BUILDING A CAREER IN ARCHITECTURE
Jonathan Lott, Schepp Scholar 2001-2005 Written by May Jeong
At age 10, in his elementary school’s 5th grade year-book, students were asked: “What would you like to be when you grow up?” Next to the name Jonathan Sinclair Lott it reads “Architect.” He was fortunate that the high school he attended in California had an architectural elective. He took the class all four years, though, in all other respects, he was a terrible high school student – skipping a lot of school to play music with his friends. “They barely let me graduate,” he recalls. “I was over the maximum allowable for unexcused absences.”
Squeaking through the ceremonies, he started an 8-year apprenticeship with a local architect – on a mission to obtain his architectural license without schooling (a route no longer permitted by accrediting boards). But the architect he worked for was an academic at heart, who had studied under Louis Kahn at the University of Pennsylvania in the 60s. “He would tell stories of his time in grad school and showed me some of his early work, mostly competition entries. These were projects that never got built, and I don’t think ever placed. They weren’t commissions—they were these radical ideas on paper and they made an incredible impression on me. I realized there was another role the architect could play beyond the service professional and, just like that, i wanted to go back to school.”
Jon kept his job, but enrolled in evening classes at a local college, working to get his grades up. “I was completely focused on getting into a good school and received high marks in math, physics, psychology, art, and my architectural courses.” A few years later he was a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, one of the top undergraduate programs in the country. He loved it and was excelling in his classes, when he was offered the opportunity to study abroad in Italy. Unfortunately it was something he could not afford — he had just had his first son and was already working a part-time job in order to attend his courses in San Luis Obispo. He was certain he would have to pass on the opportunity.
“The Leopold Schepp Scholarship came at a pivotal time in my early studies, affording me the ability to study in Italy — to closely examine much of architecture’s beginnings.” it gave him a profound context and basis to draw from in his own work. When he returned for his thesis year back at Cal Poly, his professors encouraged his interest in continuing his studies in graduate school. He applied to the graduate School of design at Harvard and was accepted for the following year.
To his great relief, the Schepp Foundation continued to offer its support throughout his study at Harvard. And he was equally determined to match that commitment. “it was the single most generous award given to me throughout my education – an incredible feeling of support that continued for many years and resonates still.” He graduated from the School of design with distinction and was awarded the Alpha Rho Chi Medal by the School and was named the John E Thayer Scholar by the university. “My time at the GSD was priceless, and the Schepp scholarship was crucial to making that experience possible – it opened so many doors.”
Upon graduation, he was offered a number of positions, including working with Frank Gehry in LA, Herzog and de Meuron in Basel, Switzerland, idEO in San Francisco, as well as a few teaching jobs. But his last critic, Rem Koolhaas, also offered him a spot to help start a new project in his Office for Metropolitan Architecture, so Jon moved to New York City to begin work on $500,000,000 multi-tower housing and museum project. “Working with OMA was another kind of training altogether. I learned a new method of working on an architectural problem – it’s less an office and more of a farm for ideas. We worked non-stop. The team was incredibly dedicated and they remain some of my closest colleagues today.”
After a couple years he was offered an opportunity to work on his own project, designing a small bar in Brooklyn. It was no $500 million project, but he saw it as a way to start his own practice. Within a few short years, Jon began to establish a reputation with his energetic young firm, PARA. He and his colleagues received the Young Architects Prize from the Architectural League of New York and were finalists for MoMA’s PS1 Young Architects Program. More work started to come: a flagship store for the fashion designer Philip Lim in LA and an invitation for a competition by the Netherlands Architectural institute, in which his team placed 1st. “These early projects gave me an opportunity to develop new ideas about my work – how to offer my client something they didn’t realize they wanted in the first place.”
In 2008, Syracuse university offered him a teaching position, another turning point for his practice. With the support of Dean Mark Robbins, he was granted a number of unique local opportunities. He designed a Latino cultural center, “La Casita,” and won a competition to design the School of Education’s new entrance, lobby, and auditorium. The first phase was recently completed and the second phase is currently in fundraising. It’s been his largest project to date. its second phase will give him the opportunity to build his first auditorium, a huge asset for the School of Education. He also completed two private writing studio projects during his tenure at Syracuse: one within the attic of an existing Dutch clapboard and the other a ground-up addition to a suburban house – the Haffenden House, which he says was his most exhaustive but rewarding experience to date. With this new body of work, he was awarded the 2013 design Vanguard award by Architectural Record, was named one of the top ten young architects world-wide, and won the 2014 New Practices New York award, given by the American institute of Architects.
At this stage, Jon decided it would be best to move full-time to New York City to enter the competition to design the Van Alen institute space. Here he partnered with two friends, Michael Kubo and William O’Brien Jr, setting up the collaborative side-practice, CLOK. They won the competition and the project is currently under construction. CLOK was a finalist in MoMA’s 2014 Young Architects program with their proposal Mirror Mirror. in addition to the Van Alen institute, Jon is currently working on a lake house in upstate New York, a pavilion for Syracuse university, and most recently was invited to teach as design Critic in Architecture at Harvard university. “it is a special honor to be asked back – to help give these students the kind of experience i had there years ago, something that just would not have been possible for me without the Leopold Schepp Foundation.”