Meet the Principals: Tom Chessum

What’s your favorite part about working in architecture? Making architecture that uniquely enables a client’s institutional mission while demonstrating a…

Meet the Principals: Tom Chessum

What’s your favorite part about working in architecture?

Making architecture that uniquely enables a client's institutional mission while demonstrating a deep empathy for the people involved is my constant motivation. The projects that I value most are those where the client, personified by a key individual or leadership group, provided profound guidance by establishing their institutional vision with regard to what the architecture must achieve and how the project was to be accomplished.

As an architect, being entrusted with the responsibility to translate mission, vision and values into a project’s design, delivery and outcome is an honor. My favorite part is being able to participate in creating a sense of aspiration around the project and seeing it become infectious to everybody involved...designer, builder, craftsperson, user and visitor. As an example, when building the East Building at the Salk Institute, we found out that many other projects around the San Diego area were losing superintendent-level staff because they wanted to be a part of doing the concrete work at Salk even if it meant taking a demotion to work as a journeyman carpenter.

What project pushed you out of your comfort zone? What did you learn from that experience?

Thankfully, every project that I have been involved in has in some way challenged my comfort zone. As architects, being challenged and challenging ourselves is a necessary part of serving our clients best interests and accomplishing an architecture that is relevant to place, time and circumstance. Every project is unique and thereby must be approached with a fresh perspective, but more importantly, it is necessary to press the boundaries of a design response to obtain the optimal outcome and value for the client. The design process reveals those unique factors that will eventually prove essential to the project’s success…and become a source of stress and challenge as the course to the optimal solution is navigated.

If you could spend a night in one iconic building, which would it be and why?

Antonio Gaudi and I share a birthday. Besides that, and the uniqueness of his architectural expression, Gaudi’s work has a very practical logic that I find compelling. His work has a theoretical rigor which, when balanced in the context of the aesthetic, is unlike that of any other architect.

The Sagrada Familia is Gaudi’s pinnacle project and it would be great to spend enough time to explore it thoroughly and gain a better feel for Gaudi’s thinking.

Describe the moment you knew you wanted to become an architect. What was your a-ha moment?

As long as I can remember I was going to be an architect. My mom wanted to be an architect. As a young woman from a small town in the midwest during the Great Depression and World War II, that proved an inaccessible dream. She must have instead passed the dream forward to me. Following school and the requisite low-budget backpack tour of the European icons, I followed my thesis professor to a firm where I quickly found myself unexpectedly responsible for a large healthcare project.

I found freedom in the inter-relatedness of the programmatic and technical complexities of the healthcare project type, but more than anything, came to greatly admire the people that I was serving...mostly I was impressed by the nursing profession and their empathy and great sense of mission. Their commitment was inspiring and reinforced for me how architecture could really matter.

What book are you reading, podcasts are you listening to or what unique tools / brands do you use?

I have a life-long love affair with the standard No. 2 pencil and a sheet of paper. The embodied potential in those two items is amazing to me. When I was a kid before I could even talk, the first thing that I did in the morning was lay on the floor of the kitchen and draw…drawing was my favorite thing. My mom kept a stock of No. 2 pencils and clean white paper on the bottom shelf in the kitchen. It was my stash. Plenty of sharp No. 2 pencils and clean white paper was always the necessity.

My favorite pencil now is a Sanford Design Ebony – Jet Black Extra Smooth…the feel of the lead on the paper is perfect. My iPad Pro and its pencil is now also a favorite. It has the same feel as the Ebony pencil and there is always another clean sheet of paper with just a tap on the screen.