Interview with Abby Hamlin and Dana Tang
Nina Rappaport How did your paths cross in New York and how did you decide to teach a studio together at Yale?
Abby Hamlin Our paths crossed in part through Dana’s partner, Richard Gluckman, whom I have known for many years because we were both on the board of the Van Alen Institute. He told me that he asked Dana Tang, who he described as “a fantastic architect” to become a partner a few years ago. Deborah Berke suggested that Dana teach with me.
NR How did you decide you wanted to be a real estate developer after studying urban planning at Princeton, and how did development become your passion in a circuitous way?
AH My first career was as a professional modern dancer, which continues to inform my work as a developer. I have an acute understanding of how our bodies respond to space and how the built environment affects our mood. When I stopped dancing, I was drawn to architecture. But I learned that architects don’t really make all the design decisions; developers do. So I decided to become a developer and use development as a way to create spaces that enhance people’s lives. Urban planning was just an intermediate step for me to get into development.
NR Dana, you too had a circuitous route to a career in architecture. First you taught Chinese and literature at Colorado College, and much later you studied architecture. What inspired you to leave teaching and Chinese studies to make this abrupt career change?
Dana Tang On the one hand it was a very circuitous route, but on the other hand the writing was on the wall. When I was a child I built elaborate villages in the woods, and then as a junior in high school I interned for Prentice & Chan. Lo-Yi Chan advised that I attend a liberal arts college rather than study architecture as an undergraduate. I went even further and pursued a master’s degree in Chinese studies. While I was teaching at Colorado College I felt a calling to build things and make space. As an older student at Yale I could bring a broad perspective to my studies in architecture. Ten years later I helped to build our firm’s portfolio of work in China, which includes three major museums—so things came full circle.
NR In terms of launching your practice, Abby, you worked for some New York mega developers. How did you know you were ready to be an entrepreneur and start your own firm at a time when there were only a handful of women developers?
AH Yes, sadly there were only a handful of women when I founded Hamlin Ventures 23 years ago, and it is still the same. Now there are more women coming through the pipeline as real estate executives. I had a desire to be my own boss and decide what projects to work on. But I needed three things to attract lenders and partners: knowledge, capital, and a reputation. I had a really wonderful mentor at Swig Weiler & Arnow, a commercial real estate company that built, owned, and managed office buildings including the Grace Building, in Manhattan, and the Fairmont Hotels. After I became president of that company, I was tasked with selling its entire portfolio. One could say that I was selling myself out of a job, but I saw it as the opportunity I was looking for to strike out on my own. I feel incredibly lucky that I had a vision early on and was able to see it through.
NR Dana, how did you first team up with Richard Gluckman and later become a partner in the practice with him as a male-female partnership that is not a romantic partnership as well—which is a little unusual?
DT Oh that is interesting; I’ve never thought of that. I first met Richard when he was a critic at Yale and then I had a summer job at Fox & Fowle, where we worked with him on some projects in China. After graduating from Yale I applied to work with him, and I never left. From the beginning I took on a leadership role both on projects and within the office. Richard and I are each other’s best critics. We’re very complementary. As a female partner there are unique challenges, including the balance of being a mother and a business owner.
AH You’re so right, because part of it was timing: waiting until I felt comfortable with where things were in my home life before becoming an entrepreneur.
NR The role of gender is also interesting in terms of its impact on cities. There is a community project in Vienna for a woman’s initiated housing and neighborhood development where the female gender plays a role in the location of different activities. Do you see cities being built differently from a woman’s perspective, whether in terms of design or ownership structure?
DT I think as women we tend to be less egocentric, so the need to make a singular mark is less of an inclination for many of us. I don’t think about making a singular object or a big sculptural element that demands attention—I think about the experience of the built environment. For me the individual credit is not as important as everyone working collaboratively as a team to create the best project.
AH Women developers, like myself, have to operate in a predominantly male real estate system that values money, power, and ego over other objectives. That said, I have found a way to prioritize my goals of creative expression, civic engagement, and design quality so long as my projects earn the same returns as those of any other developer. But it’s not automatically gender based. I believe that confident and creative leadership of cities, based on an understanding that all development is a public act, can make a real difference.
NR Dana, what would you say was your most successful collaboration with a developer, especially in a project where many of the parameters were already established? Where did you find a collaboration that worked especially well for you from the start of the project?
DT While much of our work is for institutions, we have had a few collaborations with developers, including the hospitality group for whom we designed the Mii amo Spa, in Sedona, Arizona, and we recently completed the Trail House at Enchantment Resort. Hospitality developers are thinking about the guest and the bottom line. Great architecture provides an elevated guest experience by definition, so we really all want the same thing. For Mii amo Spa, we had a heated debate about why the main circulation space had to be 12 feet wide. We dug in our heels, and now there is a 12-foot-high by 12-foot-wide skylighted spine that elevates the feeling of being in the building—and defines the guest experience. The client gained an appreciation of architecture as a way of thinking about spaces as places and not just as program elements related to revenue, and that informs our work together.
NR How do you relate to the urban context in your projects in terms of community engagement as both outreach and feedback, as well as the physical conditions of the site?
AH I can’t develop anything without being inspired by the context. Even when the context is awful, if I am inspired, I can see its potential. A good example of this is the Hoyt Schermerhorn project, which at first glance was a barren parking lot sitting over the subway across from the criminal courts in Downtown Brooklyn. Other developers considered this site “unbuildable.” I saw it as an opportunity to create a new city block, which is exactly what I did by developing a series of projects including townhouses, supportive housing, a theater and ballet school. It is now a vibrant cultural hub and mixed-income residential community, anchored by the award-winning 14 Townhouse and Schermerhorn projects.
NR Dana, is there a project that you feel really represents the way you engage context, site, and community?
DT Since we don’t pick the site, understanding the context is a critical part of our design process. There were two academic projects in the office at the same time that had very different contexts. The Korman Center at Drexel University, in Philadelphia, involved a renovation and addition to what was a 1950s library with an opaque brick face at the heart of the campus. Our approach was to open the building, layering the facade from the landscape to the front porch and the atrium. We transformed the sense of place for the community, which was the university. The other project is the Zhejiang University Museum of Art and Archaeology in China, the first building designed for a new campus in what had been agricultural fields. We had to anticipate the future development of a park and other campus buildings. Our design weaves the landscape between bars of the building, responding to the original landscape and the future built context.
NR Abby, what have been your most engaging or satisfying projects for nonprofit organizations, and why do you work with them?
AH I’ve always sought meaning in my work. It’s not that I consider real estate development lacking in meaning, but it is a for-profit endeavor, so I enjoy supplementing that effort by consulting with or serving on the boards of nonprofit organizations. The two areas of nonprofit work that I’m currently focused on are the arts and affordable housing. I’ve enjoyed working on many projects in these sectors over the years, but I feel particularly proud of the Schermerhorn with its 217 units of supportive housing and a community theater in the base.
NR Dana, you are really known for your museum clients. What is the best method or most interesting project that you have worked on with a board of directors among these clients, and how do you navigate the art world?
DT It is a real privilege to have museums and art institutions as our bread and butter, and we can avoid agonizing over whether we are doing this just for money or for a greater purpose. We have had the opportunity to design many first museum buildings for institutions, such as the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1997. For the past nine years we have been working with the museum on a new building. Our work goes beyond the design of a building, and we have the ability to better any project with broader interdisciplinary thinking. We try to bring that kind of thinking to every project by asking ourselves what can we do to make a project better in a holistic sense. If you go in a straight line you get one answer, but if you take the time to zigzag around something, you can often find other benefits.
AH That is exactly the approach I look for in architects—a meandering thinking that takes us to new places. Richard, Dana, and I are definitely going to do projects together!
NR How are you organizing your studio at Yale for a waterfront site that is part of the vital, sustainable, and successful public-private organization of the Brooklyn Navy Yard? And why did you select that particular site?
AH The Brooklyn Navy Yard is another nonprofit board that I am involved with. Its mission is quality job creation. The site we selected is at the edge of the Yard, so it challenges the students to address issues of the urban context both on the water and inland in the community.
DT The students will respond to the mission of the Brooklyn Navy Yard by creating industrial jobs and will learn what goes into a feasible economic project. More importantly, they will contemplate issues of the urban and waterfront context to create a project that benefits the city and the neighborhood.