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Fanny Gong ’89

How did you begin your career in architecture? What were your initial goals?

I earned a foreign student scholarship to study at the City University of New York, and I chose the School of Architecture, because I had wanted to be an architect since I was 12. I loved to draw, and my strengths were in math and science, so I thought it was the right field for me. I was encouraged by my father who said, "You do whatever you want that you're good at."

My goal when I graduated was to work at one of the best architectural firms and, thanks to recommendations from my professors, I got a job as a junior designer at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, a top global architectural firm. I had the opportunity to work with the design team of Pritzker Prize-winning architect Gordon Bunshaft, who designed Lever House in Midtown Manhattan. I was very fortunate to work there, and my goal was to learn as much as possible so that I could eventually build and design my own building. And I was lucky – I designed four of them at another big international firm before I went to Columbia Business School.

What made you want to pursue your MBA?

At that time, I was an associate partner and the senior project designer in charge of the design of the Americas Tower, which is on 46th Street and Avenue of the Americas. That was my third building. The client handling that building was a Columbia Business School alumnus and I remembered him coming into the meeting and doodling ideas on my drawing. It made me think what a great position that was, where you could be on the other side and choose any architect for your project. I realized that business school would make me a better architect if I could learn how to understand the business from the client’s perspective, and also from a financial viewpoint. Though I would never doodle on another architect’s design! I convinced a partner at the firm to put me through business school, and he thought it was a great idea.

What are your day-to-day responsibilities and what have been your long-term projects?

My day-to-day responsibilities vary. Just when I think I am finished each day, I’m not. I manage everything regarding design for the new Manhatanville Campus. It’s a bit stressful, but it’s happy stress because you know that in a few years you will see the buildings. The nature of the project is complex: we have to keep some of the building plans confidential, but we also have to keep the community informed. Also, at a site so close to the water with a very high water table, we need to pay extra attention to the foundations of the buildings. We began with the Jerome L. Greene Science Center and it took a few years just to plan and build the slurry walls, which are as thick as 4 feet to prevent water from entering the lower levels of the buildings. The Lenfest Center for the Arts came next, with four double-height spaces, the Screening Center, the Multipurpose Performing Theater, the Wallach Gallery, and the Flexible Exhibition Space. Then came the Forum, a multipurpose venue for working, meetings, symposia, and academic conferences. We are now building the two buildings for the Business School. We work on both buildings at the same time, with one ahead of the other by a couple of floors. The Business School buildings will also have a large square between them for public space, and we are working on that now as well. So over the last 11 years I’ve worked on everything from conception to design to construction for each building and public space.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

My favorite part is the anticipation of seeing what the architects have designed after we’ve reviewed and commented on initial plans for a project. I will have some preconceived ideas of what the building would look like, but I’m hands-off in the drawing phase, so I am often pleasantly surprised. I get to work with world class architects – they never disappoint. They will come up with great solutions, and then I critique them, and they’ll listen and respond. I enjoy that part, because they know that the advice I give them is not just off the cuff. It’s gratifying to know that you’ve helped shape every piece of work.

What did you learn at Columbia Business School that you still reference today?

The program is so diverse, it’s much more than just “you’re in finance” or “you’re in marketing.” We learned corporate finance, accounting, real estate finance, investment management, human behavior, etc. I realized there was a much bigger world out there than just architecture. Up until then, all my friends had been architects, so attending the Business School was very different for me and broadened my horizons.

I learned that to be a good architect, I really have to design or manage something that is financially successful. I was exposed to the world of money, which was important, because architects can be very idealistic.

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