Spotlight: Jad Ismail
From an exhibition to an entire museum, a Los Angeles-based designer finds the opportunity to learn at every scale.
Having joined our L.A. office first as a summer intern and then as a full-time designer, Jad Ismail is now part of the team working on LACMA, the largest museum in the city he now calls home. For this edition of “Spotlight,” a series on personal and professional journeys at SOM, Jad shares his thoughts on how architecture shapes our lives every day.
I’m the youngest of five children. The second oldest, my sister, is an architect as well. I saw her going through architecture school and I remember being so amazed by what she did. It inspired me growing up.
I am Palestinian-American. While my parents emigrated to the U.S. before I was born, we would visit Palestine every few years. I realized later on how much those trips influenced the way that I think about the built environment. In the West, we tend to appreciate architecture in a certain way, and perhaps take it for granted. In a region like Palestine, where you see architecture that is designed to intentionally restrict movement, you start to acknowledge that design has a much greater impact than we might give it credit for. You see how architecture can directly shape our lives, in ways both good and bad. I think that’s why I’ve always been interested in complex projects, where there’s no easy solution.
Going into graduate school at the University of Michigan, I knew that I wanted to investigate architecture in Palestine. I focused my thesis work on ways to transform hostile architecture and repurpose it. So, instead of a checkpoint being used to limit or control access, what if it could become the opposite of that — like a cultural hub? How could we reimagine these spaces that we see as inhibiting and give them new life? A lot of people might consider this to be something very specific to that region, but I think about it with every project that I work on today.
Understanding the power that architecture has to influence people every day has molded my perception of what design can do. At SOM I’ve been involved in projects where things are rarely black and white. There’s a lot of grey area, and to me that’s where design gets interesting. It’s important to think through the nuances as a designer, because the built environment affects everybody.
I studied architecture as an undergrad at Northeastern University in Boston. I knew I wanted to continue on to grad school, but I took a couple of years to work first. During that time I worked for two smaller firms. One of those was a fabrication studio, and I was able to learn how things actually get built and put together. Coming out of architecture school, where design can be more abstract and conceptual, having the opportunity to build with my hands was incredibly rewarding.
At the same time, I saw the limitations of working in a smaller studio. You often have fewer resources, and the projects are generally less complex. Because of that, I decided that I eventually wanted to work in a larger office, especially for a firm that was doing more civic and public-oriented projects. I applied to the internship program at SOM almost on a whim — I didn’t really think I had a chance. Later, I found out that one of the things that made my application stand out was my experience from the fabrication studio, and the fact that I had built work in my portfolio.
I approached my internship as a chance to understand whether SOM was the place where I wanted to build my career. This is something that I tell current students through my work with the National Organization of Minority Architects (NOMA): Take every work experience as a learning opportunity. Find out if it’s going to be not only the best fit for the firm, but also for you.
My internship in the L.A. office lasted about 10 weeks, and I got to work on three very different projects. The first was the installation design for “Poetic Structure,” an exhibition on SOM’s structural engineering practice and collaborations with visual artists. It was first shown at the Chicago Architecture Biennial. We had to translate the Chicago exhibit into a format that would work in the L.A. venue, the MAK Center, which is located in a Rudolph Schindler-designed house that had very specific requirements for how we could exhibit the work. Once we’d designed the installation, I worked with the team to put everything together on-site.
After that I worked on a competition design, a retrofit of an office space for UCLA. I was asked to do a lot of model building — that was probably a response to my fabrication experience. The last thing I worked on during my internship was an urban planning project. At times I was building models, at other times helping to develop presentation materials and diagrams to show the client.
You can see the range of scale — from a small installation, to an interior fit-out, to a planning scheme for an entire city district. The teams were all different. During my internship I probably got to know two thirds of the people in the L.A. office because I was moving between projects.
Since coming back to work at SOM full-time, I’ve had the opportunity to work on the new building for LACMA [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art], a project that our office has been involved with for four or five years. It’s completely different from anything else I’ve worked on, and from most projects at SOM for that matter. We are working closely with Atelier Peter Zumthor, based in Switzerland. Essentially our role is to take the design intent of Peter Zumthor and his team and help to manifest it here in the U.S.
Another interesting dynamic is that there are three SOM offices involved. Most of the team is in L.A., but we also have structural engineers in San Francisco and designers in New York active on the project. And we’re always communicating with Zumthor’s team, which is nine hours ahead of us. It’s been interesting to hear people’s perspectives during the pandemic, with everything going remote. I think the LACMA team had a head start in adapting to that, because we had already been working across time zones, using Zoom and other platforms to communicate and coordinate design ideas and agendas.
It’s exciting to work on such a prominent building in the city where I live. LACMA is one of the first places I visited when I came here for my internship. I couldn’t have imagined that I would one day work on it.
One of the most exciting aspects of the building is that it’s going to span across Wilshire Boulevard, one of the busiest streets in L.A. If you live here, you’re going to experience this building in some way, even if you’re just driving down Wilshire. So, how do we make sure that it’s a building for everybody, not just for those who are visiting it?
Another challenge is the fact that the museum is located in an active seismic zone, right next to the La Brea Tar Pits. So, the new building needed to be able to withstand seismic activity. Our structural engineering team in San Francisco designed a system that places the entire building above the basement on seismic isolators. It allows the building to gently rock during a seismic event, protecting all of the artwork on the exhibition level above.
LACMA is one of the first places I visited when I came here for my internship. I couldn’t have imagined that I would one day work on it.
There are so many consultants on this project — mechanical, engineering, and plumbing, of course, but you also have a theater consultant, a kitchen consultant, even a consultant to deal with below-grade methane in the area. I’ve benefited from being able to see our management team coordinate with all of these different players to ensure that the original design intent is coming through. SOM is really good at working through the details and making sure that everything has its place. It’s under construction right now. I can’t wait to see it built and actually visit.
It’s not easy to find your voice as an architect. There are a lot of things that you have to learn on the job. I appreciate the people on my team for being so willing to teach me and answer my questions. SOM has so many amazing and talented people. On a project team, you’re working with colleagues with all levels of experience, from interns up to partners. I appreciate having a seat at the table and seeing how we tackle different challenges.
My best advice for future graduates: Never take any personal relationship for granted. I didn’t know that I would necessarily be able to come back to SOM after my internship. But I kept in touch with my colleagues over the course of my final year in school. A few days before my final thesis review, I got an email from my coworker about an open position. Always show gratitude and appreciation for your colleagues, because you never know how they might influence your career down the line.
The last thing I’ll tell you about is a resolution I made at the beginning of 2020. When people approach new year’s resolutions, they tend to think about what they should do — I should work out, I should read more. Well, I always really wanted to make pie. I just didn’t have any baking skills.
The first pie I made was for my coworker’s birthday. It was horrible, but he ate it anyway. I brought it to the office and people seemed to be OK with it. Then, going into quarantine, baking has been a sort of coping mechanism, as I think it has for many people. It’s been therapeutic. I think I’m at 15 pies over the past year, and I’ve gotten better and better at it.
When you set out to pick up a new skill, whether it’s baking or learning new software, it’s really intimidating on the surface. It can feel overwhelming because it requires an entirely different way of working through things. But I’ve learned over the course of this year that if you just do something over and over again — if you approach it in a way that’s serious and disciplined — you really can accomplish anything.
Read more profiles in the series:
Spotlight: Adede Amenyah
A budding architectural designer finds the chance to work on two New York City icons.
Spotlight: Ingedia Sanchez
An architect, mentor, and community builder shares her story.