Tom Sung-Jin Chung FAIA
Principal, Leers Weinzapfel Associates
In celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage (AAPI) Month, the BSA is featuring Profiles on Asian Americans in the profession.
MArch – Harvard GSD, BS Arch -University of Virginia
Architecture, Art, Urban Design, Industrial Design
How has your heritage shaped who you are today?
My heritage as a Korean born immigrant has helped me to value diversity and the richness that each culture brings that celebrate the beauty of life and human flourishing but at the same time given my personal experiences it has made me aware of the prejudices that people (including myself) carry towards those who we are less familiar or unfamiliar with.
What does Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month mean to you?
Honestly, I never really thought about this very much until this year, following the recent hate crimes against Asians and Asian Americans, but as a naturalized American, it’s great to see my heritage as a Korean celebrated. Because I consider myself American in all the most important ways (in ways I think, in the language I’m most comfortable with, in my allegiance as a citizen) the fact that my country can celebrate my heritage is tremendously meaningful and helps me feel accepted.
Obviously, African Americans, given the brutal legacy of slavery and Jim Crow laws has as a race, suffered the most systematic injustice and cruelty in our nation’s history, but Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, perhaps because it’s easy to visually recognize us as being different than the euro-centric immigrants that established the original colonies that became our country, have also suffered racist policies and discrimination in our country’s past, such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese American Internment, etc. And to see our country wanting to recognize these past injustices and to move forward with lessons learned that strives to make the amazing idea that our country was founded on, that all men/women are created equal, a reality for all regardless of race is encouraging to see.
While growing up, did you have any AAPI role models in the industry or in popular culture?
Growing up in northern NJ playing sports, most of my “heroes” were professional athletes, like Tony Dorsett of the Dallas Cowboys or Don Mattingly of the NY Yankees but I also remember the 88 Olympics in Seoul, S. Korea and seeing the incredible skills of the Korean Tae Kwon Do team. When I was studying architecture in college, my role models were the western masters like Kahn, Aalto and Le Corbusier, but I would also marvel at the ingenuity of Korean Admiral Yi Sun-sin who fended off the Japanese invaders in 1592 by inventing the Turtle Ship, considered to be the first iron-clad warship in the world, and also the beautiful gardens and villas in Kyoto, Japan such as Saihoji Temple and its moss garden and Katsura Imperial villa.
How can non-Asians be better allies to advance the profession or create a more just and inclusive society?
By speaking out when they see injustice and not standing still or silent, by making the effort and reaching out to make any minority group within one’s life feel comfortable and accepted. For example, while I’m a racial minority in the US and in the Boston Area I live, I’m a member of a multi-racial church in Boston where Asian (and more specifically Korean) Americans are the majority, so since in that context I’m part of the majority, I need to be mindful and proactively reaching out to White, Hispanic and African Americans in our congregation.
When did you first become interested in architecture as a possible career?
I think my love for architecture stems from my interest in drawing from a very early age, drawing Korean manhwa and Japanese manga characters in kindergarten, which grew as an immigrant where I remember for the first two years in the US, I just drew in class things like the Empire State Building, skyline of NY, the George Washington Bridge, since I couldn’t speak English then. This evolved into making special projects in many subjects in high school about buildings and cities, staying up all night to make things like the Eiffel Tower and the Acropolis. So without really knowing what architecture is about and the creative architectural design process, my love of buildings led me to apply to college as an architecture major and fortunately things worked out.
Who or what deserves credit for your success?
My parents for their sacrifice so that I could have a better education and chance for success, my wife for her support in everything I do—my success is our success together, my professional mentors and now colleagues Andrea Leers and Jane Weinzpafel, but most importantly, my God and his amazing grace that saved me, sustains me and put in my life all the people that I’ve mentioned.
Who do you think is the most underappreciated architect and why?
They may not be household names but they are certainly well known in the world of architecture, but I think of Francesco Borromini and Sigurd Lewerentz, who were the lesser known/lesser celebrated architects to their more famous/more successful counterparts Bernini and Asplund, respectively. As great as Bernini and Asplund are and they are certainly giants in Architecture, the exquisite work and incredible beauty of Borromini’s San Carlo alle Quattro Fontane in Rome or Lewerentz’s St. Peter’s in Klippan are among the very best in architecture.
What is your favorite Boston-area building or structure?
Saarinen’s Kresge Chapel, LeCorbusier’s Carpenter Center, MM&W’s Boston Public Library and Maki’s MIT Media Lab…sorry, can’t decide a favorite.
Has your career taken you anywhere you didn’t expect?
In my travels related to mass timber architecture, it’s taken me all over the United States for the first time to Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Oregon, South Carolina and Texas.
Which one of your current projects excites you the most?
All of them, but I’ll point out the smallest one, a tiny project, less than 3,000 SF, a nature based preschool in Auburn, Alabama, to be made from wood sourced on site.
What has been your most proud moment as an architect?
When our user clients/colleagues in architecture and building construction technology at UMass Amherst, in a heartfelt, genuine way expressed their thanks at the space we gave them in the central commons that is a joy to work in, that inspires the students and serves as a teaching tool in numerous ways.
If you could collaborate with anyone in the profession, who would it be and why?
I’ve been fortunate to have collaborated with some amazing design professionals, notably Robert Malczyk, an expert structural design engineer in mass timber and Steve and Lauren Stimson, landscape architects, both at the UMass Amherst Olver Design Building.
What does equity mean to you?
It means being mindful of each person’s unique situation and to have compassion for those who are not as fortunate as you are: “Do onto others as you would have them do onto you (if you were in their situation)”
What are some changes that you have implemented in your firm (or for yourself) to address issues of equity in the profession?
I’m personally, and also as part of our firm’s leadership, becoming increasingly aware of equity for working mothers. It’s traditionally been a pinch point for many talented women in our profession hitting a ceiling or leaving the profession given their overwhelming responsibility in childcare. As a person who has benefitted from my wife taking on the bulk of raising our children, I hope to do my small part in our firm by working to remove that traditional barrier to career advancement and to make as flexible and equitable environment for them.
What is the most effective step you’ve taken in your work toward a more sustainable built environment?
By researching, designing, teaching, presenting and thereby advancing mass timber architecture, which as a renewable material, with sustainable harvesting measures, has the greatest potential from a material standpoint to address climate change in our built environment.
What is the greatest potential for architecture to shape a neighborhood community?
By advocating good design that improves the greater public by enhancing the street-scape, providing community amenities and making places for connections that are welcoming and that address the human scale and integrates natural materials, landscape and daylight.
Where do you find inspiration?
In anything that is well designed, whether it’s an architectural masterpiece like the Kimball Art Museum, a beautifully designed clothing like the Armani suits in The Untouchables, the design in our natural world from mechanical intricacies of insects, to the human body to the incredible awe inspiring beauty of our national parks.
What are you reading right now?
The Code Breaker, Jennifer Doudna, Gene Editing and the Future of the Human Race by Walter Isaacson.
Have you had a memorable experience while working on a BSA initiative that you would like to share?
I was involved in a very small way during the past year in meetings with the BSA on issues of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion and I was so impressed by the BSA staff, leadership and many volunteers who have given so much of their time to make our profession a better place for all marginalized groups. I am really impressed by their dedication and sacrifice and proud to be a member.