"We Were Always Encouraged to Ask Questions": An Interview with Jean Li ’06

Jean Li ’06 is an architect with MBB Architects in New York City. After graduating from St. Andrew's, she studied architecture at M.I.T. and interned at design firms in Beijing and Barcelona. Jean is passionate about design that can serve communities and impact a broad range of people. In New York, she worked for CookFox Architects on a variety of projects including affordable housing in Brooklyn and the redevelopment of an industrial site in Salem, MA. In 2017, she joined MBB Architects and is overseeing projects for schools and religious institutions. In anticipation of her keynote talk at our 2019 Women’s Network Weekend in November, we sat down with Jean to learn more about her work as an architect and her time at St. Andrew’s.

Did you always want to be an architect?

I became interested in [architecture] during my time at St Andrew's. I had taken art classes with [retired visual arts teacher] John McGiff my entire time there, and I did Art Major my senior year. The visual arts really appealed to me, but as I started looking at colleges and thinking about what my major might be, art seemed a little bit too open-ended for me. Candy Schuller, who was my advisor and was also my college counselor, suggested architecture to me and it stuck. I really enjoyed majoring in architecture in college, and I just kept kept with it.

What does your day-to-day work look like? What would you say is the most rewarding aspect of your job?

One of the most fun things about being an architect is that my day to day varies a lot depending on what stage a project is in. About half my time is spent interacting with people outside the office—this could be meeting with clients to tour their facilities and discuss potential projects, or sitting down with engineers to develop our design together, or going out to a construction site to review issues with contractors. And then I would say the other half of my time is spent working internally with the design team at my office. We draw, we build three-dimensional models, and basically use all the means we have at our disposal to develop our design.

As for what is most rewarding, there are moments when I've worked with engineers and contractors on a design or construction problem and together we've developed a really elegant solution that you couldn't have imagined on your own. When you get that result collaboratively, it can be very satisfying. But teamwork is never easy—each person brings their own set of goals. So the very collaborative process of architecture can also be one of the most frustrating aspects as well. But when it does come together, it's very rewarding.

How would you describe your experience at St. Andrew’s?

I grew up in the Bronx, and St Andrew’s was a very different place at first. There was definitely a transition period, but I had a wonderful time. I think one of the most amazing things I got out of St Andrews was a lot of great friendships. Something that I really appreciate about St Andrew's classes is that we were always encouraged to ask questions—not just straightforward questions, but really probing questions that try to tackle the heart of an issue. I've found that that kind of question-asking has been very important for problem solving and working on the complex issues that come up a lot in architecture. I think that's definitely something that I took away from St Andrew's that still impacts what I do today.

What are you anticipating in terms of coming back to St. Andrew’s this fall?

I've only been back to St. Andrew’s once during the school year—I've come back for reunion, but that's a very different experience. So I'm really excited to see what St. Andrew’s is up to now and what students are thinking about and doing, and how St Andrew's culture has evolved. The principles and ideas that were around when I was there, it seems like they've really evolved since then. So I'm really excited to see what the school is like today.