Architecture is More than Making Buildings Beautiful, Says AIA Member Janet Tam

U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco Bay Area, American Institute of Architects, Berkeley, Noll & Tam Architects, Los Altos, Hayward, Richmond
Los Altos Community Center. Image Credit: Noll & Tam

By Meghan Hall

Janet Tam. Image Credit: Noll & Tam.

When Richmond-born Janet Tam began studying architecture as an undergraduate at U.C. Berkeley in the 1970s, she was mesmerized by the college’s interdisciplinary approach to design. The university, like the rest of the United States, was hot off of a decade of social consciousness and civic engagement, and Tam was introduced to the precepts of community architecture that have become a staple for her career as an architect in the ever-changing San Francisco Bay Area. Recently elected to the College of Fellows of the American Institute of Architects, Tam emphasized the changing role architects have in the commercial real estate industry and their ever-growing responsibility to not just create buildings that are beautiful, but ones that champion the values of the communities they serve.

“When I first started as a student at Berkeley, architecture was going through a real sort of eye-opening,” said Tam. “In some ways, in the beginning, it was less about design.”

Tam’s undergraduate courses on social factors and end-user needs, taught by an array of sociologist, psychologist and activist architects left a lasting impact. However, by the time Tam returned to graduate school at Berkeley in the 1980s, the architect’s role had shifted further away from one that encouraged social responsibility to one that emphasized design and the aesthetics of a project first and foremost.

“When I went back to school, the perception of an architect’s role changed to design with a big ‘D,’” explained Tam. “It’s not that design has not always had this common thread, but then it had became more about the image of the architecture.”

Tam graduated and began her career as a licensed architect, working for some of the region’s top design firms but kept the principles of community architecture she had learned about in her undergraduate years at the forefront of her mind. In 1992, Tam co-founded Noll & Tam Architects with Chris Noll, whom she had met during her graduate term at Berkeley. The Berkeley-based firm, whose motto is “Uncommon Spaces for the Common Good,” specializes in a wide variety of public projects around the Bay Area. According to Tam, about 98 percent of Noll & Tam’s portfolio is comprised of public work. The firm’s growing staff — which now totals 46 members — is two-thirds women.

According to Tam, the firm’s evolution towards both public work projects and its high number of women architects was natural.

“It just happened,” acknowledged Tam. “The women who we hired; they were dynamite. It wasn’t so much because it was politic or socially right. It was just who we became. The make-up of the profession and its diversity is a rich, wonderful thing. What is important for us is balance.”

Some of the firm’s notable projects currently include the recently completed Half Moon Bay Library, which, when certified, will become the fourth and largest zero net-energy library in the United States, the Lafayette Elementary School Modernization project and community centers for both Los Altos and Hayward. The firm focuses extensively on community outreach and input, as well as making its buildings not just aesthetically pleasing, but functionally sound and environmentally friendly. The combination of these aspects of design is something, Tam explained, that the industry is finally embracing. Design, while important, is layered with additional environmental and social responsibilities that architects can greatly influence.

“I think a lot of architects are just waking up to the fact that we can really make a difference and design not just a gorgeous building but truly affect our environment and impact the way people think about things,” emphasized Tam. “We can build buildings and have a more diverse appreciation for the people we serve. We can build buildings and make sure that they are carbon neutral or all electronic or not contributing to the detriment of the planet.”

Tam spoke of one of the firm’s recent projects, the Los Altos Community Center, as an example of what community architecture represents. In April of 2017, the City approved the creation of the center as a capital improvement project to replace the current 70-year-old center. The 24,500 square foot project is designed with the natural California landscape in mind and is meant to be a multi-generational facility completed with the help of not just industry experts, but the Las Altos community as well. The $34.7 million project was well received by City Council in March, said Tam, thanks in large part to its approach to community architecture.

“We really built a relationship with the community over the past two years, and everybody spoke so eloquently about what we envisioned for the community,” reflected Tam. “It’s a goal I like to have for our projects: that there is a whole re-genesis of thinking and that the projects we do are developmental in that they allow the community to evolve. The building has to have and create its own life.”

With those principles in mind, Tam appreciates the body of work that she has created over the course of her career, for which she was honored with her recent election to the American Institute of Architects College of Fellows. Only three percent of AIA members are awarded the distinction.

“On public projects, architects really have an opportunity to be a true, strategic partner. I have felt so included and part of the decision-making processes. We are such a team together, and it is a different way of thinking about the value of architecture,” reflected Tam.

The honor, said Tam, is not just indicative of the work that she has done over the years as an architect, but is a culmination of the ideas and participation of many different people in the industry.

“It is called an individual personal award, but the more you get into it, the more you realize it is a collaborative effort,” said Tam. “In a way, one has to acknowledge clients’ and colleagues’ contributions to the careers that we each have. It is really honoring everyone.”