Talk About It
WiA Scholarship | Florence Tang
"Now I know I am more than enough."
Receiving one of the inaugural WIA Dallas professional development scholarships to further my interests in the zoo, aquarium and museum design/exhibition/construction world has been an empowering and reflective experience to sharpen my arsenal. After working at various design firms after I graduated from Rice, I now work in-house for a non-profit zoo with a mission focused on wildlife conservation and sustainability.
Statistically, I should not be part of this profession.
I didn’t realize you could major in architecture or meet an architect until I was 20 years old. Let me back up a little.
The challenges I have overcome include: poverty, limited English proficiency, family instability, and being a child of war refugees from India and Vietnam. My parents, who didn’t have a chance to go to college, had a corner store for almost 20 years in Third Ward off MacGregor and Scott – the same neighborhood where George Floyd grew up. They also later ran a small gas station in the Near Northside not far from Independence Heights, the first Black municipality in Texas. I grew up in apartments in Houston’s inner core until my parents bought a small house in a blue-collar neighborhood in the Spring Branch area. My first friends – besides my sister who was 2 years younger than me – were a little Black girl named Kenya and a little Hispanic girl named Guadalupe.
English is my second language and has become my forté. I loved spelling bees, ran varsity track and was a student journalist. One summer, I had been accepted into the US Naval Academy at Annapolis and a summer program at the Houston Chronicle when it was downtown at 801 Texas. I could only pick one as the dates coincided. I picked the Houston Chronicle. They gave me an award and a college scholarship and it instilled seeds of confidence in me that I could do this.
I went to press conferences, I asked government officials – people in seats of authority, leadership and power – difficult questions about what they were doing, and to this day, I see the world through double lenses of both journalism and architecture. I believe in shining light on dark spaces in our society where injustices, abuses and rotten layers live amongst some of the beautiful and amazing parts of our city. I learned to call out bullies, liars, phonies and gave a voice to the voiceless. I also studied the US Constitution – and First Amendment rights protecting the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press. With knowledge comes power. With education you become fearless.
The little corner store my parents had in Third Ward was our family’s toehold in Houston, a city that welcomes so many immigrant families. I signed up for Rice Building Workshop during my graduate studies at Rice, participating in the efforts of building the core house for the Project Row Houses with Rick Lowe, Nonya Grenader and Danny Samuels. It felt like a homecoming and incredibly meaningful for my professional journey to come full circle to the neighborhood where I had taken piano lessons with Mrs. Audrey Whiting on Arbor Street and checked out books from the public library on Scott Street across from the University of Houston.
The Saturday mornings I spent with RBW to construct and restore a historic row house fueled a sense of community justice, dignity and mobility in the work we can do as young architects. This hands-on experience to go beyond the walls of Rice and do more than dissect theories of architecture was, I realized, exactly the intersection of relevant community, urban and non-profit architecture in Houston that is riveting to me.
Texas, where I practice, is a minority-majority state. How is our profession a reflection of our national demographics?
Consider the demographics of the country and read the fine print: People of Hispanic origin may be of any race. Asian includes American Indian, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders categories. Other includes two or more races category. We are not an erroneous footnote.
Is our profession a reflection of the faces of our society? Who are the people designing the fabric of the built environment and what career stage are they in? How can we mitigate the gaps and barriers to promotion? Who are the people in leadership positions making decisions about what is built, abandoned, fixed or not built?
I have to remember to forget sometimes.
“What are you?”
“Go back to where you came from.”
“Wow. You speak English so well.”
I have heard all this growing up. It was not one moment, but countless microaggressions and gaslighting moments where you are made to feel as though you are never enough. Go back to where? I am Asian American. I was born in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Does my tanned skin, black hair and almond eyes mean that I am not enough of an American? I am an alien in my own country.
I am part of the Operations Leadership Team at the Houston Zoo where we recognize that for endangered and threatened wildlife species to thrive in sustainable ecosystems, there must be biodiversity. The same is true of the human world and our profession as we design, plan and build our cities, parks, transit, housing and communities.
When I was younger, when opportunities came my way, I thought it was because I filled a diversity quota.
Now I know I am more than enough.
Leadership thinks and acts with integrity through adversity, inspires and empowers others, and charts paths that at times have not been traversed.
Begun in 2017, the Beverly Willis Architecture Foundation Emerging Leaders program is a New York-based, selective professional development opportunity for women 5-10 years out of school for about 20 women nationally. The invitees engage with significant senior women in architecture, engineering, construction, real estate, law, and financial services to advance their own career goals. Participants share common experiences and trade personal strategies for success.
I was thrilled to have been selected for the 2021 cohort: Perseverance, Politics and Power. Participating in this national program broadened and deepened my network despite the workshop series being hosted virtually as we all connected across cities and time zones from Hawaii to London.
We had engaging sessions with Angelica T. Baccon, AIA, SHoP Architects Principal; Sherida E. Paulsen, FAIA, PKSB Architects Principal; and Phoebe Yee, AIA, Senior Vice President, Design, Related California. Hearing the voices and perspectives of the these leaders in the industry was inspiring and encouraging. I was also fortunate enough to partake in a special session with Beverly Willis!
I am looking forward to embarking on a self-guided effort to travel to NYC and Washington, DC this May/June 2022 as I make site visits to the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, New York Aquarium, National Zoo, and museums, especially the National Building Museum where MASS Design Group’s exhibition Justice is Beauty is being hosted. I recently wrote an article for Texas Architect magazine about MASS Design Group’s first US health care facility in McKinney. The firm’s ethos includes delivering architecture that promotes justice and human dignity and by looking at their portfolio of client projects and faces of their people, they have built a firm model unlike any other studio I have interviewed over the years.
As I am cross-trained in both architecture and journalism, I see the world through double lenses and believe women are half the sky. It is not lost upon me March is Women’s History Month, and I am humbled to be able to share part of my professional journey with the WIA Dallas network. Our profession is not the window or reflection of society that it should be, but I remain undaunted in the work ahead as we are working to fix the leaky pipeline to mentor those who do not look like us, strengthening our bonds with allies and sponsors -- not only for ourselves, but for the next generation of female architects. We also owe it to the pioneers whose heritage and shoulders we stand upon to continue this march.
Florence Tang, Assoc. AIA, NOMA, LEED GA
Watch Florence's Video Here