Spotlight: Hayley Saita

An architect‘s journey, from dance to design.

Hayley with her daughter at the Nishi Hongwanji Obon Festival in Los Angeles, 2019.

She spends her days designing buildings, but Hayley Saita hasn’t hung up her ballet shoes. In this edition of “Spotlight,” a series on personal and professional journeys, Hayley tells us what architecture and choreography have in common.

I never thought about becoming an architect as a kid. I started studying ballet when I was eight years old; it was all that I did outside of school. Most of all, I loved choreography. I would listen to music and draw little Xs on paper to show where the dancers would go. There are a lot of different ways to choreograph, but early on I figured out my approach: first I’d set up the big picture, determine how the dancers move in space, and then later fill in the details. That’s the way I like to do it — establish the framework, and then figure out the technical moves required to achieve the overall concept. To me, the most important thing was whether the audience came away from a performance with memories of the expressive impact of the dance, and this was the approach I preferred to achieve this.

I didn’t get to choreograph actual dancers until college, when I joined student dance groups. Around the same time I decided to become an architecture major. I thought that architecture would allow me to explore another form of expression that was more grounded in reality and function. I didn’t draw any connections between why I liked dance and why I liked architecture until much later. Now I’ve come to see that I appreciate the same approach: conceptualizing a larger framework, directing each architectural element involved towards achieving that concept — and, hopefully, making a lasting impression on the people who experience it.

I’ve been at SOM for four and a half years. In that time I’ve worked on quite a few different projects. Right now I’m on the team for LACMA, which is the biggest project I’ve worked on. The others were smaller and have ranged quite a bit: educational, commercial, cultural, mixed use, some tall buildings. I’ve had the opportunity to work on these buildings in a lot of different design phases. It’s hard to pin down my role. In our office, roles can be really flexible. It’s given me a chance to feel things out, to see what I like best.

The first project I worked on at SOM was so much fun. It was an adaptive reuse project that felt very “L.A.” — we were asked to explore how to turn an existing high-rise parking lot downtown into an exciting commercial office space. We imagined a sort of jewel box perched on top of a parking structure. I loved the process. We would create numerous design studies, then pin everything up and gather the whole team to talk through each one. It was very satisfying to be able to thoroughly vet these ideas — to come into a studio environment where everyone is on board to make sure the design is really the best one for the goal that we wanted to achieve.

I learned a lot about adaptive reuse. I hadn’t worked very much before with existing buildings — figuring out how to build on, around, and with them. That knowledge ended up being useful for another adaptive reuse project I got to work on, in Milan.

That project was interesting because we collaborated with SOM’s office in London. We used to have our team calls first thing in the morning here in L.A., the end of the day in London. It was a great experience. Yasemin Kologlu was the first female design director I had ever gotten to work with, so I was excited. I even got to travel to London for two weeks. Even though I was working full days, I somehow managed to get out and do so many things in the city. I went to the ballet a couple times, went to an Arcade Fire concert, ate out at restaurants. Of course I went to see cool buildings all over London.

Being able to ask questions openly, even ones you think might be dumb, is the best way to keep growing as an architect.

Working across time zones and figuring out ways to collaborate remotely was something that felt pretty new for me. Now, frequent communication, having a ton of Zoom calls, is something we take for granted. The lessons we learned working on that project, I see them implemented in our everyday work-from-home tactics now.

One thing I appreciate about working for an international firm is connecting with colleagues around the world. Recently I’ve gotten involved in the development of the global Asian Alliance group at SOM. We’re working to build awareness around the experience of Asians and Asian-Americans within our firm and throughout our industry, and to stand against all forms of racism and bias. It’s incredibly important right now in light of recent events, and I think this initiative has given us all a stronger sense of community and support during a time when this community has felt especially targeted. Sometimes it’s hard to know how you might be able to make a positive impact within such a difficult discourse, so I appreciate being given the opportunity to attempt to find solutions and a way forward.

In architecture and construction, there’s always more to learn. It’s important to feel that you can ask questions, that you can pose design ideas, and not be judged. My teammates are amazing and understand an incredible amount about what we do. The best part is, if they don’t know something, there’s never shame or judgment for asking about it—and obviously this is how they’ve come to know so much. Being able to ask questions openly, even ones you think might be dumb, is the best way to keep growing as an architect.

Our team calls are always a fun time for me. We communicate well about our work, but also everyone jokes around; it’s just a great dynamic. Occasionally I get to hear about the things people do in their free time and it’s nice remembering that everyone has lives outside of work and that we don’t need to be working 24/7.

I still love taking ballet classes, now virtually. It’s actually been easier to fit the classes into my schedule now that we’re working from home. I have a barre set up in our living room and use my daughter’s foam play mat to make sure I don’t kill my knees.

Before the pandemic, I loved attending concerts and live events. Obviously this year has put a big stop to that, but I’m looking forward to the massive live event revival that will occur once everything is safer. In the meantime, I’ve picked up roller skating. I live down the street from a park, so I head down there with headphones on and sail around and imagine I’m at a concert again. It’s very cathartic.

I’ve been recruiting with our hiring committee at career fairs. The thing I’ve been telling graduates is: Keep iterating your resume and portfolio. Give them to a bunch of people to critique. Look at your classmates’ resumes and portfolios for inspiration, then make adjustments to yours. You’ll keep doing this over the course of your career, and your application will just keep getting better and better. I made so many versions of my application package and each one, I hope, has been better than the last.

And, talk to everyone you can. I got my first full time architecture job in 2009 — during the worst of the recession — because a friend introduced me to her friend whose dad happened to be an architect. Just keep at it. Maybe an opportunity will come up when you least expect it.

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