September 29, 2015

Building Success: An Interview with Pratt Alumna Elisa Li

On April 17th, I had the chance to sit down and interview Elisa Li. Li is a native New Yorker, but was raised in Hong Kong until she was eight. After obtaining her undergraduate degree in Engineering, she came to Pratt to get a Master’s in Architecture. As a current Pratt student, I find talking to Pratt Alumni is a rewarding experience because they are already in the workforce forging their creative careers.

How did your experience at Pratt help you shape your career path as an architect?

I found ways to develop diagrams and communicate via aesthetics versus writing. A lot of what I did in undergrad was mathematical and more writing compared to [what I did at] Pratt, which was more visuals. This is one of the best things I can say about the program. It really developed my presentation skills and getting ideas onto paper. And with the way architecture is today, I’m constantly learning new software; Pratt was really good for that--not just Photoshop but also the 3D modeling programs. Without all these tools it would be difficult to get a client to accept your idea.

train station.JPG
Image courtesy of Elisa Li. Not for Re-use

Did you do any internships or have any work experience while you were at Pratt?

Yes, I did. One of the connections I made was with a Pratt professor--Gregory Okshteyn. He is the head of Studios Go and I worked with him the summer after my first year at Pratt. It’s funny because I just went to his 40th birthday party. It’s amazing the kind of connections you can make at Pratt and the kind of mentorship you can get. At that internship, I worked on hospitality projects including restaurants and retail stores.

Then I got an internship at HLW, which is where I currently work. It was very difficult to be working while in my last semester of my master’s program. I think I was getting about 3 hours of sleep a night for weeks. After school ended, I took a hiatus and worked at a small architecture studio in Green Point. I came back to HLW in October 2013, and I have been here ever since. In the end, I think the stress of working and school was worth it. Ultimately now I work here, I really love what I do and the people I work with. We actually have a ton of Pratt grads and a Pratt professor here. Lots of support and Pratt-to-HLW connections.

Any advice for students/people in architecture?

Get as many internships as possible. Really dig your teeth into them because internships will get you pretty far. But there is still a whole ocean of stuff to learn, and it is really about getting into the field as much as possible. Ask everyone you know questions, as many questions as possible. After working for a year and a half, almost two years, I still feel I have a lot to learn. There are architects who have been in the field for 20 years, 30 years, and they are still learning new things.

Also, find a really good mentor. My supervisor is a strong architect. In a room full of sometimes aggressive contractors and engineers, everyone listens to her. Learning from her has been a great experience and I appreciate that she takes time to explain everything. I’m not only learning about architecture, the drawing and the design side, but also about how to have my ideas heard.

Montessori School.JPG
Image courtesy of Elisa Li. Not for re-use

What are your future goals?

I need to get my architecture license. I am taking one [test] in late summer. I gave myself a month and a half, two months, to study. It’s hard to find time to study with project schedules, but I just had to make it happen. Having a license will be a huge step in legitimizing what I do. A lot of the direction that I give when I am in the field or working on a project, that is, working with a client or working with a contractor, it is helpful to have something behind that. Even if you have the experience, it is good to have something clarifying your right to give this direction.

What are you working on now?

I recently finished projects for M&T Bank and Under Armour. Now I am on several projects for a large tech company at the moment. It is a lot of fun working on their offices in Chelsea, and we are doing a lot of crazy interiors. So far this large tech company is one of my favorite clients because it is a challenge to detail all these interiors. In a lot of situations, I have never created this kind of construction. It’s like solving a big, fun puzzle.

For M&T Bank- Photo Courtesy of HLW International. Photographer- Richard Cadan.jpg
For M&T Bank- Photo Courtesy of HLW International. Photography by: Richard Cadan. Not for re-use.

But it’s also a lot of corralling people. In the beginning, I had no idea that so much of this job was constantly communicating with a team of dozens of people: lots of different consultants, for example. Right now I am an entry level participant in the design and construction process, so I don’t get a huge chance to throw ideas into the mix. In the future I hope that I will have more of a voice in the process.

For Under Armour- Photo Courtesy of HLW International. Photographer- Chris Cooper.jpg
For Under Armour- Photo Courtesy of HLW International. Photography by: Chris Cooper. Not for re-use.

Getting the opportunity to speak with Elisa was fabulous, and I really enjoyed our conversation -- I could have chatted with her for hours! I learned a lot about her experience and what she valued from her time at Pratt, which has helped me to think about what I am doing and how I can enjoy it even more.

Check out more of Li’s work from her time at Pratt.

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Written by: Bree Balsamo