeding in both contexts was the challenge that we faced together, and I hope that collaboration came through to the alumni and students.
7. You served as design partner for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, North Carolina, which was awarded the McGraw-Hill Best of 2010 Award of Excellence in Architectural Design. What research was done to prepare for this project?
The research was the best part! Our kickoff for the design was a trip to Talladega to see the Aaron’s 499 spring race. I had never seen a NASCAR race and knew nothing about the sport or the culture of NASCAR. Tailgating and eating barbecue within a sea of RVs in the infield is something I had never done before! But I was struck right away by the beauty of the sport, the color, the speed, the spectacle, the engineering, the physics. The visceral feeling of 43 cars traveling within inches of one another, roaring by at 200 miles per hour, is truly amazing. The undulating, curving form of the track that contains all that power ultimately became the inspiration for our final design. But along the way, I went to countless races, toured team shops, met owners, drivers and NASCAR legends, and visited car and sports museums all over the world. And I got to meet Richard Petty! I don’t think I’ll see a project like that one again.
8. Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
That balance cuts a few ways. One of the most difficult parts is the travel. Projects in Asia and Australia or Europe necessarily keep you away from home for days at a time. That has been hard, while also being a mother to my daughter, Sara. I am fortunate to have a spouse who is an architect (David B. Everson, Jr. MArch ’79, whom I met at the GSD in a studio taught by Michael McKinnell). The demands of project charrettes are a known entity, so sharing responsibilities and time management is an important part of our lives. However, I have made it a practice to guard my weekend time, so I can spend it with family, and while I enjoy traveling to different parts of the world, when work is done, I am on the first plane home! Although it is challenging, the travel part is one of the things that keeps work interesting, because you meet fascinating people from different cultures whom you wind up working closely with for many years. Sharing a biertje with the Dutch, Baijiu toasts with the Chinese at dinner, or a Coopers after a long day in Darwin are things I will always remember.
9. What’s your favorite memory of the GSD?
Seeing sunrise from the trays!