Alumni Spotlight: Andy Nguyen, S.J. '00

Andy Nguyen, S.J. '00
Nguyen coordinated design and construction for this health clinic in East Timor (architect Gonçalo Lencastre).
Nguyen coordinated design and construction for Bairo Pite Student Housing in East Timor (architect Gonçalo Lencastre).

Name: Andy Nguyen, S.J.
Hometown: Dalat, Vietnam
Major: Architecture
Graduation Year: 2000
Employer: Society of Jesus (Jesuits)
Title: Roman Catholic Priest

Why did you choose the Gerald D. Hines College of Architecture and Design? What drew you to design?

My mother received her master's degree in educational psychology from the University of Houston when I was in high school in the early 1990s, so UH was a natural choice for me when I considered transferring from Texas State University (then called, Southwest Texas State) in 1995. As a child, I was drawn to art and design. I did not know a lot about architecture, but I enjoyed drawing and painting from a very young age. After my first semester at the Hines College, I began to see a new world in architecture. I discovered a different way of looking at buildings and the built environment, much to the credit of Burdette Keeland. It was then I found my passion for creating spaces and designing for people.

What was one of your favorite memories from your time on campus? Was there a particular professor that influenced your education?

Perhaps one of my most favorite memories was the bridge building competition in David Thaddeus' structures course. Although it was competitive, we had a lot of fun. The experience taught me so much about collaboration and building relationships. We spent so much time together in our studios, including long nights, designing and making models. Despite the competitive nature of the project, we were able to exchange ideas and work together.

Our fifth-year, fall semester project on the redevelopment of four Houston downtown city blocks allowed me to design together with my studio classmates. Geoff Brune brought out a lot of energy and vitality in our collaboration.

Celeste Williams and Nora Laos taught me how good writing and a grasp of architectural history are critical parts of an architect's essential tool kit. These became an invaluable part of my recent academic work.

Other professors who greatly influenced me included Tom Diehl, with his attention to the fine craft of architecture, and Dietmar Froehlich, who encouraged me to explore the relationship between architecture and music. This exploration eventually took me to Sydney, Australia, for my graduate studies in architecture and acoustics.

What has been your career path since graduation? Where are you currently working and in what capacity?

My architectural career, if one can call it that, has taken quite a winding path since graduation. After nearly three years working at Kirksey in Houston, I went to Australia for a master's degree by research at the University of Sydney. When searching for a different way that architecture could contribute to human flourishing, I discovered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), an international religious order in the Roman Catholic Church. In the Jesuits, between my philosophy and theology studies, I was sent for a year to help coordinate design and construction projects in East Timor. The Jesuits were building schools, clinics, and housing. Collaboration and relationship-building proved to be invaluable to my work there.

What does a typical day look like in your job?  Do you have a particular design or business philosophy?

I am currently in transition to a new assignment, or "mission" as the Jesuits call it, at a Catholic parish in Sydney. I have just completed a master's degree at Boston College where my research thesis explored the relationship between architecture and the liturgy, specifically how the altar in a church assists and promotes greater movement in the worshiping assembly. During the COVID-19 pandemic, my day as a student was anything but typical.

Before that, while also being a priest, I worked in pastoral ministry with college students, which included preparing homilies (sermons), presiding at the liturgical services, and hearing confessions. In a sense, my new mission would be my first full-time "job" as a priest. I could have never imagined this is what I would be doing twenty years after graduating from architectural school!

As architects, we listen to many people during our architectural training – professors, design jurors, classmates, etc., but acquiring attentive listening skills is a long-term project. Through reflective listening and understanding another person's perspective, architects and designers can translate human desires into humane and environmentally responsible architecture. I believe that our service to humanity is what gives meaning to our work.

What is one accomplishment that you are particularly proud of in your career? How do you feel that the college prepared you for this?

After ten years of formation, I am very grateful and happy to have been ordained a Jesuit priest in June 2019. Architecture has taken unconventional and unexpected turns throughout my life. Even at this stage of my life, I can encounter architecture in new ways. I hope I can work to bring architecture, ritual celebration, and spirituality together to alleviate the depth of human longing.

What is a valuable lesson you learned during your time at the Hines College?

By far, the word "relationship" represents the most valuable lesson for me. It is not only about seeing how all the parts of architecture work together but also how design is an essential part of the human relationship and our relationship with the earth. Architects and designers are agents of, and for, human creativity and growth. The current COVID-19 pandemic is forcing us to reflect on how we live as a civilized society. I believe architects and designers play a crucial role in how we interact with others and share resources.

What is a piece of advice you would give to current Architecture and Design students?

Be open to where your architecture and design education may take you. Be attentive to your desires, especially what will give you the creative energy, meaning, and deep joy you seek. Be curious, explore, and try to find the best way to express your creative passion that will benefit your local community and the world at large.