In May, during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a group of architects and designers from across the country launched A Rising Tide, a new collective aimed at elevating and cultivating Asian and Pacific Islander (API) leadership and visibility in the design professions. The nine founding members includes Billie Tsien, of Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects, and Lyndon Neri and Rossana Hu of Neri&Hu.
While the group is still in what its founders call a “listening and research” phase, it plans to hold virtual and in-person panels and workshops focused on API design issues, leadership, and representation. The collective has launched an online API Design Directory, is planning a lecture series as well as an upcoming fall event, and hopes to help shape the country’s first national Asian Pacific American heritage museum. (A new measure spearheaded by Representative Grace Meng, a Democrat from Queens, New York, establishing a commission to plan the building, recently passed both the House and Senate.)
“In the last several years, we've seen a lot of ethnic and affinity groups come together and achieve really great things. That was lacking in our industry among APIs,” says Christina Cho Yoo, one of the group’s organizers and a co-founder of the firm Atelier Cho Thompson with Ming Thompson. “I've always loved the phrase: ‘a rising tide lifts all boats,’” she adds. “You don't think of working or life as a zero sum game, but a rising tide lifts everyone up together.”
A similar mindset brought Andy Rah, an associate principal at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, into the fold. “Amid a rise in anti-Asian hate crimes, we really saw a need to address and support and inspire the Asian demographic at SOM,” says Rah of starting a similar alliance at SOM.
The team worked to cultivate a multi-generational ethos that emphasizes identity. “I'm Korean-American. I grew up in a multi-generational home. And multi-generational living, looking towards your elders, is really important,” says Cho Yoo. “It was important for us to invite people of other generations to chime in.”
Cho Yoo hopes API designers can glean something from women in architecture like Tsien, whose quiet confidence challenges stereotypes about the nature of leadership. The group’s founders cite a Harvard Business Review analysis demonstrating that although a large number of API professions fill entry level positions, they—like women—are less likely to receive managerial promotions. Cho Yoo applauds women leaning into their own particular leadership styles, and wonders if API practitioners can likewise leverage aspects of the unique cultures in which they were raised.
The initiative's future goals include creating a repository for personal and collective histories, preserving API spaces of the past including neighborhoods rich with cultural history, and advocating for more accessible data on API representation (as seen in Yale’s Visibility Project). Cho Yoo also mentions a long-term plan to create an educational toolkit to expand the architectural canon.
“You need to know where you came from in order to know how to forge a path forward,” says Rah. “If API voices have not been part of that storytelling or conversation, we have an opportunity to do something about it.”
A Rising Tide’s founders are quick to note that Asian experiences are not a monolith. “We are not the gatekeepers of who is Asian,” as Cho Yoo puts it. “If you identify as Asian, we want to support you.”
“There is a need for the Asian American demographic, no matter what you call it, to come together,” adds Rah. “When there is momentum, when people get inspired by what we're doing and create different organizations, it creates an ecosystem of like-minded people. That's when change happens.”