Susan A. Chin, FAIA, is the Vice President of Planning and Design & Chief Architect at the Wildlife Conservation Society. She was recently elevated to FAIA in 2013 in the category of government and industry organization. As Chief Architect, Ms. Chin oversees the process of exhibit design for WCS. Among her many recent projects at the Bronx Zoo are the Madagascar! exhibit and the Center for Global Conservation.
Beginnings – What attracted you to architecture and how did you begin your career? Was there an influential experience, or mentor, that helped steer you toward this field?
As I child, I wanted to pursue art but my mother informed me that I would never make a living being an artist. Nevertheless she indulged my artistic pursuits, even allowing me (as a young teenager) to take the subway into Manhattan for drawing classes at Cooper Union. She also encouraged me to take a summer job at the Bronx Zoo, probably hoping that I would have fewer pets if I worked around animals! While studying at the Bronx High School of Science, I had the opportunity to take two electives in my senior year. I chose Architecture and Animal Behavior. I was torn between my passion for nature and wildlife and my strong drive to create. I am fortunate enough to find myself in a position where I can combine these divergent interests in a single job, doing something very meaningful to me.
I have had many mentors over the years, people from all walks of life who have contributed to who I am in so many different ways. I think it is important to find people who open up your world.
What does “architecture culture” signify to you, and how do you go about contributing to, and/or changing, this culture? What are your hopes and dreams for the future of architecture and the built environment?
Architecture culture is an ongoing conversation about the built world and nature—the world around us. It is a global conversation with many diverse voices and perspectives that contribute to and can change this culture. My voice is informed by my concern for the future of the planet. As architects, we have an opportunity to change the built environment, and to drive the building industry. Although we have made great strides in sustainable design, we need to more aggressively look at ways to reduce the human footprint; although we may call it “sustainable design,” it really isn’t.
I am very lucky to work for the Wildlife Conservation Society, an organization whose mission is to save wildlife and wild places. WCS operates five parks in New York City (Bronx Zoo, New York Aquarium, Central Park Zoo, Queens Zoo, Prospect Park Zoo) and runs a field conservation program in over 50 countries around the world. At our New York parks, we have a unique opportunity to tell stories and educate our visitors, through integrated design, about the complex issues that are threatening nature. One of our goals is to increase environmental literacy, so that a greater number of people can participate and influence this global conversation.
Advice for someone interested in entering an architecture-related field?
Find something you are passionate about, something that is meaningful to you and a job will never feel like a job. Be open to different points of view, you never know where you may find inspiration.
Favorite site, place, building? Why does this particular location speak to you?
Places of nature inspire me and I’ve been lucky enough to travel quite a bit, especially to Africa to see amazing wildlife and culture. One of my favorite places is Point Lobos State Reserve, Carmel, California. You are surrounded by spaces created by nature, wind-shaped Monterey pines, ocean-carved beaches and cliffs. Tide pools are miniature cities and communities filled with life and color–it is a visual feast! The constantly changing forms of pathways and cliffs remind you that we live in a dynamic world and there are forces beyond our control–not something every architect wants to hear!