Toshiko Mori talks with her former student, 29-year-old Philip Poon, in the eighth episode of the Moneyish series Good Company.
Philip Poon’s career has a solid foundation. Award-winning architect Toshiko Mori is here to help him scale it up.
“What I really admire about Toshiko’s practice is that she doesn’t have one specific style or one specific type of project … She can explore architecture in all these different forms and sizes and types, for different types of people and different clients and different programs in different parts of the world,” said Poon, a 29-year-old architect based in New York. “That’s really exciting to me.”
Poon, who currently works for his father’s architecture office in SoHo, reunited with 66-year-old Mori, his former professor at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, earlier this month at her tranquil, light-filled Lafayette Street office. The two chat in the eighth episode of the Moneyish original series Good Company, which matches millennials with veterans in their field for mentorship and conversation. (Watch the video.)
Poon grew up with an affinity for the arts and a penchant for building things with his hands. (Spending time around the office of his father, Peter Poon, made a career in architecture feel like “it was always an option for me,” he said.) After studying architecture for two years at Rice University, Poon transferred to Columbia University and earned his undergrad in English lit, working abroad in architecture offices in Tokyo, Zurich and Rotterdam along the way and putting in summers at his dad’s office starting in 2013. He earned his master’s in architecture from Harvard this past May.
Poon, now working on a 33-story hotel on 28th Street currently in its construction phase, acknowledges he has been “lucky” to work with his father. “I think a lot of recent graduates or architects my age work on projects, but don’t necessarily see all phases of the project,” he said. “They get stuck more in one particular phase, and it takes a while to build up the experience just to even be in certain meetings as a young architect.”
Mori, who spent her early childhood in Kobe, Japan, moved to New York as a teen. An alumnus of New York’s Cooper Union taught Mori during a summer art course in Florence about how art and architecture were related; she later enrolled at Cooper Union, where she would earn her architecture degree and eventually teach at her alma mater. (She also worked for the celebrated Japanese-American sculptor Isamu Noguchi.) After she’d worked five years for modernist architect Edward Larrabee Barnes — and wasn’t much older than Poon — Mori launched her own firm in 1981.
Today a tenured professor at Harvard, Mori has designed through her firm an array of library, theater and museum projects in New York; the Hudson Yard Park and Boulevard; institutional buildings for Syracuse University and Brown University; and residential programs in Maine, Massachusetts and Mongolia. The Thread Artists’ Residency and Cultural Center in Sinthian, Senegal, an American Institute of Architects award-winning structure that Mori designed pro bono, landed on Time’s Greatest Places list this year.
Mori has made a name for herself in a field crowded by men: Though about 45% of architecture graduates are women, the pipeline narrows toward the top of the profession — producing a mere 17% of partners and principals in AIA firms who are women. The late architect Zara Hadid in 2004 became the first woman ever to win the prestigious Pritzker Architecture Prize in its then 26-year history. “I just never thought of myself as a female architect, so maybe that was a good thing,” Mori said.
But many prominent architects these days are women, Mori added, pointing to names like Liz Diller, Jeanne Gang and Tatiana Bilbao. “Now we have many women mentors and new icons coming up,” she said. “I think hopefully it’s going to shift through the next generation or so.”
Mori says she took to heart the mantra of her late Cooper Union mentor, John Hejduk, who “always said that teaching is a social contract of architects.” “We have to look after younger generations,” she said. “Unless we are able to invest in the next generation, there won’t be a next generation of architects,” she said.
“Young students are very honest,” Mori added. “They will tell you honestly what you’re doing wrong, and they can challenge your ideas. And it’s really very good for us, the older ones, to be exposed to younger minds.”
Asked what advice she had for young architects, Mori stressed the importance of generosity, honesty and treating people from all walks of life as equals. “Treat others with respect and dignity, from the clients to laborers on site,” she said. “Yes, buildings are built with brick and mortar — but then people put them together.”
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