Spotlight: Andy Rah

An architect reflects on connection, identity, and community.

Andy in the Catskill Mountains. All images © Andy Rah unless otherwise cited.

For New York-based architect Andy Rah, the pandemic has been a time to refocus. Taking the chance to get long-held ideas off the ground, he worked with his colleagues to launch the Asian Alliance, a group dedicated to uplifting and advocating for Asian communities at SOM worldwide. For this edition of our Spotlight series, Andy tells us about what he has rediscovered over the past year.

I am what’s called a “third culture kid.” It’s someone who grew up in an environment different from their country of origin or residence and was exposed to a wide variety of cultural influences in their formative years. I was born in Seoul, Korea, but grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and went to an international school there with kids from all over the world. This background really shaped my perspective. You learn to become adaptive, resilient, and comfortable in not belonging to any one culture, but many.

“Home” was never a concept that completely resonated with me, but I suppose there was always a yearning. Perhaps I expressed this in the things that I created as a kid. I would often doodle and draw, inventing characters and the environments they lived in. Architecture was always in the background for me, a path I had always considered. My uncle happens to be an architect who had an incredible career at SOM in Chicago. His work brought him to Asia and he would visit us in Kuala Lumpur during my childhood. I was lucky to have this early exposure to design, but at the time, I wanted to forge my own path.

Class photo at international school in Kuala Lumpur

I decided to major in mechanical engineering at Brown University, hoping to design cars or products — things with a human connection. I studied a lot of theory and computation in engineering school, but I’m the kind of person who learns by using my hands. So I designed things: nano-tech tennis rackets, sleep-monitoring devices (way before the Apple Watch), experimental car engines, and I used early 3D printers.

It was really only when I stumbled upon a summer program at the Harvard Graduate School of Design that I realized that architecture was the right path for me. I could see how it was a way to make a tangible impact for many, and possibly generations of people.

I knew that SOM would offer a broad experience — the chance to work on projects of different types and scales, and in many different places around the world. I had interned at the New York office while I was in architecture school, so I had some insight into the work and culture before joining full-time. My first year was incredibly busy — it was amazing to see the breadth of work happening all at once. I was part of a small, tight-knit team, so it didn’t feel like a large office.

Renderings of Winship at Emory Midtown, which seeks to transform cancer care. Images © SOM

It’s rewarding to work on projects that are transformative. One example is Winship at Emory Midtown, currently under construction in Atlanta — it’s a completely new type of cancer care center. We are doing something very innovative for a healthcare project — reorganizing the entire hospital from the ground up with wellness and the patient experience in mind, into disease-specific “care communities.” We hope it will set a benchmark for how hospitals can be designed in the future. This kind of project reminds me why I chose to pursue architecture — for the chance to make a tangible, positive impact on people’s lives.

Working from home has had its challenges, but I’m always surprised at the clever methods we have adopted to get our work done. Our mock-up review for the Emory Winship facade took place in Florida, while our design team was in New York, without the possibility of travel. We were still able to “visit” the site, however, using a robot that I controlled from my apartment.

Andy drops in for a virtual site visit, with the help of a remote-controlled robot.

I have also been working on a large mixed-use project with two towers in Atlanta, a competition design for a boutique office in North Carolina, and a small jewel-box pavilion in West Palm Beach — all are in the concept phase. Working on these projects across the scale spectrum has been exciting. The designs are super simple — we always try to reduce and pull back, to arrive at something almost elemental yet profound. When you do it right, there’s an incredible design clarity and power to that.

Equity has become critically important, and the past year has been an incredible time of change. As we know, it has also been a particularly challenging period for the Asian American community with the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes during the pandemic. A few colleagues and I created the Asian Alliance, a new initiative to uplift, support, and increase the presence of the Asian and AAPI community here at SOM. It’s something that I’ve been thinking about for many years, but the pandemic really gave me an opportunity to reflect on my own identity and find a way to take action.

Since the launch of the Asian Alliance just two months ago, we have quickly expanded across SOM’s offices worldwide. We reached out and got resounding support. Our group now has more than 200 members. We’ve worked incredibly hard to make this happen — it took a small group of us gathering together, late into the night, after our project work was done.

Andy and colleagues during SOM’s first AAPI Heritage Month celebration.

Throughout May, we have been celebrating Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month for the first time ever at SOM. We organized a series of events around the theme of “Voice.” Colleagues from all over the world have contributed to presentations discussing issues of identity, community, and the challenges we face. Now more than ever, we need to celebrate differences and our diversity, but also come together.

While this year has been challenging for all of us, it’s also opened up many opportunities. We have always collaborated across offices, but it’s now become second nature. I’m in almost daily meetings with colleagues from all over the world — Chicago, DC, San Francisco, LA, even London and Hong Kong. The more we’ve become isolated, it seems, the more we’ve gotten closer — professionally and personally.

Andy with students from the Korean American Family Services Center (KAFSC) Youth Program, a New York-based non-profit organization.

Besides the Asian Alliance, I’m a member of the SOM Year One program and the Summer Internship selection committee. I’m also a volunteer with the youth program at the Korean American Family Services Center, a New York-based non-profit community organization mentoring Asian and other minority high school students in the New York metropolitan area. A couple years ago we hosted a career day at SOM, showcasing a day in the life of an architect. My design career has given so much to me, and it’s important that we learn to give back to our communities as well.

Lately I’ve recalibrated my relationship with my city and the region where I live. I’ve found a new appreciation for simple pleasures — spending time in nature, hiking and biking. I’ve also been rediscovering the neighborhoods around me, places that I previously took for granted. My friends and I always go to Transmitter Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn — that’s our favorite spot. It’s tucked away, you feel like you’re separated from everything until the park opens up to this amazing view of the Manhattan skyline. We’ve created new ways of connecting to places and to each other — it’s important to recognize that.

Whipping up some Korean comfort food: hobak jeon (zucchini pancakes) and dubu kimchi (kimchi and pork belly stir-fry, served over tofu)

Many people have been cooking a lot during the pandemic. I think it’s because during these isolated times, when we’ve been detached from family and friends, we want to recreate a sense of home. I try to cook foods I remember from my childhood, Korean dishes that my mother would make — very simple dishes like dumplings and kimbap. Food is so powerfully tied to memory, and this period of reflection has led me to gain a better sense of what’s meaningful to me, to clarify my ideas and plans for the future. Sometimes you need to pull back in order to propel forward.

Read more profiles in our Spotlight series: