04/30/21 A Conversation with Architect Young Woo (B.Arch ’59)
By Sian Winship (MHP, ’11)
Young Woo (B.Arch ’59) credits an early USC professor with his career as well as his education.
Fresh from serving in the Korean War and a beneficiary of the GI Bill, Woo initially enrolled at Los Angeles City College (LACC) where he took a drafting class. Woo quickly realized that the students were “just copying” the designs of others. When Woo expressed a desire to do more, it was recommended that he enroll in the architecture program at USC.
At USC, Woo found an exciting and challenging program training would-be architects in the post-and-beam style of Modernism. He excelled. By 1955, Woo won honorable mention for a home design. In 1958, he became a member of the national architecture honorary fraternity, Tau Sigma Delta.
However, tuition was more expensive at USC than it had been at LACC. He needed a job to make ends meet. Architectural history Professor Clayton M. Baldwin took an interest in the talented student. “Baldy,” as he was affectionately known by the students, recommended Woo work for former student Robert C. Duncan, AIA (B.Arch ’53), who was designing speculative houses for Modern Trend/GMB Construction in the hills of Sherman Oaks. Woo was hired. Soon, he was taking plans to the building department, drawing details, and watching his designs being built in the field. Modern Trend owner Stan Martson, a developer with an appreciation for good architecture, suggested Woo design a house for him.
“I was suddenly doing what all the students wanted to do: design and have our designs built,” Woo remembers. While a student, Woo ended up designing five or six houses for Martson.
A practical program
In her master’s thesis, “Writing Our Own Program: The USC Experiment in Modern Architectural Pedagogy, 1930-1960,” Deborah Howell-Ardila (MHP ‘10) describes the innovative and pragmatic pedagogy of the USC School of Architecture. Unlike its rival to the north, the University of California, Berkeley, the USC School of Architecture emphasized modern design, technology, and problem-solving over an antiquated Beaux Arts curriculum grounded in copying classical styles of the past.
Working for Modern Trend/GMB Construction proved invaluable to Woo’s schoolwork and his career prospects. In 1959, Woo received the A. C. Martin Award for advanced study in architecture during his fifth year of study. The scholarship supported his tuition and provided a cash honorarium.
During his final year at USC, Woo continued to work for Modern Trend/GMB Construction. As part of his duties, Woo became the liaison between the firm and an architect hired to design speculative houses, Richard Dorman, FAIA (B.Arch ‘51). Woo watched and learned from Dorman with great reverence for his drawing skills.
“So the next USC design problem I have is the design for a bridge in a national park. I decided to do my drawing free hand [like Dorman]. I had Gregory Ain as my instructor in those days and he was a fairly traditional guy.” Ain was unimpressed with the new style and awarded Woo a rare C instead of his usual A grade. “It taught me a lesson, “ Woo recalls. “Remember who the client is.”
Upon graduation, Woo went to work in Dorman’s office where he remained for several years. Woo was trusted with a wide range of projects from speculative houses in Palm Springs to the Trade Fair Pavilion for the U.S. Department of Commerce in Salonica, Greece. The project Woo is best known for, however, is the design for his own house in 1964-66. Published in both the Los Angeles Times and in Architectural Record, the residence was a showcase for Woo’s post-and-beam design aesthetic and his ingenuity in its placement on a steeply-sloped site in Mount Washington.
Son of the Asparagus King
Woo hailed from a Chinese American family with deep roots in Los Angeles. His father, Joseph Woo, came to Los Angeles around 1916. The elder Woo initially earned a living by selling vegetables and fruit off a cart in downtown Los Angeles. Young Woo recounted his father’s experiences during a recent oral history. “One of his customers was Otis Chandler,” then publisher of the Los Angeles Times, Woo related. “My father was pushing his vegetable cart outside the Times office and Chandler tells him, ‘Joe you are going to be poor all your life.’ And my father asks him, ‘what do I do then?’ and Chandler said, ‘you don’t sell it, you grow it.’ ‘Where?’ my father inquired. Chandler responded, ‘grow it in the San Fernando Valley.’ ”
After a trip to the San Fernando Valley, Joseph Woo reported back to Chandler, “it’s just desert out there…nothing will grow.” But Chandler had a tip: he and William Mulholland were going to bring water to the Valley the following year and recommended Woo buy the land now while it was cheap.
Joseph Woo purchased 20 acres and soon started growing asparagus. That farm grew to almost 100 acres. He was eventually known as the “Asparagus King” and the Woos became one of the wealthiest Chinese American families in Southern California. They were also one of the largest: The family included 15 children, one of which was the future architect.
Lessons applied to public housing
After his time in Dorman’s office, Young Woo worked briefly in large corporate firms A. C. Martin and Associates and William L. Pereira Associates. In Pereira’s office, he encountered another USC alum, Gin Wong (B.Arch ‘50), who was director of design. But Woo preferred a boutique rather than corporate work environment. After a couple of years as lead architectural designer at Morganelli-Heumann & Associates, Woo started his own development firm, Urbatec, in the early 1970s. The firm specialized in public housing projects for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). At Urbatec, Woo employed his design philosophy of bringing the best possible design to whatever limited resources/budget was available. In this sense, he was able to bring good design to housing projects for seniors and low-income residents.
Urbatec was a full-service development company, including design, construction and management. By one point, the firm was responsible for more than 1,000 units in Southern California. Woo was the sole architectural designer for the firm. Notable projects include LA County Housing Authority Housing (1971) in Lancaster and Inglewood Meadows (c. 1975) in Inglewood.
Young Woo’s story was captured as part of a recent oral history project that will soon be available through the USC Digital Library. “This is a legacy that needed to be documented,” says Trudi Sandmeier, director of graduate programs in heritage conservation in the USC School of Architecture. Sandmeier added, “USC graduates have shaped the rich architectural heritage of Southern California for more than 100 years. Young Woo is a part of that story.”
The USC School of Architecture has a long history of fostering Asian American students. The School graduated its first Japanese American architecture students in 1927. Between 1927 and 1941, USC graduated a dozen Japanese and Japanese American architecture students. Even more followed after World War II. The aforementioned Gin Wong was one of the most successful and influential Chinese American architects in America.
Woo remembers his time at USC among the most exciting and stimulating periods of his life. “Every time we would hear about a new house, we would all pile in the car and go see it… Back in those days they were doing the Case Study Houses…Arts & Architecture…John Entenza and all of that. Buff and Hensman were fourth-year design instructors at USC. It was a very exciting time.”