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Mother-daughter duo defies the architectural odds

by Juliette Funes
Adele, Emily, Jessica and Stan Chang at the USC School of Architecture commencement ceremony (Photo/Sandra Chen Lau)
Photo: Adele, Emily, Jessica and Stan Chang at the USC School of Architecture commencement ceremony (Photo/Sandra Chen Lau)

Architecture is a beacon of innovation and creativity for those who want to bring to life novel design concepts through experimentation, research and exploration.

It is also, by and large, a man’s world, with few women as architect role models and leaders that a younger generation of aspiring female designers can look up to.

But if you ask Adele Chang and her daughter, Jessica Chang, defying expectations is what is going to allow women like them to be trailblazers in the architecture field and design community.

Adele Chang, a Hong Kong-born, California-trained architectural designer, watched Jessica Chang follow in her footsteps on May 17 when she graduated from the USC School of Architecture with a bachelor’s degree.

Jessica Chang — who earned the Studio Design Award at the commencement ceremony for demonstrating design excellence through the five-year professional degree with the highest design grade point average — is part of 51 percent of female undergraduate students in the school.

“There are as many ambitious females as there are males,” said Jessica Chang, who graduated magna cum laude and received the American Institute of Architects (AIA) Certificate for having the second-highest GPA in undergraduate studies. “I’m very optimistic right now. I don’t feel discouraged by any means.”

Adele Chang, principal of Lim Chang Rohling & Associates, a Pasadena-based architecture and planning firm she founded in 1990, said the increasing number of female graduates is marking a change for the better.

“Women do bring a different perspective to architecture and the way it’s generated. I think that’s valuable,” she said. “Jessica’s very driven and ambitious, and I hope she attains her goals whatever they may be.”

Qingyun Ma, dean of the School of Architecture, called the pair an inspiration.

“Jessica has gotten her first taste of what it means to live and breathe in an architect’s world and has grown to be one of our top students,” Ma said. “Jessica and her architect mother, Adele, are proof of what women with a commitment to design, passion and discovery can accomplish.”

Still, the mother-daughter duo is somewhat of an anomaly in the architecture field, a grueling profession often filled with sleepless nights and nonstop deadlines.

According to a survey conducted by AIA in 2012, about half of architecture students are women, but just 17 percent are firm principals and partners. Only two women have been awarded the Pritzker Architecture Prize in its 34-year history: Zaha Hadid and Kazuyo Sejima, laureates in 2004 and 2010, respectively.

Small minorities in the architecture field, women often hit a glass ceiling, leave the profession or get pushed out during the different stages of their careers.

“It really takes years, decades and decades to grow as an architect,” Adele Chang said. “So while there are many women entering the profession now, they are mostly still too young to make an impact.”

Being a mother can also literally be in conflict with the architect’s world. “Women have felt the need to give up their career,” the mother of two said.

Still, Adele Chang — whose 33 years of practice include projects ranging from high-rise commercial to residential complexes — refused to fall victim to the statistic, even when her parents told her architecture “wasn’t a suitable career for a woman.”

“For the longest time, my work environment was male,” said Adele Chang, one of two women who graduated from the architecture program at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, in 1980.

“I think the challenge was not the lack of work,” she said. “It was the lack of role models and mentors. There were none.”

Though there wasn’t an overt glass ceiling, Adele Chang said she still felt hindered.

“With being female and my cultural background, I knew there was never a way I could schmooze with the clients — go to dinner or play golf and bond — the way my white male associates could,” she said.

Instead she made the leap to start her own firm close to her home in Pasadena, allowing her to find a balance between work and family.

Jessica Chang, too, said she dreams of starting her own firm, where she can design opera houses and art museums — and she has doesn’t have to stray too far to find a good example.

“My mom is a super-good role model who can balance both family and career,” she said. “It’s doable as long as you manage your time well.”

“And I know I have to start small, but hopefully I get there,” she said.

In 11th grade, Jessica Chang got a glimpse into architecture when she participated in the Exploration of Architecture program, a two- to four-week program that allows high school students the opportunity learn about architecture at USC through design studio experience, projects and tours to architecturally significant structures in Los Angeles.

“Going through the program, it’s 50-50 as far as gender goes,” she said. “There’s a lot of female professors, and I never felt disadvantaged as a woman in school.”

Going off into the real world beyond the walls of USC, Jessica Chang has a piece of advice for her peers and those who follow behind her: “Don’t be afraid to do what you want to do in life, regardless of gender.”

Echoed her mother: “Believe in yourself.”

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